Religious Experience in Levinas and R. Hayyim of Volozhin

By Kavka, Martin | Philosophy Today, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Religious Experience in Levinas and R. Hayyim of Volozhin


Kavka, Martin, Philosophy Today


One might reflexively think that if there were any claim that could safely be made about Levinas without getting critiqued by other scholars, it would be the claim that Levinas cannot tolerate the idea of religious experience, understood as a direct experience of God given to consciousness in a present moment. The readiest places to find support for such a claim are perhaps the brief sections on Descartes in "God and Philosophy" and Totality and Infinity. Here, Levinas reads the third of Descartes' Meditations, in which Descartes claims that God is the condition of the possibility of experience, to conclude that God is unthinkable. Because the awareness of God is always anterior to any and all acts of consciousness, the "idea of God surpasses every capacity ... [and] shatters [fait éclater] the thinking that only encloses in a presence."1 On this reading, God falls outside the rules of a customary account of experience such as Kant's.2 If experience is empirical knowledge, and if empirical knowledge only occurs through consciousness' synthesis of perceptions, as Kant argues in the Critique of Pure Reason,3 then an experience of God would be impossible. How could an act of consciousness, dependent on the categories of the understanding, represent that which transcends those categories, because (as Descartes has shown) it is prior to them and therefore in some way greater than them? For this reason, Levinas describes the idea of God in "God and Philosophy" as "the very absolution of the absolute," and denies that the idea of the infinite could be an object for consciousness in Totality and Infinity.4 There are no grounds for thinking that Levinas is here critiquing Kant's notion of experience in favor of another, more Jamesian, account of experience. Levinas does not authorize us to exchange a definition of experience as empirical knowledge with a definition of experience that grounds it in a "vague sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call 'something there.'"5 First of all, this is not what Descartes implies at the end of the Third Meditation ("the intuition of infinity ... will not become any sort of invasion of God across an inward emotion").6 But more primordially (and more persuasively), all experience claims are necessarily Kantian for Levinas. Any other account of experience is self-refuting: "a religious thought that appeals to religious experiences allegedly independent of philosophy insofar as it is founded upon experience, already refers to the ? think' and is entirely connected to philosophy."7 As soon as I claim to have an experience, it is my experience and therefore is subject to the categories of the understanding. That which is made impossible by the Kantian categories absolves itself from any and all possible direct relation with human consciousness, and therefore from all possible experience. The infinite is absolutely other than the finite, and nothing can bridge this gap; the infinite cannot be aimed at, and the infinite cannot engage in a dialogue with consciousness as some accounts of revelation hypothesize.8 For this reason, despite any surface similarity between Levinas's hyperbolic style and that of medieval Christian mystics, one must remain with what Bettina Bergo has described as "Levinas's criticisms of the ontological and totalizing preoccupations of the mystics' writing."9

And yet. There are at least three good reasons not to subscribe to this narrative. The first reason lies in the final paragraph of Descartes' third Meditation, which Levinas cites in Totality and Infinity. Levinas describes this as a shift away from epistemological language to one of "personal relation" or "majesty," since Descartes' contemplation of God ends in the language of a sensation of admiration and adoration. Nevertheless, in the Latin text, Descartes writes of contemplation as not only allowing him to admire and adore [admirari, adorare] the "beauty of God's immense light," but also as allowing him to intuit it [intueri]. …

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