Nausea and the Experience of the "IL Y A": Sartre and Levinas on Brute Existence

By Brogan, Michael J. | Philosophy Today, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Nausea and the Experience of the "IL Y A": Sartre and Levinas on Brute Existence


Brogan, Michael J., Philosophy Today


Despite playing virtually no interlocutory role in Sartre's published texts, Emmanuel Levinas makes two interesting intrusions into Sartre's intellectual biography, one at the beginning and one at the very end of Sartre's career as a thinker. In the first place, it was Levinas's 1930 dissertation on Husserl that served as Sartre's written introduction to phenomenology and inspired him to travel to Germany to study firsthand the ideas that were to inspire his existentialist theories of consciousness and "human reality."' Five decades later, Levinas surfaces again as an implicit influence behind Sartre's suggestive comments on obligation and the philosophical and political relevance of Judaism in the interviews with Benny Levy published just before Sartre's death in 1980.2 As is well known, however, these final interviews caused something of a scandal among Sartre's closest friends and longtime associates. Perceived as a radical departure from principles central to his existentialism in both its phenomenological and Marxist incarnations, the interviews were dismissed by many (including de Beauvoir) as the unreliable products of a declining mind rendered susceptible to Levy's alleged manipulation by old age and rapidly failing health.3

My intention in the present essay is not to attempt to judge how compatible Sartre's final position might be with the thought of Levinas by entering into the contentious debate over the degree of importance that should be attributed to the 1980 interviews. I merely allude to them, along with the admittedly somewhat coincidental role Levinas played in Sartre's initial foray into phenomenology, as a word of caution against portraying the relationship between the two philosophers as one of nothing but sustained and intractable opposition. Without a doubt, vast divergences with Levinas mark Sartre's existentialism even prior to its turn towards Marxism and away from the Husserlian and Heideggerian inspirations the two thinkers share, as well as after his apparent embrace of certain Levinasian themes in his discussions with Levy. And in fact, many of Levinas's statements about the ethical encounter with the Other, particularly in Totality and Infinity, can be read as fairly direct responses to Sartre's influential description of intersubjectivity in Being and Nothingness.4 Despite the fact that the posthumously published Notebooks for an Ethics make it impossible to maintain that Sartre consistently held interpersonal life to be inescapably conflictual, his notion of the originally allergic relation between Self and Other does indeed stand in marked tension with Levinas's vision of human relations as ultimately rooted in a primordial peace.5

In order to find some common ground between thinkers who can seem sometimes to stand in a relationship of irreducible antagonism, I would thus like to shift the focus of attention away from their fundamentally disparate conceptions of the Other to a less often discussed theme central to some of the earliest texts of both. Specifically, my aim is to explore the remarkable and under-appreciated convergence between Sartre's descriptions of the experience of naked existence or being-in-itself (in one of the senses this equivocal term bears in Sartre's early thought) and the somewhat sketchier analyses of conscious life in its encounter with pure being in Levinas's first original works. His frequent attempts to distance himself from the "philosophy of existence" notwithstanding,6 I will argue that these texts of Levinas are characterized by a markedly existentialist tenor, or more precisely, by an affinity with Sartre's classic analyses of "nausea" in the 1938 novel of that name. Although Sartre after Nausea and Levinas after Time and the Other have relatively little to say about the notion of pure existence, a notion which is, I will argue, philosophically problematic, my contention is that their early analyses of the disgust or horror before naked being remain implicitly in effect in much of their later work, and that the different "solutions" they envision to the problem posed by the confrontation with being can help to explain the divergent paths their mature philosophies end up taking. …

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