YOLO - should we live for the now? Should we live for life on earth, or should we live for the afterlife? These are age old questions about the goal of life that shape people's actions given their consequences. Philosophers have been talking about these topics for centuries, and they resolve themselves essentially in an aporia - an interpretive vortex, problem that cannot be solved but which can be concentrically interpreted within the hermeneutic circle. Phenomena (things which present themselves, in themselves) are interpreted by way of perception as sensiblity, or pure information, which presents itself to us as chaos and must be filtered through our understanding, according to the basic tenants of Phenomenology, an influential school of philosophy.
A common complaint about philosophers is that they are impossible to understand and write in language that seems to intentionally evade interpretation and criticism. However, embedded in the difficult language they use are different approaches in integrating centuries of previous philosophical works, in an attempt to create new and original interpretations. But phenomena are basic primordial elements and are present and accessible to everyone, and by their very definition are common to human experience. Shouldn't anyone be able to interpret basic elements of life by examining them? Children are able to come up with amazing creative insights, because they are blank states that start with limited previous knowledge to "cover over" the seeing of basic things.
This article is an effort to make more accessible the works of Emmanuel Levinas, an important figure who responded to the egoistic, controversial, and often misunderstood works of Frederich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Levinas claims that Nietzsche and Heidegger, while revolutionary, original, and influential, both failed at one thing: they both fell into a self-centered solipsism and egoism, and failed to adequately explore the Other.
Lou Andreas-Salomé, one of Nietzsche's friends and "romantic interests", wrote of Nietzsche:
[H]e fell back upon himself, instead of an outer life force! And so, he achieved precisely the opposite of his goal: not a higher unity of his own being but its innermost division, not the fusion of all stirrings and drives (into an individuum) but a split and divided self (a dividuum). And yet, health was gained by means of sickness; true worship by means of illusion; and self-assertion and uplifting by means of self-wounding" (Andreas-Salomé 24).
It can be argued that Nietzsche, while promoting in his works self-assertion, independence, and living life to it's fullest, lived the opposite of what he preached by turning in on himself in living the life of the mind. Nietzsche argued that there was an imbalance of cultural forces in German culture (see my previous article on this). In general he praised the "will" and relating to primal drives and nature which was neglected in contemporary German culture. Mostly, he's regarded as a philosopher of radical individuality as a union of different human creative powers and drives to create original values. He hated universal systems such as religion and was widely regarded as an iconoclast.
As for Heidegger, John Wild says in his introduction to Levinas that Heidegger:
...[in] Sein und Zeit, is a highly original contribution to philosophy. But as critics have pointed out, it is marked by certain special features and one-sided emphasis which are open to serious question. The author himself has apparently recognized the exaggerated anthropocentrism or subjectivism of its point of view... (Levinas 11)
Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) by Martin Heidegger outlines an interpretation of Being as Dasein (in English, "existence" or "being-there"). The importance that he places on the term "Dasein" has been criticized as he talks about "consciousness" with relation to lived experience. His interpretation is primarily from the point of view of the human being, with other's discussed in Being and Time primarily as the "they" or "being-with". He doesn't discuss Dasein's involvment with others in much depth, and when he does he does so in a dismissive way with descriptions of "idle talk" and "gossip". Otherness is often described in negative terms. In order to achieve authenticity Dasein must claim its being for itself, which opens up its own existential possibilities. Heidegger's discussion of "authenticity" is a highlight of his project and mirrors the self-determination highlighted by other thinkers of his generation, such as Sartre (It is often claimed that Sartre misinterpreted Heidegger in Being and Nothingness). It's as if, for Nietzsche and Heidegger, originality is paramount and comes from solitude and some sort of profound inner struggle to stand out from others or "the herd". In general, though, and as expected their discussion of "The Other" as such can be said to be lacking.
Levinas, on the otherhand, focuses primarily on the Other and discourse. We can talk about "the Other" (in general the absolute other, or the concept of the Other) or "the other" in lowercase, which usually denotes another specific individual or the interlocutor in speech. The Other is not talked about in terms of Dasein, but as other in its own right. Levinas accepts many parts of Heidegger's thesis that transcendent truth cannot be accessed in its own right, but attempts to elevate the Other to a higher position in an attempt to link ethics with being (in fact, Levinas claims that being presupposes Otherness). He does take this a step further and presuppose the "self" (which Heidegger does not) and "self as other" as a second step by way of memory or self-reflection Heidegger takes as his point of departure the interpretation of human experience, because that comes first and primary as we are creatures that find ourselves simply existing, and Levinas talks about religion using a Heideggerian frame. For example, if we take a rock and move it to reveal a snake underneath the rock, we free the snake for its being there "beforehand". We didn't know the snake was there before we revealed it. But we can still assume it was there beforehand, just not in the frame of human understanding. We can also interpret the phenomenon of the self in a similar way:
"Memory recaptures and reverses and suspends what is already accomplished in birth-in nature. Fecundity escapes the punctual instant of death. By memory I ground myself after the event, retroactively...By memory I assume and put back in question. Memory realizes impossibility: memory, after the event, assumes the passivity of the past and masters it. Memory as an inversion of historical time is the essence of interiority." (Levinas 56)
Here Levinas is interpreting the self as other, and his philosophy hinges on the interpretation of experience of the face of the other. In this quote he is talking about the revelation of the self, and he claims that after we reveal the self through phenomenology we can presuppose it. Levinas' phenomenlogy of the self is that the ego or consciousness is produced as a "psychism".
Indeed, I think that most people when they are encountered face-to-face with others are overcome with "concern" or "care" for that person, as the physical encounter is a powerful one that involves emotions and drives and a multitude of stimulus and sensations. On a concrete, understandable level, most people (sociopaths and such, excepted) have an empathy with others and the importance of this face to face meeting is shown in many arenas such as business, family, law, and simple human contact. Discourse is one way that we relate closely with others, especially speech, which is immediate and transcends "human time" as it is related to inferiority, and time as we experience it immediately and in the present.
"In the concrete the positive face of the formal structure, having the idea of infinity, is discourse, specified as an ethical relation. For the relation between the being here below and the transcendent being that results in no community of concept or totality-a relation without relation-we reserve the term religion."(Levinas 80)
In other words, the relation between the self and the other is discourse, but the relationship between the self and the absolute Other is religion (the use of capitals in naming the Other specifies the transcendent Other, or God).
For Levinas, discourse is not an object of knowledge, because the speech produced by the other is an expression:
"Here, contrary to all the conditions for the visibility of objects, a being is not placed in the light of another but presents itself in the manifestation that should only announce it; it is present as directing this very manifestation-present before the manifestation, which only manifests it. the absolute experience is not disclosure but revelation: a coinciding of the expressed with him who expresses, which is the privileged manifestation of the Other, the manifestation of a face over and beyond form. Form - incessantly betraying its own manifestation, congealing into plastic form, for it is adequate to the same - alienates the exteriority of the other...This way of undoing the form adequate to the Same so as to present oneself as other is to signify or to have a meaning...Discourse is not simply a modification of intuition (or of thought), but an original relation with exterior being...Meaning is not produced as an ideal essence; it is said and taught by presence, and teaching is not reducible to sensible or intellectual intuition, which is the thought of the same." (Levinas 66)
Here we see speech as an expression of an independent being, which produces meaning which forms and leaves its mark and impression on the thoughts and concepts that we create to understand the world. Speech shows that there must be someone beyond speech which manifests that speech, indicating a free being with its own will. What we perceive of the other's expression shows a trace of the "essence" "absolute experience" or possibly even the "soul" of the other, and that absolute experience is the other's own point of view, and not ours. In a way this proximity allows us a closer encounter with the other's pure essence, intentions, etc., but can never be truly guessed by us. I would argue that not only speech but gestures, physical actions, facial expressions, physical touch, etc. are forms of language and proximity.
If Dasein is a "clearing" which shines and reveals things in nature, then we can see that the expressions of others that come from their being "push back" against our perception and intuition which attempt to represent things, and the interaction of others understanding with ours is an expression of their essence (and shows a trace of their absolute Otherness).
The Face, then, is a metaphor for expression of the Other, and one dimension of its infinite relation is through eternally recurring ethos by way of fecundity. Fecundity for Levinas is relations between parent and child, or teacher and pupil, in essence relations with the other which carry through past death and defy it as a finite "end". Through culture, for example, knowledge and passed on and one can in a sense "live on" as one's being passes through others through generations and future time that is not yet completed. This differs from the individualism of Heidegger's Dasein, for example, who exists solely for its projects and being-towards-death. It is as if Dasein is an atheistic being who exists solely for it's time on earth and what it can achieve for itself, as itself, within the frame of being-towards-death. Levinas, on the otherhand, opens time up to infinity (beyond the totality of "being") through time that has no foreseeable end, and also opens up infinite relations with the Other, although he doesn't talk about an "afterlife", he can talk about "living for others and the Other" and therefore living for infinity.
A child is in some way me, and presents a fashion which the same and the other are presented in the world. Thus in a way paternity conquers death, because myself lives on through my children. This explains why people are extremely concerned with the wellbeing of their children, because they represent a vanquishing of death and fecudity of the self in the future. However I find that it's interesting that Levinas only recognizes earthly salvation, or salvation within time (or totality) and not infinity.
In the other we find what we seek by way of desire, something that we cannot find in ourselves. In the face we find escape, which is a fundamental desire to escape from solitude and solipsism. Humans are social creatures, and the face to face experience of the other calls me to responsibility because it is part of my search for transcendence, of the absolute or of escape. Through expression, we do not silently and individualy contemplate truth, but we are called to respond to the other.
Levinas speaks of conscience in terms of call and response - we are called by the other to respond to them. With Heidegger, conscience is located within Dasein, and calls Dasein to claim itself as itself. This is reducing the Other to the same, according to Levinas, and true conscience lies in the face to face experience with the other, whereby we come into intimate contact with their essence by way of experience, by way of the Other as other.
Socrates, as well, denies the plurality of existence as evil. Totality lies in the true and pure being of forms, and plurality, or others in existence, are extinguished by the authority of the Same. This is a risk and resonates with the age-old interpretation of the "material world as evil". The fall of mankind involves a fall from the Good into individuation and into material existence, and we should attempt to build a tower or portal to the Good through material existence. However this desire for escape leaves behind the plurality of others who demand my response within existence.
But this connectedness and responsiblity in my view, which Levinas claims cannot be refused, can indeed be refused. What about people who are antisocial, who ignore this moral obligation towards others? Since the self is atheistic, it can choose to ignore the call of the Other. This is shown in movies such as "No Country for Old Men", where the villian, Anton Chigurh, shows no remorse and a complete lack of conscience, and lack of respect for moral obligation. He views others as a means to an end, which is obtaining his money. Kant would say that the moral commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill" commands that we view people as ends in themselves, not as a means to an end. Anton Chigurh, and other figures in crime cinema (See "Badlands" by Terrance Mallick, "Breathless" by Godard, or or "Bonnie and Clyde" by Arthur Penn). What are we to make of these antisocial figures? We can only say that they are detached from kinship and the "web of connectedness".
At the end of "No Country for Old Men", Anton Chigurh is inexplicably hit by a car as he leaves after killing the last victim in the movie. It is almost as if this is a punishment by God for his evil deeds, since he is too smart for anyone in the movie to catch him. It is the Other extending itself into the world, and showing himself in an inexplicable act of "God" or an act of chaos in the world. But we don't know, the Other doesn't show himself. Otherness only manifests itself as two children approach Anton and ask him if he needs help - the face to face interaction here shows that they are concerned for his wellbeing, they show their response to his call of conscience and their obligation to help the poor, the destitute, the stranger - he gives them money in exchange for a shirt which he makes into a sling, and as he flees the scene the movie ends with the children fighting over who should keep the money. This shows a contrast - material goods and economy interfering with the face to face call. Levinas would say that economy cannot offer us any escape or salvation, only the call within the world by pluralistic otherness which connects us to the Other, or Goodness, is a light of human connectedness and essence.
Works, on the other hand, have a distance from their author. Works "...signify their author, but indirectly, in the third person" (Levinas 67). There is a distance in someone's written works, recordings, etc., the traces that they leave behind has a distance in time, context, format, and physical distance. However in the face-to-face encounter with the other, "This present is not made of instants mysteriously immobilized in duration, but of an incessant recapture of instants that flow by by a presence that comes to their assistance, that answers for them...the present is produced in this struggle against the past (if one may so speak), in this actualization. This unique actuality of speech tears it from the situation in which it appears and which it seems to prolong" (Levinas 69). Therefore this encounter with the other in the present moment escapes the objectification of history and archives.
Heidegger in his analysis talks about how being-with can "point out" or disclose the being of things for Dasein, especially with regard to projects, such as someone giving directions on a map to someone else so that they can find their way to their objective. But he lacks a description of the exteriority of the other and the other as such, and his discussion is always framed by disclosure or the "horizons" by which Dasein comports itself and understands the world (which are always part of Dasein itself). Heidegger never posits any "I", "Mind" or even further from that, any "You".
In addition, Heidegger doesn't talk about the night, or the Dionysian background of being, only Dasein as a light which shines or as a clearing in being. This is consciousness as it illuminates (Like Apollo shines with the illuminating sunlike eyes). Dionysus, the background, or nature, which the human being awakes from as from a slumber, can be recalled from the process of memory or can be posited by way of memory, as prior to waking.
According to Levinas, this solitude within the self is immersed in economy, whereby one works and receives wages from one's work, and can enjoy free time and leisure with the fruits of one's labor. This is an adequete description of everyday life for the working individual, the average individual, but he says that salvation cannot be achieved by way of this solitude and through economy.
Salvation can only be achieved through sociability. This reflects my view, and the view of many writers in the past (See Dostoyevsky, who writes about the "web of connectedness" which underlies everything, and which is the basis of salvation). My view is that without the connectedness of people, everything (economy, etc.) is a shadow. The importance here is that the other is not simply an alter ego, or a reflection of myself.
The relationship with the other is not to be conceived as a bond with another ego, nor as a comprehension of the other which makes his alterity disappear, nor as a communion with him around some third term....Phenomenological description, which by definition cannot leave the sphere of light, that is, man alone shut up in his solitude, anxiety and death as an end, whatever analyses of the relationship with the other it may contribute, will not suffice. Qua phenomenology it remains within the world of light, the world of the solitary ego which has no relationship with the other qua other, for whom the other is another me, an alter ego known by sympathy, that is, by a return to oneself. [1978a,p.85]
What do I think about Levinas? In my opinion, the focus that Heidegger and Nietzsche both put on culture, "physis", or "way" instead of "essence" is a positive one. Dasein is a primarily disclosing being, which means that knowing is a kind of "act" or "power". Levinas argues that we are called to responsibility at every lived moment with the other, in lived experience, and that ethics is prior to "physis". Levinas attempts to bridge Heidegger's practical phenomenology with religion. Heidegger says that we can't assume essence, and assuming that we can know it is dangerous. However, I do think that Levinas' conception of the "face" is an important one, because I think it's hard to come across anyone who doesn't feel a connection when they come across someone "face to face". His conception of the face is a powerful one because it is relatable and common to human experience. I think that Levinas serves as an interesting critique to the threads common to modern and existentalist philosphers of the 20th century, and represents an attempt at further development or
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time (Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson). New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity (Translated by Alphonso Lingis). Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979.
Andreas-Salomé, Lou. Nietzsche (Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken) (Translated by Siegfried Mandel). University of Illinois, 2001.