How Levinas Overcame Heidegger

David Sessions explains:

While Heidegger’s central argument was that the meaning of Dasein is nothing more than its existence as possibility—the meaning of individual human being is its being “thrown” into a particular temporal situation—Levinas argued that we are constituted by something even more fundamental than where we find ourselves: the mysterious relation with others that begins in language. That relation places a demand upon us, outside history, that we cannot understand nor escape; it is the ground of our ethical responsibility. Heidegger’s notion of being, where Dasein encounters others only on the basis of its own self-understanding, devalues others by making them like objects that we “possess” and “dominate” by forcing them into our conceptions.

via Emmanuel Levinas and the Receding Possibility of the Infinite | Patrol – A review of religion and the modern world.

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  • Now that’s preaching!

    • Dan Hauge

      Well, preaching to philosophically trained academic theologians, at least 🙂

  • Glad we got that cleared up 🙂

  • Greg Wack

    Tony, In a related/unrelated direction: Who, outside of some Process people, might speak about God as “Divine catalyst”?

    • Evelyn

      “(The) past is … a trail of things and events which is … being … projected from the mouth of the present, like the flames from the tail-vent of a rocket (or monster). …Each person’s ‘present-frame’ is itself a mouth of that monster vomiting out his world of experience and knowledge. We will never be able to find the origin or causes of all things ‘out there’ among older projected things. Their origin is the projection-mechanism itself .. within the psycho-physical organism. And what is being projected is … reality. We have to ‘turn around’ and look back up into the place from which experienced reality is coming. And, having done it, we have to go on living, fully aware of what is really going on … the continuing act of creation.” (Philip Rawson, Tantra – The Indian cult of ecstasy, 1973)

      Levinas’ philosophy doesn’t “overcome” Heidegger’s. It complements it. Given that “the meaning of individual human being is its being ‘thrown”’into a particular temporal situation”, our meaning is derived from the context or paradigm in which we are observing events. This paradigm or “theory” is our current working knowledge of reality. However, this “theory” may be considered to be an illusion and, as we grow and mature and become more aware, our illusions are broken and, through acceptance and humility, new awareness can ensue (the alternative is desperate grasping for control (possession and domination) which leads to stagnation and brokenness). While there is a “fundamental” divine catalyst behind our reality we can’t function (properly motivate ourselves to act) without a working paradigm but, at the same time, we can’t explore and adapt to our changing environment without the ability to change the paradigm. Given the plethora of social environments in which people live, one could say that the divine catalyst is more fundamental than our paradigms because it is common to all of them.

      Disclaimer: Tantra is a 1500-year-old metaphysical practice but I don’t recommend Googling it because you’ll come up with a bunch of web sites promising great sex now. From what book research that I’ve done into tantric sexual practices, the bona fide practices seem to be the kinds of things that are aimed at convincing people not to have sex rather than seek ecstasy through sex and sexuality, while it may be used symbolically in Tantra, is NOT what Tantra is about. All I can say is, if you think you are having Tantric sex you aren’t and if you are having Tantric sex you won’t know about it until long after the fact and then you’ll probably be pretty disgusted about it. IMO

  • Stop imposing my responsibility toward you upon me.

  • Yes, that’s exactly what I have been trying to say all along. Actually I can barely follow it. As much as I would like to be, I’m no Levinas.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    “While both Levinas and Derrida insisted that this unknowable infinity at the bottom of all reason, politics and ethics contained no orthodox religious content, skeptical critics would complain that they had taken a leap into revelation.”

    I’m not familiar with the philosophers discussed here except for a smattering of Heidegger (the ethicist with no morality), I think another way out of the dilemma described in the article is pragmatism. Much to the consternation of philosophers, there may not be root or foundational principles, just a set of rules that developed over time based on individual and social experiences on what actions led to the most just outcomes.

  • KRS

    Jubal, is that similar to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus?

  • Jordan

    To say Levinas is a complement to Heidegger is to miss Levinas’s problem with Heidegger. Of course he is indebted to him, but the problem with Heidegger is that ethics is an afterthought, if at all that. Which allows Heidegger to be a nazi, for Germany to become a ‘great nation’, etc.

    Perhaps you meant that Levinas is still very heideggerian…I’ll grant that. But different too

    • Evelyn

      Ethics are not an afterthought for Heidegger. They are everything. You may think that ethics are an afterthought for him because he does not agree with our ethics and our notion of right and wrong but he was very ethical about National Socialism in Germany. N.B. The Catholic church has practiced genocide multiple times in history so I don’t think that the religious have a corner on ethics.

      The difference between Heidegger and Levinas is that Heidegger rationalizes his ethics within his socio-political context by saying that ethics only have value within that kind of context whereas Levinas points to an ethic outside of direct socio-political context which recognizes the value of the “Other” as being supreme to any ethic that would be held within context. This is more humanitarian but the problem is that once Levinas defines and gives value to the Other he is generating a new context in which his ethics have value. Levinas’ context includes all of humanity whereas Heidegger’s context includes only the group that he identifies with or directly relates to. This is kind of like a species-ization within humanity which we consider bad when someone uses it as a rationale for killing or oppression but can be considered good when we recognize and celebrate differences among people.

  • The emphasis implied by the bold print in this post, absent in the original, and the comments here seem to miss the point of the original post that Levinas’ Other, whether as another person, as the Big Other of God, or as general otherness in the human world and the attendant ethics of alterity are receding in importance in contemporary philosophy.

  • Have any of you guys ever read David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite? He was very angry with Levinas and I couldn’t figure out why. Basically the way I’ve appropriated Levinas into my theology is to say that the purpose of my sanctification is to make me someone who responds with pure mercy to the other rather than making up stories to bracket and dismiss which it seems like I have to do to duck out of the ethical demand. As long as I am fixated on my own self-justification, I will try to avoid the other’s face (and enter into shared vulnerability). The body of Christ to me describes the community where people look into each others’ faces because they have stopped finding ways to subvert the ethical demands created by doing so. Anyway, Bentley Hart wrote stuff that’s really cool but he thinks Levinas’ ontology is awful. I couldn’t tell if he was just being a snob or if there was something legitimately sinister going on.