Graham Harman and the Levinas Challenge

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.

1.

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.

2.

Something similar can be seen taking place in a passage by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his autobiography. King says: Continue reading

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More than Justified

An essay regarding the natures of love, values, justification, and being with particular reference to Emmanuel Levinas

In an excerpt from his book, One Body, Alexander Pruss says,

It is not love … that justifies the general willingness to act lovingly, but the value of the other and the kind of relationship that one stands in to the other apart from the fact of love.

Love is commonly regarded as a strictly affective state which can be described in terms of certain sorts of strongly held preferences. These preferences, in themselves, provide the details about – and insight into – that willingness to act to which Pruss refers. However, if love is only an affective state which can be characterized entirely in terms of what is (for whatever reason and however strongly) preferred, then love is simply a type of preference, and to act lovingly is essentially to act in accord with what is preferred. That would be to say that to act lovingly is to act preferentially. In that case, Pruss would be correct to deny that the preference which is love justifies either the willingness or the acting preferentially inasmuch as any (significant or more deeply informative) justification would have to depend upon the basis for the preference at issue.

In itself, Pruss’ referenced statement suggests that it is the value of an other person which can justify the willingness to act and the act undertaken (and, presumably, the preference that is allegedly supposed to be associated with love). Were that the case, then love would be an essentially irrelevant matter (or love would be something redundant, or, to be generous, love would be of secondary or derivative importance at best).1 At the very least, love would be by its nature an always conditional matter wherein love is earned or deserved such that it properly follows from the value which is justifiably attributable to that which is loved/preferred.

Then again, it can well be said that to love or to prefer is to value, in which case referring to the value of the other provides no more justification than does referring to the fact that the other is loved or preferred.2 Consequently, this brings into question the very nature of value – specifically whether and how value could be a matter apart from preference and, accordingly, love.

There are two ways which come immediately to mind for considering the nature of value: Does value necessarily indicate something about the always contextual functioning of that which is valued? Or, is any thing or any person of value in and of itself, himself, or herself, simply for being?

If value is only a matter of contextual functioning, that which is (to be) valued is (to be) valued as a means which attains its value in accord with what results from its functioning. This seems an unproblematic way of regarding value for such things as transistors, for example. The transistor in itself can be thought of as being of potential value, but even this value depends upon some supposed functioning which would itself result in something else of value. In that case, it is the resultant value which is the basis (the justification) for assigning any value to the transistor, and the question still remains whether the value attributed to the result is justified apart from the fact that the resultant state is preferred over some other condition.

In other words, where value is a matter of functioning, value is still indicative of preference. Hence, where value is a matter of (or derives from) functioning, value is never apart from preference (even in the form of love, if love is simply an affective state indicating preferences).

The very notion that value might only be related to functioning has relevance to the alternative concept in which a thing or a person might have value in and of itself, himself, or herself, simply for being. The notion of functioning contrasts with the image of being-in-isolation brought to mind when it is suggested that a thing or a person might have value alone in itself, his self, or her self. This image of value in isolation suggests that being, at its most fundamental level, is non-relational – perhaps even inactive or inert.

Emmanuel Levinas takes up the topic of being in “the verbal sense of the word” whereby “being is suggested and understood … as a process of being” (see, for instance, the preface to Entre Nous).3 By this understanding, living things and non-living things are certainly beings. They exist as existents within the process of being. However, this does not mean that the existents within the process of being are necessarily more fundamental than the process of being. Continue reading

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The Importance of Nonsense

The transcendent is often alleged to be ineffable. Some will quickly accept this supposed characteristic of the transcendent and tie it to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” in order to insist on the irrelevance of the transcendent or in order to disdain as nonsense all discussion of and reference to the transcendent. Indeed, in his Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein himself appears quite willing to assign matters of the transcendent to the realm of nonsense (without, in his case, being disdainful):

You will say: Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don’t mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly … that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value …

That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. …

Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense.

To say that there “can be no science” which investigates the transcendent is to reveal something essential about the nature of science without addressing very much about the transcendent. Inasmuch as science seeks to attain knowledge, and insofar as knowledge regards awareness of truth(s), science is necessarily committed and restricted in its efforts to those matters which are (presumed to be) actually determinate since a truth regards, describes, or references some definiteness about a state, condition, or context.1

More specifically, science is concerned with determinate matters which recur consistently (and, hence, predictably). This is to say that at the heart of science is the attempt to discern patterns and, in particular, the range of conditions – the limits – within which those patterns recur. Were there no such recurrent patterns – were there not the determinateness which makes those patterns discernible – none of what we refer to as science could be accomplished. Continue reading

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Effecting the Transcendent

(I would like to thank Paul Newall and Dr. William T. Clark, III, for taking the time to read through the various versions of the thoughts and expressions contained herein (originally posted as The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Parts 1-12) and for the significant contributions of their many criticisms, suggestions, and discussions.)

1. Introduction

The appeal of movies such as The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life is generated predominantly by their serious concern with the matter of transcendence. Transcendence is commonly conceived of in terms of there being a transcendent realm, a part of reality said to be beyond the physicality ordinarily referred to as nature. Accordingly, the transcendent tends to be thought of as non-natural, supra-natural, super-natural – in essence, other-worldly. However, these are metaphysical descriptions which reveal next to nothing whatsoever about the transcendent itself, its characteristics, its qualities. Metaphysical descriptions fail in particular to reveal anything about whether and how the transcendent is at all relevant to lives being lived. Even attributing to the transcendent a metaphysical immanence (a not-physically-identifiable presence within the natural and, hence, a this-worldly aspect) does nothing to depict the relevance of the transcendent, even if it does suffice intellectually as providing an ultimate ground or foundation for (thinking about) all aspects of reality.

The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life utilize this-worldly settings to evoke the sense – the experience – of a need for some sort of transcendence, a need for the individual to reach beyond the condition and the context of his or her own self in order to bring something new and better into the world, to take the world beyond itself, to have both the person’s own self and the world transcend. In both of these movies, it is the transcendent quality called grace upon which focus is set eventually.

This grace is a loving regard for the being of persons; this grace precedes any merit that a person might earn; it is, therefore, a love which occurs despite the character of a person and in active hope that the person will proceed beyond the condition of his or her current self. Grace is, therefore, an active quality, an always transcendent act, one forever concerned with transcending and transcendence. But, this is not the primarily metaphysical rendering of grace so often encountered in religious scholarship. Instead, these movies are concerned with how grace (and transcendent qualities in general) can be effected within the contexts of this-worldliness.

To this end the movies provide situations mired in the sort of this-worldliness that seems so remote from the transcendent as to almost exclude even the possibility of anything transcendent being at all relevant to the here and now, only to then indicate that the transcendent can most certainly be effected even in the midst of the worst ways of this world. However, because of the very nature of this-worldly being, effecting the transcendent cannot help but depend upon some preparatory conditioning for recognizing and becoming aware of the very characteristics which are part of the transcendent. Most important to this preparation – more important than musings about the metaphysics of the transcendent – is investigation into and explication of the characteristics or qualities of the transcendent, even if the transcendent and its characteristics remain only partially expressible. Continue reading

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The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 12 of 12

(Continued from Part 11)

12. Some additional thoughts

In Witt’s response to Fife, Bell saw grace in the midst of war. But it was just a moment, and the question remains: How is that transcendent love we know as grace to be effected more durably in the world? It may be that the only way to more durably effect the transcendent in the world is to effect it more often. This is to say that the question – How is the transcendent to be effected more durably in the world? – may well be the wrong question. Instead, the much more proper question could be: How can the transcendent be effected more often in the world?

The transcendent is often alleged to be ineffable. Some will quickly accept this supposed characteristic of the transcendent and tie it to Wittgenstein’s statement, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” in order to insist on the irrelevance of the transcendent or in order to disdain as nonsense all discussion of and reference to the transcendent. Indeed, in his Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein himself appears quite willing to assign matters of the transcendent to the realm of nonsense (without, in his case, being disdainful): Continue reading

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The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 11 of 12

(Continued from Part 10)

11. Grace: transcending transcendent responsibility

Bell is frozen in awe as he looks at Witt. Bell has seen through the world of appearances and perceived a great goodness which he had never before noticed – not just in Witt, but – in anyone, a goodness so rarely perceived as to give the impression of being unworldly, a holy greatness, the sort of rare greatness which gives meaning to the term holy.

Witt had for some time been dedicated to seeking out the most trying situations, thinking that it was in those contexts where he might most meaningfully effect that transcendent responsibility of which he had become aware, but no one could be aware of Witt’s motivation. After all, Witt’s dedication was to an effecting which was wholly unconcerned with appearing in order to be noticed.

Here, too, in the river, Witt’s dedication was unchanged. He certainly hoped that Fife would be eased by his presence, but Witt sought nothing more than that Fife would feel a little relieved. Accordingly, it was not at all in Witt’s mind that Fife might seek to figure out why Witt would do what he had done and might happen to see in Witt’s face the responsibility for the other that Witt had recognized in Fife’s face. For that matter, it was not Witt’s intent that Bell or anyone else might grasp why Witt acted as he did.

But, Bell did realize what he had just seen. And what he had seen was something far beyond the call of duty; it was something more than bravery. Continue reading

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The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 10 of 12

(Continued from Part 9)

10. Levinasian responsibility and the military ethic

When Colonel Tall relieves Capt. Staros of his command after the first battle, he puts Lt. Band in charge of Charlie Company. Band is no leader. This lack of leadership is foreshadowed in two scenes prior to Band being put in command.

As first the medic and then Welsh respond to the mortally wounded soldier’s repeated agonized calls for someone to help him, Band says to Staros, “Fortunately, Jim, the fate of the company doesn’t depend on one man.” Staros does not reply. Then later, as casualties continue to mount and Charlie Company gets bogged down, Tall orders Staros to have his men undertake a frontal assault. Staros objects,12 and then Band interjects.

Staros: “Colonel, I don’t think that you fully understand what’s going on down here. I formally request to be given permission for patrol reconnaissance around to the right … through the jungle. I believe the entire position, sir, can be outflanked with a maneuver there in force.”

Tall: “No! … There will be no flanking move! … Now, attack, Staros! That’s a direct order!”

Staros: “Sir, I must tell you that I refuse to obey your order.”

Band: “It’s not your fault, Jim. He’s ordering you to.”

Staros again ignores Band, and, after asking Tall once more to permit the flanking move – which Tall still adamantly refuses – Staros tells Tall, “Colonel, I refuse to take my men up there in a frontal attack. It’s suicide, sir. I’ve lived with these men, sir, for two and a half years, and I will not order them all to their deaths.”

What those two scenes indicate about Band is that he lacks any sense of personal responsibility towards the men of his company, and he lacks any sense of responsibility towards those men as persons. For him, no person matters. This might be an attitude adopted as a way of trying to buffer himself from having to face the deep horrors of lives lost. He might be afraid that if he were to allow himself to see the others as persons, as unique selves, then he might not be able to function as a soldier – especially in battle as those unique selves are being killed. Instead of investing his own person in a responsibility towards others, Band has decided that his only responsibility is to be that which is imposed upon him as orders to be effected. In effect, he hopes that there will never be a need for him to have or use judgment. Continue reading

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