Sunday, 18 September 2016

Derrida on 'Levinas' & Levinas on 'Ethics'

Jacques Derrida’s moving funeral speech on the death of his close friend Emmanuel Levinas, at his cemetery in Pantin on December 27, 1995 has gone down in history as one of the finest eulogies ever.

Levinas, a great French intellectual, had a great influence on the young Jacques Derrida, a fellow French Jew whose immensely popular book Writing and Difference contains an essay, "Violence and Metaphysics", on Levinas.

To Derrida, ‘Levinas does not want to propose laws or moral rules… it is a matter of [writing] an ethics of ethics.’ An ethics of ethics means, here, the exploration of conditions of possibility of any interest in good actions or lives. In light of that, it can be said that Levinas is exploring the meaning of intersubjectivity and lived immediacy in the light of three themes: transcendence, existence, and the human other. In short, His work is based on the ‘ethics of the Other’.  

Levinas himself describes ‘ethics as first philosophy’, and according to him, ‘the Other is not knowable and cannot be made into an object of the self, as is done by traditional metaphysics’ (which Levinas called "ontology"). He prefers to think of philosophy as the ‘wisdom of love’ rather than the ‘love of wisdom’. In his view, responsibility precedes any "objective searching after truth".

More on Levinas from the 'Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy' for you -

The Impact of the Other on Me

Descriptions of the encounter with another person lies at the core of Levinas’ thought. That encounter evinces a particular feature: the other impacts me unlike any worldly object or force. I can constitute the other person cognitively, on the basis of vision, as an alter ego. I can see that another human being is “like me,” acts like me, appears to be the master of her conscious life. That was Edmund Husserl's basic phenomenological approach to constituting other people within a shared social universe.

A Case for An Intersubjective Ethos

But Husserl's constitution lacks, Levinas argues, the core element of intersubjective life: the other person addresses me, calls to me. He does not even have to utter words in order for me to feel the summons implicit in his approach. It is this encounter that Levinas describes and approaches from multiple perspectives (e.g., internal and external). He will present it as fully as it is possible to introduce an affective event into everyday language without turning it into an intellectual theme. Beyond any other philosophical concerns, the fundamental intuition of Levinas's philosophy is the non-reciprocal relation of responsibility.

Intersubjectivity as Lived Immediacy: Language as Response/Dialogue

For Levinas, an ‘I’ lives out its embodied existence according to modalities. It consumes the fruits of the world. It enjoys and suffers from the natural elements. It constructs shelters and dwellings. It carries on the social and economic transactions of its daily life. Yet, no event is as affectively
disruptive for a consciousness holding sway in its world than the encounter with another person. In this encounter (even if it later becomes competitive or instrumental), the ‘I’ first experiences itself as called and liable to account for itself. It responds. The ‘I’'s response is as if to a nebulous command. Nothing says that the other gave a de facto command. The command or summons is part of the intrinsic relationality. With the response comes the beginning of language as dialogue. The origin of language, for Levinas, is always response—a responding-to-another, that is, to her summons. Dialogue arises ultimately through that response. Herein lie the roots of intersubjectivity as lived immediacy. Levinas has better terms for it: responsibility is the affective, immediate experience of “transcendence” and “fraternity.”

On his 1972 book titled Humanism and the Other

In his short yet profound 1972 book titled Humanism and the Other Levinas argues that, it is not only possible but of the highest exigency to understand one's humanity through the humanity of others. In paperback for the first time, Levinas's work here is based in a new appreciation for ethics and takes new distances from phenomenology, idealism, and skepticism to rehabilitate humanism and restore its promises. Painfully aware of the long history of dehumanization that reached its apotheosis in Hitler and Nazism, Levinas does not underestimate the difficulty of reconciling oneself with another. The humanity of the human, Levinas argues, is not discoverable through mathematics, rational metaphysics, or introspection. Rather, it is found in the recognition that the other person comes first, that the suffering and mortality of others are the obligations and morality of the self.

On His Swansong Alterity and Transcendence in the 1995

On a similar vein, he also wrote his last book titled, Alterity and Transcendence in 1995, the year in which he passed away. This book discusses transcendence - not as our our relationship to a mysterious, sacred realm but in the idea of our worldly, subjective relationships to others. To Levinas, ‘Interpersonal relations are the basis of transcendence’, and he throws light on the rights of individuals (and how they are inextricably linked to those of others), the concept of peace, and the dialogic nature of philosophy, and signs off by giving a call to modern thinkers to investigate not merely the true but the good!

Excerpts from Derrida’s Funeral Speech on his friend Emmanuel Levinas and His Philosophy

For a long time, for a very long time, I've feared having to say Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. I knew that my voice would tremble at the moment of saying it, and especially saying it aloud, right here, before him, so close to him, pronouncing this word of adieu, this word a-Dieu, which, in a certain sense, I get from him, a word that he will have taught me to think or to pronounce otherwise.

 By meditating upon what Emmanuel Levinas wrote about the French word adieu-which I will recall in a few moments-I hope to find a sort of encouragement to speak here. And I would like to do so with unadorned, naked words, words as childlike and disarmed as my sorrow.

Whom is one addressing at such a moment? And in whose name would one allow oneself to do so? Often those who come forward to speak, to speak publicly, thereby interrupting the animated whispering, the secret or intimate exchange that always links one, deep inside, to a dead friend or master, those who make themselves heard in a cemetery, end up addressing directly, straight on, the one who, as we say, is no longer, is no longer living, no longer there, who will no longer respond. With tears in their voices, they sometimes speak familiarly to the other who keeps silent, calling upon him without detour or mediation, apostrophizing him, even greeting him or confiding in him. This is not necessarily out of respect for convention, not always simply part of the rhetoric of oration.

It is rather so as to traverse speech at the very point where words fail us, since all language that would return to the self, to us, would seem indecent, a reflexive discourse that would end up coming back to the stricken community, to its consolation or its mourning, to what is called, in a confused and terrible expression, "the work of mourning."

Concerned only with itself, such speech would, in this return, risk turning away from what is here our law the law as straightforwardness or uprightness – to speak straight on, to address oneself directly to the other, and to speak for the other whom one loves and admires, before speaking o/him. To say to him adieu, to him, Emmanuel, and not merely to recall what he first taught us about a certain Adieu.

This word droiture - "straightforwardness" or "uprightness" - is another word that I began to hear otherwise and to learn when it came to me from Emmanuel Levinas. Of all the. places where he speaks of uprightness, what first comes to mind is one of his Four Talmudic Readings, where uprightness names what is, as he says, "stronger than death." But let us also keep from trying to find in everything that is said to be "stronger than death" a refuge or an alibi, yet another consolation. To define uprightness, Emmanuel Levinas says, in his commentary on the Tractate Shabbath that consciousness is the "urgency of a destination leading to the Other and not an eternal return to self."

The entire text can be found HERE

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy @
Adieu to Levis @

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