Monday, May 12, 2008

Emmanuel Levinas

An excellent short article on French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in New Humanist. I have barely heard his name but I really liked this summary of his ideas:

"In his 1961 masterpiece Totality and Infinity, Levinas argued that beyond ontology – the basics of existence – is an irreducible ethical sense that arises in us when we come “face to face” with “the Other”. It is experiential, and therefore transcends theorising – it just happens. This Other is always another person, and is always, Levinas says, “absolutely other”, always absolutely inscrutable. We can never objectify, theorise, or reduce the Other to a likeness of one’s self, or to an ontological category. We may meditate insularly on Being, but the Other always comes to us unexpectedly, and calls us out of ourselves and into an ethical confrontation. The unbridgeable gap between us gives rise to a “metaphysical desire” for discourse and reciprocity, which can never be completely fulfilled, but remains all the more powerful for that reason. We may choose to shun the call of the Other or to subject him to our will, but not even by murdering him can we dissolve the infinite gulf between us, and objectify him, as the Nazis attempted to do to European Jewry. And no matter how we may treat the Other, he is always justified in his existence, and speaks to an innate need in us to justify our own existence in his presence, for he is always higher than one’s self, is never subsumed by Being, and always remains outside any totalising mode of thought (such as Nazism). In this sense, the Other is “infinite”."

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