Wednesday, December 12, 2012

64. Nietzsche, Levinas and me

Both Nietzsche and Levinas wage opposition, as I do in this blog, to a number of fundamental intuitions in Western philosophy, going back to Descartes, concerning being, rationality, knowledge, the self and the relation between self and other. The self is seen as autonomous, self sufficient, and disconnected from its environment. The world, including the self, is supposed to be ‘present’ to consciousness. Knowledge is seen as ‘seeing’, ‘grasping’, ‘comprehension’. Knowledge is reduction of experience into universal categories of thought. The pretension of the self is that thus it can contain everything from its environment, including itself. This idea has the pernicious ethical consequence that one also looks in this way to fellow human beings as something that one can absorb and ‘make one’s own’.

Levinas is to some extent an existentialist philosopher in the sense that like Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, and Gabriel Marcel he sees human existence as a process, as a participating, acting, being involved in the world. Acting is more fundamental than thinking. Abstract knowledge in the form of the assimilation of experience into categories, universals, is preceded and trumped by a much richer form of knowledge as experience in the practical handling of things in interaction with specific people in specific situations. His bent towards specific, individual people and their circumstances, and his mistrust of abstractions, universals, and the impersonal forces of ideology, state, market and technology that they produce, which lead to alienation of the human being, are a characteristic of existentialist philosophy.
 With Nietzsche and Levinas I share the perspective of the bodily, physiological, emotional roots of cognition and ethics, the question what to do with human suffering, and the relinquishing of God as a way out. With Nietzsche I want to preserve, not subdue the life force and creativity of the human being, and I share his ‘Dionysian’ striving to transcend the self. With Levinas I share the idea that openness to the other forms the foundation of the self and a source of transcendence of the self. I radically disagree with Nietzsche’s often-tacit presupposition that the self can do this by itself. On the other hand in my view Levinas goes overboard with his idea of the self as a hostage for the other. In my view the self not only has the right but also wisdom on his/her side to distance him/herself from the other when that seems needed. I even claim that this is a consequence of Levinas’ thought itself.
 The point is this. If the other in his/her opposition to me and in the ethical appeal to me to have concern for him/her is a source of transcendence for me, then I should also grant the same to him/her, in my opposition and appeal to him/her. I should be passive in the sense of being receptive to him/her but also active in helping him/her to receive me. Paradoxically perhaps, it would be egotistic of me to completely subject myself to the other.

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