Levinas and the Problem of Metaphysics

Philosophy Series Contents (to be updated with each new installment)

Philosophy Series 1 – Prelude to the Philosophy Series

Philosophy Series 2 – Introduction

Philosophy Series 3 – Appendix A, Part 1

Philosophy Series 4 – The Pre-Socratics – Hesiod

Philosophy Series 5 – A Detour of Time

Philosophy Series 6 – The Origin

Philosophy Series 7 – Eros

Philosophy Series 8 – Thales

Philosophy Series 9 – An Interlude to Anaximander

Philosophy Series 10 – On the Way to Anaximander: Language and Proximity

Philosophy Series 11 – Aristotle and Modernity: The Eternal and Science

Philosophy Series 12 – Levinas and the Problem of Metaphysics

Philosophy Series 13 – On Origin


Levinas and the Problem of Metaphysics

In a previous post I made the statement, “The transcendent step into externality and away from moaning, groaning, complaining and self-pity is not ‘out there’ somewhere. It is in simply putting one leg in front of the other to make our democracy live up to its promise.” This may be a bit mystifying for many unfamiliar with Levinas but for anyone familiar with Levinas it would need further clarification. From what I know of Levinas, he would not have thought a “step into externality” possible. In Levinas, externality is not an ontology, a mode of being. In fact, the essence of ontology is total-ism; reducing the other to the idea of the other. Essence and ontology totalize the other. It commits murder to the other; to the absolute alterity of the other. While I understand this is his position I find a point of departure between Levinas and myself to some extent regarding this particular point.

Levinas thought that metaphysics always had a hint, a trace, of the other which was effaced as history. He was not willing to completely think of metaphysics as simply another deprecated form of ontology. Certainly it was misunderstood in history as an ontology but Levinas wanted to leave room for an erasure of a trace, as Derrida might think it, in metaphysics. This curious tenant in Levinas might have tentacles which extend beyond his ingenious body of work. Specifically, if metaphysics as a notion can have some positive affinity, event in its erasure, with the absolute externality of the other, why wouldn’t it be possible for the notion of externality to also hold open a similar shadow of the other as the notion of ‘transcendent’ equally holds for Levinas?

From a Platonic and later Hegelian point of view, this possibility holds open the way for a step into the erased ‘essence’ of language as negation. From the earliest Greek philosophers, the ‘privation’, the gaping void, can be taken into thinking as Heidegger’s essence of metaphysics or Hegel’s essential operative in the step from thesis to antithesis and in turn to Aufhebung
(thought perhaps too simply as synthesis). For Levinas, a Heideggerian reduction of metaphysics, to dasein’s (being there) thrown nullity, is an ontological totality. It leaves out the absolute gap in the face of the other. For Levinas, Hegel recognized the problematic nature of negation but did not think outside purely ‘logical’ terms. By ‘logical’ I mean what the Science of the Logic thinks as Bergriff, absolute Concept. In my thinking, both Heidegger and Hegel have both brilliantly refined and simultaneously perhaps lost a measure of the richness we find in the earliest, ancient Greek thought (and perhaps in even more strands of ancient thinking from Babylon, Egypt, Lydia and Phoenicia of which I know very little). I have made discussions to shore up these possibilities in previous posts. One of the main tenants of my philosophy series has been and will be that the Milesian School and further, the Ionians had a richness that later refining avenues of thought like Neoplatonism lost.

The Peripatetic School began shortly after Aristotle’s death. Many scholars seem to think that the school was more inclined towards Plato and the Italian strand in antiquity where Pythagoras plays an important role. In the later Christian, Latin, era the Peripatetics were revived along with a more Platonic inclination towards the Ionians and the Milesian School. The Ionians were more properly influenced and represented by Hesiod, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Heraclitus. Italian thinking in early ancient Greece as evidenced in Pythagoras was monistic. In later, Latin thinking it took on polytheistic flavors. My thinking along these lines has gravitated towards scholars which have, in my estimation, dismantled much of the lens through which scholasticism and its predecessors have limited our vision of the Ionian philosophers. Heidegger certainly had an acute sense of this loss of a beginning in Greek thinking. My impression is that Hegel also had an understanding of this scholarly strand but in his refined thinking understood the advent of Christianity and its Latin roots as a further progress in Spirit, the Concept. He wrote of individualism, a personal relationship with God, as more enlightened in terms of responsibility and as a more concretizing moment of the Idea. In effect Heidegger was more critical of the loss of the earliest Greek openings and Hegel was more dismissive of its possibilities in terms of the further development of Christianity.

For Hegel, monism seems to find its essence and concrete reality in the Idea. Hegelians seem to think that their virtue in thought consists in the abnegation of dualism, pluralism and its many headed Medusas in history. It seems to me that their notion of Idea certainly departs from the common understanding of idea. Perhaps the vernacular of idea is only a shadow, an erased traced, of what their thinking of Idea is. From the earliest, Hegelianism seems to me to take up a monism of absolute Spirit. This later became more concrete in the polytheism of Rome just before Christianity. However, the Idea of Hegel cannot be set in some sort of opposition from the dualistic notion of materialism. Materialism itself, as Hegel understood, is an idea which cannot be dismantled from the dialectic. The development and movement of Idea are the footprints of history and the totality of Spirit. Certainly, much of this has resonances with Pythagoras, Plato and Neoplatonic thinking.

For Heidegger, these developments highlighted in Hegel, were a forgetting of the Ionian philosophers and the Platonic lens though which modernity thinks of Aristotle. Heidegger finds in Aristotle a lost note that harkens back to the Ionians. Monism thinks everything as one substance (from Latin root). The problem monism opens up is how to explain apparent change. The Milesian School as part of Ionia started with the observation of phusis, our transformed word, ‘physics’. Milesian philosophers wanted to move from the myths of Homer toward what showed itself from more ancient notions as simpler constitutions of water, air, fire and earth.

For Thales, water was primary. For Anaximenes, it was air. For Anaximander, apeiron. Apeiron is the unbound, without limit. This very rich and ancient notion was and is difficult to refine both from lack of ancient source materials and from historic refinements which form a lens through which we think we understand such a lost notion which can only exceed itself and give rise to later developments of the Platonism/Aristotelian difference, a Latin Constantinople, Hegel and Heidegger.

In modernity, apeiron takes the form of energy and logic. Logic, the principle of non-contradiction is the essence of Hegel and appears most obvious for modernity in a deprecated form. Logic is for modernity what constitutes truth. Logic even dominated classic physics although physics has once again taken up the suspicious garb of an excess to logic in quantum mechanics, dark matter and dark energy. In Medieval times the hint of the excess in apeiron was found in God but later lost to everything that could be doubted in Descartes (although found in its way back in his thinking). The dialectic in Hegel truly liberated Idea from an unaccounted for excess. In the Logic, the genius of Hegel’s system is that it allows no seepage which must be later accounted for in terms of an ‘x’ factor where ‘x’ can be substance, matter (dark and otherwise), energy (dark and otherwise), body or even exteriority. There is no excess outside the Idea. For a Hegelian, exteriority is nothing other than an idea which can only be taken up again into the light of the dialectic.

Heidegger was fully aware of these movements away from apeiron towards a historic refinement but he also explicated a forgotten and deemphasized theme in Aristotle. Aristotle’s notion of the relationship of changing forms and the medium from which change is comprehended, make sense of change (even more so provide the basis from which we are even able to be able to notice change), is Being. For Heidegger, Being, ontos, ontology was profoundly thought in Aristotle. For Heidegger, Being is the most mundane, already understood and most easily forgotten strain which came to prominence in the early beginning, the arche, of the Ionians. Being holds together a ‘there’ he called dasein (‘me’ as the there of being). Heidegger spoke of many modalities and ways of being from the phenomenological tradition of Husserl. As for Husserl’s transcendental apperceptions and Heidegger’s Being there is a fine subtlety, complexity and easily misunderstood (as semblance) tendency Heidegger termed everydayness. Everydayness falls in das man (the they self) and forgets its authentic relationship to Being. This is the early Heidegger but after the mystic ‘turn’ in his latter life he resists the all too easy pre-understood fall into the thinking of Being with what he terms ereignis, an event of appropriation. In all of Heidegger’s thinking I think there is a struggle to reawaken to notions of the Ionians and once again, for another first time, encounter apeiron. However, for me, the fait accompli in Heidegger is the gap given by the neuter and the he or the she.

In Levinas, exteriority is not in the possibilities of the idea. It is not neuter. It faces us as the other. The mystification of the idea still remains on the dead stuff of substance. For the Ionians this was not such an easy reduction as evidenced by the widespread animism of their era. However, animism thought through the modern lens once again falls into the trap of the neuter. Animals are not so much thought as he’s or she’s except in purely biologically reduced terms. This notion of he’s and she’s borrows much from the historic and deep rooted notion of the neuter. The neuter can be thought as the negation of the he or the she. For Levinas, the he and the she is the face of the other person. In this way, the struggle to idea-ize externality which can never be completed is finally put to rest not as fully understood but as terminated in Ethics.

For Kant and Hegel ethics is duty. Ethics proceeds from idea. It is the altruism we owe the Idea. For Levinas, Ethics is responsibility facing the other. Concreteness of the Idea still finds place in the light, in the possibility for consciousness. The error of presence from early Greek thinking easily forgets any excess to presence and light. Only in the negation can exteriority find its way into the modern lens, modern sight. Sight dominates being for modernity and easily loses the limitation of sight. It takes sight to be Idea and everything else as negation. Thus, negation is sight’s answer to exteriority. It is totalizing, reductionary and finds no way past itself to the other. However, notice that negation which is way too easily pre-understood as the not of idea, of sight, must be reduced to an opposite to be effectively used in the dialectic. Only if negation is simply understood as opposite can the dialectic proceed. This clever move by Hegel thrusts idea into a movement of opposites which can only find a Pythagorean harmony from the cacophony of excess in the dialectic. However, the dialectic as totality fails to account for anything which can possibly exceed it except in the reduction of negation. For Hegel, ethics must proceed from an obligation to the demands of Idea and self-determination. For Levinas, exteriority is not reduced and summed up in negation but remains as absolute alterity in the face to face encounter of the other. Ethics is therefore responsibility before the transcendent alterity of a he or a she that faces me. Levinas finds this radical exteriority is what metaphysics always aimed for but failed in history. He also thinks language and even world in Heidegger’s sense as a recoil from the face of the other. In this move I think we can gleam something of language and its failure as a medium, a mixture in Aristotle’s simplistic thinking of the ancient Greeks.

Hegelians are correct in their assessment that idea has relevance. However, the relevance found in the light of the dialectic cannot hermetically seal us in Idea, in a monad of System. Language can only show based on privation, its absolute inability to be able. Thus negation is the virtue and service language provides us. We can know what is not as in the limit of which apeiron refers in its ‘a’ of privation. Limit certainly plays a role in apeiron but only to make way for what it cannot be. ‘What it cannot be’ is what Being cannot be. It is what Idea cannot think. It is an excess which cannot be neuter, cannot be extinguished in light, reason and thought. It can only be faced in the exteriority of the face of the he or the she.

Some have criticized Levinas as anthropomorphic. The obsession with the merely human has also been a way of totalizing violence with regard to nature (physis). However, isn’t anthropomorphism the radical loss of the exteriority of the other? Isn’t it yet again another attempt to idea-ize all, a totality? If apeiron, Heraclitus’ river which can never be stepped in twice and chaos, the fertile void, the yawning gap of Hesiod and other ancients is merely mystification, it is merely idea; the stubborn refusal to let go. If exteriority faces us in the other we feel we can idea-ize it without losing the other; we can transform the other. This transformation can only succeed as negation; as Idea.

Effectively, we have the choice for idea based ethics and ethics founded in the epiphany of the face with all its blemishes, beauty and age. If epiphany opens toward externality then the “step into externality” is the step towards the other which absolutely confounds us and also leaves room for humility and obligation. If negation ends at limit in light and idea we only have an abstraction of ourselves which can only have relative degrees of concretization and is a poor and violent mask for the effacement of the other. In the other we may find a way towards the apeiron and in so doing find a respite between the Greek and the Jew; a very difficult task from a purely occidental, historic lens.

Philosophy Series 13 – On Origin