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Towards the end of Time and the Other , Levinas explains in more detail why he takes issue with this perspective on human sociality. It stands in a long tradition that conceives of the social relation on the model of fusion. On such an account, self and other do not face each other but stand shoulder to shoulder looking toward some greater something, which causes them to lose sight of their neighbor Taminiaux : 48f.

Gagarin has however shown us that it is perfectly possible for someone to exist beyond the world and outside any historico-geographical situation. This means that Gagarin offers a counterexample to the claim that human beings are always already socially and locally situated and owe their very identity to this Caygill : 91f.

Technological developments accordingly do not form a threat to humanity, Levinas maintains. That is to say, Levinas here criticizes the philosophies of language developed by thinkers like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty—according to which there is meaning only against an entire socio-cultural horizon—for implying that all cultures are equal and express their own, equally valid versions of truth and being.

According to Levinas, therefore, peace and justice require a break with the philosophies of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. The socio-cultural is not the overarching horizon against which all of human life takes place. Throughout his writings, then, Levinas protests the Heideggerian notion of being-with and tries to think the relation between self and other otherwise.

Levinas' Ethics

In the next section, I will discuss the parts of Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being in which this most clearly comes to the fore, though I will focus mainly on the former work. Without being reducible to a commentary on Being and Time , Totality and Infinity contests, among other things, the primacy Heidegger accords to ontology and his explanation of truth as disclosure. Like his predecessors, he prefers the whole over its parts and larger processes over concrete particularity, thus rendering him unable to properly think both self, other and the relation between them—the main topics of Totality and Infinity.

This not only does away with individuality but also undermines the possibility of human sociality.

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For as Levinas argues in the first full section of the book, there can be no relations without independently existing beings that are precisely not swallowed up by community or history Peperzak : — In order for true intersubjectivity to be possible, self and other should be thought of as separated beings, independent of their socio-historical surroundings as well as of each other. Totality and Infinity thus radically rethinks human sociality—or being-with—in no less than two ways.

The second section of Totality and Infinity works this out in more detail for the selfhood-side of the social relation, for if the latter requires two independently existing relata , the first step towards rethinking sociality is to give a robust explanation of subjectivity. That is to say, Levinas continues, enjoyment does come with some concerns. While I may be able to bask in the sun today, the elements do no form a stable order and I can therefore never be sure what tomorrow will bring.

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In the first half of Totality and Infinity , Levinas thus gives an explicitly egoistic account of selfhood, culminating in the subject retreating in its dwelling. At the same time, however, inhabitation precisely makes such a confrontation possible. Ultimately, Levinas contends, I cannot justify my occupying this particular refuge—except by the fact that it enables me to serve those in more dire need.


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The seemingly self-serving dwelling turns out to stand in the service of alterity, not of me and my kin. What is more, Levinas maintains that assuming care for the deprived stranger makes me into the unique person I am. It constitutes an obligation that I cannot delegate to anyone else and that thus renders me irreplaceable Dastur : ; Drabinski : It is only in the responsibility for another person that I truly come into my own.

Something similar holds for that other pole of the social relation, namely, the other. As is the case with subjectivity, Levinas maintains that alterity is eradicated when the other is presented as a mere token of a larger type. The other has to be understood as other, so on his own terms and not those of anyone or anything else.

He is able to make an unforgettable impact on the self precisely because he defies any familiar label. A foreigner in this sense is not radically but only relatively different from me, for if I can describe him by saying that he has a different passport, I define him by comparing his country of origin to mine. The Levinasian other does not belong to a segment of humanity different from mine; he does not belong to any group or community, and that is what truly makes him other Visker : f.

Like the self, the other is not to be understood in terms of his role in a larger historical development or his part in a particular social structure. This however does not mean that Levinas only acknowledges one-on-one relations. So while the stranger is not part of a community, he is surrounded by other human beings likewise defined by their utter vulnerability.

And as is the case with the initial other, I cannot be deaf to their calls either.


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  4. After offering accounts of self and other according to which they are absolutely singular, then, Levinas does place them within a larger interhuman setting. Even so, this does not amount to lateral being-with; it in a sense only amplifies the face-to-face relation. This situation however starts to look at least somewhat less problematic when one takes the fact of human procreation into account, Levinas maintains.

    According to Levinas, first of all, fecundity transcends its purely biological origins. The self does not procreate for the survival of the species, or in order to duplicate itself; procreation rather serves to prolong its responsibility. Instead of standing in the service of its selfish genes, therefore, fecundity allows the self to renew its ownmost but never-ending obligation to the rest of mankind. In addition or in line with thus preserving responsibility, procreation as Levinas understands it ensures a multiplicity beyond totality.

    Humans are not only fecund but also engendered beings, he points out, and this makes them simultaneously one of a kind and irrevocably bound to their fellow men. However, being elected does not make the child into a narcissist who expects others to heed its every beck and call. If the child is chosen, in other words, it is chosen to tend to the others around him. Hence, Totality and Infinity ends by offering an account of multipersonal relations that is, like the accounts of subjectivity and alterity given earlier in the book, radically different from Heideggerian Mitsein.

    Fecundity and fraternity absorb neither self nor other s , and to the extent that it binds them, this is not by similarity or identity but by an excess of responsibility that leaves their separation intact. This is not altered by the fact that the focus of this book is on subjectivity rather than alterity. To the extent that the later Levinasian self is not the autonomous subject of traditional philosophy either, this is still not because of its membership in a particular socio-historical collectivity, but because it now—in a perhaps even sharper contrast or reversal—always already finds itself haunted by the other from within.

    Otherwise than Being accordingly defines the self by means of terms like exposure, maternity and obsession, but distinguishes this from a Heideggerian perspective as well, though Levinas now also refers to the later Heidegger more frequently. As a result, and regardless of the differences that exist between Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being , the latter likewise argues for a self uncontaminated by history and community.

    But this non-belonging still holds for the other as well Carlson : 59— As in his earlier work, Levinas argues that fraternity does not unite men through similarity or identity Carlson : 42f. Just like Totality and Infinity , in short, Otherwise than Being wants to free self and other from Heideggerian being-with. Having argued that Levinasian subjectivity, alterity and sociality can all be explained in terms of his aversion to Mitsein , I will now discuss another, seemingly opposing argument he makes against Heidegger. For in addition and in contrast to the claim that Dasein is overly immersed in the socio-historical, Levinas suggests that the Heideggerian self is essentially anti-social.

    Let me therefore have a closer look at his thoughts on Dasein , death and authenticity. Even so, Levinas points out, Heidegger is not exactly positive about being-with as it manifests itself on a daily basis. For according to Heidegger, he continues, authenticity is only accomplished when Dasein equally resolutely and solitarily faces its own death.

    Realizing that its existence is finite and that it has to confront this fact entirely by itself, the Heideggerian self comes to see the superficiality of the values that everyday being-with imposes, and is accordingly able to free itself from this dictatorship. He quotes a biblical verse according to which death can only make people feel more connected, even across the divide between the living and the dead.

    Rather than standing in the way of authenticity, moreover, sociality thus understood precisely guarantees my singularity. If Heidegger claims that authenticity is a solitary affair, Levinas maintains that a relation with alterity is required for the self to be its singular self. This particular portrayal of the difference between Heideggerian and Levinasian selfhood should however be said to result from a lax or partial reading of Being and Time , for Heidegger does not hold that there is only inauthentic Mitsein and that authenticity thus necessitates a severing of the social bond.

    He does not explain this genuine manifestation of being-with in further detail, but the second division of Being and Time makes clear, as I underscored in the introduction, that oblivious Mitsein becomes truly authentic in the form of a historically informed community. Even though their motivations are not necessarily the same, 22 Levinas and Heidegger can be said to agree on the undesirability of inauthentic coexistence, or intersubjectivity without faces, to put it in Levinasian terms. The question however is whether such abstractness can capture the understanding that self and other have of their own true selves assuming that this is not necessarily less insightful than the understanding that the philosopher has of their proper identities, as Heidegger explicitly claims but Levinas can perhaps also be said to presuppose.

    Rather than being seen as abstract men without distinctive features besides their absolute responsibility, do people not precisely want to be able to embrace their, say, ethnic or religious particularities, even when these are used to oppress or exclude them? Can it not add insult to injury to state that such characteristics should be disregarded?

    Is it moreover not possible for a person to embrace her particularities without completely letting herself coincide with them, and without defining others solely on the basis of theirs? Indeed, Levinas himself did not erase all signs of his own situatedness. Even if Heidegger does not explain in any detail how Dasein is able to come into its own, singular self in the process of co-historizing, and even if it is highly doubtful whether the notion of Volk can ever do justice to the singularity of all selves and others, this does not imply that the very idea of human situatedness should be categorically dismissed.

    This is moreover not just important for the debate about the continued relevance of Heidegger post- Notebooks , it is also of value for the philosophy of coexistence more generally. Duff : — also mentions the connection between inauthenticity and uprootedness, which plays a crucial role in the Notebooks.

    Indeed, in, e.

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    I will come back to this in the final section. The note is included in the edition printed in Critical Inquiry. I precisely read Levinas as wanting to break with the very idea of a root. Levinas here suggests that Dasein , rather than being subordinate to the socio-historical, is ultimately a solitary and egoistic being.

    See also, e. Both however question whether Heidegger should not be given a little more credit — but neither of them refers to, e. In these passages, Totality and Infinity —not unlike Time and the Other —thus falls back on traditional stereotypes about the female other. This suggest, as I will argue in more detail in the final section, that not all human beings are equally free from history and community for Levinas.

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    The last section will however not so much focus on his androcentrism; see Chanter for more elaborate discussions of Levinas from a feminist perspective. In addition to Visker, though, I take the Levinasian self to not be rooted in a community either, and unlike Bernasconi, I do not think that it is only in Otherwise than Being that the self becomes uprooted or disembedded as well.

    See, e.