Levinas on Levinas

Recently I’ve been working through Badiou’s and Zizek’s complaints with Levinas, so I thought that perhaps I ought to work through Levinas himself.

So here are some quotes/thoughts from his Basic Philosophical Writings (all paginations from this text). The themes which interest me (and I know Levinas hates the ‘thematic’) are ‘subjectivity’, the Infinite, and language. So of course there will the themes of Freedom, Desire, Substitution, and others which I will pass over. Today will be his essays on “Is Ontology Fundamental” and “Transcedence and Height”, and later will be his “God and Philosophy”.

“Is Ontology Fundamental?”

In this early work L. is seeking to resituate phenomenology, opening a door (or rather taking the roof off) toward a height of transcendence beyond the mere horizon of Being, which locks everything into the immanence of the Same. The relation with the Other, as toward a Height beyond the Horizon of Being, is one of language (a language preceding ontology) which is full of invocation, calling, and response which is the relation of Ethic to the Face of the Other.

So, he begins, “The pages that follow will attempt to characterize in a very general way this relation which is irreducible to comprehension,” a comprehension resting in the openness of being. The understanding of a particular being is always against the horizon of Being, a being’s openness and going beyond itself to Being. “To comprehend the particular being is already to place oneself beyond the particular. To comprehend is to be related to the particular that only exists through knowledge, which is always knowledge of the universal.”(p. 5)

But, Levinas maintains, the relation with the Other is not one of comprehension where the being we perceive is stands out upon the horizon of Being, because in relation to the Other “he is a being and counts as such” without reference to a horizon. The Other presents a being without it also presenting an openness to Being (nor comprehension, nor knowledge). Hence, the Other is a (particular) being which escapes the openness/horizon of Being (universal), and as such is not enclosed by our themes or projects (against Heideggar). “The other is not an object of comprehension first and an interlocutor second….The comprehension of the other is inseparable from his invocation.” And it is this speaking, this language, which precedes ontology, a speaking to the particular as particular, neglecting his universal being. This relation which precedes ontology, irreducible to representation or comprehension, is an ethical relation. This relation to a particular being in one of invocation, of address, demanding a response.

So, “In relation to beings in the opening of being, comprehension finds a signification for them on the basis of being. In this sense, it does not invoke these beings but only names them, thus accomplishing a violence and a negation”(p 9). So while the knowledge of being(s) only names, and is therefore nominalist, the relation which invokes, which calls to us, which exceeds comprehension, is that of the ethical. “A being as such (and not as incarnation of universal being) can only be in a relation where we speak to this being. A being is a human being and it is as a neighbor that a human being is accessible—as a face” (8).

The face of the other witnesses to this (ethical, non-ontological) relation with a depth/height, rather than as a horizon, which carries a significance not established by the horizon of Being, but rather a face which signifies itself. “To comprehension and signification grasped within a horizon, we oppose the signifyingness of the face” (10) which comes from a height.

[This transparency of the ‘face’ as self-signifying (without recourse to the horizon of Being) with what Zizek questions. Not because Zizek wants to bring back the horizon, but rather to question whether the ‘face’ is not already a mask provided by the symbolic order to keep us from our neighbors.]

Moving on to “Transcendence and Height” which was published just after “Totality and Infinity”. In this essay L. moves from questioning philosophy (as phenomenology), to the questioning of me by the Other, to the question of Infinity as the invasion of what is beyond being (the Other) into the immanence of the Same.

“The Other thus presents itself as human Other; it shows a face and opens the dimension of height, that is to say, it infinitely overflows the bounds of knowledge” (p. 12).

Levinas argues that philosophy is assimilation, is adequation of knowledge/representation to Reality where every true Other is made into the Same. The “I of knowledge is at once the Same par excellence, the very event of identification and the melting pot where every Other is transmuted into the Same” (p 13), but “the resistance of the Other to the Same is the failure of philosophy” (p. 14). The myth of philosophy is broken in the intrusion of the Other. “The myth of legislative consciousness of things, where difference and identity are reconciled, is the great myth of philosophy. It rests upon the totalitarianism or imperialism of the Same.” The Other, the face of the Other, resists this totalitarianism. This Other which resist the pretension of the I, of consciousness, demands a responds in which my respons(ibility) is founded.

The cogito of Descartes, the ego of Kant, the I of Husserl, and the Dasien of Heideggar, are all punctured by this approach of the Other, who before ontology calls be to respond, to ethical responsibility. This provocation is nothing other than that of the Infinite. “The Other who provokes this ethical movement in consciousness and who disturbs the good conscience of the Same’s coincidence with itself compromises a surplus which is inadequate to ntentionality. Because of this inassimilable surplus, we have called the relation which binds the I to the Other is the idea of the infinite. “The idea of the infinite consists precisely and paradoxically in thinking more than what is thought while nevertheless conserving it in its excessive relation to thought. The idea of the infinite consists in grasping the ungraspable while nevertheless guaranteeing its status as ungraspable” (p. 19).

This idea of the infinite takes thought outside of immanence, outside of being. Through this idea, which Descartes introduces into his through, shatters immanence. This Cartesiansim is akin to Plato who seeks a ‘beyond being’ attesting to the thought that the idea of being is younger than the idea of the infinite (p. 21).

So, from philosophy of the Same (and its I), to its shattering before the face of the Other, to the idea of the Infinite, ontology is not first philosophy, rather, ethics is.

Well that is enough for now. I’ve mostly been summarizing rather than reflecting/engaging. I certainly need to think through more how this has worked out in the Emerging Church (for good/ill) and what we should be doing with it.

Soon I’ll post on L. “Essence and Dissinteredness” and “God and Philosophy” where many of the same themes are cover albeit in a different way.

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