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).
|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.