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.