Academic journal article Philosophy Today

From Existence to Responsibility

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

From Existence to Responsibility

Article excerpt


Emmanuel Levinas's earliest philosophical efforts are largely influenced by his encounter with Martin Heidegger's phenomenology, even if by 1934 Lévinas becomes one of Heidegger's harshest critics. It is well known that Heidegger criticizes the alleged primacy of epistemology in Edmund Husserl's philosophy and initiates an ontological turn in phenomenology. According to Heidegger, Husserl privileges intentional consciousness - the idea that consciousness is always conscious of something - and in doing so neglects the historical and environmental contexts from which all cognitive relationships emerge. In Heidegger's estimation, Husserl fails to inquire into the mode of existence of the being that has intentionality. Accordingly, Heidegger's phenomenology uncovers the human being's pre-theoretical involvement with the world, and the historical and environmental structures that are "always already" in play in each cognitive relationship with a thing. This "always already" constitutes the "facticity" of human existence, the fact of being thrown into structures of meaning prior to any knowledge-based relationship with the world. This facticity constitutes the very concreteness of existence, a concreteness that is essentially inaccessible to cognition, but which nevertheless conditions it.

Although Levinas travelled to Freiburg to study with Husserl, it was Heidegger's philosophy that shaped his thinking during his stay in Freiburg. As he later puts it in an interview, "I came for Husserl and found Heidegger."1 In a 1932 article titled "Martin Heidegger and Ontology," which was intended to be the introductory chapter of a book on Heidegger that was never completed,2 Lévinas announces that Heidegger's philosophy marks "both a new phase and one of the high points of the phenomenological movement."3 This praise is not to be taken lightly, and despite his well-documented turn against Heidegger, even later in life Lévinas always appreciates his teacher's accomplishments in phenomenology.

One of the central Heideggerian claims that Levinas accepts and never abandons, notwithstanding his persistent need to leave "ontology" behind from 1934 onwards, is that consciousness is not the defining feature of human existence. In the 1935 essay "On Escape," Lévinas writes that the "mark of existence" precedes contemplative thought, and in taking this position he essentially agrees with Heidegger:

Contemplative thought, or theory, is at bottom the behaviour of him who forever carries the mark [stigmata] of existence: theory is essentially subservient to the existent and when it does not start from being, it anticipates it. Knowledge is precisely mat which remains to be done when everything is completed.4

The displacement of theory has significant philosophical implications for Levinas because it opens up the possibility for philosophy to examine themes and issues that are usually not considered to be philosophical. Levinas uses the terms "concrete" and "dramatic" to refer to the kinds of issues that this approach to philosophy opens up. In the 1933 article "The Understanding of Spirituality in French and German Culture," Levinas says that "when Heidegger speaks about spiritual reality, he does not use the word 'consciousness,' but rather 'existence' . . . wanting to emphasize the concrete and dramatic aspects of the spirit."5 On Levinas's reading of Heidegger, human existence is not grounded in rationality, which is one of the cornerstones of the modern account of subjectivity, but in the very way that the individual exists concretely in the world. By virtue of this turn, philosophy is now able to talk about forms of experience usually reserved for empirical psychology: pain, sexual restlessness, the concern with death, etc. Lévinas says that by taking "biological life, sexual restlessness, and the fear of death" as experiences worthy of philosophical attention, German thinkers such as Heidegger "underline the spiritual importance of the elementary data of consciousness which Descartes and Spinoza confined to the less important levels of psychology" (FGC 5). …

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