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Levinas' Challenge to the Modern European Identity: Part 2 Levinas' Challenge to the Modern European Identity: Part 2
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-05-27 10:17:25
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Lévinas' life and thinking were deeply affected by the trauma of the Nazi genocide, better known as the Holocaust. But what is unique about his thinking is that it refuses to make those monstrous events its core subject matter. As Derrida, who admired Lévinas' philosophy, aptly expressed it once: the danger of naming our monstrosities is that they become our pets.

Lévinas' writings provide no extensive discussion of the Holocaust itself; therefore, the assumption, on the part of those who were thinking and writing on it, has often been that Lévinas could not be considered a valid source of philosophical insight into this dark period of human history. But that is an erroneous assumption, just as invalid as the assumption that he unreservedly admired Heidegger's philosophy because he happened to have translated it into French. As a matter of fact, Lévinas' thinking is a reaction to the Holocaust by the mere fact that it asks the crucial question: What does it mean to be a human being?

Were one to encapsulate the whole of Lévinas' philosophy in two succinct words, they would be "being human." This philosophy insists throughout that an extreme, unbalanced rationality devoid of imagination, feelings, senses and spirit, unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of life, is the equivalent to a refusal to be human, to allowing oneself to become a monster.

A little personal anecdote may be illustrative here: many years ago I took a course on Heidegger with a professor who was a staunch admirer of Heidegger's philosophy. The students were made to read Being and Time on which the professor in question would offer in class brilliant comments and interpretations. Not once during the entire duration of the course was it ever mentioned that Heidegger, for a short while, had joined the Nazi party and had heard echoes of "the voice of Being" in the speeches of Hitler; somehow that particular existential detail was not considered essential by the professor for any valid appraisal of the ponderous rational scheme of Being and Time.

I wrote a paper where this existential fact was mentioned and reflected upon. I received a C- for it. The comments of the professor chided me for straying from the concerns of Heidegger's philosophy which had nothing to do with his private life and beliefs. In hindsight, that academic event of my life proved to be my first serious existential encounter with modern Western rationalism and its dichotomy intellect/life. It eventually led me to discover Vico and Lévinas.

Lévinas' attack on what he considers negative elements of the Western philosophical tradition begins with analyses of the philosophical roots from which sprout the extreme individualism of modern times, and the reaction to it, extreme nationalism. Not unlike Vico in the 18th century, he individuates such a root in the Cartesian ego, an autonomous center of consciousness which in modern philosophy has assumed the function of a paradigm for thinking about human beings. Lévinas does not deny this world-constituting ego, rather he leads it to the discovery of an ethical core within itself; which is to say, he uncovers another root growing within the first root which he calls the "self."

The conundrum seems to be this: if it is true that the ego does the conceptual work of philosophy by announcing what there really is in the world, how can this ego then acknowledge the essentially ethical "self" which lives within itself? Somehow a bridge has to be found between this limitless power and freedom of the independent intellect, and the particular concrete ethical obligations to another person. For, this ethical self, unlike the ego, finds itself caught up with the welfare of the other prior to a conscious, rational decision, in a recognition, even when unwilled, of his/her humanity.

Indeed this ethical capacity seems to come from another place than our rational powers of analysis evidenced within the Cartesian ego. Even if we grant that such an ego is adequate in identifying the truths of philosophy, it somehow remains unable to acknowledge a domain where there is no choosing of the connection with the other; in fact the other way around may apply: the other chooses me, one is "already responsible" for the other prior to any rational analysis.

And here is the philosophical paradox: Lévinas' task becomes that of using rationality to take the Cartesian ego beyond rationality, somewhat similar to what Vico does with his concepts of fantasia, which for him precedes rational reason, and the concept of Providence who guides human events and is both immanent within history but also transcendent. Which is to say, the rational ego has to be brought to recognize a sort of enigmatic "ethical" truth which Lévinas calls "pre-originary," i.e., arising outside, prior to the usual time-line of the reflective ego.

In attempting this operation, Lévinas will proffer statements such as: ethics is "older" than philosophy, it is "first philosophy," on the scene before the arrival of rational philosophical thinking; something ingrained in being human. Within purely classical categories, that may be equivalent to the Socratic preoccupation with dying well by living a life of integrity and devotion to truth, as exemplified in Plato's Apology. It is this ancient voice of goodness, which even Vico's pre-historical "bestioni" possess to a degree, a voice often overlooked by rationalist philosophers, but powerfully present in Talmudic texts, that Lévinas finds strangely silent in the modern Western philosophical tradition.

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR


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Sand2007-05-27 00:12:36
The end point of this presentation seems to be a reiteration of Kant's absolute inner ethics which he claimed is, for all practical purposes, installed genetically as a universal mental tool kit. Frankly, as is evident even today in the behavior of combatants in current conflicts, this tool kit seems frequently a missing item.


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