Work and Death – Lecture 8

March 10, 2013

The paradox of work is that it both sustains my life and undermines it. Without work, I would forever be at the mercy of the elements, which, though they sustain my life, can also take it away from me. Work is the attempt to tame the forces of nature. To make them work for me rather than I for them. Yet what is at the heart of work is alienation. For as soon as I produce something then it no longer belongs to me. It enters the world of commerce and economy and rather than finding myself in work I am absent from the work that I produce. It has its value in what others make of it. ‘The labour which brings being into our possession,’ Levinas writes, ‘ipso facto relinquishes it, is in the very sovereignty of its powers  unceremoniously delivered over to the Other’ [TI 227]. Work is therefore for very opposite of speech, where the speakers are present in the words that they speak and attest to their own sincerity.

Work too is the basis of history. History is the history of works and nothing else. The ruins of civilisations are testimony to the desire to hold onto time and to resist the elemental, like the ruins that one might stumble across in a jungle or in the desert. But such a history is quite literally a dead history, for it is history of those who are no longer alive. History is written by those who have survived the disaster and not its victims, who are only the countless names or numbers that have been written in the record.

Historiography recounts the way the survivors appropriate the works of dead wills to themselves; it rests on the  usurpation carried out by the conquerors, that is, by the survivors; it recounts enslavement, forgetting the life that  struggles against slavery. [TI 228]

The self is therefore dispossessed by the very work in which it seeks to possess the world. This is the paradox of the work and the true lesson of the ruined monuments. The more I seek to make this world mine through labour, economy and commerce the more the world is taken from my grasp. The only way to resist the fate of victims of history is one’s own interiority that has no history. Such an interiority, however, is not the result of a heroic individualism railing against its fate, but is produced in the responsibility to the other. It is the demand of the other who calls me to be good that in the end preserves the self from its historical fate. A subjectivity outside of history is therefore defined by Levinas as ‘apology’. My existence is only justified in the demand of justice that the other places upon me. My identity is not nominative but accusative.

Yet is it possible to defeat death that history tells me is my fate and everyone else’s? If we no longer believe in an eternal life what other possibility is there in the end but my own annihilation? Death, however, is never just a relation to impersonal forces, but to someone. Death comes to me from an other’s hand or I am preserved from death by the aid of another. Levinas has in mind here the analysis of ‘being-towards-death’ of Heidegger, where I face the possibility of my nothingness resolutely and with courage. What matters to me is my own being and if I do relate to others, then it is only for the sake of this rather than for them. Even if the time of my death is a mystery to me, this does not mean that my life is defined in terms of its power. Life is not concerned with death, rather it is the postponement of its inevitability. Death is not the possibility of my impossibility through which I define my own authenticity. It is, rather, the possibility of my impossibility. It is not the fear of nothingness that assails me, but the threat of violence. What threatens me is the bullet or illness, and not some abstract nothingness at the heart of my being. This is why I attempt through living to postpone death.

Such a postponement, however, should not be interpreted as heroic. On the contrary, the very analysis of work shows that I cannot defeat death. I do not defeat death, but rather suffer it. That is, I remain at a distance from it. Even in the instant of my death, I feel that there is still time, as though the interval between my existence and death’s coming were never to be crossed. The real ordeal is not death but suffering which is the bearing of the violence of the threat of death that comes from the outside. Such an ordeal Levinas calls patience. Patience is the opposite of work that thinks it can defeat death by its monuments but discovers that they have an existence despite and outside of the self that seeks to preserve itself in them. When the tomb is opened it is empty.

If patience and apology are the testimony to an interior life that is not subsumed in history, then they do not have their origin in a self that stands outside reason and necessity. The singularity of the self is only found in the demand that others place upon it. I bear death for the other, just as I am apologetic for them. The I, then, is only an I because of its responsibility and not despite it. This responsibility is not the result of abstract reason. Responsibility does not have its source in universality, where the self would have no uniqueness, but in the face of the other that demands justice from me. It is not history that judges me, because in history we are all equivalent. It is the face of the other that does so. Such a judgement is the very opposite of the annihilation of the self that we discover in the death and in the works that hope to defeat it. In the judgement of the other the self is preserved. The judgement of history is the absence of the will that is judged, which is why it is only present in the third person and not the second. Not the direct discourse of speech but the indirect discourse of writing. The word that is added to the direct speech, the word that attends the words spoken is not a word that would be of any significance to historical writing. It is the speech of the subject as an apology in front of the demand of the other. Only in this way do I not disappear in a language that judges me.

This means that the I who enjoys the world is only confirmed in the demand of the other and not in work and history. It is the response to the demand of the other that is the true source of the individuality of the self, which is neither at the mercy of the elements nor disappears in the anonymity of its ruined monuments. The self is there an ‘election’. It is called to be responsible in the face of the suffering of the others. Called to be itself. To be itself, however is not to be true to itself, but to be true to the other. It is not a truth of existence, but a truth of ethics. The final restoration of the subject is therefore in apology. I am responsible for the other, and it is this that marks my  singularity and unicity, and not being towards death as Heidegger argues. As Levinas writes, ‘To be an I and not only an incarnation of a reason is precisely to be capable of seeing the offence of the offended, or the  face [TI 247].

The Face and Ethics – Lecture 7

February 24, 2013

The face is at the heart of Levinas’s ethics, but what is the face? Is it something that I see or look at? But isn’t looking the very meaning of intentionality, thought and objectivity that Levinas argues precisely misses what is other about the other? To look at something is to grasp it, to place it under a concept, to possess it. How then can I look at the face of the other? Would it not be an object of an intention like any other. If the other’s face is not a physiognomy (for even things have faces), what then is it? Can one even speak of it as a ‘what’, a quiddity?

If there is another relation to the face then that of vision, then this would be to question the whole prejudice of western philosophy that takes vision to be the fundamental way in which we engage with the world and make sense of it. Without seeing something, we cannot understand it, and we know that philosophy is littered with examples of sight as the pre-eminent way of knowing. Levinas goes back to one of the most famous of these examples, which is Socrates discussion of vision in the Republic  through the metaphor of the sun (507b-509c). What is important about this metaphor is in fact there are three elements: the seer, what is seen, and most important of all the visible (which is represented by the sun itself, a ‘third kind of thing’ [γένος τρίτον] Plato calls it). Without the visible, without the sun, nothing would be seen by the seer, since everything would be in darkness. The visible, therefore, must precede the visible object and makes it possible that I can see it. It is this region of the visible that stands for ‘being’ in Plato’s explanation, and for Levinas it is what reduces the terms in the relation to equivalents. He sees the same pattern of argument repeat itself in contemporary philosophy in the work of Heidegger. What is truth in Heidegger but the same as the sun in Plato? It is manifestation, disclosure, or intelligibility that brings together in the same region the same and the other. The comprehension of an existent consists in precisely going beyond the existent, into the open. ‘To comprehend the particular being,’ Levinas writes, ‘is to apprehend it out an illuminated site it does not fill’ [TI 190].

To make the face an object of vision would precisely therefore reduce it to a being like any other. It would destroy what is different about it. If there were a relation to the face, then it would have to be a relation with something that interrupts or disturbs the region of the visible. Such as relation is only possible in language. Speech is not a different kind of relation of visibility. It does not belong to vision at all. As Levinas writes, ‘the ‘vision’ of the face is inseparable from this offering language is. To see the face is to speak of the world. Transcendence is not an optics, but the first ethical gesture’ [TI 174]. The alterity of the other is not a property or quality of something. I cannot define the other by listing the shape or colour of someone’s face. In fact, in this sense, the other has no face at all, or would have the face in the same way that things or animals have faces. The face in its ethical sense is not the object of the gaze, but that to which one responds to in speech. Such a speech breaks with the very conceptual world that has its source in vision, in which things and people are defined in advance by a system of signs and the intentions that fulfil them. If language were merely such a network of significance, then there would be no relation to the other. But speech is not just what is said, it is the fact of speaking itself, the very relation of speech over and above the words and meanings spoken.

Language accomplishes a relation between terms that breaks up the unity of a genus. The terms, the interlocutors, absolve themselves from the relation, or remain absolute within relationship. Language is perhaps to be defined as the very power to break the continuity of being or of history. [TI 195]

Such a break should not be understood negatively as though it were a limit in my intelligence or perception that prevented me from understanding or finding the right definition for the other. On the contrary, the ethical meaning of the other is an ‘original positivity’ that precedes any lack. The other is not the opposite of me, everything that I am not, but more than me, and this surplus defines the very possibility of meaning itself. Ethics precedes ontology. It is because I have this relation to the other, or better that that other calls into question my enjoyment of the world, that something like representation or objectivity is possible, and not the other way around.

There is a difference between the other as an interlocutor and the other as a theme of discourse who is spoken about. It is this difference that explains the transcendence of the other, his or her difference from me. Such a transcendence Levinas describes in terms of the infinite, but the infinite here (as in Descartes argument, though Levinas in not concerned with its validity but only its form) does not come after the finite but before it. The infinite is not a negation of the finite, but on the contrary, the finite emerges from the infinite. The infinite is first and not second. The infinite as concrete event of human experience, rather than just a formal idea as it is in Descartes, is instantiated in the face as speech. It is the other who summons me and not I them, and is the presence of the other in speech that breaks with intentionality, where every term is reduced to the same in the region of visibility.

The face as sensibility is not reducible to vision or touch. It is a sensibility that belongs to speech, as though it were the voice and not the hand that touched me and sees through me. It is this voice that utters the command ‘thou shalt not kill’. It does so not through the words of the command itself, but the tone of the voice that interrupts. It is the expressive face itself that acts as the ultimate sanction against killing. Murder does not aim at the face. To murder is already no longer to experience the other as other. Is already not to hear the voice that prohibits killing, but to only see the other as a thing, as just one more visible thing amongst many, and as obstruction to one’s will. The resistance to murder is not a property of the face, as though the bullet or knife would bounce of it, but an ethical injunction that one can refuse to hear. This refusal, however, is anterior to the ethical command and attests to it even in the moment that it does not listen.

Such a prohibition against murder should be thought positively rather than negatively. To be responsible is to have one’s freedom founded in the experience of the other. It is to be called to be a self in response to the ethical demand. The other does not limit my will by force, but transforms it into responsibility in its summons to me. The appeal of the other does not negate the I, but inspires it. It promotes its freedom and goodness rather than denying them. The very relation of language to thought itself is only first made possible through the language of responsibility. The shared world of truth and knowledge as its source in the ethical relation and not the other way around. In calling into question my world of enjoyment and separation, the other does not restrict my world even further but opens it out. My horizons are expanded but they are done so through the other and not against them, nor them against me. Thought, reason, and objectivity are therefore parasitic on sincerity. It is because I am sincere that I share a world with others, and through such a dispossession the world first of all is made common, rather than communality being the basis of my relation to the other, it has to be discovered and re-discovered there. The other side of reason is not irrationality or mysticism, which in the end is merely a fusion of the same and the other, but the superlative presence of the other in speech who is the very condition of reason itself.

Hospitality, Labour and Representation – Lecture 6

February 17, 2013

The home is already a relation to the other, though as we have seen this relation is ambiguous, since the other is not the other of language, but the presence of the feminine, which is the welcome of the home. The home is not just situated within the world that already gives it its place, or through which the home intensifies this sense of place, rootedness and particularity, but is already openness to the other through hospitality. The feminine does not announce, for Levinas, the fact that there might be a woman at home, which of course would be absurd, but that hospitality precedes rootedness, such that the former is the forgetting of the latter, and not the latter the former. It is not that we have to derive hospitality from our sense of place, but that our re-interpretation of the other as ‘them’, as the ‘enemy’ as in contradistinction from ‘us’, the ‘friend’, must always come after the fact and not first.

To be a self is to be at home in the world and to have a home is to be in the world. One is not in the world and then subsequently has a home. Not to have a home is not to have a world at all. This is a reversal of Heidegger’s position where what one has first is the world and the home is merely an instrument to occupy this world that is already one’s own. The home is merely an extension of one’s self, whereas for Levinas the home is what it is to be a self. It is the possibility of returning to oneself out of enjoyment. To live from the elements is also to be open to the insecurity of their appearance and disappearance. This is tension of enjoyment that is both active and passive. Active, in the sense, that I live from my own enjoyment. My enjoyment is the enjoyment of enjoying. But also passive, because in enjoying  the water against my skin, or the warmth of the sun, I suspend myself in their overflowing. As they come, they can also go. It is not that insecurity undoes my enjoyment, or comes to it from the outside. On the contrary, such a insecurity belongs to the enjoyment itself. It is what marks the generosity of nature. Yet nature is always on the edge of disaster. The elemental can always slide into the nothingness of the il y a, from which it swells up.

The dwelling, therefore, is a way of resisting the insecurity of the future. It is a pulling back into oneself, but it is also a way of storing up resources for a rainy day. This is why Levinas describes it as ‘recollection’. A recollection in terms of time, as memory, which gives the world back again as thought (which we shall return to with the description of representation), but also recollection as literally ‘re-collection’, a tacking back of the world into my possession and storing up of its power so I can use it another day. Things, Levinas writes, become furniture. They are something that I can take up and possession and move around to suit by own needs.

Taking possession of the world is the way in which Levinas interprets labour. It transforms the elemental world into the identifiable and is thereby the condition of representation. Like Marx, it not thought that determines life, for Levinas, but life thought, and it does so through the medium of work. If labour is the condition of knowledge, it is not knowledge itself. It is the seizure of the world. First of all the hand gropes in the darkness. It does not know the beginning of itself, or the beginning of the world. Both merge together. It seizes things to directly consume them. The hand that labours, on the contrary, seizes the world by manipulating matter directly and transforming it. It transforms the future of uncertainty of the elemental into the certainty of the future of things. What first gives form to the elemental is labour, and it is from this solidity that the permanence of substance is built on which representation rests. Without labour, philosophy, representation would not be possible. Substance, which philosophy takes as primary, is not the first given of experience, but is experience already moulded by the hand. Enjoyment is the quality of the element before it has been transformed into something permanent. The evanescent pleasure of things that evaporate in their consumption. But who is to know whether this will return? So labour is the maintenance of enjoyment. The attempt to preserve what is always vanishing in the moment for another day. But to preserve the thing is to dominate and possess it. Labour is therefore always a kind of violence against the thing. It is a violence, however, that is conditional on the home, even when it forgets this condition. If labour is essentially the storing up of things for another day, then there first of has to be a place in which to store. Such is the home. And as we have seen, the home itself is inseparable from the presence of the other, even if this other is only the feminine and not the other of language and the ethical relation.[1]

Representation presents the world as though it had no condition, as though it were born in thought itself. But this representation of the world is always a memory of world that has already been experience, and memory itself is only possible because of the recollection that the home makes possible. It allows me to separate myself from the elements such that I can forget that I too am dependent on the world. The home is a relation to the other, but one can also shut oneself away in the home, close one’s door and curtains against the world. If the window is the reminder that the home is always open to the world, then the curtain conceals the window from within as without. The home is the very egoism of the I, content and happy in itself and fundamentally closed against the stranger.

This inhospitality, however, is always a forgetting. For the very possibility of the home is an original hospitality that was forgotten and without which this shuttered world would not be possible. The only way that I can withdraw from things is because I have relation with something that does not belong to the elemental. This other relation is the relation to the feminine. I have to refuse both enjoyment and possession in order to make representation possible. But this refusal requires the presence of the other. I represent the world because of others and not despite them, but after the fact I forget this condition and think my representation comes to me despite them.

Representation, then is not just violence against the thing, if it does not forget its original social condition, but a gift given to the other. My world already has to be in question for me to represent it, but that means that I have to exist apart from it. It has to mean more than something I consume or possess. Such a possibility is only given through the experience of the other who calls into question my possession of the world. To represent the world I have to be dispossessed from it. I have to no longer see it as mine. It is this dispossession that is forgotten in a philosophy that thinks it can gain everything back again more fold than that which it had lost.

Being dispossessed of one’s world is not an original violence at the heart of knowledge but the concrete experience of language. The act of speaking is sharing of a world in common, but to share a world means that one has to have been dispossessed of it and such a dispossession is what I experience in responding to the presence of the other in speech. I see the world as the other sees it, rather than as my own. I see myself in the face of the other as what I am, but what I am only occurs in this experience itself, as though I had no identity before.

Generalisation, objectification, what Western philosophy sees as primary, is dependent on this offering of the world to the other. Thus, the relation to the other is what makes representation possible, since the world represented is a world shared and offered to the other. I speak of the world to someone, in response to someone. I do not speak of the world to myself until after this fact. This is why language is not just one action like any other, but the ‘offering’ of the world, and an ‘offering’ that would not make any sense if I did not offer it to someone, if it were not a response to their demand. ‘The ‘vision’ of the face,’ Levinas writes, ‘is inseparable from this offering language is. To see the face is to speak of the world. Transcendence is not an optics, but the first ethical gesture’ [TI 174]. The irony or paradox is that as soon as the ethical relation sets up the world of representation it is forgotten. The world becomes the abstract relation between things, and the other is only one more type of thing, even if a special and unique one, amongst other things. The self and the other are thought of as identical and the same, mediated through a third term. In Levinas’s thought it not enough to acknowledge the difference between ethics and ontology, but that ethics has its source in ontology. The first, if we might put it this way, is an ‘empirical’ event. The face of the other interrupts the ontological order. The second is a transcendental argument. The very ontological order had its condition in the ethical event that it has forgotten or suppressed.

[1] This is one of the problems of reading Levinas’s account of the separated self in Totality and Infinity. What is the status of the feminine other. This is not merely the question of whether the feminine is empirical or not, but whether she (is she is a ‘she’) has the same force as the ethical other (and is this ethical other a ‘he’?). In the account of the genesis of representation that requires the anteriority of the demand of the other, is this other the feminine other of hospitality, or the other of language? The condition of representation seems to be the feminine other, but the gift of representation (that I speak of the world to another), seems to be the other of language and it is the latter that appears to have priority over the former.

The Dwelling and the Feminine – Lecture 5

February 10, 2013

The self enjoys the world without guilt or acknowledgement of the suffering of others. It enjoys its enjoyment. Like Rabelais’ Messer Gaster, the I is a stomach without ears.[1] In enjoyment, I am at one with life. There is not gap between me and the living of my life. What philosophy confuses as the opposite of joy and thus the opposite of life is the disquietude that belongs to enjoyment itself, but this anxiety does not destroy the enjoyment of life. It is not needs that make us sad. On the contrary, it is because we have needs that we are happy. For what would life be without food and drink that I can consume and enjoy? But is such an enjoyment sufficient to itself? One can enjoy existence like a child, bathing in the elements, to use Levinas’s expression, but this would not be secure enough to possess the world. I might enjoy my food and drink today but how would I know that there would still be some tomorrow? It is true that this concern belongs to enjoyment and does not undermine it, but enjoyment in itself is not sufficient to ensure enjoyment continues.

What guarantees that I can enjoy the world is the security of a home. It is the home that is my fortress against the anonymity of the elemental that can destroy my enjoyment at any moment. It is the home, which is part of enjoyment and sustains it, that counteracts the necessary insecurity of enjoyment itself. The home is not the opposite of enjoyment but belongs to it. Nourishes nourishment itself. Levinas speaks of it as creating a delay within enjoyment such that the self can re-collect itself against the threat of what tomorrow might bring. Rather than directly consuming the world, I store up my enjoyment against a rainy day. The home, therefore, is the condition of what Levinas will call possession, labour and economics, which we shall need to discuss in greater detail later.

The self is a self because it is literally at home with itself. The stomach without ears has a house. This interior of the interiority of the self is the very meaning of what it means to be an I. To have a place in the world, to situate oneself in the world against the void surrounding you so as to enjoy enjoyment itself. To be content, to be self-satisfied, to be bourgeois and to endlessly scan the life style pages of newspapers and magazines, this is what it means to be alive to have a life. Why should I be concerned by what happens to others? What does it matter to be me in my nice little house, shut against the world so it can be my world and nothing but my world, my home, my street, my neighbourhood.

Levinas is not criticising this life. It is the very meaning of what it is to be a separated subject, and without it the I would dissolve in the anonymity of the elemental, or simply become one item amongst many in an impersonal system of thought. Yet it is this separated subject that is called into question by the presence of the other. It is not just the impersonal world of the elemental that laps against my front door but also the world of others, who I cannot shut out even if I keep my curtains resolutely closed. Yet this relation of the other to the self, as we have already seen, is not a relation of opposition or negativity. The other does not call into question my self-satisfied existence by simply not being me, as though they lived in a house on the other side of the street, otherwise the I and the other would be equivalent, since it would only be in lacking my qualities that the other would be what they were. The other is not ‘not-me’, but completely other than me, coming from elsewhere than my world but demanding a response from me (which of course I can refuse, but the refusal itself has its source in this original demand).

The exteriority of the other is not something that stands against me from the outside. Rather than an interiority opposed to an exteriority, my interiority, from the very beginning is already interrupted by an exteriority from within. We have already seen this strange logic in Levinas’s description of the idea of the Infinite. As we know, Levinas is not interested in Descartes’ proof of the existence of God, but the form his argument takes. Although the cogito comes first in the order of explanation, it is second in the order of argument. The idea of God is already internal to the cogito from the very beginning of the process when it has already begun to think itself. It realises that it cannot be the beginning of itself but is already dependent on the existence of God of which it is has an idea but cannot be the origin of that idea as a finite being.[2]

In the same way Levinas describes my first relation to the other. It is not opposed or outside of my world, as world beyond this world, but has always been at the heart of this world from the very beginning and makes it possible (we saw the same movement in Levinas’s discussion of representation: it is the demand to justify oneself to another that is the ultimate ground of truth and not self-certainty). Interiority is ruptured from within. This is the ambiguity of the subject itself. Exteriority is not produced from it, but nonetheless it is to be found at the heart of its interiority. As Levinas writes, ‘Interiority must be at the same time closed and open’ [TI 149]. This exteriority that is at the heart of the interiority of the self, Levinas calls hospitality. What makes the home a home is not first of all my possession which I try to guard against the uncertainty of the future, but its hospitality. Hospitality, therefore precedes habitation. Hospitality is what makes habitation possible.

Again Levinas has in mind here Heidegger’s description of the ‘work world’ in Being and Time. For Heidegger, the home is first of all a tool. It shelters me from the elements. But the home is not one item within my world. It is the very possibility of me having a world. To be at home in the world is literally to have a home. I am not already in the world and then find a home, but having a home is the condition for being in the world. Existence does not make my dwelling possible. It is not in order to exist that I have a house; rather my house is my existence. It is what it is concretely to be a self. Yet to have a home isn’t just a matter of life-style. To have a home is to be at home, and to be at home is already to be with someone. To have a home is not simply to have a nice sofa, kitchen table and TV, but to be welcomed. A home is a welcoming place, and as such is not just a collection of things, but a human presence.[3]

What is particularly strange about Levinas’s description of this human presence is that it is sexed. The presence that makes the home a home is the feminine sex.

The other whose presence is discretely an absence, with which is accomplished the primary hospitable welcome which describes the field of intimacy, is the Woman. The woman is the condition for recollection, the intimacy of the Home, and inhabitation [TI 155].

There are two ways that we could respond to this. We might immediately say that he is being sexist. Why should it be the woman who makes the home a home? Is not this just a reactionary, patriarchal and conservative view of the home. One thing that might hesitate to make this judgement is that Levinas is clear that the feminine, which is the welcoming of the home, does not point to the actual presence or non-presence of a woman. The welcoming of the home is describes a feminine and not  a particular individual, because of course to describe the other as a woman would already be to reduced or negate their alterity. We might, however, not be satisfied with this defence of Levinas, as many have not.[4] Or we might argue, that even though Levinas’s views are coloured, shaped and prejudiced because of his own position as a man, and as a Jewish man, that he nonetheless recognises that we are sexual beings. What is remarkable, for example, in Heidegger’s description of human existence, is that in reading it you would hardly know that we sexed beings at all, that human beings are not neutral beings but men and women, and they have different experiences of the world. Of course, we might suspicious of the neutral being. We might find, on closer inspection that Heidegger’s Dasein is not that neutral, and looks very much male. There is no doubt that is this virility (a virility that is at the heart of Western philosophy since the norm has always being male), is what Levinas himself is questioning by saying the feminine is the very possibility of subjectivity.

I cannot make my home in the world without the other, because my house is not a home without out this welcome. This means there is already an ‘extraterritoriality’, to us Levinas’s expression, at the heart of my territory. The self is already in relation to the self before it has become a self. The other is already at the heart of the self before the self even welcomes the other. The very possibility that I might welcome the other, that I might not just be a stomach with ears, is because I already in relation with the other at the heart of my interior of my interiority. Dwelling does not belong to the anonymity of existence, as if the human being were thrown into the world like a pebble on a beach. Rather it is made possible by hospitality which is the presence of the feminine.

Works Cited

Katz, C.E., 2003. Levinas, Judaism, and the Feminine: the Silent Footsteps of Rebecca, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Perpich, D., 2008. The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

[1] As referred to by Perpich (2008, pp.98–9).

[2] Levinas calls this peculiar logic the ‘posteriority of the anterior’. I discover what comes second is in fact first, so that the relation to the other already makes possible the separated self (TI 54).

[3] I am reminded of the ‘Ikea scene’ in the film Fight Club, where the description of furnishings is precisely the opposite of having a home. See,

[4] Katz gives a brief description of this feminist criticism of Levinas description of women’s roles in her chapter on Totality and Infinity (2003, p.78).

The Enjoyment of Life – Lecture 4

February 3, 2013

We have seen that formally speaking, so as to break with the idea of totality, both terms in the relation, the self and the other, have to be absolved from the relation; that is to say, both terms, whilst being in the relation, are also separate from one another. They are in a relation, and paradoxically speaking, also not in a relation, otherwise the relation itself would determine the terms in the relation and make them equivalent as is the case with the idea of totality. But what does it mean to be a self that is not subject to a totality that exceeds it on all sides and already defines what it means to be that self? The answer to this question, for Levinas at least, is enjoyment. A singular life is life that is enjoyed. Now it is this life that is interrupted by the demand of the other in speech. This demand calls into a question the egoism of the self. In turn, as we have already seen, it is this demand, and not the relation of the self to itself, which is the condition for the very relation of knowledge that forgets the original demand that made it possible.

To distinguish the particular nature of enjoyment Levinas has to differentiate his analysis from other ways in which the self is understood. First of all he has to convince us that theory is not the original way in which the subject gains access to the world. For it is this relation that reduces the same and the other to equivalent terms. He does this by criticising the priority that is given to intentionality in traditional phenomenology. At the heart of intentionality is the idea that the self is always in some relation to the world, is always directed outside of itself, transcends itself. In this way, we might say that Levinas description of ethics in Totality and Infinity still remains within the orbit of phenomenology.[1] Nonetheless, how Husserl describes intentionality gives priority to the theoretical attitude. Intentionality means for Husserl that my relation to the world is always a ‘consciousness of…’. In other words, there is always an object of my acts no matter what my act is, whether it is an activity of thought, perception or feeling. This object for Husserl is always an idea, and this idea gives meaning to my world (‘giving meaning’ is the translation of the German word Sinngebung, which Levinas sometimes refers to). This would mean that even if I were not having a theoretical relation to an object, then it would still be determined by an idea. Thus even if I were to love someone, then this love, as a conscious act, would always have as its object the representation of that person.

Levinas’s description of enjoyment precisely asks whether this relation is the only way that I relate to my existence, and more whether there is a more immediate experience on which it is founded.[2] Must I always have an idea of what I relate to? This would mean that whatever relation the I had with what was other than itself it would always determine the meaning of that other in advance. This would mean that intentionality would never really have a relation to something  outside of itself, for anything that it did encounter it would already be in possession of its idea or meaning, otherwise it would have no relation to it whatsoever. What is outside, then, is not really ‘outside’ at all, but already in advance constituted by consciousness’s idea of it. This is not to say that representation is wrong, and we should dismiss it, but Levinas asks whether it has its origin in itself, and thus is constituted by another relation to the world that does not have representation as its basis. It is this other relation that Levinas calls enjoyment..

Before, however, we can get to this relation, we need to distinguish Levinas’s phenomenological description of enjoyment from Heidegger analysis of care in Being and Time, for it is clear that Levinas situates his analysis in opposition to this one. Heidegger also questioned the overtly theoretical bias of Husserl’s account of intentionality and whether it could give us an adequate understanding of our relation to the world. For Heidegger, the theoretical attitude is not the first relation to the world. Before the world is an object of knowledge it is part of our existence, and our existence cannot be understood as derived from its representation. Existence, for Heidegger, is first of all an activity, a practice. Before I have an idea of my life I must live it. But what does it mean to live a life for Heidegger? It means that I am involved in my world. It has a significance to me in terms of my possibilities. This means that I encounter things in the world as part of my projects. In this way things are not ideas first of all, but things I use, so to speak, within a general network of finalities. To use Heidegger’s example: I don’t first of all know a hammer but I use it and this use only makes sense in relation to the totality of my existence as whole. I use the hammer in order to hammer a nail, I hammer a nail in order to build a roof, I build a roof in order to construct a house, and I construct a house in order to shelter from the elements. This list of ‘in order to’s’, if we might speak that way, is what Heidegger means by the structure of care that is the basis of my existence.

Again just as with theoretical attitude, Levinas is not questioning that I do not have a practical relation to the world, but whether this is the only relation to the world and whether it is the fundamental one. Do I just shelter myself from the elements, the sun on my face, the rain on my skin? Do I not enjoy them, and do so first of all before I have built a house or even thought about one (for Levinas dwelling comes after enjoyment, but he even points that I don’t just use my home, but also enjoy it). One way that Levinas thinks about this priority of enjoyment is sensibility (the feel of the warmth of the rays on my face). I am a sensible being because I have a body, but this is what is lacking in both the theoretical attitude and Heidegger’s analysis of existence. They are both strangely disembodied affairs. We first of live from things before we theorise about them or even use them. I enjoy things for themselves and not for any purpose, practical or intellectual. This enjoyment is the very basis of the happiness of the I who is not concerned for the other and who is thus a separated being.

What does it mean to have a body? It means that my first relation to the elements is one of sensibility, and Levinas wants to underline the fact that these sensations, these feelings are not just the idea of sensations, the idea of feelings. I live first of all at the level of affectivity, the qualities of experiences and not at the level of thought, such that these feelings would only be mutilated thoughts. Sensibility is not an instance of understanding or thought that has somehow gone wrong, or even a feeling that is waiting for a thought to animate it. Rather, it is a moment of enjoyment that is not thought at all. It is through my body that I first occupy the world, but this means that I am, for my independence, dependent on my place, my situation. The world is not an object of thought or even concern first of all, but  my sustenance and support. ‘I am myself,’ Levinas writes’, ‘I am here, at home with myself, inhabitation, immanence in the world. My sensibility is here. In my position there is not the sentiment of localisation, but the localisation of my sensibility’ [TI 138].

Enjoyment and sensibility, this primary way that I relate to the world, to the elements, Levinas describes in terms of nourishment. This is how I transmute the world from being other to me to being part of the me. But nourishment is not simply about what nourishes me, the bread or the water, for example, when I am hungry or thirsty. It is the act of nourishing itself which nourishes me. Nourishment becomes its own object. This is what Levinas means when he says that enjoyment is transitive. It has its object in itself (this is also what it is distinguished from Heidegger’s analysis of existence, for my relation to tools always has an end outside of itself). I find in enjoyment in satisfaction, not just the cigarette that is smoked but in smoking itself. ‘Enjoyment.’ Levinas writes, ‘is precisely this way the act nourishes itself with its own activity’ [TI 111]. An activity might have a content or purpose, but I live from activity itself. The activity is what is enjoyable, it’s very sensation. This enjoyment from living from things is the very meaning of egoism. Life is not bare needs that demand satisfaction. Life is not a lack that has to be endured. It already has a meaning as the very living from living, and if there is suffering and happiness, then it is a falling away from enjoyment rather than the very first attitude towards existence.

Enjoyment is not a psychological state distinguished from other emotions. It is the very meaning of being a self. It is the pleasure I get existing. We do not live life for the sake of tranquillity, supressing needs as the ancients thought, because they already interpreted life as essentially tragic, something we suffer rather than enjoy. Life is not a search for what is absent. We thrive from what we need. We do not lack or suffer from it. I enjoy eating, I enjoy drinking, I enjoy the sun on my skin. We are not happy because we have no needs. We are happy because we have needs and we enjoy fulfilling them. Happiness is a surplus above privation. The very personality of the I, the very self of the I, is the accomplishment of this happiness. This is the concrete accomplishment of being a self.

The life that is life from something is happiness. Life is affectivity and sentiment; to live is to enjoy life. To despair of life makes sense only because originally life is happiness. Suffering is a failing of happiness; it is not correct to say that happiness is an absence of suffering. [TI 115]

We are now beginning to see where the individuality of the I exists. The I is not an individual because it is an object. Objects are always tokens and types and thus never purely singularities. The individuality of the self lies in the immanence of a life that is always a life and never life in general and life is only a life because it is lived. The individuality of my life therefore is all the countless sensations I enjoy; the water, the sun, the colours, before it is the thought of the water, the sun or the colours. It is not the I as a concept that is the support of the enjoyment, rather enjoyments supports the I. The I is outside of itself in the elements, as the foot that feels the warmth sand between its toes. This is my place beneath the sun, but it is the sun that grants me this place. Here we do not understand the individual as the human sciences do. For them the individual is always a concept, a species that belongs to a genus, and never an individual self that feels.

It is this self-sufficient I that is called into question by the presence of the other and it does so through language. There are, as we have already seen two ways in which we can understand language. Either as the said, or the saying. In the said of language, what matters is what is spoken and not the saying itself. The said is the idea, concept or representation. It is not this that demands that I break with the world, for this relation of objectivity is itself dependent on the social relation to the other. The revelation of the other, which is not something that I enjoy, is the straightforwardness of the human face in speech. Not what is said, but the speaking itself demands that I respond from my silent world of enjoyment to the other. This is a different transcendence than the transcendence of intentionality (or even the transcendence of existence that Heidegger describes) that breaks with the immanence of my enjoyment of the world. It asks me to justify my enjoyment, but in so doing it breaks the spell of enjoyment itself and my solitary self-sufficiency. It makes me understand that my place under the sun is already an usurpation, and has been so from the very beginning, longer even than my enjoyment of the world. Such a demand is the very possibility of pluralism and society.

Pluralism implies a radical alterity of the other, whom I do not simply conceive by relation to myself, but confront out of my egoism. The alterity of the Other is in him and is not relative to me; it reveals itself. But I have access to it proceeding from myself and not through a comparison of myself with the other. I have access to the alterity of the other from the society I maintain with him, and not by quitting this relation in order to reflect on its terms. [TI 121]

Works Cited

Drabinski, J.E., 2001. Sensibility and Singularity : the Problem of Phenomenology in Levinas, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

[1] This is certainly Drabinski’s analysis. See, ‘The Subject in Question: Relation and Sense in Totality and Infinity’ (2001, pp.83–128).

[2] This move is similar to Heidegger’s in Being and Time when he reverses the priority between the ‘present-to-hand’ and ‘ready-to-hand’. My first access to the world is not representation but using things in terms of my everyday projects. As we shall see below, this reversal does not go far enough for Levinas. The world of work described in Being and Time has it source in an enjoyment for its own sake.

The Justice of Truth – Lecture 3

January 27, 2013

Ethics is the condition of truth and not truth ethics. Western philosophy accepts as its starting point that the first relation to the world is one of knowledge and then attempts to reconstruct society on that basis. For Levinas, on the contrary, the first relation is social in the form of the ethical relation of the self to the other who calls into question by enjoyment and possession of the world through speech.

The fundamental question for Western philosophy is how can I know the world? How can I be certain that my experience of the world is valid and I am not betrayed by appearances. There are two directions in which one might go in order to answer this question. One might say that I agree with the world or the world agrees with me. In the former, reality is given, and I seek to understand it, whereas in the later, reality is constructed and I have to seek to understand myself. In both cases truth is a matter of agreement, of wresting agreement from the anarchy of my first experiences. From Plato onwards, we might say, the general tendency of, with certain notable exceptions, philosophy is to discover the truth of the world in the self. Not that truth is subjective in any simple sense, but that the truth of the world exists in a common reason that we all share, but which we can only discover individually through our own application of this reason. Philosophy is both the discovery of this reason, and the means to achieve it.

Levinas is not doubting the truth of this truth, but whether the ascent to it could have a begun without a social relation that makes it possible but which, at the same time, is not reducible to it. The search for objective truth forgets this relation because it forgets its beginning and thinks that it has founded, like Plato’s Republic, the true society on its own rational principles which have neither beginning nor end, and in which each individual is ideally treated as equal. Such an equality is the highest principle of political theory, which is freedom.

Perhaps this concept of freedom, however, conceals a violence it is unaware of (or perhaps sometimes all too aware, since someone’s freedom might be an other’s tyranny). For the freedom of equality abolishes the difference between myself and the other that Levinas argues is the very possibility of ethics and therefore peace. Yet Levinas’s argument is not only a negative one, as we have already hinted, where a freedom that is conceived as greater than the social relation to the other, has, if left to its own devices the danger of becoming violence and war, but also a positive argument that even this freedom cannot exist without the social relation that precedes it. The politics of freedom might be necessary, but if it is not invested by the ethical relation, then it can, as history has so often taught is, become the very tyranny that it abhors. What philosophy sees as an achievement won, the equality of all, Levinas worries might lead us to forget the inequality of the relation the other, without which this equality can lead to violence (we fight wars, for example, for the sake of this freedom).

Even when we ordinarily speak about truth we talk about justification. Such a claim is usually thought about in terms of objectivity. A justified claim or judgement is a legitimate one. But we could take this justification literally. What would a justified speech be ethically? To speak justly for Levinas is first of all to respond to the presence of the other. I justify myself in front of them. This does not just mean that knowledge of the world is shared. The social condition for knowledge is not inter-subjectivity, because inter-subjectivity treats the terms in the relation as equivalent. The I and the Other are not separate from one another but unified in a ‘We’. This presupposes that the only way to think of the social relation is as a totality.

The constraint of my freedom is not worked out in advance through calculation but is the shame I feel in front of the other. If the presence of the other did not first of all call into question my enjoyment and possession of the world, then no such embarrassment would be possible, and then I would not have to justify myself. Such a constraint is not a battle of wills. It is not that other forces me to submit to their will, for this would treat the other as though they were the same as myself, and then it would be impossible to distinguish peace from war. I am only aware of my injustice because of the other not because I have arrived at it through my own self-reflection on the limits of my freedom. Such an limit comes from without and not within. It is not a limit of my power, but a limit set to my power by the other who I respond to through the demand their presence makes on me. The other is already justified. It is I who have to justify myself to them. This fact that I have to justify myself in the face of the other, Levinas call conscience and it is the very impetus to moral action.

Conscience welcomes the Other. It is the revelation of a resistance to my powers that does not counter them as a greater force, but calls in question the naïve right of my powers, my glorious spontaneity as a living being. Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent. [TI 84]

We are not then, as Sartre would say, condemned to be free. Rather our freedom is ‘inverted’ in the face of the Other. I do not first of all assert my freedom and then find that it is limited by obstacles in my way (those obstacles being indifferently people and things). On the contrary, my freedom is compromised from the very beginning, or prior to the beginning if one thinks that reality begins with a self that is in charge of itself. I am already guilty before I have accepted this guilt, because its existence is not dependent on my choice. It already defines my existence (even if I refuse to acknowledge it). The original source of the freedom of the self, which is the freedom to take up one’s existence is not to be found in the relation of this self to itself, but in its relation to the other. The genesis of my freedom, therefore is in the other. Freedom again is always freedom justified and not the arbitrary will that finds after the fact that nothing goes its own way. This anteriority of the demand of the other over my apparent independence Levinas calls ‘creation’ [TI 85]. Creation is not originally a theological concept, the absurd idea that the world is created by a God from a pure act of will (such an image of God is no different from the very arbitrary will of the subject that is called into question by the presence of the other), but recognition that the self is a dependent being before it even asserts its independence and that this independence, which must be real otherwise there would be no separation, is paradoxically a dependent one.

If knowledge is critique, as Kant would assert, then it comes from the side of the other and not the self. Self-critique ends up in an infinite regression where the self-reflection of the self upon itself disappears in a hall of mirrors. Only the presence of the other can truly critique the limits of my knowledge and thus provide it with its own external foundations. It can provide such a limit because the other is not an object of my knowledge or comprehension. It is that against which knowledge itself breaks. But why wouldn’t such an limit be an appeal to irrationality and myth? We might accept that the other is the limit to knowledge but this is not the same as saying that it is the ultimate source or foundation of knowledge, unless we appear to be saying that reason has its origin in unreason which would be tantamount to giving up on the possibility of Western philosophy.

When Levinas says that Western philosophy perceives reality in one way and prioritises thematisation, I do not think he means by that that we should give up philosophy, thought, or reason. The limits of philosophy are not philosophy’s limits which, like Kant’s famous island are always surrounded by the fog of superstition and enthusiasm for the unknowable, but there are the limits to philosophy. Philosophy itself has its non-philosophical source in the relation to the presence of the other. This relation is not mystical or mythical, but one of speech. It is speech first of all that makes philosophy possible, but the concrete experience of conversation is not itself reducible to a philosophical theme.[1]

Here we must make a distinction between what is said in speech and the act of speaking itself. It is not in what the other says to me that I have to justify myself, for what is said is common to each of us. It is the very impersonal reason that philosophy seeks to justify itself without recourse to the other. Yet what is said is only possible because someone speaks. The sign always refers back to a signified, to an idea or a concept. Such a signified always belongs to a systems of ‘signifieds’ and thus forms a totality of meaning. The other in speech, however, is not first of all a sign, because if that is all they were then the other and the same would be equivalent. They would be signs that belong to the same totality. The transcendence of the other is not what they say or what is said about them, but the saying itself that attaches itself to the word that is spoken. This for Levinas is the primary meaning of discourse. The speaker is present in the words they speak. It is to this presence that I respond. It is in this presence, or revelation to distinguish it from Heidegger’s disclosure, that I am called into question and must justify my freedom. In speech, therefore, the speakers, as opposed to what is said, are not at the same level. I speak in response to the other. The priority of the appeal of the Other to me is the measure of my responsibility in the ethical sense. My subjectivity is first of all responsibility and this responsibility, as a social relation, is the very condition of knowledge. For if knowledge is what is said, the ideas and concepts we use in order to understand the world and to share it in common both theoretically and practically, then there is no knowledge without the speakers and this speech is already curved towards the other. I must speak because the other address me. The priority of the presence of the other in speech Levinas calls ‘teaching.’[2]

The opposite of such a presence would be the ‘evil genius’ of Descartes’ Meditations. Such a description, however, is not the authentic portrayal of the other, but how reality would appear without teaching. A silent world is one in which I can find no certainty because the appearance of things is ambiguous and equivocal. Nothing seems as it is and the world is one of fear and terror. If the other were not present in the words they speak, then truth would not be a possibility. The world is first of all offered to me in the sincerity of the other’s speech and then it is subsequently thematised and theorised. Without this sincerity, I would never be able to trust the world and would, like the famous cogito, be stranded between the world of dreams and reality.

The objectivity and usefulness of things comes from within language that is the relation to the other, language as a social relation first of all, and not a description of reality that comes second. The truth of statements, therefore, is dependent of the statement of truth, which is not something said, but the orientation of speech: the one responding to the other. This orientation is even prior to Heidegger’s reformulation of truth as disclosure in Being and Time, where the truth of propositions is dependent on a disclosure of the world to me. Speech has nothing at all to do with the visible. I do see the other and then respond to them. They do not make themselves manifest to me. I respond to them in the straightforwardness of their appeal to me. I am made responsible to them in this infinite demand which transcends any possible idea or concept that I might have of them, and even goes beyond their disclosure as being within the network of habits and decisions that make up my everyday world. I am not with others, if we mean by ‘with’ side by side with them. The other calls into question my enjoyment and possession of the world. They are not an extra item to be added alongside. The locus of truth is society and not being.

Work Cited

Cohen, J., 2005. Interrupting Auschwitz Art, Religion & Philosophy, New York; London: Continuum.


[1] This is the positive meaning of Plato for Levinas, beyond the metaphysics of the theory of forms. Philosophy begins in conversation and it is not possible without it.

[2] There is an important issue here that throughout Totality and Infinity, Levinas describes the ethical relation in terms of speech, where the other is present in the words they speak. One might argue, however, that such a description undermines the difference between the self and the other, since the self too must be present in the words that they speak. For the issues of speech and writing in Levinas’s work see Cohen’s, ‘Absolute Insomnia: Interrupting Religion, or Levinas’, in Interrupting Auschwitz: Art, Religion, Philosophy (2005, pp.71–106).

Psychism – Lecture 2

January 24, 2013

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]

Eschatology and Peace – Lecture 1

January 13, 2013

Levinas opens Totality and Infinity with the remark that it is pretty important to know whether ‘we are not duped by morality’ [TI 21]. Why would we think there was a such possibility? The opposite of morality might be nihilism, but this is not really the object of Levinas’s question. His has more to do the current state of affairs. Do we not live in a permanent state of war? Isn’t peace itself merely a moment’s rest between wars? Do we not even fight wars for the sake of peace? Perhaps we ought not to be so naïve to think that there could be anything else than war and in war isn’t morality just, as Thrasymachus might say, the power of the stronger and the victor?

Even the history of philosophy seems to back this up. Is not philosophy itself from the very beginning in the thought of Heraclitus nothing but a meditation on this permanent state of war? The cosmos is nothing but the impersonal battle between the elements of which human destiny is but just a small part. We are all just parts of a system of which we are neither the author nor completely understand. Yet if there is no alternative to war is not existence itself at peril? For it is not only the enemy who is destroyed by war but also the friend. If there is any possibility of peace, real peace as opposed to the phony peace between wars, then there has to be another relation to the reality than war, but what could such a relation be?

Levinas calls this other peace messianic, but this is perhaps more problematic than an answer to our question, for we might be as suspicious of its religious overtones as we are of morality itself [TI 22]. He also describes this peace as eschatological. This word means, in the Christian tradition at least, the end of history when the Messiah is supposed to return. Yet I do not think that Levinas uses any of these words in a traditional religious sense.[1] Some philosophers might well as be as dismissive of this word, as they would have a morality that remains uncompromised by power, but its reference for Levinas is concrete experience that is universal. If there is a religious tradition of the eschatological then it first of all has its source in this experience rather than in any formal dogma. Moreover, for Levinas at least, eschatology has nothing at all to do with the familiar Christian idea of a revelation at the end of time when all is revealed, but a break with history within history itself.

What could possibly be such a break with or interruption of history? Surely history, in a rational sense, is seamless totality? What lies beyond history is the judgement of history itself. We should not confuse, however, this ‘beyond’, with some kind of mysterious transcendence, as though it were the gods or God Himself who were the judges or judge. Whatever Levinas will mean by ‘transcendence’ it will not be this. For we know that religion in this sense is just as much a part of war as the peace it hypocritically proclaims. Who judges history? Not me, for as such a judgement would always be complacent and self-serving. The judgement of history is the suffering of others, for even the victors cannot abolish that completely. The judgement of history is the judgement against me not for me. If I am oblivious to this suffering, then history continues as before, but it will eventually sweep me away in its wake too. The only experience that stops history is my response to the suffering of others who are more important than I myself. Levinas is not saying that I cannot ignore this suffering, for history is nothing else but this, but if it is possible to truly respond to it, then permanent war is not the only truth of reality and we are not duped by morality.

If we say that such an appeal is just a matter of faith and opinion, then we are claiming that philosophy’s view of reality is the only perspective that can be had. We might ask what kind of truth is this if it leads to the countless deaths of the innocent. Have we not the right to ask whether there is more to reality than this? If we cannot find any counter-evidence to the evidence of philosophy, then we have to accept this state of affairs. It is not a matter of throwing our arms up an bemoaning the harshness of reality. We need to ask ourselves whether we have any proof of an exception to it.

Such an alternative, Levinas argues, is the experience of the ‘face of the other’ in speech [TI 25]. Only if it is possible can there be a break with history and the reality of war. Yet, in turn, the possibility of such an experience, where I have a non-allergic relation to the other, requires that experience itself is re-thought. Is not any experience I have obviously my experience? But if it is my experience, then how can it truly be an experience of the other? Would not my experience already shape how I experienced the other, and thus prevent me from ever really experiencing them as other? It is a common place, we know, when anthropologists talk about other cultures, that we cannot really know them as they know themselves for we will always project our own values and beliefs on them. Is this not the same when we come to speak of the other? If the experience of the other that Levinas speaks of is the experience of the face, would I not always describe this face by the concepts that I already know, the colour of the skin, the shape of the eyes, the culture that it belongs to, for example?

If there is to be an experience of the other as other, then there must be another way to relate to my knowledge of the world, or there must be another experience of thought. This is what Levinas means by borrowing Descartes’ concept of the idea of infinity. He is not interested in it as part of the proof of God’s existence, but its logical form. For what is significant about this concept is that it suggests the possibility that the object of the idea is greater than the idea itself. In other words, that one might have an idea of God, but this idea could never contain what God Himself is. Or you might have an experience of the other, but the other still exceeds this experience. This excess of the other over the self Levinas calls ‘hospitality’ [TI 27]. Only if I were to assert that the meaning of experience could only have its source in the subject, could I claim that no true experience of the other were possible. But what if it were possible to experience the surplus of the other over any idea that I might have of them and this precisely was the meaning of the face? Is it not a prejudice of philosophy itself to suggest that thought can only think what is already part of thought? Cannot thought be open to what is beyond thought without at the same time falling into thoughtlessness?

This is precisely, Levinas will argue, what the method of phenomenology implies when it seeks to find in the known the horizon of the unknown. The only difference between traditional phenomenology and the phenomenology of Totality and Infinity, is that the former presupposes that this horizon is only more thought, whereas the latter that it is concrete experience. To discover such hidden horizons of thought is not an empty and lazy mysticism but, as we shall see, the very meaning of metaphysics. The problem with reason is that it is not rational enough, if we mean by critique the uncovering of the hidden assumptions of thought. It is not a matter of opposing irrationality to reason, for the irrationality is the very meaning of war and violence, but being more reasonable than reason by showing that its foundation is justice and ethics.

Metaphysics has always been taken to mean the search for what is other than reality. We can read this two ways: either as flight from reality, as Kant describes Plato in the opening of the Critique of Pure Reason, or has deepening of reality.[2] Such a deepening is the desire for the other, but we should not confuse this with a lack. When I lack something, I feel a need for it. My needs, however, already constitute my reality, they are not other than it. To truly desire something is to go beyond what I myself know and possess. It can only be the desire for what is ‘absolutely other’, which is not just another item or element that completes me. The relation of desire, therefore, is one of separation and distance, rather than union or oneness. If I were to reach what I desired then I would not long desire it. It is only because it is forever out of my reach that I desire it at all. Desire, unlike need, increases the more it desires, whereas need only looks for satisfaction.

Only if what is desired it out of reach, is desire infinite. The infinity of desire comes from the side of the other rather than me. Only because there is an experience of the other is there a difference between need and desire. Otherwise, I would only need others, as I need sustenance and they would become part of me as the food I eat. The difference between my desire for others and my needs, Levinas calls the ‘height’ of the other. This height is not a dimension like any other because the other is not out of reach like the cake on the table is out of reach of the child’s hand, but because no conception I have of the other could ever totally comprehend what the other is. Such is the invisibility of the other. They escape any possible viewpoint or context that I might already have of them. You are more than the colour of your skin, the shape of your eyes, or the culture that you belong.

In the distance between the desired and desire there is the break with totality, for they do not exist at the same level. To desire someone is not to cross the distance between your desire and the one desired but to maintain it. If you were to treat them equally, then you would destroy the difference between you. Both are separate from one another, but at the same time in relation to one another. The relation does not destroy the distance or the difference between them. This is not just a formal relation but a concrete experience. The other is not other than me because I have an idea that it is ‘not me’. Rather, it really is other than me. Separation is produced. This means alterity (the distance and separation of the other) is not the same as negativity. For what is negated belongs to the same system of meaning as the negator, since we are merely opposite sides of the same coin. Rather than negative, alterity is the superlative. The other, whom I desire, is more than me, rather than not me.

Metaphysics traditionally is not thought of as the desire for the other, but for knowledge. This knowledge both transcends the other and the self as the ultimate meaning of reality. Such an understanding of metaphysics, for Levinas, reaches its culmination in Heidegger, where this meaning is interpreted as the anonymity of Being that is the basis of every being, including human beings. Here all things are equivalent. Against this dogmatism, Levinas contrasts the possibility of a critique which is open to what is beyond ontology. Such a critique he names ‘ethics’ [TI 43]. Ethics is not opposed to philosophy, but is a different philosophy. There are perhaps two philosophies. The philosophy of power, ontology and war, and the philosophy of justice, ethics and peace.[3] To only compare and contrast them is this way, however, would be to treat them as though they were equivalent, as though one could make a choice between them. On the contrary, for Levinas, ontology is only possible because of ethics. Rather than ontology being first philosophy, as Aristotle asserted, it is ethics. There are, therefore, two key arguments of Totality and Infinity. One, that the concrete experience of the face in speech interrupts the system of concepts and ideas that underpin our history and politics, and secondly, that this system has its origin in this ethical relation. Ethics is not something added to human existence, once we have defined or interpreted it, but human existence is ethical through and through.

Works Cited

Kant, I., 2007. Critique of Pure Reason 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] Or it might be better to say that what he means by the word ‘religion’ is not at all traditional. For religion does not mean a belief in God but a relation to the other. ‘We propose to call “religion” the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality’ [TI 40].

[2] ‘The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.  It was thus that Plato left the world of the senses, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of the understanding.’ (Kant 2007 A5/B9)

[3] Levinas is aware that at the margins of Western philosophy there is always evidence for such a different philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, he refers to the agent intellect in Aristotle and the description delirium in Plato, and of course the idea of infinity in Descartes [TI 49].