Levinas and Heidegger Lecture 2

December 9, 2018

Levinas told his students, and everyone else, that you really need to read Heidegger, and especially, Being and Time, and he also tells us that he would have written a book on this work, after his book on Husserl, if the events of the war, and Heidegger’s complicity in them, had not intervened.[1] Indeed, without reading Heidegger, and especially Being and Time, much of what Levinas writes is incomprehensible, since Levinas’s own philosophy is written in dialogue with him. He simply takes it for granted that his readers have read Being and Time and know this text intimately. This does not mean that Levinas is a scholar of Heidegger, for then he would not be an original thinker in his own right. If you are looking for a detailed, nuanced, and even sympathetic reading of Heidegger, then you would not come to Levinas. But is that no true of any philosopher who has anything interesting to say. She only creates her own thought by misunderstanding or even caricaturing those who have preceded her, otherwise she would be, no matter how important they are to the dissemination of knowledge, only a scholar herself.[2] This lecture will mostly be about Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time, and will end with a few brief remarks about Levinas’s disagreement with it. In next lecture on Levinas’s ethics, we will speak in more depth about his own philosophy.

Levinas’s writings, precisely because of the war, where he ceases really to engage with Heidegger’s later philosophy, are predominately focused on Being and Time. When Levinas’s speaks or writes of Heidegger’s concept of being, then he is, for the most part, referring to question of being in Being and Time.[3] It opens with a quotation from the Sophist:

For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed [Sophist 244a].

The situation is worse for us than it is for the stranger. For at least he was perplexed by the question of being, but we do not even hear it as a serious question at all. We don’t even know what someone means by the question of being. The reason, Heidegger, tells us, is because the history of philosophy has obscured this question. Either we think know the answer to it, being is the most general and obvious concept, or we think it is indefinable, and it is not a serious philosophical question at all.

Against this indifference, how will we renew the question of being? Heidegger’s answer to this question is that we must focus on that being whose being, whose existence, is an everyday concern for them, and that is us. Heidegger does not use the term ‘human being’ to designate us, because he thinks that it is too overloaded with metaphysical and scientific connotations that have concealed the question of being from us in the first place. Rather he describes us by the expression Dasein. Most translators leave this word untranslated, which gives it a kind of mysterious air, but Heidegger wants us to read it literally. In German, Dasein means ‘being-there’, rather than just the technical meaning ‘existence’ that we might find in a dictionary. What is unique to us, Heidegger will argue, is that our ‘being there’ matters to us, and it matters to us in a specific way that could be a clue to the meaning of being in general.

Science, and we do live in a scientific age, so we generally think that science has all the answers, investigates the meaning beings. Chemistry analyses and studies molecular structures, physics, matter, and biology, life. In each case, the being of these things, is not a serious question for them. If they worried about the being of these things, then they would not be doing science but philosophy. To do science, you must accept that these things exist to even get started. It is only when science goes into a crisis that it might start doubting the fundamental reality of the basic components of its scientific paradigm.

We can also think of ourselves as objects of scientific investigation. We can be studied biologically, psychologically, or even anthropologically. In each case, the human being is analysed as certain kind of being, as life, mind, or culture. Philosophy, however, for Heidegger, does not take for granted what kind of being we are, but asks a rather different question. It asks what kind of understanding of being already exists such that a being is taken to be in certain way. The first kind of study, the obviously scientific one, Heidegger calls ontic. It is the study of things as things without questioning their fundamental nature. If we were going to use a Kuhnian vocabulary, we might call it ‘normal science’.[4] The second kind of question is ontological.

The difference between us and things is that we already relate to our being, even if for the most part we do so in an unthinking way. A stone does not ask itself what it is to be a stone, nor does super nova, or dolphin. It is perfectly possible for me, at any stage of my life, or at any moment of the day, to wonder who I am. What is ontically distinctive about us, is that we are ontological:

Dasein is an entity which does not just occur among other entities. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it […]. Understanding of Being is itself a defining characteristic of Dasein’s Being. Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontological [BT 12].

What Heidegger is not interested in is the way we might think of ourselves as the ‘dust of the stars’, since these scientific pictures of ourselves, common in much popular science, already smuggle in too much metaphysics. Rather what matters to him is how we appear to ourselves in our everyday lives. Philosophy is very much about the everyday for Heidegger, and this is perhaps what excited his students about his teaching.[5] How do understand ourselves? We understand ourselves as existence. Heidegger does not mean this in a technical sense, as when some says, ‘the chair exists’ or ‘black holes exist’, because these are ontical questions, rather than ontological ones, but existence as possibility. My existence, and it is always my existence, is made up of possibilities (shall I go the lecture today, shall I do the reading, should I take my studies more seriously, will I become a teacher and so on). Most of the time the existential structure of these possibilities, how I live my possibilities, is not visible to me. I just concern myself with the daily stuff of life (I must make sure that I buy my train ticket), or maybe with bigger projects (what will I do when I finish my degree?), but I don’t think about how these possibilities are. That is a philosophical question that Heidegger hopes to answer and forms most of Being and Time, which in the end remained an unfinished project.

If our existence is the object of investigation, what then is our method? How are meant to uncover the meaning of our existence? There are two sides to Heidegger’s method in Being and Time. One is negative and the other is positive. The negative side is hermeneutical. Hermeneutics was originally the study of biblical texts, but for Heidegger it has a very specific meaning.[6] It is the ‘destruction’ of the philosophical tradition handed down to us that obscured the meaning of being that he describes in the opening pages of Being and Time. This too has its own negative and positive side. On the one hand, it has to show how the philosophical tradition from Plato onwards has prevented us from thinking about being in a meaningful way, because it takes a certain meaning of being for granted, but on the other hand, in the very same tradition, it has to show how philosophy, sometimes in the very same text or page, fights against its own self-limitation.[7] Yet if we do not know what the phenomenon is that we are attempting to save from the tradition, how do we know what has been lost? Thus, we need a positive method that is distinguished from this ‘negative’ one, if that word is not in some sense inadequate. That is function of phenomenology for Heidegger.

Heidegger’s definition of phenomenology, like the rest of the book, is very peculiar. It is not a description of a technique, but of a way of doing philosophy. Rather than go back to Husserl, who was Heidegger’s teacher, and explain phenomenology that way, he does through the etymology of the word itself. Phenomenology is made of two Greek words, φαινόμενων (phainomenon) and λόγος (logos). The meaning of the first word is:

Phenomenon signifies that which shows itself in itself, the manifest. Accordingly the phainomena or ‘phenomena’ are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light [BT 28]

A phenomenon is therefore something that show itself or makes itself visible. On the other hand, the word λόγος originally means ‘to make manifest what one is talking about in one’s discourse [BT 32]. The primary meaning of discourse is not judgement, but to ‘letting something be seen’ [BT 32]. The meaning of phenomenology is, therefore, a combination, of the original sense of these Greek expressions:

Thus ‘phenomenology’ means…to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself…. But here we are expressing nothing else than the maxim formulated above: ‘To the things themselves!’ [BT 34].

To bring to light that which shows itself is not an easy task because it lies in concealment. What is closest to Dasein is its own being, but for the most part, it is this being which it is most in the dark about. I can tell you what a look like or what I do for a living, but if you were to ask about ‘being’, I might be left speechless. The phenomenologist should uncover what is ordinarily and nearly continuously in the dark. This covering up is even more difficult to expose, because the tradition that is handed down to us prevents us from seeing what is closest to us, either because it says that it is the most obvious concept (we exist in the same way that any other object exists), or is not a serious problem at all.

Heidegger’s understanding of phenomenology is directly linked to is conception of truth. Ordinarily we think of truth of as judgemental. There is statement about the world and this statement is either true or false if it agrees with a state of affairs in the world. I say that wall is blue, and if the wall is blue, then my statement is true. Heidegger does not disagree with this propositional idea of truth, but he asks whether that notion of truth is fundamental. Heidegger uses the example of someone who has their back turned to a wall and who makes the true assertion ‘the picture on the wall is hanging askew’. The truth of the statement is demonstrated when the person turns around and sees that the picture is indeed askew. Assertion, then, is a way of relating to the world. To be able to assert something, I must already have a relation to that thing. In other words, the thing must be already visible to me in some way or other (which goes back to the original meaning of the word ‘phenomenon’ as a kind of original self-disclosure) such that I could make an assertion about them. This disclosure comes first and is the condition of the assertion. Truth must first be defined as an ‘uncovering’ (Entdeckend), but uncovering is only possible because there is being whose relations to things in the world brings them out of their concealment. This being is ourselves. This ontological meaning of truth, as way of relation to things in the world, and bringing them to light, is the original meaning of truth expressed by the Greek word for truth as ἀλήθεια (aletheia).

‘Being-true’ (‘truth’) means Being uncovering […]. But while our definition is seemingly arbitrary, it contains only the necessary interpretation of what was primordially surmised in the oldest tradition of ancient philosophy and even understood in a pre-phenomenological manner […]. Being-true is aletheia in the manner of apophainesthai – of taking entities out of their hiddenness and letting the be seen in their unhiddenness (their uncoveredness) [BT 261-2].

If Dasein is understood as existence, and the meaning of existence is to be uncovered by the phenomenologist, how then does this existence show itself. Heidegger makes the distinction between the being of things and the being of Dasein. One, he calls categorical, which goes back to Aristotle, and the other existential. We continually misunderstand the being of Dasein because we understand its being categorically rather than existentially. We think that Dasein is a mysterious thing, which has a soul, or a thing like anything else, that is made up same stuff as the rest of matter. In the first case, we have a theological understanding of Dasein, and in the second, a scientific one, but what is common to both ways of understanding is that they both think of Dasein in a categorical way.

One way in which Heidegger thinks of the difference between categorical and existential being is the proposition ‘in’ (and propositions tell us a lot about how we are in the world). We imagine that Dasein is ‘in’ its world in the same way that water is ‘in’ a glass, but this is not the case. Such a way of thinking about Dasein in terms of the spatiality of things already requires an abstract way of thinking about the world. I am not in my world in this way. I do not live in Bristol in the way that water is in a glass. Rather I am familiar or at home in Bristol, and this ‘being at home’ is far closer to my way of being than the representation of space.

This does not mean that Dasein cannot be understood as ‘thing’, as something ‘present-to-hand’ to use Heidegger’s vocabulary, but in that way it is being treated as a thing, and not as what it is primordially speaking and in its own way of being. We take being present at hand as the general meaning of being, such that we start interpreting ourselves as present to hand like everything else, but this way of approaching things has been handed down by tradition. It is not the way our existence reveals itself to us in our everyday being in the world.

Things and other people only matter to me because I care about them. They are not first representations, concepts or categories. This relation to things comes afterwards and is already reliant on the world in which I find myself and exist. The table is something to put my cup of tea on, the house for living in, the computer for writing this lecture on. In my involvement with them, these things are not present to hand at all, but ready to hand and disappear in their use. The door that I use every day to enter my house is not visible to me when I use it, still less, like some kind of AI, do I have to represent it to myself to use it. I enter the house and walk through it. It is part of everyday world, which I am comfortable with.

This world too is not a thing that contains the things of the world. Rather than a thing, it is my way of being. The world, then, or ‘being in the world’, is not categorical, but existential. The everyday world Heidegger calls the ‘environment’ (das Umwelt). Again, like Dasein, environment can sound like a highly technical term, but he means the world that surrounds us, the world that we feel at home in, and which we can lose, for example, if we go to a foreign county, and no longer know our way about, or is something unexpected happens to us, and we no longer feel comfortable where we live. In this world we don’t encounter things as perceptual objects, which is the way that philosophy likes to talk about things since Plato, as though perception were our original access to the world. We do not first of all perceive things. They are part of world as things we use. What Heidegger calls ‘equipment’ or ‘tools’ (das Zeug). I use the bed in order to sleep in, I use the shower to wash, the toothbrush to clean my teeth, the stove to make coffee, the ticket machine to catch a train in order to get to work. One characteristic of tools is that they are part of a series of ‘in order to’s’ that point to an ultimate ‘for the sake of which’. I have described to you my working morning whose ultimate ‘for the sake of which’ is that I am a teacher of philosophy. This role is the ultimate project that orientates my existential possibilities and this chain of ‘in order to’s’ is my world. When you ask me, perhaps you encounter me in the train station, ‘how are you?’, you are asking about this world. It is this world, Heidegger says, that I live in, and it would be a profound misunderstanding of this world, to think that I live in it as water is in a glass, or that this world is place on Google maps.

For the most part this world is invisible to me, which is why it is difficult, phenomenological speaking, to bring it to light. It is only when things do not work that the world can reveal itself. The bed is uncomfortable, the shower is cold, the oven does not light, the ticket machine does not work, and the train is late. Suddenly, after these disasters, my everyday existence and world can show itself to me, and I might even question my project of being a philosophy teacher that it the ultimate goal of all these activities.

In my world, I don’t just encounter things but other people. I might not buy my ticket at machine, but speak to a someone behind the ticket counter. Traces of others are there everywhere in my world, whether I pay attention to them or not. Heidegger’s describes the relation to others as ‘being with’ (Mitsein). I am not with others in the same way that I with things. We have seen that things are either ready to hand or present to hand, but other are not present in that way (that does not mean that others cannot be present in that way, but then I am precisely not relating to them as others at all, but as things). For unlike things, others have a world like me and because they have a world like me we share that world. Others, then, do not stand apart from me. I have intimacy with others that is not at all like the ‘being in’ of things.

By ‘Others’ we do not mean everyone else but me – those over against whom the ‘I’ stands out. They are rather those from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself – those among whom one is too…. [t]he world is always the one that I share with Others. The world of Dasein is a with-world (Mitwelt) [BT 118].

We must distinguish between the ontological and epistemological relation to others. It is only in the epistemological relation to others that solipsism becomes a problem where I might wonder whether they are real or not, or whether there are ‘other minds’ at all. For Heidegger, at the level of your existence, you do not have to think your way to others, since you are already involved with them and my world is already something that I share with others. Even if I choose to live in isolation, then this is already decided in relations to others (in world without others, being solitary would not make any sense at all). The philosophical problem of how I bridge my existence to the existence of others is therefore a false problem, since ontologically speaking there is no bridge to be crossed.

For the most part my relation to others is a matter of indifference. This is not a moral issue for Heidegger, but just expresses our everyday being. Most of the people that I encounter in my world are not ‘there’ for me at all.

Being for, against, or without one another, passing one another by, not ‘mattering’ to one another – these are possible ways of solicitude. And it is precisely these last named deficient and indifferent modes that characterise everyday, average Being-with-one-another [BT 121]

There are, however, two ways in which others do matter for me. One is that I seek to dominate and control them, and the other is when I liberate them for their own possibilities. In this case we are speaking about others who are present to me in one way of other. The bus driver I get angry with because I am late, or the student who I hope to inspire by writing a lecture about Heidegger. Generally, Heidegger thinks that our relation to others is one of indifference. It is in this indifferent relation that others can come to dominate me, rather than I them.

This domination is a very different from the domination of control. It is not a matter of an action or result, but the insidious stripping away of possibilities. I begin to understand myself in terms of the anonymous others, such that I can lose the very sense of my own individuality. In this indifferent relation everyone becomes the same and we talk of others as the ‘they’ (das Man).

We take pleasure and amuse ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’ which is nothing definite and which all are, though not as sum, prescribes the kind of being of everydayness [BT 126-7].

This closing down of possibilities to lowest common denominator Heidegger calls the ‘public’ (die Öffentlichkeit), and, if we are honest, for the most part, this is what our everyday existence is. Rather than authenticity, or individuality, being the way that we exist, we live lives that are similar or identical to the lives of everyone else, even though none of us are really sure when this way of life first began or originated. Being-with, then, is a kind of conformity. Yet if authenticity was not possible, then Being and Time would not have been written, since the authenticity necessary to writing philosophy, requires to some extent or other that the question of Dasein’s being becomes an issue to them, and this is precisely what is not an issue in everyday being. What matter there is merely what everyone else understands and takes for granted. This is the purpose of the famous analysis of ‘being-towards-death’ (Sein-Zum-Tode) in Being and Time. It shows how authenticity is possible.

The task of Being and Time, as we know, is to reawaken the question of being. But this question can only be formulated by that being whose being is an issue for it, which is ourselves. Yet for most of the time, as the description of the everyday being of Dasein shows, our being is not an issue for us. We are so involved with the world of things and others that our own being does not become a question at all. It can do so only if Dasein has an authentic relation to its being, but all that we have described, which Dasein for the most part is, is the inauthentic being of the everyday. We must show, then, how authentic being can rise out of inauthentic being as a modification of the latter. This is the purpose of the description of ‘being-towards-death’.

We have already shown that Heidegger understands the existence of Dasein as possibilities. My existence is nothing but my possibilities. Death too is one possibility amongst others, but how are we to think this possibility as way of uncovering Dasein’s authenticity? Death as a possibility is not an event like any other. In that way you are not thinking of death as a possibility at all, but an actuality. Death is a fact of life like other facts of life, one that is more extreme and frightening perhaps, but still nonetheless a fact. Every day when I read news, I hear of countless deaths as facts or actualities. This is not how Heidegger is thinking about death. He is not describing death as the end of a process that is still outstanding, but as a possibility. This is the meaning of ‘towards’ in the expression of ‘being-towards-death’. Rather than imagining death as fact that comes at the end of your life, you should be aware of it a permanent possibility that surrounds your life at any moment. In this sense, Heidegger says, my death is a peculiar possibility that is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein’ [BT 250].

What is revealed in this relation to death is nothing factual, but only the existence of Dasein as a whole. It is not death as fact that makes me anxious, this is rather an object of fear, but my existence that is revealed to me in ‘being-toward-death’. It rips me from the tranquillity of everyday existence and forces me to stand in front of my life as a whole. If I were to die now, in this instance, would my whole life have been a failure and a waste? It is this recognition that we flee from when we avoid death as a possibility. We can see that death as an actuality, something that happens at the end of my life and about which I do not have to concern myself now, is in fact a way of resisting and avoiding death as a possibility. Only through death as a possibility can I discover the courage to authentically be myself by seizing the possibilities that have been given to me.

To understand Levinas, and we will do so positively in the next lecture, rather than negatively in comparison to Heidegger, is to see how far he breaks with this ontological analysis of Dasein as it is presented in Being and Time. In one sense he agrees with Heidegger’s break with Husserl’s too cognitive understanding of consciousness, as though the only relation to the world were one of knowledge and representation, and he says so in his thesis on Husserl.[8] Yet he argues, in Totality and Infinity, whether this analysis goes far enough. The world that is described in Being and Time is the world of work where I have projects and outcomes, but is this really the first world in which I exist? Before I relate to the world as one of accomplishments, I enjoy the elements, the warmth of the sun against my face, the wind in my air. This world is not the world of my personal being as described in Being and Time, but the impersonal world of nature, where my happiness can be snatched away in an instant by floods and earthquakes. The house I build, which is described in Being and Time, as the example of the ready-to-hand’, is built against this world. It is second not first. Moreover, Levinas claims, this house depends on a radically different relation to others than the one described in Being and Time. Not one that is determined by me in relation to my own being, whether others matter or to do matter to me in terms of my own existential drama, but an ethical encounter where the other radically calls into question my existence and my place on this earth. This ethical other is not a being at all, in any ordinary sense, whether we mean by that categorically or existential being, but beyond being, what Levinas will call ‘transcendence’. If the other is not ontological but ethical, then my relation to death is not merely one of actuality or possibility. Why should it be the case that the death of other is merely a ‘fact’ for me of no more significance than any other fact in the world, and why should my relation to death be only one of authentically choosing my own possibilities. If death is the possibility of impossibility, it is not also the impossibility of possibility, where dying, through illness and suffering, strips me of the power to be, and where the discussion of being authentic makes no sense whatsoever (what would authentic being-towards-death be in a concentration camp)?

Levinas wants us to consider, whether ontology must have the last word and whether we can only speak in the language of ontology. If ethics does appear in Being and Time, then it does so only in marginal way and subordinated to the ontological question. This is even the case in Heidegger’s later work, when he says that until we know what it means to be a human being, then we cannot even begin to understand what ethics could be. Yet what if ethics were not an ontological category at all, and the other were not a being, neither present-to-hand, or ready-to-hand, and rather than appearing within my world, where to completely call this world into question, even beyond my death.

Works Cited

Derrida, J., 1978. Violence and Metaphysics, in: Bass, A. (Tran.), Writing and Difference. Routledge, London, pp. 97–192.

Gadamer, H.G., 1994. Heidegger’s Ways. SUNY Press.

Glazebrook, T., 2000. Heidegger’s philosophy of science. Fordham University Press, New York.

Grondin, J., 1997. Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Yale University Press.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Kuhn, T.S., 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Levinas, E., 2012. Signature, in: Hand, S. (Tran.), Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 291–5.

Lévinas, E., 2000. God, death, and time. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Lévinas, E., 1973. The theory of intuition in Husserl’s phenomenology. Northwestern University Press, Evanston [Ill.


[1] For Levinas’s own autobiography of his intellectual journey, see (Levinas, 2012).

[2] The classic account of Levinas’s creative misreading of Heidegger, and other philosophers, like Husserl and Hegel, is still Derrida’s first, and highly detailed and complex, extended essay on Levinas’s work, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ (Derrida, 1978). It too would be a misunderstanding of this essay to think that it was a mere critique.

[3] Levinas’s own lectures on Heidegger concern the arguments of Being and Time (Lévinas, 2000).

[4] In The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Kuhn makes a distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary science’, which echoes Heidegger’s differentiation of the ontic and ontological basis of science in Being and Time (Kuhn, 2012). For a detailed account of Heidegger’s philosophy of science, see (Glazebrook, 2000).

[5] Gadamer, perhaps one of his most famous students, bears witness to the effect of Heidegger’s teaching, in his book on Heidegger, Heidegger’s Ways (Gadamer, 1994).

[6] For an good introduction to the history and meaning of hermeneutics from a Heideggerian perspective, see (Grondin, 1997).

[7] Some of the missing divisions and parts of Being and Time were meant to include these ‘destructions’, but we find them in many of the lectures that were published afterwards.

[8] ‘One can reproach Husserl,’ Levinas writes, ‘for his intellectualism. Even though the attains the profound idea that, in the ontological order, the world of science if posterior to and depends on the vague and concrete world of perception, he may have been wrong in seeing the concrete world as a world of objects that primarily perceived’ (Lévinas, 1973, p. 119).

Levinas and Phenomenology. Lecture 1

October 28, 2018

husserlOne of the most important sources of Levinas’s philosophy is the phenomenology of Husserl. We cannot hope to cover all of Husserl’s work (which is very extensive in itself), but only focus on that material useful for our reading of Levinas’s essay  ‘God and Philosophy’: namely, the critique of psychologism and the natural attitude through the phenomenological reduction, and the intentional structure of consciousness that emerges from such a distancing from psychologism and the natural attitude. We shall end with Levinas’s critique of the presuppositions of Husserl’s phenomenological method and thus how he saw his own ethics going further and deeper.

In the Prolegomena, the first part of Husserl’s Logical Investigations, Husserl offers a sustained argument against psychologism in logic, which he believed had come to dominate the philosophical scene in the early part of the 20th century (2012, pp. 9–160). This is not merely a parochial issue for Husserl, for it is a matter of the status of philosophy itself. Psychology, or the domination of psychology, which is a natural science, marks an extreme danger to philosophy that could have the consequence of its own disappearance. This unease should not be misunderstood as an expression of hatred against science or that the sciences themselves do not tell us something true about reality (Husserl remains deeply committed to the scientific project), but the belief that science ought to be limited to its own proper area of investigation. When science does exceed these limits, it becomes an unthinking metaphysics. What do mean by science exceeding its limits? For example, Steve Hawking in his introduction to modern cosmology, A Brief History of Time, argues that the physico-mathematical theories of the universe that he and his other colleagues have uncovered are a representation of ‘God’s mind.’ We need to be clear that science can tell us nothing about God, and the statement that physical theories are a representation of God’s mind is not scientific but metaphysical.

What matters for Husserl, however, is not just what scientists say or do not say, but the relation between science and philosophy. He makes two fundamental claims: one, philosophy is not a science, and two, science is impossible without philosophy. There are perhaps many who would agree with the first statement, because they would think that philosophy is more akin to literature than anything scientific, or more pejoratively, that philosophy is just metaphysical claptrap, which we don’t need at all. But the second claim makes it clear that Husserl would not agree with this dismissal of philosophy. Rather, he wants to insist that science cannot ground itself scientifically. In other words, the natural sciences require philosophy in order to be legitimate, even though philosophy itself is not science in their terms:

Man should admit that truths which have their roots in the concepts which constitute the objectively conceived Idea of Science cannot also belong to any particular science. They should see that such truths, being ideal, cannot have their home-ground in the sciences of matter of fact, and therefore not in psychology. (Husserl, 2012, p. 172)

But why should the sciences require philosophy to be properly grounded or legitimated? The answer is logic. All the sciences require the truths of logic to put forward properly constituted arguments. Therefore, we can see there arises a conflict between philosophy and psychology. For psychologism is the belief that logic is based in human psychology. Psychology is just one more natural science (though Husserl will say that is not a well formed natural science), and if psychology could demonstrate the basis of logical truth, then the sciences no longer require an extra-scientific discourse to legitimate themselves. To save philosophy from this redundancy Husserl must show that logic cannot be validated legitimately in psychology and thus philosophy is still necessary to the natural sciences.

There are three, Husserl argues in introduction to the Prolegomena, primary explanations of logic: ‘psychological, formal and metaphysical’ and, as we have seen, the first, the psychological has gained the ascendancy (2012, p. 3). Psychologism can be defined as follows: laws that regulate the mental must themselves have a mental basis. The regulative principles of knowledge must be grounded in the psychology of knowledge. Take, for example the law of non-contradiction that P cannot be P and not P at the same time. The psychologist would say that this certainty of this law was grounded in the feeling of certainty of the person whose thought it is (perhaps today we might speak of MRI scans). Now Husserl’s argument against this is not a factual one (that there could be, for example, a better factual account of our minds), but that these psychologists have made a fundamental mistake about semantics. This error does not invalidate their scientific accounts, but it does call into question their ability to determine the status of logical truths from facts about the human brain.

The source of Husserl’s theory of semantic is Bolzano. Like Kant, he argues that all knowledge is representation and representations can be divided into concepts and intuitions. There are two meanings to representation: on the one hand, mental states of the soul, which are the states of my mind when I perceive something, which is a subjective representation, and on the other side, there is the inter-subjective representation, which is not a representation in us, but a representation in itself; an ‘objective representation.’ This difference can be made sense of in the following way: each grammatical unity (a word) is associated with a host of subjective representations, but with only one objective representation. There are many subjective representations of the word ‘nothing,’ for example, but only one meaning of the word ‘nothing.’ Whereas subjective representations are plural, objective ones are not. The subjective ones are plural, because they are many ways to represent something, but there is only one way in which something is meant.

We can see what Husserl’s critique of psychologism might be. It is the confusion between meaning and subjective representation, which is then thought of in terms of psychological state of the brain. Or, in other words, they believe that meaning and the activity of the mind belong to one and the same region of being, reality or nature, which is to be understood through the same causal laws. But this is to fail to make the distinction between the content of knowledge and the act of knowing. Take his example of the number 5 again in the Prolegomena. No one would think that the concept or the meaning of 5 is the result of their own counting or someone else’s. The number five is not the result of the activity of thinking (or what Husserl’s calls ‘presentation’) by this or that person. Rather it is a possible object (‘object’ here not meant as a real object, but as an ideal object) of any activity of thought or presentation. In the activity of thought, we can, Husserl’s argues, make an abstraction, from the actual event of thinking itself, which takes place in a certain time and certain place, to what is being thought, which is not dependent on certain time and place. This ideal meaning tells us nothing about reality, to use the example of the number 5 again, the actual activity of counting, or the thinking the number, or objects in the real world, which might be counted through the concept of the number 5 itself. The critique of psychologism is negative. It attempts to show that we cannot give a scientific account of our understanding of the world because we need a non-natural account of meaning. We need a positive account, however, what it means to do philosophy if we reject the natural attitude. Husserl’s description of what it means to do philosophy he calls the reduction.

I see the table in front of me. Now it seems clear to me that this table exists. But what do I mean by the word ‘exists’? I mean possibly that it is something real, that it is not a dream, an illusion or a hallucination. But what do I mean by the word ‘real’? This word seems just as obscure as the word ‘exists’. Perhaps I mean by this, considering my reference to illusions and so forth, that is has a physical existence. And what is something physical? It is something that is made of matter, and if I have some passing knowledge of physics, I might add this matter is made of atoms and energy, which can be described by quantum mechanics.

What of the world that things are in? Is that too a thing? From a scientific point of view, we might think of the world as the totality of things, which would be nature ruled by causal laws. The difficulty comes when we speak of the scientist itself. What is she or he? In one sense they are just like the chair about which they speak. They too are things. We would want to say, however, that they are much more than that. Unlike things, they think (they are scientists after all), and like the rest of us, they have hopes and desires, which chairs do not have. Thus, we must make a distinction between what is psychical and what is physical, and to each, we could say, there belongs a corresponding world: for the world of things, nature, and for people, the mind. This vision of a world split into two, the physical and the psychical, is already an interpretation and one perhaps that is even the more distorting and powerful because we just take it as obvious. First of all, we need to go back, Husserl would say, to our most fundamental and basic relation to things, and therefore to the world in which they belong, and that is perception before we make metaphysical or even scientific speculations. We ask ourselves ‘how does the thing appear to us?’

Let us go back to our table again. There are two sides to our experience of this table. One side is transcendent and the other is immanent. The natural attitude only ‘sees’ the transcendent side of the object. What is meant by transcendence here? It is the object conceived as something real that lies outside of consciousness conceived of as something mental. From the perspective of the natural attitude knowing something is to go outside of oneself towards the object and to bring it back to the mind. Here consciousness is conceived of as a bag that contains the representation of the objects passively. And yet there are great difficulties with this theory. How would one know that the picture one had of the object was the same as the object itself? Moreover, my perceptions can be disappointed. I think that I am seeing a chair, but on closer inspection it is a stage prop. These questions themselves are not scientific ones, for what matters here is not knowledge of this or that object by a subject, but knowledge in general, that is to say, the relation between the subject and object, rather than the subject and object in themselves. Moreover, even if I were never deceived, does not this image of knowledge beg the question? How can I make the reality of external things the basis of knowledge when this is the very thing that I am trying to prove? The phenomenological reduction, which Husserl says is the very beginning of the philosophical method, brackets any claim to the external transcendent reality of things:

We put out of action the general positing which belongs to the essence of the natural attitude; we parenthesise everything which that positing encompasses with respect to being: thus the whole natural world which is continually there for us on hand, and which will always remains there according to consciousness as an actuality, even if we choose to parenthesise it. (Husserl, 1980, p. 61)

What need to underline here, and make sure that it is completely understood, that this is not a theory about the non-existence of the world: that everything is a dream, and that nothing exists except consciousness. For these claims themselves would be metaphysical and thus outside the reduction. Rather, it is a matter, of methodology. This is clear in the above quotation. The very being of the external world is one of actuality, and it is not as if the phenomenologist will put his or her hand in the fire after the reduction, because he or she now believes that the world does not really exist. I ask myself if the knowledge of exterior things cannot be the basis of knowledge itself, is there anything left if I discount this knowledge from my own procedure? You would think that the quick answer to this question would be nothing. For if I can no longer used the facts and material obtained by the natural science, or even my everyday experiences, then they must be nothing left over. For I still see my consciousness as an empty bag that need to be filled with the things outside of it, and once I have got rid of these things, then all I am left with is something useless and null.

Yet consciousness is certainly not a thing, and this is what Husserl wants us to see above all, and moreover if I take out the transcendent object, then I am not left with nothing, rather everything remains, but with a different status. What I am left with after the reduction, what Husserl calls the ‘phenomenological residuum,’ is the immanent object. In The Idea of Phenomenology, Husserl refers to Descartes to make sense of this idea. Cartesian doubt leads us to the cogito as something self-evident, for even if I doubt everything I cannot myself doubt that I doubt. But the evidence, of the cogito extends over all conscious acts. If I remember something, I cannot doubt that I am remembering it, and if I desire something, I cannot doubt that I am desiring it. The immanent object remains, even if the transcendent one does not:

I might reach such a degree of sceptical despair that I finally say: Nothing is certain, everything is doubtful. But it is at once evident that not everything is doubtful, for while I am judging that everything is doubtful, it is indubitable that I am so judging. […] And likewise with every cogitatio. Howsoever I perceive, imagine, judge infer, […] it is absolutely clear that I am perceiving this or that, and as far as the judgement is concerned that I am judging of this or that, etc. (Husserl, 1964, p. 23)

Now the content of the immanent object must be the same as the transcendent object, though the latter is a real object and the former an ideal one. For the real object, external to consciousness can be be destroyed, whereas the ideal object cannot; it only exists immanently within the consciousness. It is Husserl’s argument that the immanent object is given absolutely. Thus, there is no possibility that I can doubt it. If I am thinking of a chair then I am thinking of a chair, whether the chair exists or not, or whatever the chair is made of, and this is true also of perception. If I am perceiving a chair, then the chair is given as a perception as it is. I do not need to speculate about metaphysical chairs that somehow exist outside of consciousness. There is the chair given to me in my conscious perception of it.

The reduction opens a field of the phenomenological analysis of immanent objects. But we do need to be careful to understand how far we have got here. We still do not know what the relation, if there is any, between the immanent and transcendent object is, and how we are to grasp the meaning of the world after the reduction. Do we simply return to the distinction between the subject and object, as Descartes does after the proof of the existence of God, or is the relation between immanence and transcendence far more complex than this? An answer to this question will only be found by a closer analysis of the difference between transcendence and immanence, and this can only be attempted after a deeper consideration of the structure of consciousness, which will only be obtained after a discussion of perhaps Husserl’s most important and central concept: intentionality.

How things present themselves, rather than how we might wish them to present themselves, has to do with the intentional structure of consciousness. Like Kant, Husserl would argue that consciousness is not just a passive recipient of information from the external world, but already determines shapes and constitutes the object we see. Consciousness is not just opposed to the object, but constitutes the relation between the self and the object. These two ‘subjects,’ however, cannot be thought as identical. The first subject is the actual empirical subject, whereas the second subject, which cannot be identified with any actual living person, is ideal and transcendental. The analysis of intentionality is the description of its essential structure.

The notion of intentionality has its roots in medieval investigations of signification, but the immediate source for Husserl was his philosophy teacher Brentano, who made intentionality a distinction between mental and physical phenomena. Mental phenomena, for Brentano, are to be divided into the act of presentation, such as hearing a sound or seeing a colour, but also expectation, hope, judgement, love, happiness and joy, and the content of the presentation of the things or matter which is aimed at in the act of presentation. This ‘presentation’ is not to be confused with any actual thing or state of affairs (Brentano, 1973, pp. 77–81).

Brentano’s account is still empirical (different ways we are conscious of the world) however, whereas Husserl’s is transcendental (what does it mean to have a consciousness of the world at all?). To explain intentionality, let us return to the example of perception. Perceptual objects, are given to us, Husserl argues, only through a continuum of profiles, perspectives, or adumbrations (these are not only spatial, but temporal):

Of necessity a physical thing can be given only ‘one-sidely,’ and that signifies not just incompletely or imperfectly in some sense or another, but precisely what presentation by adumbrations prescribes. (Husserl, 1980, p. 94)

Yet it is equally clear, Husserl would say, if we simple reflect upon our perception of things, we do not just see aspects and profiles, rather there is another element. I always see one and the same thing. Take the example of the table described in the Ideas:

Let us start with an example. Constantly seeing this table and meanwhile walking around it, changing my position is space in whatever way, I have continually the consciousness of this one identical table as factually existing ‘in person’ and remaining quite unchanged. (Husserl, 1980, p. 94)

We are continuously conscious of this one and the same table as existing yet our perceptions of it change. My perceptions of the object are perspectival, whilst I am conscious of the table in person as being there as one thing. We can, therefore, also make a fundamental distinction between appearing and appearance. There is one and the same appearance, Husserl would say, though the appearing of this appearance is always changing. The one and the same appearance is the sense through which I take up the immanent object, and the changing manner of the appearance is how I perceive that object. Both these objects are immanent to the subjective activity of perceiving something as something.

We confuse objectivity with the perceptual object, but it is this object that is continually changing and therefore could never be the ground for scientific knowledge. It is object that is meant that gives unity and sense to our experience of things in the world. It is this unity that is valid meaning of objectivity. This unity already organises, or synthesises Husserl would say, our experience of the world, prior to any theoretical or scientific judgements that I might make of it. It is because the world is already organised by the immanent intentional structure of consciousness that we see things as having such and such meanings and therefore can make judgements about them. My experience of the world is already organised by the structure of intentionality before I have any sensations. I always see something as something. I always take up my perceptions in a meaningful way, and this is the case, even if my perceptions are confused or unclear.

The world is not something outside of us, in the sense of nature in the scientific or common-sense attitude; rather the world should be understood as the network of meanings, which is the horizon in which we encounter perceptual objects. The world is this region of sense in which we are orientated. This world for Husserl is identical to the immanent life of consciousness. It is constituted through it. The key to understanding this claim is to no longer to see the world on the analogy of a natural thing, but in terms of language. For the self-same and identical appearance that appears at the heart of appearing is sense or meaning. It is not a natural thing, and nor does it have any basis in nature, yet it is the ground and possibility of our experience and judgements about nature.

What then did Levinas take from Husserl’s phenomenology and what did he reject? First, Levinas’s method is phenomenological. His description of the experience of the other, which is the basis of his ethics, is a description of how the other is given in concrete experience. His distance from Husserl, however, is the ubiquity of intentionality. There is no doubt that Husserl gives precedence to intentionality, and thus representation, in all aspects of human experience. Thus, even if I love something, then that person must be represented intentionally for me to have to say that I love them and not someone else, and this is true of every subjective act, whether I am speaking of thinking about someone, remembering someone, or wishing to be with someone.
For Levinas, representation is not the primary way in which we relate to the world. Rather the world already must be meaningful for me to have representations of objects in the world. The existence of the world is dependent on my relation to others with whom I share the world, but these others are not first representations. There is an experience of the other, which is non-intentional. Rather than my act of consciousness constituting the meaning of the other, it is the immediate presence of the other in the words they speak that calls my possession of the world into question. It is this demand that is the basis of ethics, not the understanding of a duty or obligation.

One way of understanding the difference between Husserl and Levinas is their approach to sensation. For Husserl, sensations are part of our lived experience, but they are only meaningful when they are taken up through an intentional content. I am looking at the Eiffel tower, but this perception is only a perception of the Eiffel because I take up all my sensations through a unity of sense. It is only because we go beyond the different sensations that we can say perceive one and the same thing, even though I might see it from different perspectives and orientations. For Levinas, the relation to other can be a relation of thought in this sense. I can say that I see a person in the same way I perceive the Eiffel tower. I can experience then objectively. Yet this is not the only, nor the primary relation to others. They can break through their objectifying relation through their singular and individual presence. This other here before me now, and not as a meaning. My sensations are therefore given a different orientation or direction. Not towards a thought or representation, but the embodied presence of the other who speaks to me. This sensation of the presence of the other is not a mutilated thought, but has a unique meaning to itself, an ethical meaning.

Works Cited
Brentano, F., 1973. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint; Routledge, London.
Hawking, S., 2009. A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes. Random House, New York.
Husserl, E., 2012. Logical Investigations. Routledge.
Husserl, E., 1980. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. M. Nijhoff, The Hague.
Husserl, E., 1964. The Idea of Phenomenology. Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.

Levinas on the Difference between Morality and Ethics – Lecture 7

August 29, 2016

Levinas-portraitFor Gaita the difference between ethics and morality is that the former is the relation to the other in their individuality, whereas the latter is conceptual. The psychiatrists, in the hospital he worked at, could speak of their patients in terms of rights and dignity, but their actions showed the opposite. Whereas the behaviour of the nun, in her love of them, showed Gaita what it meant to treat every human life as infinitely precious. It was actions that revealed this truth rather than words. Levinas makes the same fundamental distinction. He asks at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, ‘whether we are not duped by morality’ (1969, p. 21). This is not because he thinks that we live in a world without values, but like Gaita, there is relation to the other that transcends all values and norms. Ethics is the immediate response to the other human being who makes a demand on me without negotiation or legitimation on my part. Ethics is not decided by me thinking whether I have an obligation or not, but through my response to the suffering and vulnerability of others. The opposite to this, which can sometime be justified by a morality without ethics, is a violence against the other human being.

Gaita, as we have seen, comes from a wittgensteinian tradition, whereas Levinas’s background is phenomenology, so it would be worth looking at this first before we go onto explain Levinas’s ethics in any detail. Phenomenology, through the teaching and writings of Husserl, is return to the roots and beginnings of philosophy. He sees it as a recommencement and reminder of what philosophy is meant to be. Within the modern context, this is an argument against naturalism, which is the belief that science is the only discourse that can make sense of the world. Just as philosophy freed itself from the shackles of theology it then subordinated itself to science, but even science is dependent on the original presentation of the world, for if the world did not present itself to us how would we begin to explain it? This original presentation of the world through perception is the basis of any scientific explanation and is the task of philosophy to describe it. The fundamental basis of the presentation is intentionality. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. I never just see something before me, but always ‘something as something’, the tree as a tree, the car as a car and so on.

One way to think of the difference between ethics and morality is through the phenomenological presentation of the world. The question is, does the other appear to me differently from other objects in the world, and if the other does appear differently, then can this difference be explained ethically? When Levinas speaks of the presence of the other, he does so in terms of the face, but he does not mean by the face some kind of objective property that another person might have, like the colour of their hair or the shape of their eyes. No doubt we can relate to other people like that, and for the most part we do so. Others just belong to the rest of the furniture of the world and I hardly notice them. Yet in this way, Levinas would argue, I am not having an ethical relation to them at all. I am like the psychiatrists in Gaita’s example. I can speak about the patients using words like ‘rights’, ‘dignity’, and ‘respect’, but I don’t really ‘see’ them at all in their individuality and singularity.

Levinas speaks of this radical difference between the ethical relation to the other and the relation to others through categories and concepts as the impossibility of murder. This sounds strange and peculiar because we know that murder is not impossible. Levinas’s point is not that we do not kill and harm others, but that it is only possible because we already have robbed them of a human face. We remember Reznikoff’s poem in the previous lecture. The S.S. officer can brutally murder the mother and child because he does not see their faces. They are only things, ‘vermin’, obstacles that need to be eliminated. They are less worthy of sympathy than a stray dog.

In several interviews in the 1980s, Levinas refers to an incident in Vassily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, whose subject matter is German siege of Stalingrad and the Soviet defeat of the Nazi’s, as a way of explaining what he means by ethics (2001, pp. 80–1).[1] The book is about the terrible and horrific events of the 20th century, battles, massacres and genocide, but it is the little human events one remembers after reading it. One such event happens at the end of the book, when the battle of Stalingrad is over. German prisoners are being used to bury the dead who are found everywhere. There is crowd watching them. One prisoner is a German officer who is tormented by what he is doing. He seemed to be the only one who was affected, but for this reason attracted the scorn and anger of the little crowd. One corpse they picked up was a child. Someone in the crowd shouted out as though they recognised her, as though they were her mother. The crowd was on edge and was ready to visit the worst violence against the German officer. She picked up a brick and was ready to assault him, but as she strode to him she did something that was perfectly senseless in the situation. She felt for a piece of bread in her pocket and gave it to him, saying ‘There, have something to eat’ (Grossman, 2006, pp. 395–6). Levinas says of this incident and the rest of the book, ‘there are acts of stupid, senseless goodness. Grossman shows is this throughout the whole book.’ (2001, p. 89). Why describe such actions as ‘stupid’? They are not legitimised by any political, or moral system. Indeed, they are the very opposite of systems of morality and work in opposition to them. They are the direct response to the human being who stands before me beyond ideology, creed or dogma. The woman recognises the German officer as a human being and gives to him her last bread, even she can’t even explain or understand why she did so. You could see this scene against the one portrayed in Reznikoff’s poem. He did not see the mother or child as human beings because of a system of morals, however perverted and hostile to human life it was, whereas she saw the humanity and suffering in the German officer, despite dogma and ideology that would have made him an object of hatred and violence.

Levinas describes this ethical relation in detail in his book Totality and Infinity (1969). It is the relation of the self to the other outside of any conceptual or categorical system. Levinas describes it as a concrete event. Not the ‘I’ as it is thought, but lived. Not the ‘other’ as someone I think or theorise about, but other that stands before in their singular presence. The ethical relation, as Levinas describes it, is asymmetrical. He means by that, that the relation of the other to me is not the same as my relation to them. The ethical moment of this relation is when the other’s presence makes a demand upon me and calls into question my possession of the world. There is no reciprocal demand. Subjectivity, as concretely experienced, is egoism. I enjoy and possess my world, and in this enjoyment others are of no concern to me at all. Ethics is only possible because the other’s presence calls into question my self-centred happiness. The other interrupts my world and demands justice from me. I do so of them.

The way that Levinas describes this ethical relation of transcendence is through the primacy of speech. The theoretical relation to the world, including other people, is one of vision. I perceive and see things and then subsequently label them. The relation of ethics, where the other calls me into question, happens in the relation of speech. The other speaks to me and only then do they have a ‘face’ and I respond to them. The face, then, for Levinas is not physiognomy, but the presence of the other in the words they speak. In Grossman’s story, the woman sees the German officer and hates him. He represents for her all the terrible events of the war and the dreadful acts of the Nazis. She does not see him. He just represents for her the category ‘Nazi’ or ‘German’. It is only when she speaks to him, when she says to him ‘have something to eat’ does she respond to him as one human being facing another. He does not represent anything. He is only this suffering being in front of her that she responds to with kindness and generosity, however senseless it might be in that situation. Speech is the experience of the other as other.

If Levinas were to criticise Gaita, he would probably say two things. First of all, the way that he describes ethical relation is as though it came from the side of the self rather than the other. It is up to me whether I love the other or not and reveal them in the common humanity. It is the nun who reveals the humanity of the patients and only then is this revealed to Gaita as though at third hand. In some sense, therefore, the difference between ethics and morality is only a different kind of thought, how Gaita thinks about ethics once he understands the actions of the nun. For Levinas, on the contrary, ethics comes from the side of the other, who makes a demand upon me, and then I act. This is why the end of Grossman’s story is so different. The woman doesn’t not understand why she gave the German officer the bread and never does. ‘Lying on her bed, full of bitterness, she was to remember that winter morning outside the cellar and think: “I was a fool then, and I’s still a fool now.”’ (Grossman, 2006, p. 394). Secondly, perhaps because Gaita is describing the ethical relation from the outside, it is a relation of vision rather than speech. The nun is speaking and responding to each patient she meets as ‘infinitely precious’, but Gaita only looks. His remorse is subsequent to this event, but in some sense he still keeps at a distance from it.

If there is a difference between ethics and morality, this does not mean that for Levinas we are duped by morality. We are only fooled if we place morality or systems higher than the ethical moment. Our moralities, as we have seen throughout human history, can betray our humanity rather than elevate it, for what better way to justify violence, murder and death, than through a morality. In fact, it is probably impossible to commit just dreadful acts without a belief system to support them so that one does not have to experience the humanity of one’s victim. We are not deceived if our morality is constantly held in check by ethics , like a scepticism, as Levinas compares it, that constantly haunts the pretension of reason’s having the last word, (1991, pp. 165–71).

When we observe the political justification of violence and indifference (think of the casual way that we speak of refugees and immigrants, as though they were not human beings like us), we might think Levinas’s and Gaita’s ethics is sentimental. This is Badiou’s accusation against this kind of ethics (2001). Rather than solving or changing the state of the world in which we live, it lives of this suffering, since in my response to it I can assuage my conscience without having done anything at all. This ethics is just a ‘pious discourse’ but does nothing at all to change the world, or even worse feeds of the world that it fails to transform. The more victims there are the more I can feel good about myself for defeating evil in the world. If there were no victims what could I do. So just as much as ethics must call into question our politics, so too must our ethics be translated into discourse. It not sufficient to simply respond to the other. You have to have in mind the others too who aren’t present there.[2]

Works Cited

Badiou, A., 2001. Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil. Verso, London; New York.

Critchley, S., 2004. Five Problems in Levinas’s View of Politics and the Sketch of a Solution to Them. Political Theory 32, 172–185.

Grossman, V.(, 2006. Life and fate. Vintage, London.

Lévinas, E., 2001. Is it righteous to be?: interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Lévinas, E., 1991. Otherwise than being, or, Beyond essence. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht; Boston.

Levinas, E., 1969. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Morgan, M.L., 2011. The Cambridge introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York.

[1] For an excellent explanation of Grossman’s importance to Levinas, see (Morgan, 2011, pp. 16–29).

[2] For an important discussion of politics in Levinas, see (Critchley, 2004).

An Ethics of Love and a Common Humanity: Gaita – Lecture 6

August 22, 2016

470_prof_raimond,0So far we have investigated the critique of morality from Spinoza to Foucault. What is common between all these writers is the view that morality is a smokescreen for power. This does not mean that morality does not exist, since it is clear that morality is very real, but to understand morality, and especially its justification, you have to examine the social logic that underpins it. This social logic, of course is not itself inherently moral, but is the legitimization of power as its changes contingently through human history. This is why we see different moralities through time and in different cultures. Moral discourse, from a Foucauldian perspective, is a kind of knowledge or discourse that attempts to fix and stratify power through apparatuses that can be as diverse as institutions, scientific statements, and moral and philosophical propositions (Foucault and Gordon, 1980, p. 194).

It is wrong, however, to think that Foucault is only interested in the relation between power and knowledge, as we suggested in the previous lecture, because just as much as knowledge attempts to capture power, power, as a relation of forces, also constantly escapes knowledge. If we think of morality as the control of life, then we can also think of life as continuously escaping this order and regulation. So although his work mostly describes how life is captured in apparatuses, anything that shapes or moulds human behaviour, of which morality would be one, he is also interested in the way that life resists capture, and of course must do so, otherwise knowledge and power would have no object.

One way to think about this is through subjectification. In Foucault’s later work, he is not so much interested in the relation of the self to apparatuses as such, but of the relation of the self to itself, a process of individuation produced not by power relations as such, but a subtraction from them. In the example that Foucault looked at, which was the formation of Athenian city, the rivalry between free men was internalised as self-mastery, for only in that way could one free man command another. Such a relation of the self to itself, Foucault called ethics, which was different from morality as an apparatus of external relation of power to knowledge. As Deleuze argues, this analysis was cruelly interrupted by Foucault’s death, but there is nothing stopping us expanding it to other kinds of subjectification, one of which could be the ‘marginalised existence of the outsider’ (Deleuze, 1992, p. 161). This could suggest an even different way of thinking about ethics, which is not the relation of the self to itself, but to the other.

Although Gaita comes from a completely dissimilar way of doing philosophy than either Foucault and Deleuze, this is how he differentiates morality from ethics in his work.[1] Morality has to with rules and principles in which we make judgements and rationalisations, whereas ethics is the relation to the other who I feel an obligation towards that cannot be negotiated away without denying their humanity. His work repeatedly aims at making us see that there is a difference between morality and ethics, because my recognition of the singular obligation I feel for the other is not the same as my rational justification of my actions or my own virtues.

We might be willing, after the critique of Spinoza, Nietzsche and Foucault, to accept that morality is relative, but ethics is not when we think of the harm and dehumanisation of the victim. Take for example the eighth poem from Reznikoff’s Holocaust:

One of the S.S. men caught a woman with a baby in her arms
She began asking for mercy: if she were shot
the baby should live.
She was near a fence between the ghetto and where Poles lived
and behind the fence were Poles ready to catch the baby
and she was about to hand it over when caught.
The S.S. man took the baby from her arms
and shot her twice,
and then held the baby in his hands.
The mother, bleeding but still alive, crawled up to his feet.
The S.S. man laughed
and tore the baby apart as one would tear a rag.
Just then a stray dog passed
and the S.S man stopped to pat it
and took a lump of sugar out of his pocket
and gave it to the dog. (Reznikoff, 2010)

It seems almost a betrayal to write any explanation of this. The words are enough of a testimony without commentary, but surely it would be strange to think that the S.S. man’s only failure is that he hadn’t rationalised his behaviour, or that it is sufficient to explain this action as an expression of his will to power. No doubt you could, but is this the last word we would want to say about his victims?

One way of thinking about the difference between morality and ethics, and whether there is a possibility of an absolute demand of ethics that would transcend any historical or culture context, is the existence of evil. We have already seen from Spinoza’s perspective that evil can only be a relative term, since one person’s good might be another person’s bad. It is difficult to imagine Foucault supporting such a concept.[2] But can we imagine evil not so much in terms of the act or the agent, but action visited on the victim. One striking aspect of Reznikoff’s poem is that as he brutally murders the mother and her child, he seems capable of kindness to a stray dog.

We have to be very careful here of not falling into sentimentality and mawkishness when defending the existence of evil, especially when such a word has religious and theological connotations for us, so it is worth looking at the opening of chapter of Gaita’s book A Common Humanity in some detail to precisely understand what he thinks the difference between ethics and morality might be, and why he can both claim that evil exists and is not a moral concept, but an absolute demand the other person makes upon me when I respond to their singularity without reserve (2000). What is lacking in the S.S. officer is not an absence of thought, but of feeling and sensibility. He does not see the Jewish mother and child as human beings because of a surfeit of intelligibility, and not because he lacks it. His objectivity has consigned them to less respect than the stray dog, but only because he does not experience their humanity in the first instance. They have already become mutilated by his language and discourse, which is the condition for the evil visited upon them.

In the preface to The Common Humanity, Gaita tell us what is central to his understanding of ethics is that every single individual is precious. What does it mean to treat a human being in this way? It means to love them. Our attachment to other human beings is not revealed to us in the language of rights or morality, but love. Yet we wont to think of love as sentimental and emotional, as though love were less than morality. Do we not only love those who are close to us, whereas morality is about the rights of everyone? To show us what he means by this emotion, and why he thinks it is deeper and more fundamental than morality, he recounts an early experience of his youth when he worked in a psychiatric hospital. It reminded him of a zoo and the patients were treated as though they were animals. They had lost everything and their lives had become meaningless. What they had lost above all was the respect from others who might have loved them, and for this reason they were treated ‘brutally by the psychiatrists and nurses (17-18).

What does respect mean in this context? We might think of the counter position, if the patients had been treated properly, as one of dignity and there were some psychiatrists, Gaita tells us, that did speak of the dignity of the patients. We speak of rights and dignity as inalienable, but what we discover like the Jewish mother and child in Reznikoff’s poem that it can quite easily be lost. When someone has lost it, then it needs more than just the law to regain it. They need the ‘love of saints’ (18). One day, Gaita, writes, a nun came to the hospital and he saw what this might mean. In her eyes the patients regained their humanity that they had lost in the eyes of others, even when they spoke of dignity and respect.

Is what was revealed in this encounter dependent on the religious beliefs of the nun? Is this a religious experience the unqualified love of another human being? But this would miss something about the experience, since it turns everything the wrong way around. It is not the nun’s beliefs that determine her behaviour, but her behaviour her beliefs and this behaviour reveals something true about our relation to others independent of any belief, even if these beliefs sustained the nun herself, for it is perfectly possible for someone with the same beliefs would not have behaved in that way, and their actions would not have revealed anything to the young Gaita.

What is particular about the relation of love, which makes it more than just a matter of belief is that what is revealed, the humanity of the other, is dependent on the relation itself. It has nothing to do with a property or attribute of something, or a particular aspect of reality, since that is not why the S.S. brutally murders the Jewish mother and child, or the nurses and the psychiatrists treat the mental patients like animals in a zoo. It is because they already lack love that they do so, not because an attribute or property forces them to do so. This is what it means to say that the love the nun’s behaviour expresses is unconditional. Because philosophy takes concepts and rationality as primary, and feelings and sensibility as secondary, it claims that former is more important than latter, but Gaita wants to argue that without love our morality can become the opposite of justice, for we can fail to see others as human at all.

Such unconditional love is commanded from the other. This is not an attribute but our response to others. To love another is to experience this unconditional love. It exists in the relation, not in the terms of the relation. It seems very close to when Kant says in the Groundwork that every human being is an end rather than means, but this respect for Kant is rational belief rather than an emotion or feeling. In fact, he is critical of the very possibility of resting morality of feelings, since by definition they can come and go dependent on the person who is the object of it. But equally, we might say to Kant, that whether an individual standing before me falls under the concept of end in itself can also come and go, depending on how I define humanity (considering again our example from the previous lecture of Kant’s how clear racism). What Kant lacked was not reason, but love.

Common humanity does not just mean having attributes that are universal to human beings. It is not a definition. Nakedness and vulnerability, suffering and pain, is an appeal to something basic, but it not the same as the expression of a common definition, because we can change the definition so that certain individuals can fall out of it, or because we can still think and speak of human rights and morality, but nonetheless treat individuals cruelly and indifferently who stand before us, because we do not respond to their humanity. I do not have a definition or concept of humanity and then apply it to them, rather my attitude or behaviour to them reveals their humanity to myself and others. Ethics is a response to a ‘living human body’ (272) first of all, before it is reflection on abstract concepts like person and rights that belong to a philosophical and moral discourse. ‘It is,’ Gaita writes, ‘astonishment at alterity, at otherness, at how other than, and other to oneself another human being can be’ (272. Italics in original).

This why racism, the example from Reznikoff’s poem being such an extreme form so that we can see what is lost, is such an important counter instance of what the absence of love might mean for Gaita. For we might think that racism is an illustration of an empirical generalisation. If that were the case, then it would be possible to rationally demonstrate to someone that they should not be a racist, since rational differences are only phenotypical. The only reason that white people are white is because of a colder climate, where white skin was advantageous since it allowed for the maximisation of vitamin D synthesis. Such external traits, like eye shape and colour, tell us little of significant interest about another individual. Yet to think that one could convince a racist in this way is to see the situation the wrong way around, much in the same way as with the nun. It is to think that the racist is a racist because they entertain certain beliefs, which they then subsequently put into practise, whereas it is because they are already racist that such traits are examples of sub-humanity, which in the worse cases could lead to murder and genocide. You already treat others as sub-human, an object of hate rather than love, and it is relation that leads you to stereotype them through an ensuing pseudo rationalisation.

For someone to be treated as an equal, to grant them full humanity as ourselves, already demands an immediate relation to them that recognises their humanity through absolute unconditional love. Without this relation, our morality can end up justifying evil rather than being outraged by it. ‘Our talk of rights,’ Gaita writes, ‘is dependent on the works of love’ (26).

Works Cited

Connolly, W.E., 1993. Beyond Good and Evil: The Ethical Sensibility of Michel Foucault. Political Theory 21, 365–389.

Deleuze, G., 1992. What is a dispositif. Michel Foucault: Philosopher 159–168.

Foucault, M., 1977. Revolutionary action: “Until now,” in: Bouchard, D.F. (Ed.), Bouchard, D.F., Simon, S. (Trans.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., pp. 218–23.

Foucault, M., Gordon, C., 1980. Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Pantheon Books, New York.

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. Routledge, London.

Reznikoff, C., 2010. Holocaust. Five Leaves Publ., Nottingham.

[1] If we were to characterise his work, then we might say that it is Wittgensteinian. Philosophy is an activity of clarification and critique. The difference between morality and ethics is neither semantic nor logical but descriptive.

[2] Morality is a part of the intelligible, how we make sense of the world, and for Foucault is never necessary but always historically contingent. There can never be an absolute evil, since ‘evil’ and ‘good’ are moral concepts. Ethics, then, for Foucault would precisely be the recognition of the contingency of morality and to leave a space open for other ‘moralities’. This is one version of subjectification as the ‘aesthetics of the self’. The question that Gaita and Levinas would ask of Foucault is whether the relation of the self to the other is the same as the relation to the self to apparatuses, or the self to itself, as described in his later work. The ethical relation to the other they describe has nothing at all to do with the intelligible or virtual spaces of possibilities within the contingency of reason, but an absolute demand without context. I suspect Foucault would be sceptical about such an appeal. See Foucault’s interview ‘Revolutionary Action: “Until Now”, for his own suspicion of the language of humanism and absolute values (1977). For an excellent explanation of Foucault’s ethics, see Connolly’s article (1993).

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, http://videosift.com/video/Fight-Club-Ikea-scene.

[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).