The Spinozist

writing by Paul Mendrik

Levinas An Introduction

February 28, 2020

'We are all responsible for everyone else - but I am more responsible than all the others.' This remark, spoken by Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, is one  is fond of quoting. It is a neat indication of the nature of a thought that, in the words of Jacques Derrida, 'can make us tremble'.1 Its challenge is an excessive one: a mode of being and saying where I am endlessly obligated to the Other, a multiplicity in being which refuses totalisation and takes form instead as fraternity and discourse, an ethical relation which forever precedes and exceeds the egoism and tyranny of ontology.

It is not surprising that the remark is taken from Dostoyevsky. Emma­nuel Levinas was born in Lithuania in 1906 of Jewish parents. His earliest memories include the news of the death of Tolstoy, and the tricentennial celebrations of the house of Romanov. The First World War, which up­ rooted the family, and the 1917 revolution, merge in his memories with his father's bookshop in Kovno. A particular confluence of the old and the new was therefore much in evidence. Judaism had been developed to a high spiritual point in Lithuania, and in the eighteenth century had produced arguably the last Talmudist of genius, the Gaon of Vilna. 

At the same time, Levinas’s parents belonged to a generation that saw their futur in the Russian language and culture. Levinas's earliest reading therefore involved not only the Hebrew Bible, but the great Russians: Pushkin, Gogol, Dos­toyevsky and Tolstoy. It was the preoccupations of these Russian writers that led Levinas in 1923 to Strasbourg (the closest French city to Lithuania) in order to study philosophy under such teachers as Charles Blondel and Maurice Pradines. At this time the writings of Bergson were making a strong impact among the students, and Levinas has always insisted on the importance of Bergson's theory of duration. He quickly made friends with Maurice Blanchot, who introduced him to the work of Proust and Valery. In 1928-9, Levinas then attended a series of lectures given in Freiburg by Husserl on phenomenological psychology and .the constitution of intersubjectivity. It was at this time that he began to write his dissertation on Husserl's theory of intuition. He also discovered Heidegger's Being and Time, and attended the famous 1929 encounter between Heidegger and Cassirer at Davos, which for Levinas marked 'the end of a certain human­ism'. In the thirties, he took French nationality, married and worked in the administrative section of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. At the outbreak of war, Levinas was mobilised as an interpreter of Russian and German. He was quickly made a prisoner of war, reading Hegel, Proust and Rousseau in between periods of forced labour. Levinas's book, Existence and Existents, with its description of anonymous existence, and the states of insomnia, sleep, horror, vertigo, appetite, fatigue and indolence, was begun in captiv­ity. After the war he returned to Paris to become the director of the Ecole Normale Israélite Orientale and at the College philosophique, founded by Jean Wahl, he gave a series of papers which were to become Time and the Other. Since 1957 he has contributed to the annual Talmud Colloquium of French Jewish intellectuals. His 1961 doctoral thesis earned him an appointment at the University of Poitiers. This was followed by a move to Paris-Nanterre in 1967 and to the Sorbonne in 1973.

These biographical details delineate the major influences on the work of  Levinas, a work which progressively analyses the alterity of existence in Existence and Existents; subjectivity, time and eros in Time and the Other; ethics as first philosophy in Totality and Infinity; the importance of language in Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence; and the question of God in De Dieu qui vient à l'idée. 

The most important of these influences is undoubtedly phenomenology. Husserlian phenomenology involves the methodical analysis of lived experi­ence from which can be derived the necessary and universal truths of all experience. Human experience is no longer seen as pure cogito, but as always tending towards something in the real world. Rather than proceed by abstract deduction, or dialectic, the phenomenological method enables consciousness to become reflexive, to recognise the intentionality that allows an object to emerge as meaningful. The lack of presuppositions in such a method reveals the relation between logical judgement and perceptual ex­perience. Truth and meaning are shown to be generated.

Heidegger builds on Husserl's phenomenology while rejecting some of its central features. The notion of phenomenology is retained in Being and Time though the idea that one can isolate and so examine the purely conscious status of objects is rejected. The growing importance of the ego in Husserl, which leads him in Cartesian Meditations to redefine pheno­menology as an 'egology' is rejected, though the notion of a transcendental constitution is still held. Heidegger shifts attention from the existence of beings to our very understanding of Being. Existential moods are now seen as the ontological ways in which we come to understand our being-in-the-world. Dasein is thus first of all an intrinsic part of the world, though it becomes ontological through its primary and unique concern with its own identity. It is through this concern that it relates to other Daseins and objects. The time necessary to such self-awarness is obviously most crucial­ ly perceived in the advent of one's own death. The fact of dying for and by ourselves is what gives the self authenticity, making it a 'being-toward­ death'. 

Levinas felt that as Hus­serl conceived of philosophy as a universally valid science, like geometry, this meant that philosophy occupies the same place in the metaphysical destiny of man as the exercise of the theoretical sciences . His conclusion, in The Theory of Intuition, was that in such a conception 'philosophy seems as independent of the historical situation of man as any theory that tries to consider everything sub specie aeternitatis’.

For Levinas,  non-representational inten­ ionalities are precisely the ethical encounter with another human being. It is this contestation of the ontological by the ethical that ultimately leads Levinas to disagree also with Heidegger. Even as the latter heralds the end of the metaphysics of presence, he continues to think of being as a coming­ into-presence. Philosophy is still an egology in the way in which Heidegger subordinates the relation with the Other to the relation with Being. But whereas Heidegger locates signification in existence as a project, Levinas locates it in responsibility for the Other. The communication which must be established in order to enter into relation with the being of the Other means that this relation is not ontology, but rather religion, a place where knowl­edge cannot take precedence over sociality. This is seen above all in Levinas's view of time and death. Levinas does not view death, as the ultimate test of virility and authenticity, as the proof of mineness, his ethical reaction is to view it as the other's death, in which we recognise the limits of the possible in suffering. Levinas quotes Pascal's Pensées as an epigraph to Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence: '''That is my place in the sun" That is how the usurpation of the whole world began.' 

Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence is therefore dedi­cated for quite fundamental reasons 'to the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism.' Political self­ affirmation means from the outset a responsibility for all. Levinas therefore views the state of Israel as the possibility of going beyond realpolitik and the dangers inherent in idealism towards the embodiment of a truly prophetic morality. The tension between identity and assimilation in a modern state whose monotheistic politics are those of a chosen and persecuted people is to be transcended ultimately by the original responsibility beyond any universalism, an ethically necessary politics that will mark the end of such concepts as assimilation and identity, together with the possibility of totali­tarianism which they to some degree indicate and preserve. 

This moral combat, based on peace for the other, is one more indication of the radical challenge to thought posed by the philosophy of Levinas. In the age of Auschwitz, Levinas shows that to be or not to be is not the ultimate question: it is but a commentary on the better than being, the infinite demand of the ethical relation.