Wednesday, December 5, 2012

61. Levinas: philosophy of the other

From the traditional centrality of the self in Western philosophy it is difficult to find a foundation for benevolence or altruism. Emmanuel Levinas turns it around: the ethical call for benevolence is primary, precedes the self and all consideration of self-interest, and protection of one’s interests is a compromise on that. One can and in conditions of real life in society inevitably does compromise on the ethical call, but the call remains valid to maintain an ideal of conduct that we should not forget.

For Levinas the feeling of responsibility for the other is not a rational choice but something that happens to you and that you experience as being chosen or ‘elected’ and that makes you unique, irreplaceable for the unique other. The ethical call is to surrender to the other, and to suffer from his suffering, an imperative that precedes all other consideration. Levinas speaks of giving oneself as a ‘hostage’. With this he means that the self becomes ‘victim without being guilty’. Responsibility and dedication to the other go so far that they apply also when the other obstructs or even persecutes one.

In the earlier work of Levinas (Totality and the infinite, 1987), to which I limit myself here, the self is, in first instance, tied to itself, which is in due course experienced as frightening, oppressive, or generates boredom, and evokes an urge to escape. ‘Evasion’ he calls that in one of his earliest works (1982). In his novel More die of heartbreak Saul Bellow speaks of the ‘claustrophobia of consciousness’. The self needs the other to escape from himself not only for cognitive reasons, as I have emphasized earlier in this blog, but also for emotional, spiritual reasons. The opening to the other is, in other words, not only a search but also a flight.

Levinas concludes that the flight from the self requires that we must not judge or approach the other from the perspective of our existing views. If we do that we never get away and beyond our present self. As long as one takes oneself as point of departure in the approach to the other we remain locked up in ourselves. We must be open to the other without evaluating or judging in advance and without the pretension to ever completely grasp the other.

Levinas says that this opening is not ‘receptivity’, in which one remains as one is while receiving the other. We require what Levinas calls ‘passiveness’: one should not determine the terms but surrender to the terms of the other. Levinas uses a metaphor of breathing, and letting oneself be literally inspired (breathed into) by the other. Breathing also is not based on a choice on the basis of an evaluation of what it will yield. It is something you undergo. That is the spirit in which one should set oneself aside. 

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