Comments on Bettina Bergo's paper, "What Is Levinas Doing"

This is a response to a symposium paper presented at the APA Western Division meeting in Seattle, WA, March 2002. Paper title: “What is Levinas Doing? The Challenge of Ethical ‘Subjectivity’ to Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis.” Author: Bettina Bergo.

The question “What is Levinas Doing” is a very appropriate one, given the way he works and writes, and I think Prof. Bergo’s paper does a very useful service in pointing out similarities, differences and relations between certain aspects of Levinas’ thought, on the one hand, and aspects of work by Merleau-Ponty, Freud and Lacan on the other. They all share a common problem, along with many others of the same period, such as Bergson and Heidegger: the problem of how to go “beyond” what we might call explicit conceptualization under thematization to grasp a reality of some sort that cannot be grasped by ‘mere’ conceptualization. It is a very old problem in philosophy and has taken many forms, such as the contrast between ratio and intellectus in the medieval period and between understanding and reason in Kant and his successors.

I must say that I am not quite clear on how Professor Bergo answers the question about what Levinas is doing. “Levinas’s enterprise,” we are told (p. 5), “takes this claim <of extracting us from the hubris of rationalism> one step further. He is looking for the roots of human ethical intersubjectivity in affective actuality, i.e., prior to the translation of affects into propositions. in no way foreign to Freud’s...psychoanalysis. The extension of a search for intelligibility into domains of human existence--sensation-perception and passions--is the core of the analytic gambit, it means attempting to bring language and conceptuality to what gets frozen by predication and to what does not obey the laws of sufficient reason and non-contradiction.” (p. 5) This search leads Levinas to “a split subject or ego, whose being relies not on a world, but on the force of another ego.” (p.6) The “force” in question is pre-conceptual: does not, therefore, depend upon any classification and thematization of oneself or of the other.

But I am not sure that the unconscious, or what Freud, Lacan and others take it to be, helps us to understand this “force.” Or, perhaps what is bothering me is that I don’t see exactly how it does so. The mere fact that it is (in some sense) not “rational” seems to me to fall short of showing that it is what Levinas is getting at, though perhaps it does liberate us from an all encompassing rationalism.

In my own view of what Levinas is doing, he is trying to draw attention to the concretization of the individual human being (me) by a claim from individual ‘others’ that is always ‘already there’ when I am or do anything, including thinking and talking. Thus, whenever I come to myself as an identifiable human being, it is always to one who is already responsible for others in the concrete situation where I am alive. I do not first classify or understand them as such and such and then have an obligation for their existence and well-being. They impinge upon me through their face, which I can neither silence (put away) nor comprehend.

Now it remains unclear to me (for whatever that may be worth) how associating this “force” with the unconscious, variously interpreted--or locating it within the unconscious--helps draw it before us in some helpful and non-distorting way. Surely the unconscious could be conceptualizing and thematizing without being rational, and we might (contrary to what many say) be conscious of what has not been brought under concepts. Further, it seems to me that Levinas wants to say that we are very much aware of this relation or presence by which we are defined in our most basic essence by others, even though it is preconceptual. His only problem is explicating (if that is even possible) how we are aware of it, and talking about it in doing philosophy without freezing it or somehow otherwise losing it.

Discussing Buber he expresses his own view that: “In it <the “Thou”> there resounds a call, an event that does without mediation, even that of a precursory knowledge or ontological project. It is all the irruption, without ceremony or preface, of informal address which is also the risk of disinterest, all the grace, all the gratuitousness--but also all the ethics of sociability--of covenant, of association with the unknown that is, I think, pure allegiance and responsibility. Does not the immediacy of the I-Thou of which Buber speaks the very urgency of my responsibility that precedes all knowledge?” (p. 34 of Outside the Subject)

Of course by “knowledge” here he refers to consciousness of objects that has been “worked up” into concepts, propositions and theories, and therefore in some sense making up an object that is “mine” and not radically other than me.

Levinas certainly represents a very different philosophical and cultural tendency than the Heidegger-Foucault/Derrida line of 20th Century European Philosophers. This latter, which Levinas somewhat humorously describes as “...‘merciless critical inquiry’ <is>.... A critique born of a reflection on all the conditions and all the ‘mediations’ of supposedly immediate experience: political, social, epistemological, psychoanalytic, linguistic, poetic.... It is a critique one can be tempted to reproach for not applying its critique to its own possibility.” (p. 31 of Outside the Subject)

The “merciless critical inquiry” was not something new in French or European thought. Chapter One of Paul Hazard’s European Thought in the Eighteenth Century is entitled “The Ubiquitous Critic” and describes a period when “The modus operandi was to exalt the trivial, and ridicule the noble.... Institutions, bereft of the prestige which tradition had conferred upon them, robbed of the protection which had shielded them so long, were now revealed in all their naked decrepitude.” (pp. 4-5) Of course the 20th Century version of “merciless critical inquiry” was supposed to be somehow much more profound or insightful, from a theoretic point of view, than the earlier versions.

Levinas is of course thoroughly acquainted with the views of the “merciless” thinkers and is not unappreciative of what moves them: “a crisis that befalls us on the royal road of philosophy which identifies meaning and intelligibility with the intellectual act of knowing.” (OTS 31-32) In fact we can say that he agrees with almost everything they say about the conceptualized world, the world of knowledge in the scientific or quasi-scientific sense. It is a CONSTITUTED world. It is a world ‘made’ by the human project, and therefore the ‘same’ and not the ‘other’, as those terms come to be used. He pretty surely accepts the common misreading of Husserl which treats the ideal as the noematic and the noematic as the world so far as it is intellectually comprehensible. (OTS p. 40 and xvi-xviii)

But then Levinas is also greatly dependent upon Bergson and upon Buber. Like Bergson, he believes that we have a capacity, such as Bergson’s “intuition,” to enter into relation, to access, a real (he does not like to say a being) that is not constituted by us (or by me) and owes nothing of itself to us who ‘meet’ it. It is therefore ‘other’. That is realism. The ‘other’ is a version of the Kantian ding-an-sich. It is something non-conceptually given that is not a meaning-for-me. And then like Buber, he takes the human encounter of the I-Thou to be the locus of this ‘meeting’. But he tries to deepen the meeting beyond Buber’s account of the I-Thou in various ways, removing it from the domain of those dirty little ‘beings’ which are creatures of constitution, purifying it of ‘reciprocity’, reinterpreting the role of language in the meeting, and providing some exquisite phenomenological descriptions of the FACE in the context of meeting. The non-cognitive ‘meeting’ with the ‘other’ and the ‘appeal’ it lays on me of total and unconditional responsibility for my neighbor is the foundation for the interpretation of all remaining human life and reality, including intellectual matters. Thus, ethics is transformed by Levinas into “first philosophy.” (OTS 43) It is a theory of being.

Now it has to be admitted that founding ethics upon “knowledge” as it has come to be understood in the contemporary (Western) world has by now been revealed as a totally hopeless task. Read any of the leading thinkers in ethical theory you like, it will quickly emerge that we cannot have any knowledge of moral reality at the level of concreteness--the day by day and hour by hour contacts with those around us. If faced with a hungry person (one of Levinas’s favorite cases) we are apt to get lost in a discussion of the “justice” of the situation, or respond merely impulsively, which we then feel embarrassed or silly about.

A major part of “what Levinas is doing” is avoiding the utter impasse faced by ethical “theory” in Western thought. Bernard Williams comments that “moral philosophy...typically lacks an account of why the project of articulating moral theories makes any sense at all,” for such theories do nothing to enlighten the path of actual life. In ethical theory over the last century, the closest thing one finds to Levinas’s view is the act-intuitionism of H. A. Prichard. But intuitionism in ethics has, notoriously, failed for lack of a convincing ontology and epistemology. Levinas’s view, however, does look very like a form of intuitionistic non-naturalism in ethical theory, in spite of what would surely be his protestations to the contrary.

Levinas in fact draws heavily on the traditions of European philosophy for his own views. He does not create his views out of his own mind. Pascal’s “reasons of the heart” (Pensees, 423) are a part of a long tradition leading up to Levinas. Bergson’s “intuition” reaches the unity of real things and processes that no amount of concepts can attain to. The many forms of “life philosophy” in the 19th and 20th centuries fit in here as well, from Hegel to Lyotard (“Postmodernism”). Jacques Maritain (from within 20th Century neo-Thomism) made heavy use of knowledge by inclination or through “connaturality,” as he called it, which is not through conceptual knowledge or by way of reasoning, but in virtue of a kind of affinity. (See his Degrees of Knowledge.)

The basic problem faced by all these people was (what I take the liberty of calling) a misunderstanding of concepts, and this continues in Levinas. One way of thinking about what Levinas is doing is to say that he is trying to understand and present a special way in which the mind (better, the person) and its ‘other’ come into contact with each other: a way that does not include presumptions that make the “other” captive to me and my ideas and projects. And, for him, this way must also accommodate the theistic realism of a Jewish tradition of life and practice as he understood it. Because of the misunderstanding of concepts as intervening entities that change, do “violence” to, what they apply to, Levinas, along with many others, has to find a way of ‘encountering’ others that does not employ concepts. This, I think, is the bottom line for Levinas, and the numerous associations with Freud, etc. that Professor Bergo calls our attention to have to be seen as nudging us in the direction of such conceptionless encountering. The “call” of the other to us must, Levinas thinks, not involve conceptualization, because that would limit the other to my ideas of him or her. Thus, if I classify the other as the Nazi, I may think (contrary to fact) that I have no obligation to feed him. The other can get through to me in radical but realistic moral demand only if unconceptualized. That is Levinas’s view.

In his long life Levinas pursued many interests, but I think he was never far removed from the theme of radical moral responsibility for my neighbor before God. His work culminates, it seems to me, with his profound and searching phenomenological analysis of moral obligation as a kind of reciprocal intentionality to an “incoming” intentionality from (via) the face of the other. (Compare Sartre on the look of the other and what it does to me, for an interesting contrast.) But the idea of intentionality had been used up, so far as he was concerned, by Heidegger’s use of world and Dasein, on the one hand, and the abuse of the noematic intentionality of Husserl on the other. So Levinas has to torture other terminologies (“Substitution,” etc.) to try to convey what he has in mind. But it is still, I think, just a form of consciousness or intentionality he is after, but one which 20th Century philosophy, Continental or Analytic, cannot accommodate. That may very well be a high compliment to it.

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