Existentialism and the Return to Religion

By Nuyen, A. T. | Philosophy Today, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview
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Existentialism and the Return to Religion


Nuyen, A. T., Philosophy Today


There are some good reasons to think that future historians will characterize the twentieth century as the century of secularism. As the century began, Nietzsche's declaration that God is dead, made some years earlier, was still reverberating. Three years into the century, Bertrand Russell's famous essay, "A Free Man's Worship," was published.1 The essay is widely interpreted as a powerful renunciation of religion in favor of an ethical humanism. Then came existentialism. Despite its religious beginnings in Kierkegaard and Buber, existentialism established itself in the twentieth century as a thoroughly secular philosophy. As David Cooper puts it, existentialism "as defined by Sartre, made the notion of a religious existentialist a virtual self contradiction.."2 While existentialism is no longer an influential philosophy, its secular messages have been well absorbed. However, it remains to be seen whether the secular trend will continue into the new millennium. According to some observers, it is too hasty to assume that it will. Indeed, Gianni Vattimo claims that the end of the twentieth century has witnessed a "return to religion."3 Given the standard view of existentialism, it may be taken for granted that if there is a return to religion then it cannot be via existentialism. The trouble is that philosophy has the habit of demonstrating that what is taken for granted turns out to be otherwise. At least, I wish to demonstrate that this is so in the case of existentialism. Specifically, the aim of this essay is to show that the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas is essentially an existentialist philosophy and if so, then, far from being a dead end, existentialism could well be the main route for a return to religion. Levinas' account of subjectivity is discussed in Section I. In Section II, I defend the claim that Levinas' philosophy of subjectivity is essentially existentialist. In Section III, the religiousness of that philosophy is explored.

I

In his various writings, Levinas employs the term l'Autrui, often translated as "the Other," to refer to one's fellow human beings, the indefinite neighbors, strangers, widows and orphans, and the term 1 'Autre, often translated as "the other," to refer to what lies beyond the totality that is one's own being, beyond what constitutes one's essence, a realm to which the Other belongs. The world that one knows is called "the said," le dit, because all the things in that world are known through what is said about them, through our own thematization or conceptualization of them. The realm of the other is called "the saying," le dire, because we are aware of it only through what it says to us rather than through our thematization. As a totality, I belong to the world of the said, having an essence that can be thematized, a being that can be conceptualized; for instance, thematized and conceptualized in science or in traditional philosophy. However, this I is utterly devoid of any subjectivity. In response to this, in Totality and Infinity, Levinas embarks on a phenomenological journey, tracing the subjectivity of the I.4

As is the case with any classical phenomenology, Levinas begins with the mundane experiences of the I, showing that the I acquires its unique identity, or its "unicity," by separating or isolating itself from what is not itself in the activity of enjoyment. It is in enjoyment that one is aware of one's own happiness and unhappiness, thus aware of one's own ipseity. For Levinas, "enjoyment . . . is isolation" (TI, 117) and isolation is the structure of the unicity of the I. The phenomenology of enjoyment allows Levinas to conclude that the "self sufficiency of enjoying measures the egoism or the ipseity of the Ego and the same. Enjoyment is a withdrawal into oneself, an involution" (TI, 118). In enjoyment, I see all things in terms of my own being because in it "I am absolutely for myself" (TI, 134). Yet, in the very process of enjoying, I come to be aware that I am much more than my own enjoyment.

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