Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ontological Disclosure and Ethical Exposure: Heidegger and Levinas on Meaning, Subjectivity, and Non-Indifference

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ontological Disclosure and Ethical Exposure: Heidegger and Levinas on Meaning, Subjectivity, and Non-Indifference

Article excerpt

For both Martin Heidegger and Emmanuel Levinas, meaning involves a certain non-indifference. For Heidegger, the non-indifference of "mineness" (Jemeinigkeit) defines Dasein as non-indifferent to the possibilities of its own existence. Such "mineness" is a central feature of Heidegger's account of meaning. Levinas also makes use of a certain non-indifference in his notion of meaning, namely, the non-indifference at work in the "saying" (le dire) and the face-to-face relation. This non-indifference concerns what he calls the "pre-ontological weight of language" (OTB 43). Unfortunately, the relation between Heidegger's and Levinas's accounts of meaning is obscured by the overly reductive manner in which Levinas so often characterizes Heidegger's approach.

In this essay, I will forge a connection between their respective insights, in a rapprochement that goes against what Levinas often says about Heidegger but resonates with Levinas's own attempt at an "ethical reduction." Such a reduction tries to show how there is an ethical exposure--and not simply an ontological disclosure--at the center of the meaningful. I will specify how we can preserve Heidegger's relevant insights on meaning and subjectivity in a way that resonates with Levinas's notion of an ethical reduction. More specifically, I will show how Heidegger's account of meaning (Sinn) and "mineness" (Jemeinigkeit) can be reclaimed in relation to Levinas's account of the saying and subjectivity. I will argue that Levinas's attempt to rethink meaning in an "ethical reduction" needs to incorporate something like Heidegger's notion of Sinn and Jemeinigkeit. While both Heidegger and Levinas want to avoid subjectivism and to displace a certain notion of the self, they also want retrieve a notion of subjectivity. In this regard, Heidegger goes a long way toward articulating how the singularity of Dasein is a non self-enclosed "being-with" others in its very existence. However, even though Levinas's criticism of Heidegger misses certain crucial insights concerning subjectivity re-thought, I will argue that the central force of Levinas's critique still stands to an important degree even after qualifying such inadequate characterizations

Meaning, Comprehension, and Manifestation

Levinas locates meaning primarily in the face-to-face relation, which he calls the "ultimate situation" (TI 81). For him, meaning becomes primarily the "expression" that comes about in the face-to-face relation, rather than "contents" of consciousness. This relation involves what we might call an open exposure to the otherness of an Other. Indeed, he even says that "meaning is the face of the Other" (TI 206). It is of course not simply a face that we "see." Although it certainly involves a real human face--"this chaste bit of skin with brow, nose, eyes, and mouth"(CP 41)-there is more to it than simply the visible face. This notion of the "face" is part of his attempt to describe a non-thematizable experience. As he says, "The face is present in its refusal to be contained .... It is neither seen nor touched" (TI 194). It is a non-conceptual, non-graspable "call" or summons from the face of the other that comes in the form of an ethical resistance and not the resistance of an overpowering force or violence. As Levinas states, "The opposition of the face, which is not the opposition of a force, is not a hostility" (CP 19). Neither is this resistance an event that instills fear, like an approaching train that surprises us, a loud noise that startles us, or an overwhelming physical force. Levinas says, "The resistance to the grasp is not produced as an insurmountable resistance, like the hardness of the rock against which the effort of the hand comes to naught, like the remoteness of the star in the immensity of space. The expression the face introduces into the world does not defy the feebleness of my powers, but my ability for power" (198).1 Thus, for Levinas, meaning involves a certain non-comprehension. …

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