Levinas, language and subsumption

In a recent post at Accursed Share,  Joshua poses Levinas’ critique of Heidegger as rooted in the limitations of comprehension, even the extended notion of comprehension to be found in Heidegger’s work.  His post is based on a reading of Levinas’ essay “Is ontology fundamental?” (Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings: pp1-32 – henceforth BPW).   He is clear and concise is his account but, as needs must in a blog post, has to summarise and pose things quite starkly.  This, I think, is a major benefit of ‘blog philosophy’, this need to summarise and contrast in a quick and somewhat schematic way, more akin to verbal exchanges than essay work since schema is intended to prompt comments and discussion rather than pretend at an over-arching knowledge.  Such ‘simplification’ enables the difference of one way of thinking to another to be posed sharply, though I often find myself doing something rather different in my own posts.

Heidegger and Levinas are counter-posed and to do so a fulcrum point is needed.  For Joshua this fulcrum rests on the concept of knowledge, which Heidegger is still beholden to and which Levinas argues necessarily subsumes the individual and difference (particular) in the general and same (universal).  For Levinas ontology cannot be fundamental since it is still a logy, a knowing, and the reality or truth or essence or soul of the individual – named as the Other with a big O in Levinas – is lost in any form of knowledge relation.  Presumably we would want to say something like, either there is a relation with the Other and thus ontology is not fundamental or else all is lost.  There is a relation with the Other in the encounter (not knowledge) with the face and thus ontology is not fundamental.

Now my sympathies have always lain more with Heidegger than Levinas, though it’s a few years since I engaged heavily with the debate between them.  I always found Levinas to be peculiarly pious.  It is amusing and ironic that, as is noted in the introduction to the essay, Levinas himself broke from Heidegger’s thought because he felt a ‘profound need to leave the climate of that philosophy’.  It is ironic because Levinas appears to argue both that the Other cannot be understood within a context (or in Heideggerian terms, a horizon), particularly a context of knowing, no matter how extended that concept of knowing is.  Plainly there seem something odd, then, to feel a need to break from a ‘climate’ – which seems awfully like a kind of horizon – in order to argue that no horizon or climate can be allowed to pre-exist the relation with the Other.  Irony, however, is no argument against Levinas.  Rather there seem to be two things that are problematic, at least for me in my current understanding of Levinas; the first, whether this reading of Heidegger is accurate, whether in posing a ‘fundamental ontology’ Heidegger does indeed fall back into the dynamic of a knowledge structure that will subsume the particular in the universal and second, whether the ‘purity’ of Levinas ‘relation to the Other’ can be in any sense sustained.

Joshua poses Levinas’ critique in terms that make Heidegger rather too much of an intellectualist and in doing so misses something of Levinas’ argument which is more generous and more subtle.  His account of Levinas response to the question of whether ontology is fundamental is “Ontology—insofar as it is a science, a knowing, a ‘logy’—is the reduction of the Other to the Same; a reduction that always defines limits to form a referential totality.”  This does indeed sharpen something up but it also misses something.  The opening move of the essay by Levinas is an account of the ‘new rise’ of ontology as a philosophical focus, a prominence rooted in Heidegger.  Levinas notes, however, that the “possibility of conceiving contingency and facticity not as facts open to intellection but as the act of intellection … constitutes the great novelty of contemporary ontology” (BPW: 3).  This pragmatic and relational nature of Heidegger’s thought is here clearly identified in this distinction between a ‘fact’ and an ‘act’, in which, presumably, a ‘fact’ is some brute given ‘out there’ and the ‘act’ a concept that no longer presupposes an inner/outer split with ‘facts out there’ that must be ‘comprehended in here’.  The ‘act’ is instead a mode of relation and disclosure, which to that extent constitutes the ‘facts’ of the matter.

This recognition of the fundamental shift being attempted in Heidegger’s thought is missed but is that of any consequence?  They key claim that Joshua is ascribing to Levinas is that Heidegger is still attempting a ‘knowing’ of being and in so far as he continues down this road he will do violence to the other.  Levinas, a little later on, claims that “the essential contribution to the new ontology can be seen in its opposition to classical intellectualism.  To comprehend the tool is not to look at it but to know how to handle it.” (BPW: 4 emphasis added).  Here, then, I think a curious amendment to Joshua’s account might begin to sharpen things.  If Heidegger’s ontology, even if it is a knowing, is a knowing how to handle then it seems reasonable to continue and claim that knowing how to handle is also a subsumption of the individual or particular within the universal.  Further, therefore, if we know how to handle the Other we are committed to doing violence to them.  This brings me to the peculiar paradox of the purity within Levinas’ thought.  How am I to call on the Other is I cannot, in any sense, know how to do this?  Can I somehow know how to handle the call but not the response?    

As we read on we find Levinas identifying the tension in Heidegger’s thought between an ontology and an existence, centred on the notion that intentional acts include unintended effects, that we are involved in the world and thus “responsible beyond our intentions” (BPW: 4).  Heidegger’s thought, for Levinas, implies that “consciousness of reality does not coincide with our habitation in the world” and that “it is here that Heidegger’s philosophy has produced such a strong impression on the literary world” (ibid).  Yet, for all this ‘comedy’ of unintended effects and immersion in the ‘density’ of the world it is still ontology, the understanding of being, that is too central for Heidegger.  The handling is still a comprehension and thus the context of knowledge, even understood richly and pragmatically, is fundamental.

Joshua’s account, then, is accurate in many ways I think.  It is indeed Levinas’ claim in this essay that Heidegger still operates in a paradigm of knowledge, albeit one that is perhaps more nuanced than we might at first think.  It is still comprehension that enslaves the Other and it is this climate of comprehension that Levinas wants to break free of.  My difficulty finds itself located in this issue of handling the response.  For Levinas this is to be found in discourse and always after the act and is located precisely in this difficulty of the response such that the problem of handling the response is effectively the opening of the relation to the Other that is non-subsumptive and in that sense ‘ethical’.  It is at this point that I need to stop since I need to go back and spend some more time with Levinas, because the connection between this disruption of the self in its problem of handling the response of the Other seems intimately connected to the Abrahamic problem of God within Kierkegaards’ Fear and Trembling.   The differences and similarities between these two situations – Levinas’ ethical relation to the Other and Abraham’s response to God’s call for a sacrifice of Isaac/Ishmael – is something that I want to now explore.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

6 Responses

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  1. Jennifer Cascadia
    Jennifer Cascadia at |

    Interesting! And I think that both Heidegger and Levinas are dealing with a problem of Modernity, in most respects. Because it is Modernist “handling” which takes an approach, borne out of the mechanised organisation of society and its conceptual adjunts, of high abstraction, which universalises identities as “types”. So this is the violence which occurs right here — and to a much greater degree than would occur in many pre-modernist societies.

    Heidegger’s ontology nativises experience, again, taking it back down to the roots, away from (among other things) Kant’s approach which allows for a systematisation of a priori identities, under a system of industrial modernism.

    Yet this nativising of experience — this reversion to primitivism, or at least an attempt (within a modern context) to reach primitivism — does not practically or intellectually come to terms with the actual (and material) nature of industrialism or post-industrialism. Industrial modernism has already done its damage in the sphere of historical change — the movement from primitivism to civilisation. The innocence of being that Heidegger wants to return to is not to be found (contra Heidegger) in an intellectual retreat away from an attempt to grasp the violence of industrial (and post-industrial) living. Lukacs, for instance, shows that the system of concepts has become rotten from the top down. The problem of reification under late modernism needs to be directly dealt with, rather than ignored, in an attempt to recapture an innocent primitivism that probably never had historical reality, in any case!

  2. Jennifer Cascadia
    Jennifer Cascadia at |

    Thanks for the interesting reply. I am learning a lot here. If I may add a few more ideas, I’d like to say that I also think that disruption is key. But there is the attendant question of disruption by what and towards what. Does the disruption allow the entity who experiences it to break free of the handling, or does such disruption merely tighten the knot between the subject and the systems that handle him? The “disruption” of 9-11, for instance, produced a reconsolidation of power towards the right, in which things (gender roles, national identities, among others) were futher reified.

    This seems to point to the fact that the interaction of thought and force alone in not enough to reveal the true nature of the power relations which operate within the social systems. (Similarly, there are those who read Nietzsche and Deleuze, and see in their writings only more reason to firmly bond themselves within the social system as it is.)

    “Disruption” — as a postmodernist technique to shock us into an awareness of power and power relationships — has generally failed. I enjoy what Bataille is trying to do, and I have not come across a more convincing elucidation of how Deleuze’s ideas can be put to work than in Klaus Thewelait’s book, Male Fantasies.

    To my mind the problem with disruption is that the one who is being disrupted in their thought patterns has no alternative cultural position to fall back upon. They have known only Modernism and its reifications since the beginning of their lives. Put in a different way (in Freudian terms) , they have nowhere else to go if the parent is being abusive — except back to the unloving arms of their parent.)

    The homgenisation of late Modernist society seems to be the runaway train that prevents disruption from having any effect whatsoever.

  3. Mike B)
    Mike B) at |

    Jennifer makes a good point about disruption. It’s a tactic; but the tactic has to have content. As she rightly points out, the suidicdal/murderously disruptive tactic of flying hi-jacked passenger jets into vertical factories aka 911, did nothing to advance the cause of freedom. In fact, the act was given its ideological content by the owners and controllers of bourgeois society and in the world of political Islam, by the reactionary forces who want to impose Muslim theocracies around the globe.

    Reification is the standard upside-down response to the subject-object relation.
    Mystification of the subject-object relation is essential in maintaining systems of top-down political rule, be they patriarchal, class or any of a number of authoritarian systems.

    Simply put, subjects create objects. God is an idea created by human subjects. Where gods or leaders are allowed to rule, there you will find authoritarian ideologies which justify unfreedom and sadistic forms of dominance. When humans become aware of their own power, they can combat the reifying tendencies which surround them. Reification is the inversion of the subject-object relationship. Reification is the process whereby the subjects “believe” that they need to give up their power of creation to: leaders, objects (even objects of desire), ideas, gods and archies of one sort or another. The mental key to our servility in the face of power can be located in the process of reification.

  4. Jennifer Cascadia
    Jennifer Cascadia at |

    Thanks for you reply. I am coming at this from a rather more materialist position than you are, which is how come I can speak about the truth of power relations. To be quite clear, I believe that the majority of the world are ruled over, against their own deeper interests. I’m going out on a limb by saying this, but so what. Hugging the trunk of the tree (ontologically?) and refusing to go anywhere does not get us anywhere closer to “the truth” according to some general postmodernist postulations about where reality is currently located (everywhere or nowhere). So, I don’t see any epistemic disadvantage in going out on a limb and positing a social constructivist view of the world — namely that the ruling ideas of any particular era are ever the ideas [that serve] the ruling class. I may just learn something by testing this hypothesis in the real world. It is at any rate more of a hypothesis that I can measure my experiences against, than a complete leap of faith with no concrete reference points, or testability.

    So, I think the postmodernist project fails just because a limb to go out on hasn’t been conceptualised. Is this not primarily, then, a failure of the imagination, rather than a failure of conceptual rigour on the part of postmodernist theorists? I think so! Power relations may simply “be”, as you suggest. But it is a weak (unimaginative) position to take when one doesn’t demand anything more than that from them.

    To change the perspective of your reply to me, somewhat, What should it mean that according to the present set of power relations, that we live under, love can be posited as a “disruption” rather than as a continuum that fills in every moment of human life? Does not your theoretical postulation — your very choice of approach — already make some estimations about the nature of the power relations we live under, namely that they are alienating?

    But is it for reasons of philosophical rigour, or a failure of the imagination (the inability to go out on a limb), that you fail to spell out rather more clearly the implicit nature of your premises and what it means that you would choose the negative starting point that normal life is by definition alienating ?

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

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