Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Facing Nature: Levinas beyond the Human

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Facing Nature: Levinas beyond the Human

Article excerpt

For all his radicality and originality, Emmanuel Levinas nonetheless has a general conception of the ethical that is arguably quite Kantian in at least one of its aspects. Ethics is not, one could say with both Kant and Levinas, concerned with maximizing the return to oneself in the economy of the same; it does not entail any sort of calculative reasoning about the relative goods or harms that one can receive from an action. What happens in ethics is something new, something unprecedented in the life of a being concerned for its own well-being. Ethics is something radically un-economical.

In order to articulate this break with economy, Levinas attempts to distance the human being from a sphere in which all is reducible to causes and effects, profits and losses. And to do this he distinguishes between two "orders of things." Section 11 of Totality and Infinit, describes how the subject establishes itself in the world, its attempts at delaying the uncertainties of the future through the activities of acquiring possessions and sheltering itself from the forces of nature. These reflections are aimed at showing us a level of human existence in which the leading motive for action is self-concern, the care that one takes of oneself, the conatus essendi. For Levinas this is the animal order, the realm in which there appear beings who are concerned with their being, beings for whom the fundamental question surrounds their persistence in being, literally their livelihood.

Levinas equates this order with the thought of both Heidegger and Darwin, saying that "a being is something that is attached to being, to its own being. That is Darwin's idea. The being of animals is a struggle for life. A struggle for life without ethics. It is a question of might."1 The thought that this is a realm "without ethics" indicates that we are dealing with an autonomous and not a heteronomous order because for Levinas relationality is here seen to be a relation to oneself, a return to oneself in the care that one takes for oneself, which shows that here there is to be found nothing truly heteros, nothing other. Animal existence is essentially appropriative, a re-appropriation and recuperation of oneself, and this is a thought which colors Levinas' analyses of everything from eating to sexuality.

Although Levinas is convinced that Western philosophy has been, with the notable exceptions of Plato and Descartes, an elaborate account of this egoist ontology, he is equally sure that there is something more to be said. He contrasts the animal order with that of the human, telling us that "in relation to the animal, the human is a new phenomenon" (PM 172). This is due to the fact that in the human order there is a break with being, a detachment or distancing from being not found in the animal. It is, Levinas insists, that "with the appearance of the human-and this is my entire philosophy--there is something more important than my life, and that is the life of the other" (PM 172). The human order is the ethical order, the order in which being is no longer a being-for-itself but is instead a being-for-others, a being-concerned-for-the-other. Diverging sharply from Kant, for Levinas ethics is not a life of autonomous reason presenting itself as a law to itself, but the advent of the other, the appearance on the scene of something which assumes priority over myself, something heteros proclaiming the nomos.

But the question as to the nature of this novel event of ethics, the "source" of the break with being, as it were, is a difficult one. Those familiar with the work of Levinas are no doubt inclined to respond by saying that it is the face of the other that establishes this order, a dis-ordering of myself and a re-orientation towards the other. And this is undoubtedly true. But what are we who are concerned not only with human others but also with the alterity of other-than-human others to make of this? What is Levinas saying to us? …

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.