Emmanuel Levinas: Ethics and Infinity

Emmanuel Levinas (1985). Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 126p.

Book review by Renxiang Liu, originally written in March 2018.

This is an interview that shows the outline of Levinas’ lifework. Levinas is very good at expressing unique ideas in dense expression, and Philippe Nemo is significantly a genius questioner, sensitive to the gist of the conversation and to Levinas’ internal problematic. He prompts Levinas to situate himself in contrast to other philosophers and to formulate his own ideas more concretely.

Levinas’ thought originates from the consideration of a metaphysical problem, the “there is”, which is subsequently transformed into the locus where an ethics of the Other has its significance for philosophy at large. Roughly speaking, the “there is” (and later the Other) signifies an original indeterminacy which cannot be reduced to being or nothingness (for they are determined). Levinas calls all that is determined and thus incorporated “knowledge”, and this, for him, forms a totality which conforms to the Hegelian “identity of identity and non-identity”.

For Levinas, the danger of traditional metaphysics consists in its claim to have incorporated, or to be able to incorporate in principle, everything there is. This is where thought based on knowledge does violence to the Other, i.e., what exceeds the grasp of knowledge indefinitely. As knowledge proceeds, the Other recedes, but never vanishes. Bearing this in mind is important, because it reminds us that what we know and conceive is never the whole story. In other words, we never had, and in principle will never have, something like a totality proper. To pretend that we do and to ignore the excess of the Other is thus the major problem of traditional metaphysics.

The rest of Levinas’ philosophy hinges on this peculiar conception of the Other (sometimes characterized as Infinity), which is at once focal and non-focal. The paradox is this: if the Other is brought to focus completely, then it gets absorbed in the Same and is no longer the Other. If, on the other hand, the Other is retained at the horizon of knowledge, it easily gets neglected as in traditional metaphysics. Levinas himself seems to deem it more urgent to avoid the latter, as he tries to thematize the un-thematizable as un-thematizable, to catty out a philosophy that eventually problematizes itself as philosophy (an enterprise of knowledge). But in this way Levinas risks absolutifying the Other, especially when someone takes what he says to be the final word.

Partly as a consequence of this (or one may say as an ontic precedent of this), Levinas’ ethics champions the asymmetry of intersubjectivity, in which the alterity of the Other is forcefully insisted on. As he says, “reciprocity is his [the Other’s] affair” (98) – we can question whether and where genuine communication can be found in this framework, if my stance towards the subjectivity of the Other is characterized as this empty openness, which effectively is not so distinct from indifference. Accordingly, although Levinas may be right to define subjectivity primarily in terms of responsibility toward the Other (in Other’s face, he might say), the type of responsibility he conceives is again astonishingly unilateral. The revival of a most powerful subject can be recognized here which, though deriving its initiative from the presence of the Other, has all the volitional power to carry out the rest of the project regardless of the Other’s response. In avoiding the inclusive power of a knowing subject, which is supposed to prevail once reciprocal communication takes place, Levinas gives way to the exclusive power of a “gratuitous” subject: my love toward you is aroused by you, but once aroused it is completely, or exclusivelymy business.

This, then, contributes to Levinas’ concluding claim that “being is never […] its own reason for being” (122). There is some guilt in simply being, because my being and persistence at once pose a threat to others. But this is so only because I do not bother to go out and really converse with others, to appreciate and contribute to the amiability that renders our being reasonable! For sure, Levinas rightly reminds us not to take pride and be egoistic in our being, but someone is the guilt of being is at least equally egoistic, and this time not with amusing confidence, but with convoluted bitterness.

To conclude, in his formula “otherwise than being”, Levinas is arguably already presupposing being as something enclosed and absolute. Accordingly, the horizonal concept of the Other (the excess) also has to be absolutized into a direct opposite. The latter move is overtly disastrous, but the seed is already hidden in the former. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Kant’s phenomena and noumena, Sartre’s being and nothingness, or Deleuze’s actuality and virtuality: in each case, the former, which should have an open border and an ability to co-present the latter in its own presence, is artificially confined, so as to “leave space” for an entified version of the latter, which in turn proclaims to be something opposite but is actually leveled down next to the former, as if they were of the same category. What Levinas failed to learn from phenomenology is precisely the idea that knowledge itself comes with a halo of indeterminacy, that the indefinite is not at once the Infinite.

Published by Renxiang Liu

Philosopher, Phenomenologist, Humanist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: