Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Levinas and Nietzsche: In between Love and Contempt

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Levinas and Nietzsche: In between Love and Contempt

Article excerpt

A work conceived in its ultimate nature requires a radical generosity of the same who goes toward the Other.(1)

This remark by Emmanuel Levinas refers us to a movement whose underlying structure he holds to be common to both the relationship between philosophical thought in general and its Other (l'Autrui) and to the relationship to the other (l'autre) at the level of personal ethical life. In the course of his philosophical work, Totality and Infinity (TI), Levinas elaborates an account of a moment marking both the inseparability and absolute difference between the philosophical and the ethical. When he talks about this relation to otherness in terms of the face to face-a relation between a self effacing "I" and the absolutely Other--it is held, on the one hand, to be without metaphor; an encounter with another which "is by itself and not by reference to a system" (TI 75; Tel 47). The ethical is thus held to be outside of metaphysics. On the other hand, to the extent to which we may think the Same (le meme) in terms of the author of a philosophical text or utterance, and the others to whom it is addressed as individual addressees, then the meaning of the "without metaphor" clearly points in another direction: elsewhere Levinas explicitly asks, with a pathos which often arouses profound suspicion, if "in this way the Other Person is not a value?"(2)

There are many obvious reasons to suppose that Nietzsche, as genealogist of morality, would see such pathos as an extreme expression of Judaeo-Christian self hatred inverted into the highest good. Self effacement, understood in terms of a willful subjective denial of self, can easily be represented as an ultimate form of altruism. Even the most superficial readings of Nietzsche and Levinas, side by side, would discern a clash of ethos in the figurative bearing of their respective discourses.(3) However, one must immediately take note that the logic of comparison employed in any such assessment is clearly and inextricably linked to precisely the ethos of judgmental reasoning whose genealogy Nietzsche is at pains to expose in The Genealogy of Morals (GM). Furthermore, Levinas' account of ethical metaphysics begins with a detailed separation of the ontology of the "existent" from its ethical encounter with the Other. In other words, any attempt to juxtapose Nietzschean and Levinasian accounts of ethical subjectivity within the framework of antithesis requires an almost determined ignoring of their most manifest philosophical gambits.

This essay examines an aspect of the "generous" philosophical bequest of both Nietzsche and Levinas on the problem of value and aims to demonstrate how, for both of them, a major concern with regard to this problem is the extent to which it is seen as the prerogative of philosophy: something which can only be exercised in philosophy's repeated attempt to go beyond itself. It examines each of their implicit attempts to out-distance the recuperative forces of metaphysical discourse, which can be seen to be at work at certain moments in the texts considered. Throughout I shall refer to the motifs of love and contempt in Nietzsche's GM and to the limitations of love as Eros in Levinas' TI. In doing so, I aim to identify the movement of metaphysical recuperation which figures in these two experiments in meta-metaphysical thinking. My aim is not to pursue a comparative evaluation of theoretical, structural, and thematic differences, vis-a-vis love, contempt, and violation of the Other. What I find useful in addressing these themes here is that they direct us toward the problem of value conceived within the domain of the question concerning the relation between the necessity of the philosophical enterprise as theory, in general, and that which withdraws beyond the boundaries of such discourse, forever exceeding its grasp. Juxtaposing several texts of Nietzsche and Levinas , I shall argue that it is possible to discern the dynamics of this recuperation, but also those of resistance to what Nietzsche once called the "deadening of life forces"(4) and to what Levinas regards as a certain "ethical deafness," which makes violence toward the Other possible. …

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