Saturday, December 8, 2012


63. Nietzsche and Levinas

 At first sight few views are so much opposed as those of Nietzsche in his rejection and Levinas in his radical acceptance of responsibility of the self for the other. At second sight there are also commonalities.

First, both use the perspective of embodied cognition, as I do in this blog. Impulses, perceptions and feelings precede cognition and ethics and form the basis for them. Second, both turn away from God. Third, both accept that God was invented as consolation for human vulnerability, and now we must find another way to deal with inevitable suffering. Fourth, for both the making of sacrifices for others is not a moral duty or limitation of freedom, but arises autonomously from inside, either as an overflow from the fullness of life (Nietzsche), or as a deep-seated feeling of responsibility that precedes the self (Levinas). Fifth, both try to say the unsayable, beyond established categories of thought and language. Sixth, both are suspicious of universals that cause neglect of diverse, individual, unique human beings. Seventh, both try to escape from the limitations of the self (transcendence). Eighth, for both identification between people, in reciprocation that results in a merging and equalization, is both impossible and undesirable. Ninth, both turn away from the conatus essendi, the drive to survive and manifest oneself, though in very different ways. Tenth, both (but Levinas more in his earlier than in his later work) take the sensual, feeling, exuberant self as a starting point.

But then begins the big difference. Nietzsche begins with the exuberant self, the child, and thinks he can find transcendence from within the autonomous self, from an internally generated fullness, without regard for claims from others or demands for self-constraint, a self that dissociates itself from the other, and in his philosophy he ends up again with the child. Starting with the self, Levinas veers away to the other and its ethical call on the self. For Nietzsche that is treason to the life forces of the self, in a hypocritical and crippling Christian morality of compassion. For Levinas, however, the ethical call to the other is not an appeal to asceticism, not a denial but an affirmation of the self, in being elected.

According to Nietzsche the self experiences a primitive excitement at the suffering of another, and no one benefits from pity, which only multiplies suffering. For Levinas the suffering of the other is unbearable and brought under the responsibility of the self. For Nietzsche suffering is a condition for transformation of the self by the self. For Levinas suffering is a condition for ethics and an escape from the self by the suffering of the other. For Nietzsche separation between self and other yields protection of the self in his emergence from himself, for Levinas it opens the self to the other. Thus, at third sight, in spite of the commonalities between Nietzsche and Levinas the difference is as big as it appeared at first sight.