Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Levinas and the Holocaust: The Responsibility of the Victim

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Levinas and the Holocaust: The Responsibility of the Victim

Article excerpt

Failure of the discourse on Being without a doubt presents the most stimulating challenge of contemporary thought. The work of Emmanuel Levinas, derived from the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, while it denies all aspects of existentialism, contributes to the realization of this task. The originality of his project runs through a displacement of Being as the reference point of conscience. On that basis, Levinas disrupts philosophical reflection and tries to give it a vocation that is no longer that of revealing the world.

The decentering movement relies on the priority ceded to the question of the Other over that of Being. This displacement aims to evade the traps of all ontological reduction, and draw attention to the transcendence to which no thought can render justice. Levinas writes, "One must understand Being though the Other of Being." He adds: "The alterity of the Infinite is not abolished by the thought that thinks it." His statement calls for the reinvention of a philosophy susceptible to realize a sobering up of knowledge. For him, human beings do not need to feel responsible for the world, but for the Other. This reasoning consecrates the end of anthropomorphism, and the appeal to a solidarity in which each must make himself hospitable to the face of his fellow man. Herein are the stakes of metaphysics without ontology.

The problem examined in my analysis of Levinas' thinking concerns the apparent excess of responsibility towards the Other, and the possibility of inscribing it in the realm of an effective justice. If Being evades all determination, and the subject of its own identity, how can one be held responsible in the face of an event? Does not the incrimination of someone after a misdeed imply that the fact as such be established beforehand, and then, as a result, that strong identities between the victim and the guilty be distributed? In short, the central question for Levinas is the following: can metaphysics be founded without recourse to ontology? Through this questioning, a reinterpretation of rationality is played out with the presumptions it generates in the construction of knowledge. Reason tests its limits, for Levinas, when measured by the standard of metaphysics. In his thinking, Western philosophy is pagan, because it is founded on a principle of reflexivity, identity, and ontology, obstructing the challenge to accept unlimited responsibility for the Other. The Holocaust, a perfect example of paganism, shows that the triumph of ontology destroys all finalities. It reveals, for Levinas, the failings of human justice. Yet that event is not crucial to Jews alone, for it points out the pitfalls of all thought fo led upon itself, and, as a consequence, the necessity to reintroduce the infinite into all human reflection.

While Levinas only made sporadic reference to the Holocaust in his work, his entire philosophy is admittedly impregnated with the lessons it teaches. However, my argument consists in demonstrating that he is not able to reconstruct metaphysics without ontology, justice without identity, responsibility without subjectivity. Instead of actually decentering all points of view, Levinas seems rather to displace the final legitimacy of history from the persecutor to the persecuted, by giving the victim the final right to ontology. Three propositions can serve here to establish the framework for this reflection: a) reflexivity, as a form of identity, resurfaces in Levinas through the status of the victim in the Holocaust; b) his notion of responsibility is defined by the will to adopt the point of view of the victim and opens onto, in accordance with Judeo-Christian tradition, an ontology of suffering as a way to salvation; c) that conception of identity and responsibility ends up justifying the moral superiority of the Jew, victim par excellence, and of his universal model of justice. The paradox we wish to expose is that the weakness of the victim curiously becomes the instrument of a will of power in which the Jew takes on the form of the "last man" in history. …

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