Emmanuel Levinas maintained that, in a context which includes living beings – beings who consciously experience being, the ethical has priority even over ontology. This priority arises from the apparent fact that at least some living beings are able to rupture the impersonal and indifferent process of being with acts which by their very nature must be otherwise than being, given the indifference which processual being itself exhibits towards those entities which are conscious of and concerned with their own participation in the process of being. This otherwise-than-being concept presents a significant challenge to all philosophical thinking. This challenge is often ignored, or it is often dispensed with – rather than engaged – by criticizing it as being too human-centered.
In the article, Levinas and the Triple Critique of Heidegger (available here), Graham Harman both praises and criticizes Emmanuel Levinas. The gist of the criticism is that Levinas is “too human-centered” in his philosophizing:
My one criticism of the Levinas approach is that it remains too human-centered … Levinas … seems to grant [things] independence only when humans are on the scene to feel resistance. (p. 407) … Levinas lays the groundwork for a strange new form of realism, without taking the final step of severing concrete entities from their dependence on human being. (p. 408) … Levinas tends to reserve to human consciousness alone the right to break the totality of the world into separate zones … and he makes no mention here of animal psyches (p. 409) … What I am not happy to endorse is the … notion that only human beings are able to break the totality into fragments, or that only humans bathe in the element and bow before the face of the Other. (pp. 410-411)
Does Harman’s criticism accurately portray Levinas? Does Harman’s resorting to the qualifiers “seems” and “tends” serve as acknowledgment that the presented critical depiction is certainly not exhaustive while at the same time insisting that the critique to which it gives rise is nonetheless fair? Or do those qualifiers admit that there are alternative ways of understanding Levinas?
Harman does not criticize Levinas for being human-centered; rather, Harman criticizes Levinas for being too human-centered. Based upon Harman’s cited remarks, this excess presumably originates in the focus Levinas puts upon consciousness, an aspect of being which he certainly most often discusses in terms of human consciousness, thinking, and language rather than in terms of non-human being and its array of conditions. Of course, that origination and that focus – either each by itself or in combination – are not sufficient to arrive at an inescapable conclusion that Levinas is excessively human-centered.
Harman is certainly not alone in noting that Levinas’ thought is very much human-centered. For instance, Joshua Harris refers to a remark by Jens Zimmermann in which he says that “Levinas resolutely affirms that all meaning takes its measure from our ethical responsibility.” On the face of it, by presenting Levinas as associating all meaning with the human ethical position, Zimmermann’s statement – if accurate – strongly suggests a human-centeredness on the part of Levinas which is certainly excessive if it is the case that it never occurred to Levinas to consider the matter of the meaning at issue apart from the human condition or to the extent that Levinas essentially brushed off all non-human being as necessarily irrelevant except to the extent that the non-human affects the meaningfulness of the human condition.
However, it is important to note the very next sentence in the Zimmermann quote: “The human is indeed ‘holy’ for Levinas, in the sense that we are human prior to any other consideration.” This sentence moderates the all in the “all meaning” phrase within the previous sentence and transforms that all from an apparent absolute into an expression exclaiming and emphasizing priority.
Something similar can be seen taking place in a passage by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his autobiography. King says:
I studied Personalistic philosophy – the theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality. This personal idealism remains today my basic philosophical position. Personalism’s insistence that only personality – finite and infinite – is ultimately real …
The first of King’s sentences does not equate personality with reality in any way remotely similar to what occurs in the last of the quoted sentences. Personality goes from being a clue to being the ultimately real. What is going on here? When the first sentence is understood as asserting that a human can become aware of that which is of the greatest importance through (considerations about) personality, the last sentence can be read as emphasizing the singular magnitude of the importance to be realized through considerations in terms of personality. However, by emphasizing a metaphysical claim about personality, what King’s last sentence does is turn away from the meaning – the unsurpassable importance – which seems at first to be his ultimate concern.
Why does he do this?
He says that this gives him “philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God” and a “basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.” Yet, by shunting attention away from importance and meaning and, instead, focusing on the basis, the grounding, the foundation for this importance, King in effect de-prioritizes importance by seemingly granting ultimacy to a hoped-for basis for importance or meaning, as if importance could only be strictly derivative rather than a matter of (proper) priority.
This is an effect which King wants to avoid. He is undoubtedly well aware that reality can be described without any reference to importance, but he thinks that a reality conceived of as divorced from – and, thereby, given priority over – importance is an incomplete or a veritably unreal reality. Consequently, for the sake of maintaining the (proper) priority of importance, he identifies reality with personality since it is personality that provides the best access to importance, and, by virtue of this identification, he intends for reality and importance to be recognized as inseparable.
The question which then comes to mind is: Why even bother with positing a metaphysical basis for the importance associated with personality given that this importance is to be held as having priority?
The importance at issue is, of course, a type of valuing, and valuing is always (experienced as) an inescapably subjective matter. Accordingly, the metaphysical turn which King employs qualifies the subjective aspect of importance; the metaphysical turn occurs in order to indicate that the importance at issue is not only – and is not merely – a subjective matter despite the fact that the valuing remains unremittingly subjective. Because it is not a strictly subjective matter, this importance is a matter beyond the valuing subject; it is a matter which is somehow also other than the subject who values.
Consequently, one point – if not the point – of King’s sort of metaphysical turn is to effect in the valuing subject a move beyond subjectivity without the (frankly impossible) abandonment of subjectivity. The subjective stance is brought into question along with the importance that is being valued. At the same time, inasmuch as there is no valuing without subjectivity, subjectivity is not so much given a privileged position as it is regarded not only as a starting point but also as a condition necessary in order for there to be importance.
The effect of this metaphysical turn can be to qualify the subjective aspect of importance, but the delimiting of the subjective in no way requires the metaphysical “insistence that only personality … is ultimately real”. Where meaning is identical to or indicates importance, it could just as well be asserted that personality is what is ultimately important (where personality is understood as including reference to an otherness beyond mere subjectivity in a disavowal of solipsism). This puts aside any immediate insistence on the veracity of metaphysical idealism and opens up the issue of personality and importance to other metaphysical possibilities and checks. At the same time, it also serves to acknowledge the priority of the subjective experience inasmuch as subjectivity is the one assured fact that is, so to speak, always present and operative, which is to say relevant – at least when and where there is human life and certainly when there is human thought.
Given that there is always subjectivity within thought, and given the dedication to qualifying that subjectivity which succeeds the denial of solipsism, it follows that with regards to or within human thinking it is not only appropriate but indeed necessary that priority be given to the human subject and the aspects which constitute its being – including language and consciousness. Such priority in itself does not privilege the human, but it does result in thought that is human-centered even when that thought regards non-human matters.
It would be pure folly – it would be preposterous – to assert that this sort of human-centeredness is to be avoided as if always and everywhere worthy of obloquy. But it is also to be appreciated that this sort of human-centered thought itself provides for the possibility that there can be such a thing as human thought which is, as Harman describes Levinas’ thinking, “too” or excessively “human-centered”.
Harman’s criticism of Levinas as being excessively human-centered in his thinking is necessarily very cursory since a more significant thrust of Harman’s essay is to note affinities between his own object-oriented philosophy and aspects of (his way of reading) Levinas’ thinking as presented primarily in Totality and Infinity.
Harman well characterizes Levinas when he says that what Levinas “most abhors” is thinking that models “the world as a totalized system” (p. 408). Harman associates this abhorrent totalization with any sort of systematic thinking wherein “each thing” is alleged to be wholly “defined by its relations to” other things. Such totalization essentially eliminates individual things (or beings or entities) by making it possible to reduce them to – and replace them with – relations or processes, these relations or processes then being effectively regarded as the actual (or it might be said “the most real”) constituents of the totality which is alleged to be all that there is to what gets referred to as reality.
Levinas discusses this totalization in terms of the same and the other, for instance when he says in Totality and Infinity that “Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a reduction of the other to the same by interposition of a middle and neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being.” This reduction of the other typically occurs by filtering out – or ignoring or being unaware of or being unconcerned with – the features of an individual thing which make it an other. This filtering out, this discarding of features is done for the sake of concentrating on apparent similarities – the generalities which make it possible to effect the subsuming which is necessary to arrive at a totalized system.
Of course, such a totalized system is not so much reality or a description of reality as it is a concept of reality – more precisely, a way of conceiving reality. The human manner for conceiving – even non-totalizing conceiving – inescapably depends upon some filtering out, discarding, ignoring of features (and the possible importance of those features). Just because this manner of conceiving can result in a deficiency is certainly no reason to not-conceive; indeed, whatever else human thinking might be, it is well nigh impossible to imagine any (human) thinking which does not involve the formation of concepts.
In like fashion, just because the filtering necessary for conceiving ignores differences, this is not to say that there are no similarities manifest in different things. Likewise, the discarding of what we might describe as individuating features makes somewhat dubious any attempt at systematic totalization, but this does not warrant utterly eschewing the concept of a totality. Instead, what this all indicates is that it is important to keep in mind that with regards to human thought, “The relation between the Same (or the totality) and the Other … characterizes the Other as a reality that cannot be … ‘sublated’ into any consciousness, spirit, or other form of interiority.”1 To put it another way, as Seán Hand notes:
Totality and Infinity is the book which most explicitly criticizes the totalizing vision of previous philosophical systems in the West. In it Levinas rejects the synthesizing of phenomena in favour of a thought that is open to the face of the other. The term ‘face’ here denotes the way in which the presentation of the other to me exceeds all idea of the other in me.2
It was noted earlier that it “seems” to Harman that Levinas grants things “independence only when humans are on the scene to feel resistance”; however, according to the at least somewhat compatible-with-Levinas way of thinking thus far presented in this discussion, the act of conceptualization itself serves as reason to regard the other (entity) as to some – often significant – extent always independent of thoughts about that other.
Then again, it might be more correct to say that for Levinas it is not so much the independence of the other which is his focus as it is the fact that the other always exceeds thoughts had about that other. This is an especially important emphasis given the ever-presence of subjectivity within thought. This emphasis on the other as exceeding ideas about that other can work to qualify the subjectivity within thoughts (or ideas) about the other in a way which may well be less likely to come immediately to mind when the discussion is cast in terms of the independence of the other. In any event, it seems clear that Levinas’ own thought is – to some extent – compatible with the notion that even non-human things are independent of human being.
To say of all entities that they are all – each and every one of them – things and then to treat that common thing-ness as if it were the keystone for thinking about reality would be to engage in one sort of that systematic totalization which Levinas so abhors. Levinas presents a challenge to all varieties of systematically totalizing thinking – basically the attempt to dissolve all other-ness into the same – when he puts forth the notion of otherwise than being.
Levinas does not ignore or avoid the sort of being that comes along with or results from thinking that effects (conceptual) totalization. Instead, he accepts the nature of being that follows from a totality conceived of by means of the systematic discarding of features that individuate things in service to the production of a (conceptual) totalization, and then he brings back one of those discarded – but singularly important – features (in the form of what Levinas most often discusses as a non-indifferent and non-impersonal “responsibility” for the being of the other) and challenges the totalized system of thought to account for that importance. Levinas provides his own fairly generic and, therefore, widely applicable summary of his thinking in terms of otherwise than being in the introduction to Entre Nous:
I … set out from being in the verbal sense of that word: neither from ‘beings’ – physical objects, living bodies, human individuals … nor from nature, which encompasses them all in one way or another in its totality.
I … set out from being in the verbal sense of that word, in which being is suggested and understood, in a sense, as a process of being, an event of being, an adventure of being. The event of being is in a concern with being … an insistence on being as if a ‘survival instinct’ that coincided with its development, preserving it, and maintaining it in its adventure of being, were its meaning. … in the guise of beings who affirm themselves ‘without regard’ for one another in their concern to be.
… The life of the living in the struggle for life; the natural history of human beings in the blood and tears of wars between individuals, nations, and classes; the matter of things, hard matter; solidity; the closed-in-upon-self, all the way down to the level of the subatomic particles of which physicists speak.
But behold! The emergence, in the life lived by the human being (and it is here that the human, as such begins …), of the devoting-of-oneself-to-the-other … a pre-occupation with the other, even to the point of sacrifice, even to the possibility of dying for him or her; a responsibility for the other. Otherwise than being! It is this shattering of indifference – even if indifference is statistically dominant – this possibility of one-for-the-other, that constitutes the ethical event. When human existence interrupts and goes beyond its effort to be … there is a vocation of an existing-for-the-other stronger than the threat of death … the I as responsible for the being of the other; responsible, that is unique and elect, as an I who is no longer just any member of the human race. It is as if the emergence of the human in the economy of being upset the meaning and plot and philosophical rank of ontology … 3
Here Levinas explicitly associates the interruption of being, the rupturing of being, this otherwise than being with human being, and it is this manner of expression which likely suggests that attitude about which Harman complains when he says that “Levinas tends to reserve to human consciousness alone the right to break the totality of the world into separate zones”. However, Levinas’ expression is rife with tangents to be pursued. These are qualifying tangents such as those which distinguish human from human being as well as from the human race. One such qualifying tangent sets the stage for discussion about the means by which human individuation occurs, but these tangents neither assert nor depend upon the notion that otherwise-than-being is something which can occur only in the case of members of the human species.
Even so, it is absolutely appropriate that Levinas would concentrate on humans in his discussion about the otherwise-than-being that gives rise to – or, as he says, “constitutes” – the ethical event which has priority over ontology and also over any attempts at the systemization intended to effect ethical or moral theories.
One reason for the appropriateness of this human-centeredness is to be garnered from some consideration into the context of Levinas’ remarks. He is challenging the thinking which seeks systematic totalization by, in effect, eliminating any place for (the importance of) the subjective.
This attempted elimination relies upon some closely related tactics. Typically, the necessarily subjective experience of rupturing being with otherwise-than-being can be either ignored or emphatically doubted. This is quite easy to do, and it is also quite easy to seem supremely rational while doing so. It is particularly easy to doubt any subjective experience which seems statistically insignificant, but any subjective experience is effectively ignored by placing in its stead what Levinas refers to as “a middle and neutral term” which re-presents the subjective in a different, more common, more statistically dominant and, therefore, less singularly subjective manner.
The subjective experience which Levinas refers to as otherwise-than-being is typically “naturalized”, denied its otherwise-than-being, and placed back within being by categorizing (or explaining away) that subjective experience as an instance exemplifying altruism, co-operation, or the very narrowly applied sort of preference which is commonly – but imprecisely – referred to as love.4
One reason why the subjective experience of otherwise-than-being is easily de-natured (which is to say mis-characterized when it is conceptually naturalized by thinking which seeks to systematically totalize) is because the reports about the otherwise-than-being experience can never be anything other than testimony.
Systematic totalizing thought naturalizes, which is to say denies, otherwise-than-being not by refuting that subjective experience but, instead, by managing to find a way to appear rational despite – or while trying to hide – the fact that it has simply ignored or avoided dealing with what is arguably the greatest – the single most important – challenge presented by the notion of otherwise-than-being:
* the idea that reality (certainly the experience thereof) is not utterly systemizable,
* along with the idea that what is ultimately most important may originate, so to speak, from otherwise than within being and, yet,
* what is most important about the ultimately most important is that it can be effected within being without being integrated as a process within being.
This challenge is not just significant for attempts at systematically totalizing thought. It is every bit as significant – although differently significant – for attempts at producing systematic ethical or moral theories. The significance for ethical/moral thinking is well captured by Vladimir Jankelevitch when he says:
Moral life is not a process but a drama punctuated with precious decisions. Moral progress advances only by the deliberate effort of a decision that is intermittent and spasmodic and in the tension of an indefatigable starting-over. The will, willing and willing again incessantly, does not rely in any measure on the inertia of the acquired movement, does not live on the laurels of accumulated merit. And thus, with each instant, moral progress begins again from zero. There is no other ethical continuity than this exhausting continuation of “relaunch” and resumption. Moral progress is thus laboriously continued rather than spontaneously continual or continuous, and it resembles a recreation rather than a growth.5
This is not a negation of systematic ethical/moral theorizing. Rather, it indicates that all such theorizing properly checks itself by frequently and repeatedly returning to reset itself by reconsidering and being certain not to lose sight of the very nature – the features – of the sort of ethical event which gives rise to the theorizing. This means that the ultimate focus, the ultimate interest, the proper ultimate concern is less on the generalizing necessary for theorizing and more on the always subjective conditions which result in the “shattering of indifference”, those conditions which give priority to overcoming the impersonal – the de-personalized – ways of regarding others in their experiences of their own subjectivity.
Levinas stressed this “shattering of indifference” in terms of the an-archical responsibility – an-archical because it has priority over and is prior to any and all systemizations – the responsibility which one meets in the face of the other.
Levinas notes that this “responsibility for my neighbor … is, no doubt, the harsh name for what we call love of one’s neighbor … love in which the ethical aspect dominates the passionate aspect”. He speaks most often in terms of responsibility because, as he admits, “I don’t much like the word love” inasmuch as that word has become “worn-out and debased.”6 Nonetheless, the challenge which Levinas puts to all philosophical thinking requires of that thinking that it not only at some point engage with this non-impersonal love of neighbor but also remain focused on the philosophical place for – the priority of – this responsibility entailed as love.
The (apparent) fact that (at least) some humans do have the subjective experience of otherwise-than-being warrants Levinas’ concentration on humans in his discussion about the otherwise-than-being ethical event. The fact that reports about the otherwise-than-being experience can never be anything other than testimony warrants the concentration which Levinas gives to human language and human thought. After all, when construed narrowly, the very word testimony brings immediately to mind the human reliance upon language. In addition, there is the fact that the most obvious form of testimony about human experience is cast into the world as language-based or verbal presentations. There is the further fact that the human inner life seems to most often occur as thoughts about human experiences, and these inner life thoughts are also extensively verbal.
Even so, it is important to note that, according to Levinas, “the beginning of language is in the face [of the other]. In a certain way, in its silence, it calls you.”7 This is to say that the ordinary, the most common form, of human language – verbalization – is assuredly not necessary and has no priority with regards to any ethical event. Indeed, inasmuch as responsibility is a matter of love, hence charity, responsibility is not held in abeyance until the other speaks aloud.
Nevertheless, in his article, Harman notes (p. 409) that in Totality and Infinity Levinas asserts that:
it is the psychism that resists totality [which is to say “the world-in-itself” or the process which is being]: psyche or cogito are what generate separation (and [Levinas] makes no mention here of animal psyches), “The separation of the Same is produced in the form of an inner life, a psychism. The psychism constitutes an event in being … it is already a way of being, resistance to the totality.” Then it is neither wind and water, nor pitchforks, towers, and windmills that give us separation, but only human being who happens to be experiencing these things. In a word, hypostasis means people.
Even though Harman restricts most of his analysis to Levinas’ presentation in Totality and Infinity, and even though Levinas always supposed that there was some sort of priority rightly reserved for the human – certainly with regards to at least some types of non-human things, it seems blatantly clear from the Levinas quote to which Harman refers above that the primary distinction which Levinas is making is not one between humans and all other things. Rather, the distinction which Levinas suspects is of particular importance is the feature of an inner life, a life involving the sorts of thought indicative of experience – regardless of the extent of concomitant verbal facility.
This distinction – based upon some consciousness, some conscious experience of being – is expressed in a way which precludes jumping to the conclusion that the human condition is privileged with regards to the ethical even if human being has priority. What all of this indicates is that, if nothing else, the priority presumed for the human derives from the (apparent) fact that (at least) some humans are aware that the process of being can be interrupted by the ethical event of otherwise-than-being. It is not presumed, and it is not necessary to presume, that only humans can rupture the impersonal indifference which is the process of being.
Accordingly, more than anything else, the priority presumed for the human serves to emphasize that humans become most adept at rupturing processual being by realizing the responsibility they have to and for their human neighbors and also by effecting responses to that responsibility for the human other which is metaphysically (so to speak) prior to and has priority over all other philosophical (including political) considerations. Humans become most adept at rupturing processual being by giving a priority to the human neighbor because human being – the experience of being human – is, on the face of it, a more complex matter than is any other form of experiential (conscious) manner of being.
Still, it must be noted that this priority of and for the human is not an absolute exclusion of all that is non-human. However, insofar as conscious experience is a significant distinction, the ethical event is likely restricted to the context of those things which have conscious experiences of being, and the ethical event is cast with reference in terms of things which have conscious experiences of being. This would be to say that the crushing of a lump of coal is not an ethical event with regards to the lump of coal itself – certainly inasmuch as that coal has no experience of being.
Harman makes it a point to note that during his discussion of psychism in Totality and Infinity Levinas “makes no mention here of animal psyches” or, therefore, animal consciousness or animal conscious experiences. However, it is also to be noted that Levinas and others were aware that Levinas’ concentration on – and the manner in which he expressed – what he would eventually present in terms of otherwise-than-being, invited consideration into the apparently conscious experience which animals have of being.
Levinas’ very brief essay, The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights,8 is his best known work regarding animal being and the possibility of animal otherwise-than-being. However, that essay is not what Levinas would consider a strictly philosophical endeavor. As he admits very near the beginning of the essay, it commences with theology, but he prefers not to do theology; so, he tries to move on, saying, “But enough of this theology! It is the dog … that I am especially interested in. I am thinking of Bobby.” He then finds himself enmeshed in very typical generalized ways of thinking about dogs, but this approach reveals nothing about the particular dog, Bobby, leaving Levinas to exclaim, “But enough of allegories! We have read too many fables and we are still taking the name of a dog in a figurative sense.”
In the end, Levinas simply has no access to the thoughts had by this particular dog given the name Bobby, and he risks resorting to anthropomorphizing Bobby just so that he can attribute to him the very sorts of thoughts and behavior which amount to otherwise-than-being. So, instead, Levinas simply notes that, while the Nazi guards for the camp in which Levinas was interned “stripped us of our human skin” while and the local “children and women who passed by and sometimes raised their eyes” to face the prisoners and risk noticing them and the propriety of responding to them as persons – something which they seem never to have done, it was only the dog who expressed apparent gladness for the very being, the presence of the prisoners.
Whether or not that dog actually effected his own instance of otherwise-than-being, it was most clear that those other proximal humans did no such thing, and, yet, it is precisely in the otherwise-than-being that “the human, as such [supposedly] begins”.
Whether or not that dog or any other (conscious living) thing is aware of – or intends to act in a way which would be in accord with – what humans can conceive of in terms of otherwise-than-being, it is clear that humans have not paid sufficient attention to being human, to doing that with which “the human, as such begins”. And this is a matter of, in more than one sense of the word, priority.
In The Ethical Importance of Being Human: God and Humanism in Levinas’s Philosophy, Pat J. Gehrke notes that according to Levinas “‘the ethical extends to all living being’ and that ‘one cannot entirely refuse the face of an animal’”. Nevertheless, “the ‘priority’ or the ‘prototype’ for any ethical consideration of the nonhuman must always first be human ethics.” This is to say that, even if it risks some degree of anthropomorphizing, the responsibility encountered in the face of the other – even a non-human living other – signals an ethical event in terms of the fact that this other has a conscious experience of being.
Whether the ethical event which confronts in the face of the other can be fully or even adequately systematized into an ethical or a moral theory (and it is doubtful that it can be) has no bearing on the ethical event itself.
Is this way of thinking too human-centered? Hardly.
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1 The quote is from Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak, To the Other, Purdue University Series in the History of Philosophy (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1993) and is drawn from Corey Beals, Levinas and the Wisdom of Love (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), p. 54.
2 Seán Hand, The Levinas Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), p. 5.
3 Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous, translated from the French by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (Countinuum: London and New York, 2006), pp. vii-viii.
4 For a related discussion about co-operation, gregariousness, and sociability which is easily extended to include altruism, see the essay, More than Justified.
5 Vladimir Jankelevitch, Forgiveness, translated by Andrew Kelley (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 42.
6 Levinas, Entre Nous, p. 88.
7 See Beals, p. 37.
8 Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, translated by Seán Hand (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 151-153.