The preface of Totality and Infinity puts forward the possibility of peace as an alternative to war. Such a peace is only possible if ontology is not the last word. But what could possibly be other than ontology? As soon as we speak about reality, about the human situation, do we not have to do so ontologically? Does not Western philosophy teach us that being is the ultimate question? For Levinas, at least, there is one concrete situation that exceeds ontology and that is the face to face relation to the other. The other is not a being, but first of all summons me to responsibility in speech. Not only is the relation to the other not an ontological one, but what we think of as ontology has it source in this prior relation.
The relation to the other not only requires that we rethink what we mean by the other. It also means that we have to reconsider what we understand by the self. For if the other is no longer a being, an object or thing, but a certain relation to me, then I too, from my own side, ethically speaking, just ‘am’ this relation to the other. This relation to the other Levinas calls ‘psychism’. If we look at the relation of the self to other, from a third person’s perspective, then it is true that they are equivalent. But this is precisely to reduce these terms to equivalents within a totality. When we change this perspective and no longer look at it from the outside but from within the relation itself, a relation of an interiority to an exteriority, a ‘I’ to a ‘You’, then these terms are not equivalent, since the first and second person are not the same as the third person. We address each other from within the relation. I respond to you and you address me.
If this relation is a response of the I to the you, then this means that the other has a certain priority in Levinas. It is the other that breaks with the anonymity of being first of all, and not the self. As Levinas writes in the conclusion to this section ‘Separation and Discourse’, ‘It is not the insufficiency of the I that prevents totalisation, but the Infinity of the Other’ [TI 80]. But this does not mean that the I is sacrificed to or swallowed up the other, otherwise we would be right back to the totality we are trying to avoid. The I too must have an existence that responds to the demand of the other is speech and this existence must be singular. I respond for myself. No one else can respond for me. If I did not have my own existence, then they would be nothing to respond to the other’s demand. It would be an empty gesture.
That both terms in their relation keep their distance or absolve themselves from the relation even though they are in the relation, Levinas calls separation. It is separation that prevents the ethical relation being a correlation of terms. But what is the separated subject? It means that the self too has its own existence outside of any totality of system. It has an inner life, an interiority, that cannot be subsumed in any history. Levinas first speaks about this in terms of death and here, as in the rest of this first part of Totality and Infinity, he very much has Heidegger in mind. Death is not just a future event which I fear might happen to me, it is also the agony of dying where the subject, vainly and hopelessly perhaps, struggles to continue its life. This life it attempts to hold onto against death is not just anyone’s life but its own. This life is precisely missed in the perspective of history where death is just the countless numbers of those who have died. It is only because each of us has our own time that our lives are not swallowed up by such indifference.
The singularity and irreducibility of each one of our lives, which I try to hold onto even in dying, Levinas calls enjoyment. I first of all enjoy my life before I reflect upon it. This is why psychism, the individuality of the self, is not thought but sensibility. As soon as one begins with concepts then individuality is lost. The multiple ceases to be multiple but becomes one within the unity of concepts. This is even the case if we try and describe any such quality that would define individuality. Any such difference in the end would belong to some genus and thus would still belong to a totality. The irreducibility of the individual is an event. It is produced in the fact of living, in ‘economic existence’, as Levinas will call it, and not in the ability of the self to reflect and name itself. Self-consciousness is first of all dependent on a life, and not life on self-consciousness to animate it.
Enjoyment is not opposed to the transcendence of the other, otherwise the relation between them would be one of negation which is the very opposite of transcendence, since both terms would belong to the same system. Transcendence, on the contrary, describes a movement beyond oneself without return, which Levinas describes, as we have seen, as metaphysical desire. This movement comes from the side of the other and not the self. In other words my possession of the world in enjoyment has to be called into question by the presence of the other in speech, and it is this that Levinas call ethics, and which is beyond the ontology of war justified in history and politics.
This presence Levinas describes as an experience of truth, but what he means by truth is something very different from what philosophy thinks of as truth. It thinks of truth as the coincidence of the knower and the known, but the ethical relation, as the idea of the infinite, is the disjunction of the knower and the known. The other is more than any idea that I can have them. This isn’t just a formal relation, but a concrete experience. Such an experience is the everyday occurrence of speech. When thinking about speech, I think that what matters is what is said rather than the saying of it. What is said is the conjunction of the knower and the known. The words we use express in a common reason that exists between us and which we share so that we can be understood. But the very fact of speaking is not the same as what is said. Speaking is the relation of the other to the self. Speech, first of all, for Levinas, is the address the other makes to me and which I can respond or refuse, interpellation and the vocative, before denotation. Such an experience of truth is what Levinas calls ‘justice,’ which he opposes to rhetoric, what is said, as opposed to the saying. Without this first experience of truth, truth as knowledge or objectivity would not be possible. There is only a ‘said’ because first of all we speak. Only because I first of all respond to the other can we share a world in which ‘collecting facts’ makes sense. Signification is first of all not meaning, but the giving of meaning, responding to the address of the other in speech. This presence (which Levinas calls ‘revelation’ so as to contrast it to Heidegger’s ‘disclosure’) in speech is more fundamental than concepts and intuitions, and even more primary than the disclosure and intelligibility that makes them possible. This presence of the other is not something, some form or image, for this is how things present themselves to me. Rather the presence of the other is the way in which they attend the words they speak. Revelation for Levinas has nothing at all to do with visibility. It is purely linguistic. ‘The eye,’ Levinas writes, ‘breaks through the mask – the language of the eyes, impossible to dissemble. The eye does not shine; it speaks’ [TI 66].
In speaking to the other, in responding to their interpellation, I do not use concepts. In defining the other, I am no longer responding to them. I am viewing them, as it were, as though I were looking at the relation from the outside, as when one imagines a room from above, rather than directly face-to-face. Even for Plato, perhaps, such a direct relation is inconceivable, because he thinks of my relation to the other as mediated by ideas. In the end this becomes a relation only to myself. The dialogue becomes the monologue of the soul contemplating the forms. Yet if the other interrupts the idea I have of them and this is the possibility of discourse, then knowledge and objectivity cannot be first, but must be second, founded rather than founding.
What would it mean to say that two speakers do not first of all share a common knowledge that would be true to all? It is not because they each have a secret word, or private language that they each remain unknown to me. A private language is impossible even in eroticism. Rather it is the orientation in speech that differentiates them and holds them apart whilst relating to another and which cannot be grasped from the outside by a third point of view. The other is not comprehended or understood through a concept that is shared but is responded to in the speech. Freedom is not first of all a political property of an individual, for such a freedom would be the same for everyone and equivalent. Freedom is the concrete experience of separation. The freedom of the other is that they are not only not the same as me, but other than me. This is the difference between the other and my possessions. They disappear, as Heidegger described in Being and Time, in their use, as they become part of the network of my world, but the other, as other, is not part of, but ‘a-part’ from my world. It calls into question my contented possession of the world and in this way disruptes my very being from beyond being.
Such a call to responsibility follows the peculiar logic of Descartes’ argument for the proof for the existence of God in the Meditations. Even though the cogito comes first in the order of the argument, it is second in the order of explanation. For without the idea of the infinite, the cogito has no ultimate foundation. What is posterior is there anterior. Concretely this means that the calling into question of my world in the presence of the other has already taken place prior even to the accomplishment of my world. My place in the sun is already a usurpation whose forgetting is the basis of my enjoyment and possessions. The direct appeal of the face of the other in speech, a nudity which is more forceful than my astonishment at the sight of the world, and more disturbing than the nakedness of flesh, reminds me what I would have forgotten in my enjoyment of the world.
If the other is not a part of my world, then this does not mean they are mystical or mythical. Rather than explain transcendence spirituality as an escape from the world, where the self loses itself in the other, Levinas stresses the separation of the I. The I does not fuse with the other, otherwise it would lose its individuality. The stubbornness of the I, and its refusal to be hoodwinked by the divine, Levinas calls atheism. Atheism is the true meaning of monotheism, if atheism means the refusal to believe in some god who exists beyond this world. For the monotheistic religions are the rejection of myth and the tyranny of the gods. But this means that we must think religion completely differently. The other is not God, nor God the other, if we think of them both ontologically. The transcendence of God is not to found some unknown region of being through as a negation of this world, but is the ethical relation that is a concrete experience within this world, even if it disturbs and interrupts its ontological order. God only has meaning for Levinas in the demand for justice from the side of the other who speaks to me. This does not mean that one has to believe in God in order to be ethical, since a belief is always belief in something. What is first is ethics, and if religion is to have any meaning beyond ontology, then it is because of ethics and nothing else. As Levinas writes,
Metaphysics is enacted in ethical relations. Without the signification they draw from ethics theological concepts remain empty and formal frameworks. […] Everything that cannot be reduced to an interhuman relation represents not the superior from but the forever primitive form of religion. [TI 79]