My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion, was to run against the boundaries of language.
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was a French-Lithuanian Jewish philosopher and Talmudic scholar who has come to play a fairly large role in contemporary Continental philosophy. His popularity in English-speaking philosophy came thanks to his close friendship with Derrida, and the importance of ethics in Levinas’ work. Derrida’s heavy borrowing from Levinas’ theory of the “Other” in his later work made Levinas an important figure in the emerging political-ethical understanding of deconstruction. Levinas’ criticisms of Heidegger, far and away the most influential non-analytic philosopher of the 20th century, looked like a possible way out of the supposed ethical dilemma of deconstruction and the various political controversies that centered around it. Levinas has also, for various reasons, turned out to be important in contemporary movements like speculative realism.
Levinas was trained in phenomenology: he studied under Husserl, and is widely credited with introducing both Husserl and Heidegger into French philosophy through his early texts. His work would always bear the imprint of phenomenology, even though he claimed to have transcended it. In a way, Levinas’ entire project was shaped by his reaction to Heidegger, whose participation in National Socialism he understandably never forgave. He famously declared the need to leave behind the “climate” of Heidegger’s philosophy, and proceeded to portray it as totalizing, dominating, warlike. While Heidegger’s central argument was that the meaning of Dasein is nothing more than its existence as possibility—the meaning of individual human being is its being “thrown” into a particular temporal situation—Levinas argued that we are constituted by something even more fundamental than where we find ourselves: the mysterious relation with others that begins in language. That relation places a demand upon us, outside history, that we cannot understand nor escape; it is the ground of our ethical responsibility. Heidegger’s notion of being, where Dasein encounters others only on the basis of its own self-understanding, devalues others by making them like objects that we “possess” and “dominate” by forcing them into our conceptions.
Levinas has always been accused of being a theologian in a philosopher’s clothing, and reading his masterwork, Totalité et infini, it’s not difficult to see why. He variously names our non-comprehensible relation to the Other things like “prayer” and “religion,” and refers to his idea of the other itself as le Trés-Haut (Most High). His powerful, beautiful writing style, full of earthy imagery and deep yearning, has more in common with the Psalms than with his French contemporaries. Throughout Totalité et infini and other works, Levinas circles around and around a single conviction: that somehow, amazingly, we “think more than we can think”—we desire to escape the “same” of our self and reach an infinite, a beyond that is absolutely exterior to our comprehension. He names that infinity the Other, and conceives an asymmetrical relation between it and each human that places upon us the demand of conscience.
Levinas’ insistence on infinity parallels the great post-structuralist project, which is to shatter the structures, tear down the totalities of philosophy. The “completed works” of the 20th century modernists—the gigantic, systematic ambitions of Hegel, Husserl, and early Heidegger—would be smashed to bits, left to disseminate on the wind. The insistence, most powerfully articulated by Derrida, was that the structures of Western philosophy had always presumed a totality that cannot exist—every system, every concept, every language, every society, would have a remainder that eluded the totality. In Derrida’s later works, Levinas’ idea of a quasi-mystical, originary event prior to every structure came to the fore. Every reason follows from a “space of hypercritical faith,” he argued in “Faith and Knowledge,” a “religion without religion.” While both Levinas and Derrida insisted that this unknowable infinity at the bottom of all reason, politics and ethics contained no orthodox religious content, skeptical critics would complain that they had taken a leap into revelation.
In my short years of engagement with these thinkers, I have defended Derrida’s deployment of this notion in what I think are fairly remarkable critiques of reason, secularism, and international institutions. But while Levinas’ understanding of infinity remains powerful and seductive, even Derrida recognized that his mystical “Other” did not displace Heidegger the way Levinas seemed to have hoped. (See, in particular, Derrida’s devastating critique in his essay “Violence and Metaphysics.”) Levinas was trying to build an ethics on a non-comprehensible non-foundation; while Derrida liked the idea of openness to absolute difference, he continued to apply it mostly as a critique, though he clearly wanted it to serve some sort of primordial purpose for politics and ethics. But Levinas’ ethics of the Other are so unknowable, so out of reach, then it would be wrong to attach them to specific programs of religion, ethics or politics. It was also wrong to believe—as Derrida seemed to—that anything more on these (admittedly important) subjects can be said. All Derrida could do was to keep insisting that all the proposed foundations were theological and metaphysical, and that there was always one even further down that escaped formalization.
I remain mostly an admirer of various post-structuralists, but I increasingly agree with others who have broken with the “climate” of their work. Like Wittgenstein, whose remarks on the matter opened this post, I think the search for any type of “foundation” or “science” of ethics is hopeless. It is a simple fact that the notion of the “Other” can only taken one so far; as Alain Badiou puts it in his Ethics: “every effort to turn ethics into a principle of thought is essentially religious.” Levinas attempted to build a foundation out of what cannot be spoken about, which is, however it is named, ultimately God. And so when we see the need to go back to some workable starting point, where philosophy can do work that might be of use, we find that Heidegger’s being-in-the-world may have all along been more plausible as a grounding of human experience than Levinas’ reach for the what overflows comprehension, or Derrida’s infinite trace. We have absorbed the crucial insight of post-structuralism to the point that it is now obvious, ubiqitous. Badiou puts it pithily: “Infinite alterity is simply what there is.”
I think Badiou is correct to say that it is much more difficult to recognize the “same”—the universal in the human world—than it is to find the difference which, after all, as radical and multiple within each of us between us and others. We quite simply must talk somehow about morals, ethics, and politics, and, if philosophy is to have an evolving force as critique and wisdom, it will not do to carry on infinitely about undecidability and absolute non-comprehension. If we are to accept Levinas’ “Other,” we might as well accept a Trés-Haut with an actual personality. But if we cannot be satisfied with that, and philosophy should not be, then we have to find a way around the abyss of différance—without forgetting its lesson.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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