Academic journal article Philosophy Today

On the Trace of Emmanuel Levinas: The Face of the Other at the Risk of the Incommensurable

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

On the Trace of Emmanuel Levinas: The Face of the Other at the Risk of the Incommensurable

Article excerpt

In her remarkable book Emmanuel Lévinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics, Edith Wyschogrod clearly stressed the contribution of Lévinas to philosophy, defining it as a "radical reversal" in the relationships between ethics and metaphysics. She writes, "The thought of Emmanuel Lévinas is no less than an attempt to accomplish a radical reversal of traditional procedures by grounding metaphysics in ethics rather than in constructing an ethic upon pre-established metaphysical foundations." ' Wyschogrod's purpose, as she stated it herself, was mainly to evaluate the feasibility of Levinas's effort to reconstruct metaphysics on ethical foundations. As we know, these ethical foundations can be summed up as altruism, a "radical altruism" as Wyschogrod said so well, that is grounded on the transcendence of the human face.2

Wyschogrod, through impressive and rigorous analyses, successively encounters the problem of the phenomenological method, the break with Husserl, the self, temporality, language, and Judaism in order to reach some enlightening conclusions that do not avoid the problems and objections that could be raised about an ethical foundation of metaphysics. I will come back to some of these important objections later, but before examining these objections, I would like to begin by outlining my own approach to Levinas's philosophy.

We can situate the enterprise of Lévinas in relation to the larger movement that preceded him: namely, the rebellion of the singular and the individual against the claims of the universal. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Bergson all have their place in this movement. Each of these thinkers, in his own way, presents a recrimination against the powers, both philosophical and practical, that are exercised by a despotic universality, a universality that institutionalizes itself in the form of conceptual language, social devices, and the laws of the State.

In a sense, the whole of philosophy, especially since Aristotle, is put on trial by these thinkers. Aristotle wanted to make the universal the only path of science, and he insisted on common measure as the means of social exchange and of law. In the larger scheme, humans would live under the reign of theoretical and practical universale that govern sociality, especially in the form of concepts conveyed by language, and more generally in the form of abstract - and alienating - laws, which reduce all things to anonymity and impersonality, erasing their singularity and leveling their differences into the same neutralizing homogeneity.

For some of these thinkers, Nietzsche for example, it is clearly the specter of equality, the democratic nightmare of a unified and uniform world where everyone is worthy of everyone, which disturbs. Nietzsche opposes to this risk of "the herd morality" the creation by the individual of his own values and the affirmation of the individual perspective beyond all common measure and beyond all transcendent or established values. For others, like Henri Bergson, it is primarily the limitations of science and philosophy when submitted to the straitjacket of language, to the common measure of pre-established concepts, which is targeted. For Bergson, the general notions stored in language through the process of the "socialization of truth" do not permit one to grasp what is incomparable or incommensurable in individual intuition?

It is necessary to free oneself from words, to go beyond the constraints of language, in order to grasp things by an immediate intuition. For Bergson, intuition is "this sympathy by which one carries oneself in the interior of an object in order to coincide with what it has as unique and, by consequence, inexpressible."4 It is this direct intuition, without any point of view or symbols, that enables us to reach the absolute, and it is here, according to Bergson, the path which must be chosen by the philosopher. However, this approach leaves untouched the question of communicating to others the direct intuition as experienced. …

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