a response on behalf of Levinas to one of my articles

February 10, 2013

I just noticed an interesting and well-written post by Michael S. Pearl, HERE, in response to my article “Levinas and the Triple Critique of Heidegger.” (Available HERE.) Incidentally, whereas that article dealt with Totality and Infinity, another piece entitled “Aesthetics as First Philosophy: Levinas and the Non-Human,” HERE, deals with Otherwise Than Being, and my first two books were concerned primarily with Existence and Existents.

It’s a busy week with no time for a point-by-point response, but here is my response in a nutshell.

*Pearl makes much of my saying in the “Triple Critique” article that Levinas “seems” or “tends” to privilege the human. He reads too much hesitation into that language of tendencies. One can often find counter-examples to any claim about any author, and to speak of seeming tendencies is simply a way of acknowledging that “yes, you can find remarks here or there that lead in the opposite direction, but one must focus on the main tendencies of an author when explicating their ideas.”

For example, it is completely fair to say that Heidegger tends to privilege the human in his constant discussions of the correlation between Sein and Dasein. Someone could always cite the 1929/30 lectures on animal life as a place where Heidegger tries to do animals justice. But from reading those lectures it is clear that Heidegger can’t do much with animals other than make them a placeholder for a third type of entity that he doesn’t really know how to handle. We are fully prepared for Heidegger’s views in 1929/30 that the stone is worldless and the human is world-forming; this actually doesn’t take us much further than Heidegger’s earlier writings, given that his notion of “forming” is also a placeholder and never given much further determination. Meanwhile, the “world-poverty” of animals is present in the text, but doesn’t do much more than sit there awaiting further inquiry: the numerous anecdotes about bees are fascinating, and wonderfully concrete compared with Heidegger’s usual analyses, but I see no evidence that Heidegger breaks much ground in discussing the mode of being of non-human animals. It’s merely a placeholder, which is better than nothing, but there’s hardly enough there to complicate Heidegger’s ontology, in which (as for most philosophy since Descartes) we are given an opposition between an ontologically magical human psyche on one side and a non-human, non-self-aware reality on the other. In fact, an entire critique could be written of the philosophy of the subject based on its evasion of the problem of animals– not because animals are a bigger problem than rocks, but simply because animals are a more glaring challenge to the tendency (yes, tendency, because scattered and half-hearted counter-examples can always be found to almost any claim about the history of philosophy– such as Pearl’s references to Levinas talking about the friendly dog at Levinas’s wartime prison camp) to think that we have unproblematic inanimate nature on one side and an utterly wondrous human subject on the other.

*Pearl fails to note that I’m not primarily concerned with ethics in any of these articles, but with ontology. And when it comes to ontology, there is no question that Levinas grants the human subject a miraculous ability to break up inarticulate being (the il y a) into specific beings. That is the entire point of Existence and Existents, and there is nothing in the larger and later books to suggest that Levinas has anything to say about object-object interaction. That wouldn’t change even if Levinas had written a full-blown treatise on the ethical dignity and ontological weight of animals, which of course he never did.

*There are also several places in Pearl’s response where he says things along the following lines:

“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.”

As Pearl notes, there is a good deal of praise for Levinas in the article as well, primarily for his critique of totality as amounting to a critique of exhaustive relational wholes. This is certainly true of Levinas, and Pearl doesn’t even add that I follow Lingis (in his brilliant but almost unread article on substances in the Catholic Philosophical Quarterly) in seeing Levinas as a lonely but justified reviver of the value of individual substance in contemporary continental philosophy. That’s the main reason that I still see Levinas as the most important reader of Heidegger, more important than Derrida for instance (an obviously minority position on my part). But as regards the italicized passage from Pearl above, I would say two things:

(a) The point is not that “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.” This is never enough, because very few philosophers go so far as to deny that the things have some independence of our thoughts about them. Heidegger certainly embraces this point, since his whole critique of Husserl hinges on the fact that something in the phenomena is never present– hence the need for the tool-analysis. Heck, even Fichte could claim to be aware of an independence in the things, but this does not make him a realist, since reality is thereby always trapped in a correlate with thought as its resisting underside. Believing in a residue behind thought does nothing to dethrone thought in philosophy, since it assumes that thought-world is the unique problem and tells us nothing about the world-world problem (i.e., interaction between individual things that do not have “thought” in the human or even animal sense).

(b) Even though Levinas is aware that thought always faces an other that cannot be assimilated, this does not change the fact that in Existence and Existents (and the point is never explicitly reversed in his later works) reality is treated as an unarticulated whole that is broken into pieces only by thought. And there it is clearly human thought, though even a more full-blown celebration of animals in that work would not have changed the basic point: consciousness for Levinas has the same ontologically magical character that it has in most non-naturalistic philosophies since Descartes.

But I am grateful for Pearl’s detailed and level-headed response.




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