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Altering the very first sentence of this extraordinary and highly original book, I quote: Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by freedom. I have, of course, replaced the word freedom for morality. In altering the sentence, however, as I hope to show, I have not altered the central theme of the book (first published in French in 1961). This is so, not because morality and freedom are interchangeable, as many maintain, but, quite the contrary, because in questioning freedom, Levinas addresses morality. Understanding the role of freedom in Levinas might be one of the keys to understanding this complex, subtle, and very difficult (to understand) post modern philosopher, who constantly invokes Plato and Descartes throughout this book as well as Abraham (who departs his home never to return) in contrast to Ulysses (or Odysseus who goes on adventures only on the way home).For centuries philosophers have debated as to whether we are free or not; and if we are, as to what freedom might mean. Levinas asks however, perhaps for the first time, whether or not freedom is valid or justified; and if it is, how so. In Levinas freedom is never negated but radically questioned and transformed, like many other philosophic terms he employs.To examine freedom, he says, is to trac[e] back to what precedes freedom (Totality And Infinity (TI) 85). The movement of tracing freedom back to the prior condition, the movement of a critique which he says is the essence of knowing (85), leads to the critique of the same and to (the primacy of) the Other. To critique freedom is to recognize that knowledge does not begin with the I think, from the sovereign positioning of the I that stakes a claim (as if standing erect on a land all alone, all by himself, overlooking the horizon for his exploit) but from the Other, or more precisely, in ones relationship to the Other, the relationship which Levinas describes in various terms throughout the book as face, teaching, language, metaphysics, ethics, and, most importantly, as the idea of the infinite. These terms are, of course, from the common coinage in philosophy, except for the term face. But what he means by them is highly unorthodox and original, if not provocative. After all, he did say later: How can such a research be undertaken without introducing some barbarisms in the language of philosophy? (Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence (1974), 178).A life of an ego, the I, is freedom in enjoyment (happiness), labor, and dwelling. It is a life lived however in dependency in separation or independence (Section II). Life is always already a transcendence. No totality or system can reduce it to an integrated whole or unity. It cannot be reduced to pragmatic use or to a numeric unit within the vast system of commerce, industry, administration, or history. The self is already infected by that which cracks open the totality, by the interiority or unicity that opens to exteriority, by that which remains irreducible to a system, to a network of significations, or to a horizon (Husserl) or to a world (Heidegger). Levinas thus proposes a fundamentally and radically different ontology and analysis of being in contrast to and against his two great mentors, Husserl and Heidegger, while still heavily relying on their language and method (i.e., admittedly on Husserls phenomenology). (Levinas, who sat in Husserls last class he taught before retiring, introduced Husserl in France, which Derrida in his tribute to Levinas (Adieu to Emmanuel Lévinas) describes as thus having caused an axiomatic change in French philosophy.) But what Levinas endeavors to say in the book moves beyond ontology and its method, daring the whole western philosophic tradition that holds: Not to philosophize is still to philosophize -- the phrase attributed (though controversially and doubtfully) to Aristotle and taken up by Derrida in his strategic opposition to Levinas. See Levinass God and Philosophy in Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings and Derridas Violence and Metaphysics in Writing and Difference.In any event, returning to our theme, freedom in relationship to the Other reveals itself as arbitrary and violent--that is, unjustified. How so? The argument is more succinctly stated in his later work, Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence (OB, 1974), where Levinas says, paraphrasing Hobbes, that being is imperialistic and as such is at war with one another: Beings interest takes dramatic form in egoisms struggling with one another, each against all, in the multiplicity of allergic egoisms which are at war with one another and are thus together. OB 4. Beings move (geste dêtre) or its essence is interesse or interested, he says (Id.), as a predator is interested in the prey in the evolutionary scheme of natural selection. The impulse of being or essence is to fill[..] up every interval of nothingness which would interrupt its exercise. Id. Borrowing from Spinoza, Levinas coins the impulse: conatus essendi. (See Baruch Spinoza: Proposition 6: “Each thing, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persist in its own being.” Proof: […] it opposes everything that can annul its existence…; and thus, as far as it can and as far as it is in itself, it endeavors to persist in its own being.” Proposition 7: “The conatus with which each thing endeavors to persist in its own being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing itself,” The Ethics/Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect/Selected Letters, 108, 109.) (With the term essence and its reference to being as different form beings, to Sein as distinguished from Seiendes, to esse as distinguished from ens; and with its reference to eidos, eidetic, eidetically, or nature, quiddity, fundamental, etc (OB xli), Levinas indicts the entire western philosophy of being as imperialistic and violent. But, following Plato, he seeks to move beyond being, toward the Good which, according to Plato, is said to lie beyond being exceeding in dignity and power. IT 102, 103; The Republic, 509d.) That conatus essendi or the impulse of being is freedom is already anticipated in the following sentences found in Totality And Infinity: “the mode of remaining the same in the midst of the other” (TI 45); the impulse “to maintain oneself against the other, despite every relation with the other to ensure the autarchy of an I” (TI 46); or more sweepingly, “the determination of the other by the same” (TI 85); or “Every being is an exercise of being” (TI 85/112); or simply, the “imperialism of the same” (TI 87); or “This imperialism of the same is the whole essence of freedom” (TI 87). Freedom is conatus essendi, the very impulse of being to maintain itself and to persist in itself in its own being, negating the other and the otherness of the other. But is freedom --“the virility of a free ability-to-be” (Entre Nous: Essays on Thinking-Of-The-Other, 207)--justified? To condemn freedom as imperialistic, as in Sartrean gesture, would be a bit too hasty; and to deny it altogether while talking ethics would be to preach masochism. Freedom of the I is egoistic and thus violent insofar as it negates the non-I. Sartre has already shown this with precision. In the face to face I am free to close myself up in egoism, like an oyster recoiling onto itself, or to open myself up for the Other in becoming the one-for-the-Other, as Levinas puts it repeatedly in OB. I can shut or open my door to the stranger who knocks at the door (The possibility for the home to open to the Other is as essential to the essence of the home as closed doors and windows (TI 173).) Freedom of choice is not at issue here but of the will (TI 218-240) that becomes infinite responsibility before the Other, more passive still than any other passivity, as Levinas says again and again in OB. But will is also equivocal, capable of betrayal. TI 231. (I am not prepared go into a delicate but profound parallelism that may exist here between Levinas and Kant with respect to the notion of freedom. To what extend, on one hand, does the notion of autonomy in Kant falls prey to Levinas critique of freedom? To what extend does it suggest responsibility that is more passive still than any other passivity, on the other? Can we escape the fact, as it were, of reason? Doesnt the practical fact destine us as moral beings, like a fate? The fact of reason is our fate. We as rational beings are destined to be moral. We do not choose to be moral because we are always already moral, that is, autonomous. But, again, isnt autonomy the autarchy of the same, the very gesture of being in its effort to stay within the same, to be determined on its own by its own law or logic, negating all possibility of the Other? But consider this remarkable sentence: The presence of the Other, a privileged heteronomy, does not clash with freedom but invests it (TI 88).) Levinas, while allowing for an indictment of imperialistic freedom, is too subtle a thinker to foreclose other directions he traverses in TI. To see this, we must go back to his brilliant analysis of the self in Section II. The analysis of the I (in freedom) in enjoyment, labor, and in dwelling, as undertaken in Section II, allows for two further profound possibilities: (1) the (ethical) hospitality directed straightforwardly toward the Other--in view of the public (that is, outside home or in the home totally dedicated and opened to the Other in service) and in justice--who comes knocking at my door as my neighbor (Section III); and (2) the discrete feminine welcome maintained in the intimate of home in private and behind the closed doors, leading to another type of transcendence: eros, fecundity, paternity, filiality, and fraternity (Section IV). The ethical welcome in which the home is opened and rendered wholly to the service of the Other, and the feminine welcome in which home becomes a place of a delightful lapse in being (TI 155) in the privacy of the closed doors are two distinct tracks of transcendence, both of which presuppose the otherness of the Other or transcendence. The Other, the vous, my neighbor, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, speaks and comes to me from on high as the face (the formal structure of which is the idea of the Infinite); whereas the gentle Other, the tu, of the feminine, who comes in caresses in silent cooing and coquetry (a language without teaching, a silent language, an understanding without words, an expression in secret Id.) refers to another type of transcendence by which, like Sarah, the birth of nations (i.e., fecundity, paternity, filiality, and fraternity) beyond ones time and epoch, beyond totality and history, is possible. The transcendence for Levinas is always earthly, material, and bodily. It is a relation (that of the idea of the Infinite) which takes place within the unfolding of terrestrial existence, of economic existence (TI 52), a relation in which one cannot approach the Other with an empty hand, a relation in which one offers the world to the Other in word (TI 209), or a relation in which one can outlive ones time in the I of the son (the son is not me; and yet I am my son TI 277). In all these relations freedom is not denied but invested for the service of the other as responsibility and gift of self in which an I that has arisen in enjoyment as separated would be capable of facing or welcoming the Other. IT 208, 209. We may ask: what kind of argument is Levinas offering here (for freedom, the Other, and for transcendence, among others)? He certainly engages in patient and brilliant phenomenological analyses in the manner of Husserl and Heidegger, as he does with respect to enjoyment, labor, home (Section II), will, death, time (Section III), or eros, fecundity, paternity (Section III). Using his analysis of freedom as an example, which occurs sporadically throughout the book, I propose that the argument develops like an hinge: it always leads to one or the other direction. As he does with reason, philosophy, rationality, etc., Levinas swings his analyses of freedom back and forth between the positive sense and the negative, between freedom as sovereign power of the I and the infinite capacity for responsibility. He drives his analyses in these two directions alternately, as can be seen in the following sentence which also summarizes his view on freedom: Freedom, the event of separation in arbitrariness which constitutes the I, at the same time maintains the relation with the exteriority that morality resists every appropriation and every totalization in being (TI 302). The very terrestrial transcendence is freedom.Otherwise Than Being: Or Beyond Essence
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