Levinas and the Triple Critique of Heidegger

By Harman, Graham | Philosophy Today, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Levinas and the Triple Critique of Heidegger


Harman, Graham, Philosophy Today


As twentieth century philosophy fades into the distance, Martin Heidegger seems to be standing the test of time. His stature in continental philosophy is beyond question, and those French thinkers who avoid his influence most noticeably (such as Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze) are often difficult for precisely this reason, since it is Heidegger who has shaped our vision of philosophy more than anyone else. Even analytic philosophers have begun to find useful insights in Heidegger's works, while no analytic thinker has a comparable influence in the other direction - not even Wittgenstein. As the dust settles on the past hundred years of philosophy, it is Heidegger who looms as the ancestor whose influence we most need to absorb and resist.

No one has seen this more clearly than Emmanuel Lévinas. His claim that we must leave the climate of Heideggerian philosophy, and that we cannot do so by returning to a philosophy that would be pre-Heideggerian, strikes me as definitive. Nor does Lévinas offer this statement as merely a vague program: in my view, he has done more than anyone else to move us into the post-Heideggerian climate that he recommends. In the works of Lévinas, the lasting breakthroughs of Husserlian phenomenology are present in easily recognizable form, even if played in a strange new key. He grapples with Heidegger's question of being and his famous tool-analysis, reworking them in ways their author never attempted. Lévinas does this along two separate paths. First and most famously, he senses the lack of any ethical philosophy in Heidegger, and also identifies a new space for such an ethics: the famous alterity or exteriority of the other. In this way Heidegger is challenged from above, with an appeal to the good beyond being. In a second and less prominent sense, Lévinas challenges Heidegger from beneath, with his concepts of enjoyment and the elemental. While Heidegger submits all objects to a relational system of tools serving a series of purposes, Lévinas objects to this form of holism. Entities are not simply dissolved in some global system of purposes, but close off in themselves, with a sort of inviolable integrity apart from all networks or functions. Humans always stand somewhere in particular, bathing in the material reality of wind, water, and stars, not to mention hammers and cigarettes, none of them entirely used up by their assignment to wider purposes. It is often forgotten that this second criticism of Heidegger is the basis for the first: for in Totality and Infinity, it is "separation" that paves the way for exteriority and transcendence.1

In this article, I will claim that there is also a third critique of Heidegger to be found in Lévinas, one more closely related to the second than to the first. As Alphonso Lingis has lucidly observed,2 Lévinas gives us a new definition of individual substance without relapsing into the traditional substance discredited by Heidegger's shifting system of tools. For Lévinas, specific things are not just ontic debris to be dissolved in a mighty ethical Other, but neither are they just formless elements such as water or clouds. Things are substances, closed off in themselves even while permeated by what lies beyond them. If metaphysics for Lévinas is inconceivable without the command of the Other, it is also unthinkable without the integrity and resistance of specific, autonomous entities. Heidegger misses the ethical moment, but perhaps more fatefully, he also misses the unyielding autonomy of specific objects. While Heidegger is quick to dismiss drums, houses, and tea plantations as "ontic," Lévinas glimpses the metaphysical dimension of particular things. My one criticism of the Levinasian approach is that it remains too human-centered, too much in the shadow of Kant's Copernican Revolution. Things may hide behind their contours in substantial plenitude, resisting human effort, but Lévinas also seems to grant them independence only when humans are on the scene to feel resistance.

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