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.