Micro-Reviews #5: Emmanuel Levinas’ “Alterity & Transcendence”
Overall Rating: 7/10
Emmanuel Levinas’ Alterity & Transcendence is a collection of short essays and dialogues. This mid-sized work is competently translated by Michael B. Smith, although certain passages read rather uncomfortably, seemingly the consequence of an overly-literal translation. These passages lightly affect the readability, but do not seem to detract from the meaning of the original French (particularly for those who are familiar with the idiosyncrasies of French syntax).
The work itself is broken into four larger sections, each of two-four essays. The first, “The Other Transcendence” is by far the most philosophically interesting. Comprising “Philosophy and Transcendence,” “Totality and Totalization,” and “Infinity,” this section engages the most important themes of Levinas’ corpus. Here, Levinas develops his conception of the “totality,” drawing upon a variety of figures, most importantly Heidegger and his notion of “the world.” The “totality” is simply the entirety of beings, of entities within the world, visible (physically and mentally) for the I. Against this visibility, Levinas posits an invisibility of non-intentional consciousness. This concept, directly related to Sartre’s notion of non-positional consciousness and influencing Henry’s later development of affectivity, posits a form of relation which is outside or “beyond” the realm of Being. For Levinas, the principal example of such consciousness is “the Other,” the human subject positioned in front of the I. This other is presented to the I as a “face” (visage) which commands the I “do not kill.” It is this ethical aspect of the “beyond Being” which leads Levinas to posit ethics as “first philosophy,” dethroning ontology, which, because it concerns only visible beings, is secondary to the direct relationship with the other.
The second major section, “Philosophy of Dialogue and First Philosophy,” continues to develop this conception of ethics. Drawing upon his holocaust experiences, Levinas fleshes out the difficulties involved with a philosophy directed towards the other. Pushing beyond Buber’s I-thou relationship, Levinas argues that the simplicity of the ethical call explodes in the face of a third party, a second “other” who necessitates that one attempt to compare two incomparibles, that is, one must ask the simple question: which “other” do I put first. It is for this reason that Levinas identifies the eruption of a second “other” into the I-thou relationship as the foundation of justice and its needs.
It is also within this section that the explicitly religious aspects of Levinas’ work begin to rise to the surface. Identifying God as the Wholly Other (Tout Autre), Levinas understands the alterity of other humans to be a glimpse or trace of God’s self. In this way, he identifies the command of the other’s face, “do not kill,” to be the very “word of God.” Certainly, this “word of God” does not bare the particularities of a concrete religious system, but Levinas argues that this fundamental religious experience of the other should be the foundation, not only of all ethical behavior, but furthermore, of all religious interpretation and practice.
In the third section, “peace and right,” the work begins to flounder a bit and becomes significantly repetitive. Nonetheless, these essays do provide an insight into Levinas’ political theories, including his (lost) hope in socialism, which he originally understood to be humanities greatest chance for true progress, but which, in Stalinism, became one of its greatest failures.
The final section, “conversations,” is comprised of two dialogues (the first with Christian Chabanis and the second with Angelo Bianchi) in which Levinas answers various questions regarding the content and application of his philosophy. Although these dialogues are interesting, if for no reason other than their intimate/personal tone, they are nonetheless somewhat vapid in content.
Overall, this work (and its first section in particular) provides a great introduction to those who are new to Levinas and a helpful resource to those who are not. In light of its brevity (182 large print and large margin pages), I would recommend this work to anyone interested in phenomenology, theology, ontology, or ethics.