Who is Emmanuel Levinas?

If we were to try to invent a philosopher as different as possible from Heidegger in background and temperament, we would create Emmanuel Levinas. He was a Jew from Lithuania, home of one of the greatest of Talmudists, the Gaon of Vilna. Levinas grew up studying the Hebrew Bible and the great Russian writers — Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. During World War II he served as an interpreter of Russian and German for the French army, became a prisoner of war, and served as a forced laborer. His book Existence and Existents (1978), with its descriptions of anonymous existence, insomnia, sleep, horror, vertigo, appetite, fatigue, and indolence, was begun during his captivity.

Emmanuel Levinas (photo by Bracha Ettinger)

His wife and child were hidden during the Holocaust in a French monastery; most members of his family in Lithuania were murdered by the Nazis. According to his own words, the forebodings, the reality, and the memory of the Holocaust have always accompanied his thinking (Hand, 1989a, pp. 1-2; Peperzak, 1997, pp. 2-3). Perhaps all his differences with Heidegger can be summed up in a single tellingly Levinasian phrase: “Dasein in Heidegger is never hungry” (Levinas, 1969, p. 134).

Levinas is not easy to read. His writing is metaphoric, allusive, suggestive, inconstant. He is far from being a systematic thinker; he is not, as he himself would put it, a totalizing philosopher. Indeed, among French philosophers, he is much less like Sartre than he is like Bachelard. But while Levinas does not have a system, he certainly has themes, which tie together his rich and complex work. Levinas is constantly discovering new connections among his themes. His work is like a great tangled ball of yarn. This makes him both difficult and exciting to read; but the advantage is that, no matter which thread you follow, you wind up at the center.

One of these themes is his thinking of death, where he stands directly opposed to Heidegger. This thread, too, leads to the center. Levinas’s “ultimate and exemplary challenge to the solitude of Being” turns out to be “a rigorous and moving testimony of one’s infinite obligation to the other person” (Hand, 1989b, p. v).

“Ontology is an egology”

It is clear that Heidegger’s ideal is in fact a sort of spiritual solipsism (Philipse, 1998, p. 259). All the Heideggerian virtues — authenticity, resolution, heeding the call of conscience — serve to isolate (vereinzeln) us. Thus, for example, “Death, understood in authentic anticipation, isolates Dasein in itself” (Die im Vorlaufen verstandene Unbezüglichkeit des Todes vereinzelt das Dasein auf es selbst) (1962, § 53, p. 308); “Understanding the call of conscience reveals one’s own Dasein in the dreadfulness of its isolation” (Das Rufverstehen [des Gewissens] erschließt das eigene Dasein in der Unheimlichkeit seiner Vereinzelung) (§ 60, p. 342); “The call of conscience… implacably isolates Dasein” (Der Ruf des Gewissens… Unnachsichtig vereinzelt er das Dasein) (§ 62, p. 354)

Heidegger’s philosophy is thus an egology: the relation with Being is more important than the relation with other people. But where Heidegger finds significance in existence as a project, Levinas locates it precisely in responsibility for the Other. “This is the question of the meaning of being: not the ontology of the understanding of that extraordinary verb, but the ethics of its justice. The question par excellence or the question of philosophy. Not ‘Why being rather than nothing?’, but how being justifies itself” (Levinas, 1984, p. 86).

Against ontology
Levinas at Strasbourg, 1928

Levinas holds that ontology is fundamentally mistaken, because it elevates abstract being over the relations of actual beings. Levinas states that he is “radically opposed to Heidegger who subordinated the relation with the Other to ontology” (Levinas, 1969, p. 89), who forgot that “being is enacted in the relation between men” (1969, p. 299). Ontology has it backwards. “This ‘saying to the Other’ — this relationship with the Other as interlocutor, this relation with an existent — precedes all ontology; it is the ultimate relation in Being” (1969, p. 48; emphasis in original).

Levinas’s “radical inversion” from being to beings “would take place in what I call an encounter with the face of the other.… [H]e calls to me and orders me from the depths of his defenseless nakedness, his misery, his mortality.” It is in this personal relationship, “from one to the other,” that he locates the ethical event, where “charity and mercy, generosity and obedience, lead beyond or rise above being” (1987, p. 202).

Heideggerian ontology thus subordinates justice to freedom, places freedom before ethics, “rather than seeing in justice and injustice a primordial access to the Other beyond all ontology” (1969, p. 89). Being before the existent, ontology before metaphysics, Levinas says, is freedom before justice. It is a movement within the individual before obligation to the other (1969, p. 47).

To affirm the priority of Being over existents is to already decide the essence of philosophy; it is to subordinate the relation with someone, who is an existent (the ethical relation) to a relation with the Being of existents, which, impersonal, permits the apprehension, the domination of existents (a relationship of knowing), subordinates justice to freedom.… In subordinating every relation with existents to the relation with Being the Heideggerian ontology affirms the primacy of freedom over ethics (1969, p. 45).

This inversion makes ontology as first philosophy a philosophy of power, a philosophy of injustice. “Truth, which should reconcile persons, here exists anonymously. Universality presents itself as impersonal; and this is another inhumanity” (1969, p. 46). “Heideggerian ontology, which subordinates the relationship with the Other to the relation with Being in general, remains under obedience to the anonymous, and leads inevitably to another power, to imperialist domination, to tyranny” (1969, pp. 46-47).

Ontology is, in Levinas’s telling phrase, a philosophy of the neuter. Heideggerian freedom, he says, “turns out to be obedience to insidious forms of the impersonal and the neuter” (1969, p. 272). Levinas has “broken with the philosophy of the neuter,” “the Heideggerian Being of the existent,” “impersonal neutrality,” “the neuter dimension of Being above the existent” — for, he says, “they exalt the obedience that no face commands” (1969, pp. 298-299).

Levinas and Jean-Paul Sartre

And this difference is seen precisely in their thinking of temporality and death. Adriaan Peperzak expresses Levinas’s thought this way: “The closed character of Heidegger’s Dasein follows also from his analysis of death. If nothingness is the secret of time and the authentic foundation of existence, the human person cannot rely on anything other than himself. The rejection of any reference to the Eternal and the insensitivity toward any otherness result in a tragic form of liberty” (Peperzak, 1997, p. 49). Levinas directly confronts this sort of authenticity: “But is the authenticity of the I,” he asks, “its uniqueness, contingent upon that unadulterated possessive ‘mineness,’ of self for itself, that proud virility ‘more precious than life,’ more authentic than love or than the concern for another?” (Levinas, 1988b, pp. 226-227).

Levinas is fond of quoting an epigram from Pascal’s Pensées — “‘That is my place in the sun.’ That is how the usurpation of the whole world began.” It is this usurpation of the place of the Other — this violence — which is at the heart of an ontology as a first philosophy; instead, Levinas proposes as a first philosophy an ethics, an unquestionable and primary obligation to the Other (Hand, 1989a, p. 5).

Against Heideggerian death

Levinas nowhere systematically presents his arguments against the Heideggerian conception of death. Throughout his work, however, he throws out challenges to the central themes of Heidegger — that death is my ownmost; that all relations are undone at death; that I can run ahead toward my own death; that I can be resolute in the face of death. Levinas condemns the abstract and academic view of death that is central to Heidegger — that death is clean and heroic, that death does not take place in cattle cars. Levinas — the Jew, the Litvak, the prisoner, the forced laborer — decisively rejects this romantic view of death. On the contrary, death is announced by sobbing; to die is “to be the infantile shaking of sobbing” (1947b, p. 41). Levinas remembers the graves in the air, about which which Heidegger refused to speak.

There is a romantic strain in the European thinking of death — the idea that death is somehow productive, strengthening, empowering. Thus, for Hegel, death is a necessary moment in the inevitable progression of Spirit through the different forms of consciousness to absolute knowing. Even more, for Nietzsche, the overman, free for the possibility of death, who maintains the pure essence of will in willing nothingness, is the next step beyond resentment, bad conscience, asceticism (Keenan, 1999, p. 1). For Heidegger, too, the authentic, resolute, determined, and decided assumption of death is, as Levinas says, “supreme lucidity and thus supreme virility” (Levinas, 1947b, p. 40). Taking on the uttermost possibility of existence is precisely what makes possible all other possibilities, and thus makes activity and freedom possible; death in Heidegger is an event of freedom (1947b, p. 40-41). This is the tradition that Levinas seeks to subvert.

Death and relationship

Levinas particularly disputes the Heideggerian idea of the nonrelationality (Unbezüglichkeit) of death — that death is the ownmost possibility of Dasein, that “being-toward-death discloses to Dasein its ownmost coming to be” (Heidegger, § 53, p. 307; emphasis in original), that, in the face of death, “all relations to any other Dasein have been undone” (§ 50, p. 294).

Levinas characterizes Heidegger’s view like this: “The uniqueness of the human I, which nothing should alienate, is here thought in terms of death: that everyone dies for himself. An inalienable identity in dying! The I exists in the world in relationship with others, but no one can truly die for anyone else.” Heidegger’s ideal, says Levinas, is “an originary authenticity, but with nothing more, in which, for Heidegger, all ‘relations with others’ are dissolved or ‘canceled,’ and in which the meaningfulness of being-there is cut short. Fearsome authenticity!” And he adds: “You can see what I would reject” (1988b, p. 226).

Levinas with his lifelong friend Maurice Blanchot

On the contrary, Levinas argues forcefully that the encounter with death is an encounter with the Other, that death in fact is paradigmatically relational. “Death threatens me from beyond. This unknown that frightens, the silence of the infinite spaces that terrify, comes from the other, and this alterity, precisely as absolute, strikes me in an evil design or in a judgment of justice” (1969, p. 234; emphasis added). “This approach of death indicates that we are in relation with something that is absolutely other, something bearing alterity not as a provisional determination we can assimilate through enjoyment, but as something whose very existence is made of alterity. My solitude is thus not confirmed by death but broken by it” (1947b, p. 43; emphasis added).

Death is not my ownmost; instead, it is encountered as a hostile, foreign, alien will set against me. “This nothingness is an interval beyond which lurks a hostile will. I am a passivity threatened not only by nothingness in my being, but by a will in my will” (1969, p. 236).

In the being for death of fear I am not faced with nothingness, but faced with what is against me, as though murder, rather than being one of the occasions of dying, were inseparable from the essence of death, as though the approach of death remained one of the modalities of the relation with the Other. The violence of death threatens as a tyranny, as though proceeding from a foreign will. The order of necessity that is carried out in death is not like an implacable law of determinism governing a totality, but is rather like the alienation of my will by the Other (1969, p. 234).

That is why, to Levinas, all death is murder — because in death I am faced with another, a foreign will, an evil design, a judgment of justice, a will in my will, alterity. Thus, for Levinas, we do not die in Heideggerian isolation, but face-to-face with an enemy, a powerful other who remains invisible, who intends us as victims — not before nothingness, but over against an opponent. “In death we are seized without the possibility of retaliating against our attacker. We are exposed to ‘absolute violence, to murder in the night’ (1969, p. 233).

But herein lies the great paradox of death. Precisely because it is absolute alterity, death is human, relational; death “maintains an interpersonal order” (1969, p. 234); “a social conjuncture is maintained in this menace” (1969, p. 234). “Murder, at the origin of death, reveals a cruel world,” Levinas says, “but one to the scale of human relations“ (1969, p. 236). And that is precisely why “death cannot drain all meaning from life” (1969, p. 236). Death does not subvert the interpersonal order, but is, as philosopher Edith Wyschogrod puts it, “the most fundamental experience of the personal order” (Wyschogrod, 2000, pp. 120-121). Indeed, what is common to death and social life is an encounter with radical alterity. The encounter with the alterity of death is like nothing so much as the encounter with the alterity of the other person.

Levinas quotes II Samuel 1:23, a verse of the funeral chant of the prophet weeping for the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan in combat: “Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.” And Levinas adds, “As if, contrary to the Heideggerian analysis, in death, all relationship to the other person were not undone” (1988a, p. 215).

Authenticity and virility

According to a typically Levinasian inversion of Heidegger, you cannot run toward death; death runs toward you. You can “go toward death,” Levinas says. You can “learn to die,” you can “prepare for the last extremity.” But in the last quarter of an hour, or the last second, death completes the last leg of the journey by itself, and is a surprise. In this sense, death “is not a possibility like all the other possibilities, in which there is always a preliminary, always a project.” To be “unassumable” belongs to its very quality; the “project” one may have of death is undone at the last moment. “It is death alone that goes the last leg. Not us. We do not, strictly speaking, meet it” (1982b, p. 155). Levinas calls this final gap an “infinitesimal — but untravelable — distance” (1969, p. 235).

Death is a menace that approaches me as a mystery; its secrecy determines it — it approaches without being able to be assumed, such that the time that separates me from my death dwindles and dwindles without end, involves a sort of last interval which my consciousness cannot traverse, and where a leap will somehow be produced from death to me. The last part of the route will be crossed without me; the time of death flows upstream (1969, p. 235).

In the same way, Heideggerian being-toward-death is, says Levinas, “a supreme lucidity and hence a supreme virility.” Authenticity, being-toward-death, resoluteness — what Levinas sarcastically, virility — is made possible for Heidegger only because he posits a “the hypostasis at the heart of anonymous being.” But death is never now. Levinas adopts Epicurus’ argument and, typically, inverts it: “When death is here I am no longer here, not just because I am nothingness, but because I am unable to grasp. My mastery, my virility, my heroism as a subject can be neither virility nor heroism in relation to death.” Death becomes the limit of the subject’s virility.

It is not just that there exist ventures impossible for the subject, that its powers are in some way finite; death does not announce a reality against which nothing can be done, against which our power is insufficient — realities exceeding our strength already arise in the world of light. What is important about the approach of death is that at a certain moment we are no longer able to be able. It is exactly thus that the subject loses its very mastery as a subject (1947b, pp. 40-42).

“My mastery, my virility, my heroism as a subject can be neither virility nor heroism in relation to death.” For Levinas, the limit of the possible is reached in suffering. At the heart of suffering, where we grasp the nearness of death, activity becomes passivity. “The subject finds itself enchained, overwhelmed, and in some sense passive. Death is in this sense the limit of idealism” (1947b, p. 41).

The death of the Other
Levinas with his wife Raïssa and daughter Simone, who were saved from the Nazis by Blanchot

The foundational error of the ontological analysis of death is that it looks at the wrong death. The key death is not mine. Instead, “contrary to the view of contemporary philosophy which remains attached to the self’s solitary death,” death is the death of the Other (1947a, p. 164). “Heidegger deduces all conceivable meaning from the attitude of man toward his own death. He thinks to the very end, in the senses of the term. He carries out his thought to its ultimate consequences, and he thinks that my death for me can be nothing but the ultimate self.… Is there not a manner of thinking that goes beyond my own death to the death of the other man, and does not the human consist precisely in this thinking beyond one’s own death?” (1982b, p. 161).

Levinas holds that “the Human consists precisely in opening oneself to the death of the other, in being preoccupied with his or her death.… I am persuaded that around the death of my neighbor what I have been calling the humanity of man is manifested” (1982b, pp. 157-8). Death for Levinas is something absolutely unknowable that comes at me from beyond my possibilities. The mystery of death forces me to recognize my relationship with the Other.

For Levinas, the fundamental human experience is the face, naked and defenseless, mortal, the face facing death. “To begin with the face as a source from which all meaning appears, the face in its absolute nudity, in its destitution as a head does not find a place to lay itself, is to affirm that being is enacted in the relation between men, that Desire rather than need commands acts” (1969, p. 299). I do not grasp the other in order to dominate; I respond, instead, to the face’s epiphany. “The Other does not affect us as what must be surmounted, enveloped, dominated, but as other, independent of us: behind every relation we could sustain with him, an absolute upsurge” (1969, p. 89).

As such, what is produced in a concrete form is the idea of infinity rather than totality.

Always the face shows through these forms. Prior to any particular expression and beneath all particular expressions,… there is the nakedness and destitution of the expression as such, that is to say extreme exposure, defenselessness, vulnerability itself.… It is as if that invisible death, ignored by the Other, whom already it concerns by the nakedness of its face, were already ‘regarding’ me prior to confronting me, and becoming the death that stares me in the face. The other man’s death calls me into question, as if, by my possible future indifference, I had become the accomplice of the death to which the other, who cannot see it, is exposed; and as if, even before vowing myself to him, I had to answer for this death of the other, and to accompany the Other in his mortal solitude. The Other becomes my neighbor precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question (1984, p. 83).

Emmanuel Levinas (drawing by David Levine)

The relation to the face is the relation to the absolutely weak — to what is absolutely exposed, what is bare and destitute, what is alone and can undergo the supreme isolation we call death. Thus there is always, in the face of the Other, the death of the Other. This weakness cries out with a dual voice — on the one hand, to turn away, ignore the Other, neglect the Other, and thus murder the Other; on the other hand, Thou Shalt Not Kill. This Thou-Shalt-Not-Kill “is the fact that I cannot let the Other die alone, it is like a calling out to me.” And this relationship with the Other is not symmetrical. “[I]n the relation to the Face, it is asymmetry that is affirmed: at the outset I hardly care what the other is with respect to me, that is his own business; for me, he is above all the one I am responsible for” (1982a, 104-105).

The original form of openness is thus my exposure to alterity in the face of the other. I literally put myself in the place of the other, without usurpation. I put myself in the place of the other even to the point of sacrifice. In typical Levinasian fashion, Levinas writes: “In the general economy of being… a preoccupation with the other, even to the point of sacrifice, even to the possibility of dying for him or her; a responsibility for the other. Otherwise than being!” (1991, p. xii). It is, finally, the willingness to die for the other which Levinas calls holiness. “It is inscribed in the face of the other, in the encounter with the other: a double expression of weakness and strict, urgent requirement. Is that the word of God?” (1982a, p. 108). “No one is so hypocritical as to claim that he has taken from death its sting, not even the promisers of religions. But we can have responsibilities and attachments through which death takes on a meaning” (1968, p 118).

From death to responsibility

What is crucial about the death of the other is that it calls me to my responsibility for that death; and the mortality of the other is seen in the nakedness, the defenselessness of the other’s face. “The face,” Levinas says, “is the very mortality of the other man” (1986, p. 186). The I as hostage to the other human being is precisely called to answer for his death. Through the face of the other, through his mortality, “everything that in the other does not regard me, regards me” (1985a, pp. 167-168).

Emmanuel Levinas (photo by Bracha Ettinger)

“I have sometimes wondered,” says Levinas, “whether the idea of the straight line — that shortest distance between two points — is not originally the line according to which the face I encounter is exposed to death.” That is probably the way, he says, my own death stares me in the face — in a straight line — but I do not see my own death. “The first obvious thing in the other’s face is the directness of exposure and that defenselessness. The human being in his face is the most naked; nakedness itself. But at the same time, his face faces. It is in his way of being all alone in his facing that the violence of death is to be assessed” (1982b, p. 163). In this facing of the face, in this mortality, there is a summons and a demand that concern the I, that concern me, as if the invisible death which the face of the other faces were my business, as if that death had to do with me (1986, p. 186).

And the concern that is raised is precisely the aloneness of the other. “Before the death of the other, my neighbor, death the mysterious appears to me, in any case, as the bringing about of an aloneness toward which I cannot be indifferent. It awakens me to the other” (1969, p. 161). And my responsibility is not to let the other die alone. “The death of the other man implicates and challenges me, as if, through its indifference, the I became the accomplice to, and had to answer for, this death of the other and not let him die alone. It is precisely in this reminder of the responsibility of the I by the face that summons it, that demands it, that claims it, that the other is my fellow-man” (1986, p. 186).

To let the other die alone is to be an accomplice in the death. In an often-repeated passage, Levinas says that the face of the other — “before all gesture, in its facial straightforwardness, before all verbal expression, from the depths of that weakness” — commands me, orders me not to let the other die alone; “that is, an order to answer for the life of the other man, at the risk of becoming an accomplice to that death” (1985a, p. 169; 1989a, p. 148; 1989b, p. 29; see 1983, p. 130).

But that face facing me — in its mortality — summons me, demands me, requires me: as if the invisible death faced by the face of the other—pure alterity, separate, somehow, from any whole — were ‘my business.’ As if, unknown by the other whom already, in the nakedness of his face, it concerns, it ‘regarded me’ before its confrontation with me, before being the death that stares me, myself, in the face. The death of the other man puts me on the spot, calls me into question, as if I, by my possible indifference, became the accomplice of that death, invisible to the other who is exposed to it; and as if, even before being condemned to it myself, I had to answer for that death of the other, and not leave the other alone to his deathly solitude (1989b, pp. 24-25).

This responsibility is unlimited, whatever the circumstances — a responsibility one is never rid of, which does not cease in the last moment of the neighbor, even if responsibility then only amounts, in the impotent confrontation with the death of the other, to responding “Here I am” (1989a, p. 149; 1989b, p. 30). “[T]he ultimate meaning of that responsibility for the death of the other person is responsibility before the inexorable, and at the last moment, the obligation not to leave the other alone in the face of death. Even if, facing death… even if, at the last moment, the not-leaving-the-other-alone consists, in that confrontation and that powerless facing, only in answering ‘Here I am’ to the request that calls on me” (1983, pp. 130-131).

The responsibility is unlimited in another way as well. It is a responsibility for everyone. I am responsible for the death of the Other — of any other. The ethical attitude is not “the attitude toward the death of a being already chosen and dear, but of the death of the first-one-to-come-along. To perceive that we come after an other whoever he may be — that is ethics” (1982b, p. 167; emphasis added).

It is clear, too, that the command not to let the other die alone is the same as the command not to abandon the other. The command not to be an accomplice in the death of the other embraces “all the violence and usurpation my existence, despite its intentional innocence, risks committing” — “the risk of occupying the place of another, of exiling him, condemning him to a miserable existence in some Third or Fourth World, of killing him” (1989b, p. 30).

And, finally, it is this understanding of death that separates Levinas from Heidegger. “That way of requiring me, of putting me in question and appealing to me, to my responsibility for the death of the other, is a meaning so irreducible that it is on that basis that the meaning of death must be understood, beyond the abstract dialectic of being and its negation, to which, on the basis of violence that has been reduced to negation and annihilation, one reduces death” (1989b, p. 25).

From responsibility to holiness

Levinas, unlike Heidegger, stands face to face with the Holocaust. “The inhabitants of the Eastern European Jewish communities constituted the majority of the six million tortured and massacred; they represented the human beings least corrupted by the ambiguities of our world, and the million children killed had the innocence of children. Theirs is the death of martyrs, a death inflicted in the torturers’ unceasing destruction of the dignity that belongs to martyrs” (1982c, p. 98). Yet these martyrs did not perish, were not liquidated, were not inventory. “In speaking of the Holocaust,” says Levinas, “I am thinking of the death of the other man” (1985a, p. 162; emphasis added).

In the face of this sort of death — of even the possibility of this sort of death — what Levinas issues, finally, is a call not to authenticity but to holiness. “I have never claimed to describe human reality in its immediate appearance,” Levinas says, “but what human depravity itself cannot obliterate: the human vocation to holiness. I don’t affirm human holiness; I say that man cannot question the supreme value of holiness” (1985b, p. 180). This value is, finally, what separates his philosophy from Heideggerian ontology, even in the darkest times. “There can be periods during which the human is completely extinguished, but the idea of holiness is what humanity has introduced into being. An ideal of holiness contrary to the laws of being” (1982, p. 114; emphasis added). And again: “Man is not only the being who understands what being means, as Heidegger would have it, but the being who has already heard and understood the commandment of holiness in the face of the other man” (1985b, p. 180).

This call to holiness precedes the concern for existence (1988a, p. 216). Indeed, as Levinas, says, it is humanity that has introduced holiness into being, in the form of sacrifice, which is the possibility of dying for the other (1987, p. 202). “It is as if the emergence of the human in the economy of being,” he says, “upset the meaning and plot and philosophical rank of ontology: the in-itself of being-persisting-in-being goes beyond itself in the gratuitousness of the outside-of-itself-for the other, in sacrifice, or the possibility of sacrifice, in the perspective of holiness” (1991, p. xiii). The priority of the other over the I is precisely the response of the I to “the nakedness of the face and its mortality.” It is there that the concern for the other’s death is realized, and that “dying for him,” “dying his death,” takes precedence over “authentic” death — “the excessiveness of sacrifice, holiness in charity and mercy. This future of death in the presence of love is probably one of the original secrets of temporality itself and beyond all metaphor” (1988a, p. 217).


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2 Responses to “Thinking About Death II: Levinas”

  1. Gyrus says:

    Thanks for these fascinating thoughts. I was describing them to a friend with a great deal of experience with ayahuasca yesterday, and his immediate reaction saw no conflict between Heidegger’s conception of facing death and Levinas’s. “Yes,” he said, speaking about his experiences of facing death with ayahuasca. “And you have to go through one [Heidegger's experience of solitary 'authenticity'] to get to the other [Levinas's experience of the fundamental nature of relationality].” I wondered what your thoughts are on this. Need there be a dichotomy here, or was Heidegger merely “stuck”? Makes me think of people like Nietzsche and Lovecraft, who seemed to be on some kind of genuine transformative path, but got stuck in a “failed initiation”, taking a phase of terrifying isolation as an end-point.

  2. Steve Beyer says:

    Gyrus, it is always a great pleasure to hear from you. I am not sure what your friend’s move actually buys. A Heideggerian could simply respond that the idea is correct but your friend has the direction wrong: Dasein must pass through an inauthentic and tranquilized subjection to the other in order to reach true authenticity. In the absence of some independent metric, we cannot say that one position is evolutionarily — in some sense — superior to the other. I think we are faced with a choice: how do we want to live our lives?

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