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Levinas' Challenge to the Modern European Identity: Part 1 Levinas' Challenge to the Modern European Identity: Part 1
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-05-25 10:05:55
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I am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism” (Edmund Husserl, University of Prague, 1935)

Modern Western Civilization presents us with a Janus-like face: On one side Renaissance Humanism which begins in Italy in the 14th century with Petrarch, on the other side Enlightenment Rationalism which begins in France in the 17th century with Descartes.

After Descartes, there is a dangerous tendency to separate the two cultural phenomena and consider Humanism either anachronistic, or superseded. The inevitable result has been sheer confusion in the area of cultural identity; consequently, at this critical juncture of the new polity called European Union, there is talk of a “democratic deficit,” that democracy that is integral part of Western Civilization.

We are in urgent need of cultural guides to show us how to better harmonize the two above mentioned phenomena. One such guide is Emmanuel Lévinas’ humanistic philosophy. In as much as it challenges the Western rationalistic philosophical tradition, it is extremely important for the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity. It explores in depth the threats to the authentic cultural identity of Europe, how modalities of thinking powerfully affect other ideas and shape a whole cultural milieu, sometimes with less than desirable consequences.

A few background biographical details may be useful to better understand Lévinas. He was born in Lithuania in 1902. In 1923 he moves to Strasbourg to study under Husserl and writes a doctoral dissertation on his philosophy. There, he also comes in contact with Heidegger’s philosophy. The dissertation on Husserl’s phenomenology gets published in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, Lévinas is beginning to take his distance from Heidegger. He enlisted in the French army, was captured in 1940 and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps.

Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. He became a teacher and administrator in an institute for Jewish education in Paris (l’alliance Uneversel Juif); there he begins to study traditional Jewish texts under the directorship of the Talmudic sage Mordechai Shoshani to whom Elie Wiesel (who also studied with him) devotes a chapter in Legends of Our Time.

In 1961 Lévinas defends the first of his two major philosophical works (Totality and Infinity) before the philosophy faculty of the Sorbonne becoming a professor of philosophy. His second major work bears the title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.

Those are the basic events that dramatically change Lèvinas’ thinking. Prior to World War II he had merely criticized elements of 20th century Western thought; afterward he begins to attack the whole European philosophical tradition, especially its culmination in Heidegger’s thought, for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He begins to indict western philosophers in general for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts, such as Hegel’s “Spirit,” or Heidegger’s “Being,” which assimilate countless individuals to rational processes, thus negating their individuality.

To be sure Kierkegaard had also criticized this Hegelian tendency, countering it with his existentialist philosophy. Those who understood his critique only too well, promptly proceeded to relegate his thought to the theological within a false dichotomy (shown absurd by Thomas Aquinas way back in the 13th century) of philosophy/theology, thus insuring that Kierkegaard would never be as influential as a Hegel or a Heidegger.

In any case, Lévinas too argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers included—interact with persons different from ourselves. He argues that this “face-to-face” realm is not the same thing as the realm of abstract concepts. It possesses its own texture which is primarily an ethical one.

In this domain we are challenged by “the otherness of the other person.” It is this “otherness,” which is an integral characteristic of human life, but the Western philosophical tradition has overlooked and even negated it, thus contributing to the dehumanization of Man.



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Sand2007-05-25 14:36:13
I am continuously struck by the irony of the term "humanism" where the outstanding characteristic of humanity both historically and in current practice is characterized by monstrous greed and total vile cruelty both to fellow human beings and whatever other unfortunate creatures fall under human control. I do not deny a reasonably large sector of humanity that holds decency in high regard but the general thrust of human activity especially in the halls of power is to use whatever means is convenient or necessary in the service of whatever thugs happen to be in control.

Paparella2007-05-25 15:27:10
Historically Humanism has nothing to do with being human or humane. That is why Petrach, considered the father of Humanism is mentioned. What Petrarch and other humanists were doing was re-discovering those lost Latin and Greek manuscripts languishing in monasteries, in other words resurrect antiquity or Graeco-Roman civilization and thus prepare the way for the Renaissance which literally means "re-birth." What was being reborn was antiquity. But it is not a slavish imitation; it is antiquity synthesized with Christianity as the Sistine Chapel and the David of Michelangelo or Primavera of Botticelli well exemplify.

Sand2007-05-25 15:55:26
This is what Google gave me on humanism:

Humanism[1] is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appeal to universal human qualities—particularly rationalism. Humanism is a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems, and is incorporated into several religious schools of thought. Humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality through human means in support of human interests. In focusing on the capacity for self-determination, humanism rejects the validity of transcendental justifications, such as a dependence on faith, the supernatural, or divinely revealed texts. Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition, suggesting that solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial.[2]

Not much on Christianity which had its own specialities on cruelty and stupidity. As as artist I do admire Michelangelo but David was a great kid who murdered a nasty giant, according to the story, and if that proliferates a love of humanity for you, I guess we have some difference in point of view.

Paparella2007-05-25 17:37:46
Try the dictionary or your old history texts and you may get a more accurate picture of what Humanism was all about originally. I was not talking about the travesty is has unfortunately become nowadays. Moreover, as I tell my Humanities' students, when you go back to Florence to admire Michelangelo's David look carefully at its face and you may discover that such a face is nowhere to be found in classical Greek sculpture. That may give you a hint at what Humanism and the Renaissance were all about.

Sand2007-05-25 18:18:53
This is Merriam Webster on it:

1 a: devotion to the humanities : literary culture b: the revival of classical letters, individualistic and critical spirit, and emphasis on secular concerns characteristic of the Renaissance2: humanitarianism3: a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially : a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason

It still seems to indicate a rejection of spiritual nonsense and an acceptance of logic and reason. How many sources must I access to make you comfortable?
I took a quick look at several Roman busts and the portraits impressed me with their natural realism.

Paparella2007-05-25 21:23:51
1b comes close to what Humanism was in the 14th century. It may help if you look up Humanism with a capital H as a movement within history. My dictionary (Funk and Wagnall standard desk dictionary) comes a bit closer when it defines Humanism as "the intellectual and literary movement of the Renaissance characterized by the study of Greek and Roman classics and by an empphasis on human interests." The point of the second paragraph of my article is that within modern culture Humanism and Enlightenment rationalism are ofter collapsed into each other and Humanism is seen as superseded because synthesized by what came later (as per the evolutionary Hegelian scheme of thesis, antithesis, synthesis). I content with Vico and Levinas that such an intellectual operation is misguided and dangerous and has produced some montruosities. So, stay tuned for three more parts to the article which you seem to have rushed to judge, and who knows, it may convince you as one of the perceptive "curious apes" of this planet, and then again it may not. In any case, thank you also for reinforcing my point that Roman and Greek sculpture was different from Renaissance sculpture even if at first sight it may look alike; it was in fact novel and even better in many aspects exactly because it was embued with those spiritual concerns of which the men without breasts of today, as C.S. Lewis dubs them, have simply jettisoned those concerns to install a a nihilistic rationalistic technocratic culture devoid of the poetic and often even of what is meaningful in life. As I said, stay tuned.

Sand2007-05-25 22:51:44
Delighted to have caught your interest.
As an amateur poet I am alway interested to investigate that point of view but most romantic efforts strike me as glandular and idiotic.
Feel free to convert me.

Sand2007-05-25 23:19:40
Incidentally, in your article you seem to have lumped together those clever primates who are genuinely interested in organizing their perceptive observations into a cohesive integrated collation which may betray something genuine about the nature of the universe and the economic power structure which is a creature of mere mindless and callous greed.
On the other side is the philosophic fossil of religion that exists in a fantasy so incarcerating that it is almost totally blind to the discoveries revealed by the genuinely inquisitive "clever apes" which verifies their discoveries by applications which are radically changing the technological world.

Paparella2007-05-26 14:30:45
To the contrary, one such clever primate, the atheist George Santayana, if confronted with such outlandish and gratuitous statements, would most probably advice to take out one's dusty history books from one's shelves and discover there that after the fall of the Roman Empire the little of ancient culture that survived in the West was preserved in monasteries where monks, especially in Ireland would laboriously transcribe ancient manuscripts. That in turn permitted the "rebirth" as Humanism and Renaissance and consequently the Enlightenment many centuries later. Such a rebirth in turn allows nowadays clever rationalist primates of all stripes (those who since Descartes live in the world of rationalism with a mind that eats its own tail...)to grind an ax against religion at their heart content, a phenonmenon this not so novel as its proponents would like to believe; in fact it preceeds christianity and goes back to Epicurus and Lucretius and even further. Indeed the ape is quite ancient and keeps repeating obsessively the mistakes of his own history. It would appear that evolution has not endowed him with a talent for easily learning from from the lessons of his own history. Neverthless he remains his own history which he makes while nature which he certainly did not make will never be completely understoo by him. Ruminations!

Sand2007-05-26 15:03:04
I am sure the rote preservation of a good deal of preChristian philosophy was helpful in reviving rationality after it had been in more or less sleep mode during the medieval times but I have also heard that much of the impetus of for this awakening arose from the contact of Western culture with Islam which, at that time, ras replete with rational dynamics. The Crusades put many westerners in contact with a vibrant Islamic culture and the names of many of the stars and many chemicals testifies to the validity of this. The fundamental characteristic of religion is to accept absolute authoritative controls unquestioningly and in both Christianity and Islam today the dead hand of authority holds sway. In contrast rational and scientific pursuit of truth continually accepts doubts of its discoveries which must be insistently questioned and tested by practical confrontations with nature. This is how science progresses. Within religion doubt is a dirty word and the unfortunate current path of Islam is to follow this mindless petrification of thought to the point of furiously murdering anybody who would think twice about the precepts of Islam. It was Galileo's questioning of Aristotle that got him into hot water.

Sand2007-05-26 15:33:11
On addition. Although it was Santayana who noted that if one forgets the past he is fated to repeat it, it seems that the past is so thoroughly implanted within religion that all religion can do is repeat it. The denial that humanity has changed from it's inception is to be blind to the dynamic of the modern world. The grip of the corpse of the past is most heavy in religion which would deny women their equality in humanity. As one who protested the plight of black people in the 1960's in Tennessee I was appalled at the people leaving church after services who snarled at us in our picketing of a discriminating laundromat. The Kluklux Klan used the burning Christian cross as its symbol and the adherents did not object.

Paparella2007-05-26 18:39:06
I am beginning to see where you are coming from. The same place of the non Christian Roman poet Lucretius who confused the abuses of religion (the fear of the gods) for its essential nature and ends up throwing the baby out the window together with the bath water. Santayana, the atheist wrote a book about that titled: "Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe which may strangely enough prove to be an antidote to that sort of fallacy widely accepted among the more perceptive apes of our brave new wholly secularized world devoid of the poetical. You may also try C.S. Lewis and G.K Chesterton, ex atheists for the same purpose, and of course Kierkegaard who would warn you right from the beginning that certains sickenesses and deseases are unto death. I suspect in fact that you will promptly reply to this suggestion with some wise-crack or other, and insist on the last word. So be it. I will grant it. Let a more fruitful and less futile debate take place, if it is to take place at all, via our ideas on the subject as expressed and discussed in this on-line magazine.

Sand2007-05-26 19:13:31
If you view this discussion in the light of getting in the last wisecrack then my attempt is hopeless to get across my viewpoint. I am not attempting to one-up you, merely pointing out what seem to me the inadequacies of your argument in the light of my personal experiences. Basically what I am convinced of is that humanity's knowledge is not up to controlling its social situation and the interposition of what seems to me to be imaginary beings with no foundation in physical perception only makes the situation much worse. If you are unaware of the outright manipulation of ignorant and gullible populations by leader figures clothing themselves in religious terms for their own purposes of naked power then I'm afraid there's no way I can make sense to you. If that's a wisecrack, make the most of it.

Sand2007-05-26 19:38:31
I have read some of C.S.Lewis since I find his children's fiction entertaining, but I see nothing there with any philosophical weight. I can only conclude that religious conversion must have something to do with a defect in body chemistry producing aberrations in the nervous system. As I mentioned before (and this is a medical fact, not a wisecrack)schizophrenics regularly have conversations with some deity or other.

Sand2007-05-26 20:06:17
Incidentally, cut out the cracks about secularists being non-poets. My poetry is reasonably good and needs no deity for validation

Sand2007-05-27 06:55:24
The information I have discerned about Lucretius was that he talked sensibly about the finality of death disposing of the nonsense of the religious fear of punishment in an afterlife. This did not sit well with the Christian fathers who wielded power by frightening their adherents with punishments if they did not obey Christian beliefs during their lifetime. Just as with the Bush administration today, they ruled, not by love, but by fear of afterlife consequences and just as todays politics today smears its opponents to defeat them the Christian rulers smeared Lucretius by accusing him of insanity which other scholars have indicated is extremely unlikely. There was no baby and the dirty water was best disposed of.

LL2007-05-27 23:10:49

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