Academic journal article Philosophy Today

"Sensibility" and "Otherness" in Emmanuel Levinas

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

"Sensibility" and "Otherness" in Emmanuel Levinas

Article excerpt

I turned to Levinas when I began to write Para una etica de la liberacion latinoamericana (Towards an Ethic of Latin American Liberation) and it was Levinas who gave me the opportunity to go beyond the Heidegger of Being and Time. Without abandoning the approach to liberation that I took in writing that text, I shall continue my argument from the "pulsional" perspective.' As the phenomenological critic that he was, Levinas' first approach to understanding otherness was to place himself systematically outside the straightforward gnoseological order.2 Unlike the study of the subject prior to him, his life was the reference situation for his own thinking of the other. A Lithuanian Jew, whose mother tongues were Russian and Hebrew and who acquired French as a student in Strasbourg and German in Freiburg, he lived the "experience" of five traumatic years in the Nazi French prisoner of war camp at Stammlanger. He was a victim of the Jewish holocaust in the heart of Modernity. He was a survivor who began his mature work as follows: "To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations. . . victims of the same hatred of the other man, of the same anti-Semitism."3

As a South American, I asked myself: When Levinas spoke of victims of the same anti-Semitism, what did he imply about all those others who are not Semitic? In 1972, in Louvain, I got a group of students together to talk with Levinas. I asked: "What about the fifteen million Indians slaughtered during the conquest of Latin America, and the thirteen million Africans who were made slaves, aren't they the other you're speaking about?" Levinas stared at me and said: "That's something for you to think about." And so I continued to develop the Liberation Philosophy on which I had already begun to work.

At the end of the meeting at which I asked Levinas my pressing question, he said to us: "I see all of you as though you were hostages." I didn't grasp what he meant. Shortly after that, while I was reading Otherwise than Being, I understood. As a group of young teachers and students, obsessed by our Latin American victims, Levinas saw us as hostages in Europe; that is, Europe took us as hostages for our distant and oppressed peoples. I didn't know if he was insulting us by making this observation, but as I read Otherwise than Being, it dawned on me that it had been a vast, undeserved, and encouraging appraisal of us.

It seems to me that Levinas the prisoner in the Stammlanger camp is a clear reference situation that must be kept in mind when reflecting on his idea of otherness. In prison, as a "hostage" for his persecuted people, he was aware of himself as guilty, because he had survived. Obsessed about his brothers, the victims, through his ethical-critical philosophy he bore witness to the evil of Being through which the other is closed out. In the experience of being a hostage, a substitution takes place. The hostage is an innocent, just person who "witnesses" the victim (the other). The victim suffers a traumatic action. The hostage suffers "for" the other. The theme of one who suffers persecution for the other (the multitude rabim) is treated dramatically in the four-poems of the "Servant of Yahweh" in Isaiah 42:1-53. The servant finds him/herself before a court as a ransom victim for the sake of the multitude. Among the people that are to be ransomed, there were two poles: my people who are pardoned and are an object of pity and the multitude, the undetermined, that which could be the object of the pardon. "My people" is the portion of the saved multitude; the multitude is the symbol of all humanity-present or future who could be my people.4 We shall see this diachrony in due course going from the "multitude" (a mere contradictory social block) to the "people" (historical subject). The ethical question Levinas analyzed is structured around several Hebrew words for the ideas of redemption, redeem, and ransom. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.