Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Illeity According to Levinas

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Illeity According to Levinas

Article excerpt

Because autonomy has died, everybody knows that thought does not emerge, as a creation out of nothing, from the most common and therefore utterly uninteresting data through formal devices, but rather is a practice learnt from individual teachers and texts that belong to a specific culture and appeal to various traditions. Instead of a pure beginning, a new philosophy is a surprising transformation of one or more traditions with genealogies, styles, strategies, and standards of their own. Finally philosophy has recognized that its combination of originality and non-originality is similar to that of art, literature, morality, religion, and culture in general. If the word "autonomy" still can be used to characterize philosophy, it no longer indicates radical independence from all opinions, beliefs, epistemic and moral customs-not even from faith. The manner in which a philosophizing individual or community is oriented in thinking testifies to its being rooted in a characteristic stance and dynamism: a faith.'

When philosophy becomes serious, it attempts to make itself free by discovering and appropriating the many social, historical, ideological and material conditions and presuppositions that codetermine its character. If it becomes very serious, it also tries to understand the roots from which it rises up: its basic trust and thrust; its faith. First philosophy is thus always "a faith in search for understanding of itself."2

The end of modernity has liberated philosophy from its incompatibility with faith. A specific philosophy can still be opposed to, for example, Christian, Jewish, atheist, Buddhist, or agnostic faiths, but it is impossible to be engaged in serious philosophy while rejecting all kinds of faith.3 Membership in the Church of Enlightenment does not make philosophy faith-free, but through conversion, a faith can change into another one.

However, we cannot discuss the password "autonomy" without insisting that philosophy implies reasoned answers to the question of what and how things are and why they are such as they are. Quick dismissals of argumentation, "foundationalism," and "metaphysics" can be ignored, especially when they are accompanied by caricatures that prove ignorance concerning the classics of past and present metaphysics. The partial overcoming of modernity characteristic of our epoch is threatened by a loss of memory and a passion for the new (which passion is still very modern).

As for Levinas, he has a memory and he respects the relative autonomy of twentieth century philosophy. In presenting his philosophy as "metaphysical"4 and even as a renewal of Platonism,5 he indicates an audacious enterprise: How is it possible to translate an older, Jewish wisdom into the Platonizing Greek of a post-phenomenological thought?

Levinas on God

Some admirers of Levinas regret that, after Totality and the Infinite, he wrote extensively about God. Hadn't he identified the infinite with the disruptive otherness of autrui?6 Why was it necessary to thereafter develop a discourse about "le Tres-Haut"?7 Did not he thus reintroduce the highest being (ens summum) that Heidegger had unmasked as a metaphysical entity (while himself reintroducing the Greco-Holderlinian gods)? Moreover-quelle horreur!-Levinas combined his plea for a philosophical consideration of God with an appeal to Plato, and, instead of speaking of Jahweh, he called God "le Bien," French for Plato's Agathon. At least he could have marked his distance with regard to "Greece" by distinguishing the God of faith from the "God of the philosophers," as Yehouda Halevi, Pascal, and Kierkegaard had done. However, instead of following this trend, Levinas declares that his God can be spoken of (enonce) in "a reasonable discourse" (un discours raisonnable) that is neither ontology nor "faith" (foi) (which he takes to be synonymous with belief or religious opinion).7

Within the context of modern rationalism, "a reasonable discourse on God" seems to indicate a proof for the existence of God or a determination of the predicates that must be attributed to the highest being. …

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