Collected Writings

Excursus: Lévinas' ethics of the Other

Michael Eldred

Back to artefact homepage

artefact text and translation
Cologne, Germany

Last modified 25-Jun-2013
Version 3.1 August 2011
Version 3.0 April 2010
Version 2.0 July 2005
Version 1.0 December 1997
Download Sgreek TrueType font (for PC and Mac)
    Overview of this study
    Worldsharing and Encounter
Above all it is a matter of finding a place where the human being ceases to concern us from the horizon of being, i.e. to offer himself to our powers.
Lévinas 'Is Ontology Fundamental?'


    Table of contents

    i) Lévinas' move against fundamental ontology 

    ii) Opening up to the world: understanding and moodedness 

        iii) Understanding and addressing the other 

        iv) A hole in the horizon of being? 

        v) Ontology flattened 

        vi) Beyond being

    Worldsharing and Encounter


    i) Lévinas' move against fundamental ontology 

    To set the contours of worldsharing and the encounter more starkly into relief, it is useful to study a widely diverging account of the same phenomena. Lévinas' philosophy is eminently suited to such a contrast for it engages, albeit from a critical distance, the tradition of dialogical philosophy that surged in the early twentieth century associated with names such as Buber, Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy, on the one hand, as well as with Heidegger's Sein und Zeit, on the other. This latter work — together with certain elements in Heidegger's later thinking — is latently or explicitly present in all of Lévinas' writings and forms one of the major touchstones for his alternative to what he regards as "the honourable tradition that Heidegger continues",(1) viz. the tradition of ontology. Thus, in one of his main works, Totality and Infinity, his efforts are turned to claiming the priority of what he understands by metaphysics over ontology, of metaphysical desire over ontological totalization.

    In an article first published in 1951(2) entitled 'Is Ontology Fundamental?', Lévinas briefly presents a case for a negative answer to this question. This negative answer bears and marks his entire thinking, and that to such an extent that it is by and large a negative movement, akin even to negative theology. There is no doubt that Lévinas has a genuine phenomenon in view, a phenomenon that opened up and provided the essential impetus for dialogical philosophy and is roughly indicated by the grammatical difference between the third person and the second person. Lévinas is also correct in pointing out that Heidegger's fundamental ontology, as presented in Sein und Zeit and lecture courses throughout the twenties, does not enter into an interpretation of this phenomenon but rather keeps it at arm's length. But whereas Lévinas argues for a strong distinction between what he calls metaphysics, which is concerned with infinitude, and ontology, which he claims to be totalizing, the thesis presented in the present excursus is that Heidegger, even in shying away from the dialogical phenomenon, provides an indispensable placeholder and starting-point for adequately interpreting it. To put it colloquially, Lévinas throws the baby out with the bath water. Moreover, he insists on mixing theology with philosophy, with the result that his texts take on the hue of a dogmatic, morally exalted, incantatory insistence. This will be shown in the following by selecting passages from the above-mentioned  article mentioned above which is representative of and quintessential to Lévinas' enduring stance toward Heidegger's thinking. Some comments will also be made on Totalité et Infini and Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence

    ii) Opening up to the world: understanding and moodedness

    Lévinas claims that, in spite of fundamental ontology locating itself in the midst of lived existence, it nevertheless interprets existence narrowly as understanding: 
    But philosophy of existence immediately pales in the face of ontology. This circumstance of being involved, this event in which I find myself entangled, this fact of being bound, as I am to that which is supposed to be my object, through ties that cannot be traced back to thoughts, this existence is interpreted as understanding. (S. 107/p. 91) 
    This claim is astonishing since it is plain to any reader of Sein und Zeit that understanding is only one mode in which the world opens up to Dasein; the other, equiprimordial mode is moodedness or disposition (Befindlichkeit), the mode in which Dasein is how it is and how it has been cast. Lévinas even makes mention of attunement (Gestimmtheit) in passing but returns nonetheless to the claim that understanding is all-dominating in fundamental ontology: 
    To understand our situation in reality does not mean to define it but to find oneself in an affective attunement; to understand being means to exist. (106/90) 
    This is the only point in the article where moodedness enters the discussion, in a statement that could almost have flowed from Heidegger's pen. Lévinas' opposition to fundamental ontology rests on a movement counter to the primacy of understanding in which he attempts to show that the relation to the other "cannot be traced back to understanding" (108/92). Lévinas' counter-movement can only be undertaken at the price of wilfully overlooking that for Heidegger's fundamental ontology, moodedness is a fundamental way in which Dasein opens up to the world and takes it in and in fact so fundamentally that it can reach further than knowing (which, it should be noted against Lévinas' lax use of terms, Heidegger distinguishes from understanding). Consider, for example, the following quotation from Sein und Zeit
    Das Sein des Da ist in solcher Verstimmung als Last offenbar geworden. Warum, weiß man nicht. Und das Dasein kann dergleichen nicht wissen, weil die Erschließungsmöglichkeiten des Erkennens viel zu kurz tragen gegenüber dem ursprünglichen Erschließen der Stimmungen, in denen das Dasein vor sein Sein als Da gebracht ist. (SuZ 134, italics in the original) 

    The being of the here has become obvious in such a bad mood as a burden. One does not know (weiß) why. And Dasein (being-here) cannot know (wissen) suchlike because knowing's possibilities of opening up fall far too short compared with the originary opening up performed by moods (Stimmungen) in which Dasein is brought before its being as Da. 

    Cf. also the following passage from Holzwege
    Vielleicht ist jedoch das, was wir [...] Stimmung nennen, vernünftiger, nämlich vernehmender, weil dem Sein offener als alles Vernunft... (3)

    Perhaps however, what we call [...] attunement is more reasonable, i.e. more perceptive, because more open to being than reason could ever be... 

    Moodedness opens Dasein up to the world more deeply than knowing it, and moodedness is on a par with understanding in opening up the world. Lévinas does not acknowledge this and even uses the terms 'understanding' and 'knowing' interchangeably, which only causes more confusion. Is this only a cavil? I think not because, by omitting moodedness and confusing understanding with knowing, Lévinas is able to put Heidegger too comfortably back into the philosophical tradition which the former claims does violence to the other through the totalizing hegemony of reason. It is Heidegger, however, who put reason into question before Lévinas came along. The conflation of these differences allows Lévinas to make the following exemplary movement: 
    Truth does not exist because there are humans. Humanity exists because being in general is inseparable from its opening-up, because there is truth, or because, if you like, there is insight into being. [...] All non-understanding is only a deficient mode of understanding. The analysis of existence and what is called its Here is thus nothing other than the description of the essence of truth, the condition of the understandability itself of being. (105/89; 108/91) 
    The quintessence of ontology in Lévinas' eyes is the understanding of being, which is interpreted as the opening up of being in its truth through which beings, including the other, are disclosed or unconcealed from the horizon of universal being, as opposed to a being as such in its particularity. On the basis of this conception of ontology there is no room for truth consisting in the openness of self-concealment, and it is precisely moodedness that can be interpreted as a mode of opening-up in which concealment itself comes into its truth. Moodedness must be regarded, contra Heidegger, privatively as the mode of "non-understanding" par excellence but, as we have seen, it is by no means merely "a deficient mode of understanding" but a mode of the opening up of world in its own right. Allowing concealment to be in its openness is a possibility that Lévinas apparently does not consider. Lévinas curiously distinguishes between metaphysics and ontology by contrasting "relations with beings as such, as pure beings [...] rather than with an horizon" (117/97), which is strange because already the traditional Aristotelean formulation of metaphysics is as an investigation into "beings qua beings" (to\ o)\)n $(= o/)/n). Even when the other is addressed as an other, this other is ineluctably always already understood as an other, that is, from within one of the most venerable categories of being that address beings as such, viz. to\ e(/teron (cf. Plato's Sophist), a crucial point that is lost on Lévinas. Lévinas apparently believes naively that ontological categories can be avoided, while contradicting himself with every word he speaks. 

    iii) Addressing others

    Lévinas wants to say that the relation to the other is "prior to understanding" (108/92). The priority of the other, he claims, is grounded in the priority of particularity over universality, which universality is seen as a characteristic of Western philosophy that Heidegger simply accepts and continues in his fundamental ontology. 
    The particular being is understood by assuming a position that is already beyond the particular; understanding means relating to the particular by means of knowledge which is always knowledge of the universal. (109/92) 
    Lévinas wants to save the particular "mere individual" as a "being as such" (112/94) from the totalizing horizon of universal being in general. But this opposition is spurious because the individual as a "being as such" is still a being, and so the attempt to save individuality from the universality of being (assuming for the moment that being is universal) always comes too late. Moreover, Lévinas does not distinguish between the particular and the singular, individual; the particular, as the word itself says, is a particularization. Of what? Of the universal. In fact, understanding a being as such is precisely the task of ontology: a being as such means that the individual is always already encompassed by the universality (e(/n) of being. For Aristotle, to think the being as such, i.e. to\ o)\)n $(= o)/n, is the task for metaphysics. And in referring to the other (e(/teroj) as an other, Lévinas is also situated ineluctably within the universality of being. Even the terms 'individuality', 'particularity', etc. are designations of being and thus universal. The distinction between particularity and universality is entirely inadequate for showing up the phenomenon that Lévinas has in view. The relation to the other as a "being as such" still has to be thought as a phenomenon of being. But being is manifold; it has many folds, and it is in one of these folds that the other as such is situated. The fold in being I am referring to is its folding into second and third person, and the further folding of the second person into meeting and encounter, as elaborated in the main body of this study. 

    In approaching the other in what he regards to be a non-totalizing way, Lévinas introduces the existential of addressability, which is indeed one of the essential characteristics of the relation to the other in the second person. Addressability is introduced in contradistinction to understanding, or knowing, the other: 

    Certainly our relation to the other consists in wanting to understand him, but this relation goes beyond understanding. Not only because knowledge of the other, independently of curiosity, also demands sympathy or love, modes of being which are different from disinterested observation. But because the other in our relation to him does not affect us on the basis of a concept. The other is a being and is regarded as such. (110/92f) 
    Understanding and knowledge are conflated here once again. The former is an ontological existential of world-opening involved in any relations to beings as such, whereas knowledge proceeds on the basis of the a priori understanding of being and is thus not originary. Lévinas is correct in pointing out that the other "affects" us and that this affectedness "goes beyond understanding", but this in no way gainsays fundamental ontology, as already noted above. The existential of addressability is, however, not a way of going beyond understanding to consider moodedness (in which Dasein is affected), but is precisely the way in which the other is understood, recognized and acknowledged as other Dasein, i.e. as Mitdasein. Addressability (which plays a major role in dialogical philosophy) is indeed an existential not considered by Heidegger, but it is fully compatible with fundamental ontology once it turns its attention to the phenomenon of relations to other Dasein in Mitsein. Addressability is an existential (even a universal existential) adequate to the phenomenon of Mitsein in the second person. Thus, Lévinas' claim, "Is the one to whom one speaks already understood in advance in their being? Not at all." (110/93), has to be denied. 

    Without being already "understood in advance in their being", the other as other would not be addressable at all, i.e. addressability belongs essentially to the being of Mitdasein; it is one of the existentials which open up other Dasein and make it accessible, namely, in the second person. Lévinas is setting up specious oppositions here but is at the same time pointing to concepts adequate to thinking the other as other. Addressability is the condition of possibility of entering into a relation with the other as other Dasein. Such addressability is, in turn, the condition of possibility of understanding the other in the sense of an ontic understanding or knowledge of this particular being, as Lévinas rightly points out: "To understand a person means to already speak with them." (111/93) This is no contradiction to Heidegger's conception of Dasein and Dasein sharing the Da, as already laid out in Section 1. Sharing the truth

    Mitdasein is unique in that, because it is itself Dasein, it has a world, its very own world, to which it is opened up and which it takes in both comprehendingly and moodfully; and because it is also addressable (by virtue of the dimension of the second person), it can also be spoken with. Understanding and knowing other Dasein is not restricted to understanding and knowing them from the 'outside', i.e. in a third person understanding, but deepens into knowing them directly from the 'inside', i.e. in the second person. This inside is not a psyche or an inner life or the depths of a soul but the inside of Mitdasein's very own world which is nevertheless open in the universality of a shared truth. Because the other is Mit-dasein, Dasein as being in its world within the openness of truth can be shared, and because the other is Mit-dasein, it is itself within the openness of truth. Addressability and speaking with the other are essential aspects (existentials) of the ontology of being in the second person, of you-and-me-ness. Addressability is the condition of possibility of talking to you and speaking with you. You and I are only possible in a you-and-me relation by virtue of addressability, which is the potentiality of calling you into being, of invoking you as you for (a) me. It cannot be assumed that you pre-exist our you-and-I relation, just as little as I exist in a second person way outside the relation. You and I come about through the realization of the potentiality of addressability. You and I exist only in between, in the present. Addressability holds open the door to a potential sharing of world by talking to each other. Only by virtue of addressability do we not just share the world, but can share the world with each other

    Lévinas has no concept of sharing the world, but only of a shared relationship between the one and the other because he rejects the fundamental-ontological concept of Dasein and operates instead within the metaphysics of subjectivity, for which there is no openness of truth, no clearing. Hence his express sympathy for Kant's subjectivist philosophy with its emphasis on morality (cf. 114/95, 118/98). Contrary to his intention of treating the other in their particularity (more properly: singularity), he does not take care to distinguish between the third person and the second person with the result that the other is dealt with in just as impersonal a manner as in other philosophical discourses. Addressability and speaking with the other does not mean that the plane of "universal being" has been left in order to engage with the "particular being" (112/94); it does not mean that the understanding of being has been dispensed with, but that another dimension in the folds of being has been entered, and this entry into another dimension demands another kind of language than the one we find in Lévinas' thinking. 

    iv) A hole in the horizon of being? 

    Lévinas has singled out two of the main phenomena featured in dialogical philosophy, namely, addressability and speaking with the other (language), in order to make a case against fundamental ontology. The peculiar essential characteristic of the relation to the other is, according to Lévinas: 
    that my understanding of the being as such a being [i.e. the other as an other ME] is already the expression that I offer him of this understanding. (112/94) 
    The relation with the other, in which "expression consists in constituting a communality" is supposed to be a "relation that cannot be traced back to understanding". (113/94) From this Lévinas concludes: 
    The essence of speech is prayer. What distinguishes thinking that is directed toward an object from the connection with a person is the fact that the latter is expressed as a vocative: The object of the naming is at the same time the one who is called upon [the addressee]. (113/95) 
    The vocative is indeed the opening of the dimension of the second person which allows world to be shared in speaking with each other. Whether this vocativity should be called prayer is a moot point, but Lévinas does seem to have the distinction between the third and second person in view in the following passage, even though the concepts of particularity and universality are entirely inadequate to capturing this difference: 
    He [the other] does not emerge completely in the opening-up of being where I am already situated as if on the field of my freedom. He does not encounter me against the foil of being in general. Of course, everything about him that becomes accessible to me from being in general is proffered to my understanding and my possession. I understand him against the background of his history, his milieu, his habits. What it is about him that escapes understanding is he himself, the being. (116/96) 
    This is the transition from the third to the second person within the folds of being, which should not be confused with a shift from the universality of being to the particularity of the "being as such". The phenomena themselves should guide thinking. Talking with the other is to be distinguished from talking about the other. Only the former can have the immediacy of meeting and encounter, although it must be noted that talking with the other is not a guarantee that an encounter takes place. Indeed, for the most part, talking with the other does not amount to an encounter, which is an exceptional occurrence, but is instead the commerce or intercourse between individuals in a meeting-together.(4) For Lévinas, the encounter takes place when the face of the other appears, from which he is quick to derive ethical consequences: "To stand face to face with the other, this means not being able to kill." (117/97), but such over-hasty, far-reaching ethical conclusions should be refrained from, since they smother and obscure the phenomenon of the second person of being that is coming into view. Instead, every effort should be made to clarify the distinction between the third and the second person within the folds of being, which is eminently, albeit implicitly, expressed in the following passage: 
    The relation to a being is invocation of a face and already a word; it is rather the relation to a depth than to an horizon, a hole in the horizon; my neighbour is the being par excellence... (117/97; italics Lévinas) 
    Whence does this hole in the horizon come? Is such a term justified? Isn't the horizon of being all-encompassing, admitting no exceptions? The horizon of being is the world that envelops the three ecstasies of time into which Dasein stands out temporally in the movement of its existence. Within this three-dimensional ecstatic unity, beings as such appear to Dasein, who is opened up to this horizon. The hole in the horizon of world comes about with other Dasein, since each other Dasein has its own horizon and is itself a temporalizing of three-dimensional time out of which it casts its own self freely. The hole is emptiness; it is the nothingness of other Dasein's freedom which lights up flickeringly in the encounter in which you and I inkle each other's nothingness from which each casts its self. Freedom itself, which is the ontological origin of selfhood, is the hole, the casting of oneself out of nothingness in which the bearings of existence are laid in a definite direction that becomes the sense of an individual Dasein's existence. The empty hole of the other's freedom from which its selfhood springs is the source which I come up against in the encounter and experience directly, albeit barely. This hole in the horizon is not consistently experienced in dealings with other Dasein, for it has no perduring presence, but it makes itself felt in the resistance that other Dasein offers as a free being, i.e. through its withdrawal into its self, its ineludible self-encryption, which is not a particular ontic mode of behaviour, but a fundamental ontological characteristic of the other as Dasein: Dasein as self remains encrypted, sheltered in the crypt of its self. 

    Because Dasein is freely self-casting, it has always already swung over beyond beings, incorporating them into its existential casting. This freedom of Dasein calls forth the resistance of beings, it is in fact the very origin of their resistance. In the case of other Dasein, however, which is itself free, this resistance is compounded and takes on a different form, since now, in the meeting or encounter of first and second person, freedom comes up against freedom. This is what is most impossible for Dasein to overcome, because Dasein is metaphysically impotent to overcome the freedom of the other. When Lévinas refers to the impossibility of murder, he is translating this ontological impotence into an ethical (not a factical)(5) impossibility. In so doing, he employs a line of argument strikingly reminiscent of the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave (116/97). The phrase "most impossible" seems to be a pleonasm. What is meant is that the resistance of beings (in the third person) already refers to Dasein's metaphysical impotency which cannot be overcome by any technological mastery (cf. Section 6. Addressability and proper-namedness: Dasein's inviolable freedom). This metaphysical impotency is exponentially compounded in relations with other Dasein which is itself essentially free with its own infinite degrees of freedom of movement.(6) Lévinas translates this ontological impotence into an (ontic) ethical imperative which he himself remarks is akin to the categorical imperative in Kant's practical philosophy (118/98), but such a translation is misleading and only obfuscates when one considers that Dasein's freedom has an ontological status, i.e. it is situated already within the truth of being and needs to be thought as a question and a problem of (human) being. 

    What Lévinas calls the "relation to the face [of the other] as the event of communality, the word" (117/97) is treated in the present study as the possibility of encounter that in turn opens up the possibility of you and me sharing our freedom with each other and indeed the necessity of having to do so, one way or the other, since our respective freedom is ontologically inviolable. Although Lévinas claims that this hole in the horizon where the other as such appears is occluded by fundamental ontology by way of the universality of being suffocating the particularity of the other as a being, the discussion in the main body of the present study should have made clear that the phenomenon of Mitsein as sketched in Sein und Zeit and elaborated on in Heidegger's lecture courses in the late twenties (cf. esp. Gesamtausgabe Bd. 26 and Bd. 27) leaves a space for this 'hole' to be thought through adequately in turning explicitly to the problem of you-and-me, i.e. of first-and-second person in their existential-ontological intertwining. Heidegger claims in these lectures that the phenomenon of Duheit (you-ness) has to be investigated on the basis of the "fundamental neutrality" of Dasein in its selfhood. The phenomena of the encounter and the sharing of freedom between you and me can indeed be interpreted on the basis of an adequate understanding of Dasein, its world and its freedom, although not in the way Heidegger prescribes.(7)

    v) Ontology flattened 

    In stark contrast, Lévinas, in Totality and Infinity, takes the appearance of the face of the other to be the point at which the Infinite or the Absolute intervenes with the word that teaches or instructs, like a master instructs his disciple. The point at which the master appears is, he claims, the origin of language. The intervention of the Absolute is strongly reminiscent of the Old Testament motif of God calling on Moses to lay down the Ten Commandments, and this impression is reinforced by Lévinas' insistence on the ethical impossibility of killing the other: "Thou shalt not kill". The appearance of the Infinite on the scene is in a quite literal sense a deus ex machina in Lévinas' hands; in fact he introduces the idea of a "creatio ex nihilo" (e.g. TI:149/78) in order to "break" with the system of a (causal) totality and introduces an understanding of human being as a "separate existent" self-centred on its own enjoyment (cf. e.g. 166/91). But this totality is conceived as an ontic-causal system (and precisely not as an ontologically conceived world) into which he introduces the dimension of freedom, much as the metaphysical tradition usually does. Strangely enough, the deus ex machina who performs the creatio ex nihilo is a causal principle: 
    The creature is an existent which of course depends on an other, but not like a part which separates itself from the other. Creation out of nothing breaks the system; it posits a being outside the system, i.e. there where its freedom is possible. (149/78) 
    The dimension of freedom, however, is not something created out of nothing by a God, for that would be to deal with it like some ontic thing caused by an agent. The dimension of freedom is indeed the dimension of Dasein, but Dasein's existence cannot be accounted for ontically-causally by way of creation, but rather only ontologically-transcendentally by uncovering and stepping back into its conditions of possibility, for freedom is the transcendental (not: transcendent) dimension par excellence. Lévinas presents the shift to the dimension of freedom as if he were shifting from the ontological dimension (in which the egoistic subject supposedly reigns) into the ethical dimension (in which the subject becomes ashamed of his egoism), but in truth he is shifting from the ontic dimension of causal relations to the ontological dimension of Dasein as freedom. He treats the realm of freedom, however, as the ethical dimension in which the egoistic subject is confronted with moral injunctions and imperatives mediated by the face of the other. This stance is maintained and even radicalized in his last major work, Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence, in which the "unbending, indeclinable ego, protected from every scratch" (171/95) is overwhelmed in its "sensibility" by the "non-phenomenon, a putting-into-question by the otherness of the other" (170/95) that results an-archically in a "giving", in which "the giving does not offer the super-fluity of what is superfluous but the bread snatched from one's own mouth" (174/97). 

    In explicitly renouncing ontology as fundamental and presenting the alternative of the primacy of ethics (cf. the dictum in the table of contents of Totality and Infinity: "I.4 Metaphysics precedes ontology"), Lévinas at the same time renounces any possibility of thinking the essence of human being, which can only be achieved through ontological questioning, not through vain moral exhortations. His writing flattens to ontic narration in which repetition substitutes for clarification of essential structures, i.e. the various moments of an ontological dimension that is held together by unifiying concepts. Lévinas even explicitly defends this way of proceeding: 

    All the discussions in the present work [Totality and Infinity] aim at getting away from a conception which strives to unify the happenings of existence which have opposite signs in an ambivalent basic relation where only the basic relation has ontological dignity, whereas the happenings themselves which manifest themselves characteristically in one direction or the other maintain an empirical status without articulating anything new ontologically. The method practised here does consist in looking for the conditions for empirical situations, but it ascribes an ontological role to the concretization, i.e. to the so-called empirical manifestations in which the condition of possibility is fulfilled. (252f/148) 
    Although in other passages Lévinas seeks to get away from ontology altogether to champion the ethical manifestation of the other, here he wants to wilfully and arbitrarily elevate empirical happenings, i.e. ontic event, to an ontological status, but without working out the ontological structures within which this could take place. His "looking for the conditions for empirical situations" is not a search for ontological conditions of possibility but a hypostasization of the ontic to lend it ontological dignity. Thus, for example, the reader searches in vain for an explication of the ontological structure of the world in Lévinas' writings (which amounts to the totality of what the "separate existent" enjoys). It is not enough to baldly claim that an empirical phenomenon, such as "hospitality" or the " face of the other", has an ontological status. It only makes sense to talk of an ontological status if the ontological difference is taken seriously, but this is what Lévinas explicitly refuses to do. His rejection of ontology means that his texts shift back and forth between ontic phenomenal analyses and assertions of the primacy of the ethical (e.g. "Transcendence is ... the first ethical gesture." 253/149) which however remain mere assertions redolent of moral diatribe. The above-quoted passage, for instance, occurs in a discussion of hospitality and egoism in which the ontic possibility of opening the doors of one's house to the other is supposed to establish transcendence as an "original giving" (252/149) and language as the "first gift" (ibid.). Nonetheless, Lévinas' way of proceeding cannot entirely make us forget that ontological grounding is something entirely different. 

    Because they are conditions of possibility, ontological structures have the characteristic of unifying a range of empirical phenomena into their essence. This by no means excludes particular concretizations from gaining special attention and even a special status. Lévinas' method has to be contrasted with Heidegger's method in Sein und Zeit, where Heidegger employs concretizations to bring existiential-ontological structures phenomenologically to light, to highlight them. Thus, for example, in order to show the structure of care in its wholeness, he chooses a concrete phenomenon in which Dasein is its whole existence, namely, in the resolute disclosedness of self arising out of going forward to death. Heidegger's procedure does ascribe an important phenomenological role to empirical, i.e. ontic, phenomena, but it does so whilst maintaining, i.e. not confusing, watering down and flattening, the ontological difference. 

    Lévinas, by contrast, disseminates the seeds of irremediable confusion by not reading the structure of care in Sein und Zeit ontologically but as the ontic phenomenon of care in the sense of having cares and worries (cf. e.g. "The world... as a totality of equipment... that depends on the cares of an existence full of Angst about its being..." 190/107). This (in the case of Lévinas, one would have to say: wilful) misunderstanding of the existential-ontological concept of care is as old as Sein und Zeit itself and arises from precisely not respecting the fundamental existential-ontological character of care as a structure that unifies ontic phenomena with opposite signs and serves to characterize the ontological structure of being-in-the-world which ultimately will be taken back into Dasein's temporality, the (provisionally) 'final station' in Sein und Zeit. Lévinas' ontic misunderstanding of the ontological structure of care serves him only as a polemical foil to bolster his opposed claim that the "subject" or "human being" is not fundamentally full of cares but fixated on its own egoistic enjoyment (cf. Totality and Infinity II A 2 "Living off... (Enjoyment)" and II A 3 "Enjoyment and Independence"). 

    vi) Beyond being 

    If there is one single, decisive point at which the issue between Heidegger and Lévinas becomes abundantly clear, it is the issue of e)pe/keina th=j ou)si/aj. This famous phrase from Plato's Politeia which announces the beyond of being as the i)de/a a)gaqou=, i.e. the Idea of the Good, is cited by both thinkers, but whereas Lévinas, to my knowledge, is content to quote the phrase and interpret it immediately as the intrusion of ethics into (the 'ontological totality' of) being without taking the effort to provide even the skerrick of an in-depth interpretation of the relevant passages in Plato, Heidegger is at some pains to provide an ontological interpretation of the i)de/a a)gaqou=,(8) which he interprets — via a translation into Aristotelean ou(= e(/neka — as the "Umwillen des Daseins" (e.g. GA26:237, cf. the entire section GA26:237-252 "Die Transzendenz des Daseins"). Even in Lévinas' last major work Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence,(9) whose title plays on the Platonic phrase, there is no serious attempt made to interpret in extenso the phrase e)pe/keina th=j ou)si/aj in a critical engagement with Plato's texts. 

    The e)pe/keina in e)pe/keina th=j ou)si/aj is interpreted by both Lévinas and Heidegger as the dimension of transcendence, but each thinker thinks the latter very differently. For Lévinas transcendence is the entry into the ethical-religious realm in which responsibility for the other shows its face. For Heidegger, by contrast, transcendence is the transcendence beyond beings to being. If matters come to a head between Heidegger and Lévinas on the issue of transcendence, then the latter has to be focused on. Since, as we have seen, Lévinas is intent on moving 'beyond Heidegger' to the dimension of the other, i.e. specifically, to the ethical dimension of responsibility for the other, Heidegger's reply to Lévinas now has to be turned to. Heidegger's reply to Lévinas? Since Heidegger never concerned himself with Lévinas' writings, this turn of phrase is somewhat paradoxical, but it does make sense once it is realized that Lévinas represents a very traditional position with which Heidegger engaged critically in some depth. The i))de/a a)gaqou=, namely, has usually been interpreted in an ethical way. Heidegger breaks with this tradition and rejects the ethical interpretation as Weltanschauung (cf. GA26:241) and compels thinking to focus on the question of being, i.e on freedom and transcendence in the context of the question concerning the very meaning of being. 

    Now, this is supposed to be an excursus on Lévinas, but is quickly becoming an interpretation of Heidegger. The reason is obvious: Lévinas claims to break with a tradition within which he locates Heidegger as the last "honourable" representative, whereas the present study aims to show that it is Heidegger who has radically unearthed the philosophical tradition, whereas Lévinas has fallen far behind the insights signalled in shifting human being to the site of "Dasein" and instead formulates a headstrong, theologically founded ethics of the other. The heading "Freedomsharing, strife and the possibility of intimacy and commitment" in Section 12. of the present study indicates that freedom and its sharing is the crucial, and painful, issue, and indeed, the sharing of freedom between the one and the other in togetherness. It is well known that Heidegger does not provide a philosophy of the other, which has left the field open for Lévinas to occupy it with figures such as "the face of the other". Heidegger's treatment of transcendence has to be amplified and augmented and also criticized in such a way that the vacuum that has apparently been left by his neglect of 'the other' is filled with thoughts that are adequate to the thinking of transcendence within the problematic of the question of being. This requires that we turn to the fold in being which I call first-and-second person, you-and-I or simply whoness.(10) If Lévinas' philosophy in very large part can be characterized as a movement of negation against the claim, 'Ontology is fundamental', in order to assert the unconditional, i.e. absolute, primacy of ethics (of the other) over ontology, an adequate reply to Lévinas must consist in showing that ontology is indeed fundamental, i.e. that the transcendence of being that is freedom is also the indispensable key to understanding the sharing of freedom with the other, thus shifting the 'ethics' of the other (which is a moral philosophy in the sense of modernity) back onto a fundamental ontological level. 

    Heidegger refers to two crucial litmus tests for the understanding of the issues of ontology (cf. GA26:241f). The first is to break with the deeply ingrained modes of thinking that proceed from conceiving a subject encapsulated in its consciousness and separated from the world.(11) The second is to defuse the idea that Dasein, because it exists "for the sake of itself" (Umwillen seiner selbst) is egoistic. Lévinas is a victim especially of this second misunderstanding because, apart from refusing to shift from the metaphysics of subjectivity to a consideration of human being as Dasein, he adamantly insists on a fundamental casting of human being as egoistic, i.e. as an egoistic subject, into which he then introduces the imperative, absolute, moralistic ethics of the other. On the other hand, it still has to be shown that fundamental ontology à la Heidegger leaves room for. or can be twisted into, the problematic of the other's freedom. The freedom of the other, i.e. the (im)possibility of freedomsharing in the world, is the issue and not, as Lévinas claims, ethical responsibility for the other

    Heidegger and Lévinas agree that the issue is what lies beyond being, but whereas the latter interprets the beyond of being ethically and theologically with an intervention of the Infinite, the Absolute, the former endeavours to show that the transcendental dimension beyond beings in their being is freedom, if not freedomsharing. The freedom of the other is the missing link that separates Heidegger's thinking from Lévinas' thinking. The issue is the following: if there lies beyond being the Idea of the Good, and this is translated as the Umwillen des Daseins, i.e. the for-the-sake-of Dasein's self, how is this for-the-sake-of-self to be reconciled with the freedom of the other, who likewise exists for the sake of self? This is a far more subtle and perplexing question for thinking than Lévinas' demand — via the invocation and injunction of the Infinite that breaks with the (ontic-causal) Totality — that moral-ethical responsibility be assumed for the other and that a certain conception of justice prevail, for it requires that the question of being itself be folded and unfolded richly enough for the other as other to appear — albeit scarcely and non-substantially — in the folds in adequate concepts that do not misrecognize it as a being in the third person, which has been its fate hitherto within the long tradition of the metaphysics of whatness. 

      1. In E. Lévinas Spur des Anderen: Untersuchungen zur Phänomenologie und Sozialphilosophie Alber, Freiburg 1992, S.109/p.92. All pages references are to the German translations of Lévinas' works followed by the original French editions. The English renderings of the German translation are all my own. The motto to this Excursus is at ibid. S.115/p.96. Back 

      3. The original French publication of 'L'Ontologie est-elle fondamentale?' ' is in Revue de métaphysique et de morale LVI (1951) pp. 88-98. Reprinted in Phénoménologie - Existence Vrin, Paris 1953 pp.193-203. An English translation is in E. Lévinas Basic Philosophical Writings Indiana U.P., Bloomington 1996 pp.1-10. Back 

      5. M. Heidegger 'Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks' (1935/36) in: Holzwege Klostermann Frankfurt/M. 6th revised edition 1980 p. 9. Back

      7. Cf. the main body of this essay for details, starting with Section 4. Reciprocity of meeting. Back 

      9. That it is a matter of an ethical impossibility is clearly stated in Infinity and Totality, e.g. in the following passage: "The exceptional presence of the other expresses itself in the fact that it is ethically impossible for me to kill him; he thus signifies the end of my abilities." (S.120/ p.59) Back 

      11. Cf. on Dasein's inviolable freedom Section 6. Addressability and proper-namedness: Dasein's inviolable freedom. Back 

      13. Pace Heidegger, selfhood is not ontologically prior to I-ness and you-ness, but rather, the constitution of self is itself always also a mirroring through the others. Cf. my 'Heidegger's Restricted Interpretation of the Greek Conception of the Political' from 2003-2004, the section on interchange and also my 'Dialectic of Self and Other: Wrestling with Plato, Hegel, Heidegger' and Social Ontology op. cit., especially Chapter 3 on whoness. Back 

      15. In later lectures, Heidegger interprets the idea of the good as "das Ermöglichende" ("the enabling power"; GA36/37:194). "Das Gute ist die Ermächtigung des Seins und der Unverborgenheit zu ihrem in sich zusammengehörigen Wesen." ("The good is the empowerment of being and unconcealment to their essencing in which they inherently belong together." Sein und Wahrheit WS 1933/34 GA36/37:200) Back 

      17. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1978. Back 

      19. Cf. my Social Ontology op. cit., whose basis is a phenomenology of whoness. Back

      21. Leibniz's conception of the subject as monad can be taken as exemplary for the casting of human being as subjectivity in the modern, Cartesian age. The 'first draft' of the monad is the "body-soul pentagon" of the early Leibniz from around 1663, a conception he adapted from his teacher, Erhard Weigel, a "Pythagorean" with a proclivity for "geometric schemata". Weigel gave lectures in 1663 on "mechanics, astronomy, gnomonics and fortification", the pentagon being traditionally regarded as the ideal fortification. Laws of motion, the calculation of time from the motion of stars and sun, and military strategy are thus apparent as the subject matter of these lectures. The modern subject is out to calculate the universe. Leibniz wrote down his schema of the body-soul pentagon in his copy of Jakob Thomasius Philosophia practica continuis tabellis in usum privatum comprehensa Leipzig 1661. The schema consists of a series of concentric pentagons and circles inscribed alternately inside each other, starting with the external pentagon, representing the physical body with its sense organs, followed by a circle representing 'spiritual' sensory experience animated by 'spiritus' streaming through the body, then the inner pentagon of the physical brain, which takes in sensory impressions and also encloses the final circle representing the "sphaera intellectus", which is also the seat of morality, Weigel's "sphaera moralis". This innermost sphere is both a sphere and an indivisible, indestructible, metaphysical point. This latter is required to ensure that to the intellect "an invincible liberty remains" (libertas invincibilis remanet p. 8) and also immortality. This ultimate point at the centre is the free will, where internal deliberations and whence external actions proceed, ensconced within the double fortress of two pentagons, the body and the brain (cf. 'Das Leib-Seele-Pentagon und die moralische Sphäre des Verstandes' in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Frühe Schriften zum Naturrecht (ed.) Hubertus Busche, Meiner, Hamburg 2003, see Busche's notes pp. 381ff). This cast of human being contrasts entirely with Dasein that is always already in the world, out there with beings in three-dimensional, ecstatic time-space, so that the 'intellect' is not encapsulated in the brain. Nonetheless, the ecstatic temporal exposure to the world is individuated into individual selves, each of whom takes in the world from its own, singular perspective, giving each being-in-the-world its own, singular twist, despite an ineluctably shared casting of an historical world. Back


      Copyright (c) 1997-2011 by Michael Eldred, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.

      Back to artefact homepage