Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Phenomenology, Dialectic, and Time in Levinas's Time and the Other

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Phenomenology, Dialectic, and Time in Levinas's Time and the Other

Article excerpt

In his introduction to the 1979 re-publication of his 1948 lecture series Time and the Other, Emmanuel Levinas expressed some misgivings about the shortcomings of that text. It was written, he claimed, in haste; its style ("or non-style") was "maladroit" and "abrupt"; the theses were baldly stated ("improvised") without their justifications being worked out or their conclusions fully or systematically developed. Nevertheless, he said, he still adhered to "the main project, of which it is . . . the birth and first formulation": the project to determine, "beyond satisfaction and dissatisfaction, the surplus of sociality" (TO 8 (30)).1

Relatively little attention has been paid in the Levinas literature to this text and to the related analyses of"the instant" and "hypostasis" in an earlier book, Existence and Existents. While it is true that these treatments of the figures of temporality lack the depth and sophistication of his later ones of "diachrony" and the "immemorial," they still merit close attention.

In the first place, they are among Levinas's earliest original efforts in philosophy, after his translation, with Gabrielle Peiffer, of Husserl's Cartesian Meditations and his 1932 dissertation on what he called Husserl's "theory of intuition." As such, they show the strong influence upon his thought of Husserl's phenomenology after the latter's so-called "transcendental turn," especially in the emphasis on time as the form of all egological genesis, whether active or passive. Crucial influences upon his thinking also included Bergson (whose Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness Levinas considered among the five greatest works in the history of Western philosophy); Vladimir Jankelevitch's analyses of time, boredom, and other psychological phenomena; the existentialisms of Sartre and especially of Merleau-Ponty; and, of course, the extended treatment of ecstatic temporality given by Heidegger in Being and Time.

Secondly, a significant methodological difference is apparent between Time and the Other and Totality and Infinity. As will be shown below, the earlier text makes use of a "dialectical" method of exposition or development along with its self-professed "phenomenological" one. By the time of the latter text, this "dialectical" element has been dropped, and the phenomenological character of the exposition brought to the fore. Why does Levinas adopt this methodology for Time and the Other, and abandon it so completely in Totality and Infinity?

Finally, Time and the Other highlights a significant difference in the treatment of the temporality of exteriority and alterity between the "early" Levinas (up to and including Totality and Infinity) and the "later" Levinas (from the publication of Totality and Infinity to the present). To put it briefly, the temporal emphasis in the early writings is upon the future; that of the later upon the past. The language of the later works of Levinas is the language, not of"future never future enough" but of "past never past enough"; of "trace," "illeity," and "glory," not of "messianic peace." This shift marks an abandonment of a line of thinking begun in Existence and Existents and Time and the Other and continued in Totality and Infinity, perhaps insistently. The open question of messianic eschatology is replaced with the exploration of the enigma of the deep past. It is not to a future given in the "extreme vigilance of a messianic consciousness," but to a diachronic past and the trace out of which the face of the other person arises that thought, and service, turns. It will be argued in this essay that the temporal emphasis on futurity in Totality and Infinity is a consequence of Levinas's commitment to, and extension of, his treatments of time in Time and the Other, which text predates Levinas's full appropriation of Franz Rosenzweig's thought. A larger task, one beyond the scope of this essay, would be to trace the connection between the gradual abandonment of absolute futurity and its associated themes of separation, distance, and height in Totality and Infinity and the adoption of the passe immemorial, proximity, the trace, illeity, and glory in the later works. …

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