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Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)

    Notes by Jeffrey Wattles on articles by Levinas, "God and Philosophy," "Meaning and Sense," "Beyond Intentionality"; plus selections from Totality and Infinity.

God and Philosophy (1975)

The Priority of Philosophical Discourse and Ontology

This is a priority that is assumed in Western philosophy, which reduces God to whatever can be estimated from a perspective where there is nothing higher than ontology.

1.  “The philosophical discourse of the West claims the amplitude of an all-encompassing structure or of an ultimate comprehension.  It compels every other discourse to justify itself before philosophy.”  Descartes did this with physics; does Heidegger do the same with theology?

2.  “The dignity of being the ultimate and royal discourse belongs to Western philosophy because of the strict coinciding of thought, in which philosophy resides, and the idea of reality in which this thought thinks.”  Remember (1) Parmenides: “It is the same, namely thinking and being” (celebrated by Heidegger); (2) Hegel’s line identifying the real and the rational, referred to at 147-48; (3) Husserl’s explication of acts of consciousness in terms of the strict correlation of kinds of subjective act and kinds of object.  Let’s give an example from Hegel of the “sameness” of mind and reality: physics discovers that the truth of matter is expressed in equations, but these are precisely the articulations of mind.  To understand something is to discover that its essence is a concept.  Note that EL is ranging MH with the side of mainstream Western tradition.

3.  MH’s move is implicitly referred to in the opening sentences.  EL’s main affirmation is this: “The God of the Bible signifies the beyond being, transcendence.  It is not by chance that the history of Western philosophy has been a destruction of transcendence.”  The two great exceptions to this destruction for EL are (1) Plato’s remark about the good as “beyond being” (epikeina tes ousias, Rep. 509 B) since the good illumines knowledge and gives reality to the forms that cognition grasps and (2) Descartes’ Third Meditation. 4.  From a rationalist standpoint, what does not situate itself in the plane of knowledge is of lesser status; for example, “opinion or faith” is taken in the Platonic sense (doxa, pistis) of a guess (I think this is the right road), a belief about something where a knowledge is possible that makes opinion obsolete.  Faith, then, is comprehended within Western philosophy as a lack of knowledge of a being, and the same ontology that yields the god of the philosophers still prevails.  EL will not stand on faith.


The Priority of Ontology and Immanence

5.  What knowledge grasps in its clarity and comprehension is ipso facto brought within the sphere of immanence.  What is transcendent remains, by definition, beyond comprehension.  But we are awakened by the Infinite, the other, breaking in upon our immanence.  In the West, “spirit is taken to be coextensive with knowing.”  After Socrates’ clear expression of the indwelling spirit as a trans-philosophic voice/sign, Plato and his successors identified the (highest) divine gift to humans with reason, and this interpretation of spirit culminates in Hegel.  In French and German, the same words are used for mind and spirit (esprit, Geist).  The knower is haunted, kept vigilantly awake, by the inbreaking (actual or potential) of Infinity, transcendence, the other, that which has not been brought into the circle of immanence, that which is comprehended, that which has been verified as the same as knowledge.

6.  Consciousness sustains immanence by the activity of the transcendental unity of apperception (Kant’s term) which synthesizes (Kant’s term) or gathers (Heidegger’s term) data from whatever awakened it.  Thus consciousness re-interiorizes exteriority and returns to itself.  The transcendent has been reintegrated within the same.  “Apperception” in Husserl implies perceiving something as more than what one immediately grasps. 

The “transcendental idealism” referred to here includes Husserl, for whom the transcendental ego—a unifying, synthetic function operative in every conscious act—enables us to recognize whatever we recognize—trees, chairs, others (including God?).  Kant and Husserl are very close.  Whenever we recognize a tree as a tree, we are coordinating diverse inputs in the mind; we associate overlapping experiences as being of the same object; we understand the very idea of an object in the world with the possibility that we and others can experience it and refer to the same thing over time.  We are continually active updating our grasp of the world so as to have a comparatively unified sense of things.  This is what mind does.  The account of consciousness at the top of p. 134 represents Husserl.

7.  Axiological and practical strata remain within experience; note their foundedness on representation, on immanence.  For example: I see a tree (a representation (Kant’s term).  The tree is beautiful, refreshing, with leaves dancing in the wind (the axiological, or valuational or evaluative dimension of the experience).  In fact I decide to make take one of its broad leaves to use as an umbrella in the rain (the practical stratum).  Enjoyment of value and actions under the governance of goodness do not carry me beyond the realm of immanence, remain rooted in the representations that are the fabric of my knowing.

8.  Affectivity here is a tendency toward satisfaction; but another kind of affectivity is possible, oriented toward transcendence.

9.  Religious experience is in the same boat; its discourse is a language made up of propositions bearing on a theme, referring to a disclosure, a manifestation of presence (Heidegger’s terms).  Is there a discourse that works otherwise?   (Cf. EL’s note 7.  “The notion of experience is inseparable from the unity of presence, or simultaneity.”)


The Idea of the Infinite

10.  The merit of Descartes’s Third Meditation is to acknowledge a cogitatum (object of thinking) that transcends, encompasses, contains, includes the cogitatio (act of thinking).  This inverts the rationalist tendency for thought to comprehend, include, contain its object.  Intentionality (Husserl’s term) and letting be (Heidegger’s term) remain within the Western mainstream.  The Infinite is not-finite (which I am) and in me.

11.  The implanting of this idea in the mind involves a radical passivity, trauma, an ancient signification outside the rememberable past (even though for Plato the highest truth is gained through anamnesis, recollection, and even though for Husserl the past can only be what once flowed through the present). 


Divine Comedy

12.  The negation of the Infinite is subjectivity; the difference between the Infinite and the finite is behind intentionality.  Here subject is broken into prior to the drive toward the goals of theology.  The Infinite arrives before the finite can prepare itself to welcome and love—and that’s the trauma.

13.  The idea of Infinity, beyond comprehension, engenders a desire that is unsatisfiable, beyond interestedness (in which there is a correlation between subjective appetite and the satisfaction in which it is interested).  It is a desire for the Good which is beyond being.  (Note that the italics at the end of the word highlight the term esse with which many French words terminate that have “interest” as their root.  The implication is that to be interested in something remains in the realm of being.)

14.  The idea of the Infinite takes love beyond complacence (pleasure, gratification).  The Desirable or God necessarily transcends Desire as what is Holy . . . which refers us to the undesirable other.  In the Holy there is a he in the You.  The Holy is different from every neighbor.  It is transcendent to the point of absence . . . so much so that one may confuse its absence with the stirring of the there is (il y a—the German, es gibt , literally it gives is one of Heidegger’s favorite phrases, expressing Being’s generous gesture—recall Plato’s Good that illumines the mind and gives reality to being.  This is a divine comedy . . . except when facing the neighbor.


Phenomenology and Transcendence

(It seems that phenomenology here is being carried beyond the Husserlian limits previously characterized, an extension that Janicaud will criticize in the second part of his essay.)

15.  It is possible to explicate the ethical significance of transcendence in terms of responsibility for the other, for all others, a measureless responsibility making us hostage to the others’ needs, preparing us to substitute for the other (taking his punishment).  Prior to religious experience, and prior to brotherhood, both the brotherhood of blood (the sons of Adam and Eve showed what that is worth: Cain slew Abel) and brotherhood generally which is founded on responsibility, not the other way around.  (Endnote 1 refers to “Israel’s universal vocation which the state of Zion ought to serve only, to make possible a discourse addressed to all men in their human dignity, so as then to be able to answer for all men, our neighbors.”)  (Endnote 22: “It is the meaning of the beyond, of transcendence, and not ethics, that our study is pursuing.  It finds this meaning in ethics.  There is signification, for ethics is structured as the-one-for-the-other; there is signification of the beyond being, for one finds oneself outside of all finality in a responsibility which ever increases, in a dis-interestedness where a being undoes itself of its being.”

16.  The most extreme subjection to the other as one who is guilty leads to a total emptying of the self (cf. kenosis, a New Testament idea of Christ’s having abandoned heavenly glory to serve here below).  All this is neither an experience nor a proof of the Infinite.

17.  The excess of the hyperbolic demand arising in the face of the other is saying, making signs to the other, signifying the very giving of signs, opening me to the other.  “Here am I” (in French, me voici where the I is in the accusative or objective case, as the one answerable to and seen by the other); this is the standard Biblical reply to being called.  It is the first religious discourse, sober, without mystery (evasion).  The saying precedes the said.  The Infinite speaks through me; only its testimony is pure. 


Prophetic Signification

18.  Prophetic signification is from the Infinite in relation to the finite; it is pure, prior to disclosure, refusing objectification and dialogue.  It orders.

19.  Philosophy has repressed the other.  It is necessary to interrupt the unity of philosophy’s discourse and the talk of proofs of God and experiences of God with an alternate rhythm of the Infinite.


Meaning and Sense (1964)


1.  Meaning and receptivity.  There are two classic theories: (1) for Plato and Husserl perception involves an intuition of object-meanings; (2) for Heidegger the simpliect [object] requires being as its horizon--being, namely, which is gathered--with no privilege accorded to what others regard as the alleged sensory "basis" of metaphoric language.  ["Gathered" is Heidegger's word for the synthesis (Kant) that brings together what is in the background or margin (Husserl) of any object of consciousness].

2.  Meaning, totality, cultural gesture.  Meaning is an affair of invoking variously (it need not be through language--a gesture suffices) a cultural world or totality.  The body provides the sense of Being that is presupposed as the background on that basis of which intellectual recognition can occur.

3.  The antiplatonism of contemporary philosophy of meaning.  If meaning arises (only) through each cultural, Being-and-world-gathering act, there is no eternal perspective for us; there are no colonizing hierarchies of insight.  This multivocal condition is atheism.

4.  The "economic" meaning.  The attempt founders to reduce the cultural play of meanings to a basic meaning, a function of the values univocally determined by human need.  But human needs are always also culturally expressive.  (Note nationalism as need, too.)  And the drive for unified, fulfilled society presupposes (as in Plato's Republic) something that transcends need.

5.  The unique sense.  Pluralism is incoherent, since it can't help presupposing or needing a Source of sense.  But the (western) traditional Source of sense was the no longer credible and still economic religion of a supernatural God of miracles.  The analysis of sense must yield the notion of God that sense harbors.

6.  Sense and work.  Sense arises from orientation toward an Other--as seen in the noble work done in 1941, work done without getting anything in return, without triumph, without eternal life, work done on behalf of a future beyond my death.

7.  Sense and ethics.  There is desire beyond need, a relation to the Other--who is both (1) understood hermeneutically (in the customary ways of interpreting) and (2) functions to orient meaning.  The relation to the other is neither engulfed in the reflective pretentions of philosophy's self-consciousness nor solicited in a naive-spontaneous way by the need for "God."

8.  Beyond culture.  Plato mistakenly thought mind could rise above culture and grasp eternal truth, but retained the potential for tyranny.  Nevertheless, finding the abstract man in each man, he paved the way for a new moral Platonism, capable of judging cultures.

9.  The trace.  The face is a visitation (not an effect, not a sign--both of which are intramundane).  The other is the trace of Him, of illeity--absolutely past, absolutely transcendent, not the (Husserlian) correlate of any intention. . . beyond iconography [cf. Hegel's critique of representation as picture-thinking].  "The revealed God of our Judeo-Christian spirituality."  Thence being has a sense (not a finality; there is no end.  True happiness attends desire which is not extinguished in happiness.



Beyond Intentionality


1.  Does thought have meaning only through knowledge of the world?  (No.) 

2.  For Husserl et al the “bestowal of sense” (Sinngebung) is produced in a thought.  One can thus grasp, in filled intentions, the leibhaft (“bodily”) presence of things and the themes of categorial intuition.  The past is displayed on a continuum with the present. 

3.  But perhaps the “potential surplus” of the world is to be sought in an immemorial past of creation, inaccessible to knowledge and representation.  Selves would “simply remain separated” “unless . . . their gathering together be . . . proximity, face-to-face and society” (534). 

            “Before any particular expression –and under every particular expression—there lies an extreme rectitude; a point-blank rectitude, perhaps the ethical source and the “latent birth” of geometrical straightness . . . ” (535).  [Do we sense this?  How?] 

The face of the Other reveals his exposure to death, “to the mystery of death, to the never to be resolved alternative between Being and not Being . . . a mystery extending beyond the unknown” (535).  [What is EL getting at here?]

            It’s not about the merely intentional-constructed “mythological other-world” (535).

            A relation across an unbridgeable abyss gives rise to ethical thinking or human fraternity (535-36).  “I am responsible for others whether or not we share a common present” (536). 

            Heidegger’s concept of authenticity is rooted in allegiance to what is truly and always mine, calling me out of everyday being-with (Mitsein).  “Fraternity, accusation and my responsibility come before any contemporaneousness, any freedom in myself, out of an immemorial-non-representable-past” [of creation] (536).  “Is the way in which the stranger thrusts himself upon me not the very manner in which a God who loved the stranger and who put me into question by summoning me would “enter on the scene”?” (536). 

The face signifies to God . . . [and] to God-in-me (537). 

The negation implied in the word infinite (not-finite) involves responsibility and “the interweaving of the Infinite with the finite: the In of Iinfinite signifies at one and the same time, the not of the Infinite, the transcendence of the finite, and the overflow of the Infinite in the finite” (538).

“God inseparable from the face of the other man” (538): There might be “more revelation of God in greeting the travelers than in the tete-a-tete­ with the Eternal” (539).


Selections from Totality and Infinity

in PR, 515ff., tr. Alfonso Lingis

1.  Infinity and the face

The face is not a thing.  The one to whom we speak transcends our common genus/species and also transcends any theme we could constitute in what is said about/to the Other.

The face is not constituted by the I but emanates from the Other, putting the Same (EL’s term for the self) in question.

            Infinity is not something beyond an already-given finite, but what calls the same to freedom and responsibility, thus uncovering its limits and thus its finitude.

2.  Ethics and the face

            The face expresses the Other beyond enjoyment and knowledge, a non-neutralizable “Do not commit murder” that confronts us with its Height and vulnerability (e.g., to starvation).  The ethical founds the true, the universality of reason.  The ethical is not beautiful, enchanting, lyrical, romantic.  “Expression does not radiate as a splendor that spreads unbeknown to the radiating being—which is perhaps the definition of beauty” (519).  “The gravity of ineluctable being freezes all laughter” (519).

3.  Reason and the face

            Prior to interpretation (or maieutics [Socratic midwifery, as viewed by Kierkegaard]) and prior to the discrimination of the true from the false is the expressive face, neither action nor value [cf. Heidegger’s critique of value as anthropocentric and merely gratifying].  The face can be distorted by mysticism and [aestheticism].  One may also welcome the Other in peace, respecting alterity, recognizing the infinite, founding (with Descartes) universal reason.

4.  Discourse founds signification

            In signification I express a meaning to someone; the Other is thus the first condition of meaning.  Signification—qua the face-to-face—makes possible (the communication of) meaning, whose origin cannot properly be thought as an interior (perhaps bodily—Merleau-Ponty)  pre-linguistic synthesis to be imparted to another.  Reason requires social plurality and separation; reason does not, as in Hegel, overcome alterity.

            “The idea of infinity in consciousness is an overflowing of a consciousness whose incarnation offers new powers to a soul no longer paralytic—powers of welcome, of gift, of full hands, of hospitality.” (523)

5.  Language and objectivity

            Husserl (who portrayed the constitution of the Other and of infinity) did not get as far as Descartes, who realized the priority of infinity and beauty.  Objectivity involves space in the sense of distancing from one’s own self-possession (in order to express to another, to give what I think I’ve found and understood) by a linguistic offer to the Other.  Time is the potential distance of the infinite in oneself from one’s own existence.