15 May 2014

Lévinas' baby and the bath-water

In an article first published in 1951 entitled 'Is Ontology Fundamental?', Lévinas briefly presents a case for a negative answer to this question. This negative answer bears and marks his entire thinking, and that to such an extent that it is by and large a negative movement, akin even to negative theology. There is no doubt that Lévinas has a genuine phenomenon in view, a phenomenon that opened up and provided the essential impetus for dialogical philosophy and is roughly indicated by the grammatical difference between the third person and the second person. Lévinas is also correct in pointing out that Heidegger's fundamental ontology, as presented in Sein und Zeit and lecture courses throughout the twenties, does not enter into an interpretation of this phenomenon but rather keeps it at arm's length. But whereas Lévinas argues for a strong distinction between what he calls metaphysics, which is concerned with infinitude, and ontology, which he claims to be totalizing, the thesis presented in the present excursus is that Heidegger, even in shying away from the dialogical phenomenon, provides an indispensable placeholder and starting-point for adequately interpreting it. To put it colloquially, Lévinas throws the baby out with the bath-water. Moreover, he insists on mixing theology with philosophy, with the result that his texts take on the hue of a dogmatic, morally exalted, incantatory insistence. This will be shown in the following by selecting passages from the above-mentioned article which is representative of and quintessential to Lévinas' enduring stance toward Heidegger's thinking. Some comments will also be made on Totalité et Infini and Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence.

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