Guide Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy and the Politics of Revelation

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Whereas Levinas saw himself as continuing what he regarded as Maimonidess medieval synthesis, Strauss understood himself as furthering Maimonidess deep insight that Athens and Jerusalem cannot be synthesized though again they can and must be coordinated. This disagreement about the possibility of a medieval synthesis is, of course, the fundamental difference between Levinass and Strausss reading of Maimonides, a difference that is noted by Levinas in a comment whose referent seems to be Strauss. Levinas states that Maimonides is not an accident of Holy History. But the possibility of this knowledge is maintained as the ethical behavior of goodwill hesed , judgment mishpat , and fairness tsedeqah , as for the other.

The imitation of God! The love of ones neighbor is at the summit of a life devoted to supreme knowledge. This is a remarkable reversal, unless we are to question the sincerity of this teacher, suggesting that he may have spoken otherwise than he thought, to avoid unsettling pious minds. In what Levinas calls Maimonidess remarkable reversal, we find a summary of Levinass own philosophical project: to present what he calls metaphysical. It is Strauss who has, in Levinass words, questioned the sincerity of this teacher, a position that Levinas dismisses. Levinass one published reference to Strauss comes by way of his discussion of the question of whether there is anything positive to be learned from Spinozas legacy.

There is no reason to conclude that Levinas necessarily read Strauss because this one reference to him refers to Strauss as an American philosopher, and also, more importantly, because Levinass remarks come in the context of his appreciative comments of a book on Spinoza by Sylvain Zac that deals with Strauss. Levinas writes: Does Spinoza, in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, hide his real thought and the mortal blows, visible to anyone who can read, dealt to the authority of the Scriptures and the religions they found?

The American philosopher Leo Strauss has in fact invited us to see a cryptogram in the whole of philosophy, even in the work of Maimonides, in which Reason secretly fights against religion. We see that Levinas infers from Strausss suggestion that philosophy and revelation are irreconcilable that Maimonides must therefore have been insincere in writing to his readers. Whether Strauss considers Maimonides insincere is a matter not only of interpretations but also of speculation.

And ones interpretation of and speculation about this question will depend in large part on whether one accepts or rejects Strausss basic premise, which is that revealed religion and philosophy are fundamentally irreconcilable. We should be clear first that this irreconcilability doesnt mean for Strauss that revealed religion is irrational and that philosophy is rational. For Strauss, the tension between revelation and philosophy is not one between irrationality and rationality, but between fundamentally.

Philosophy begins and ends for Strauss with the philosophers sense of wonder, while revealed religion begins and ends with adherence to the divine law. Nonetheless, in an important sense, the philosopher and the believer share more with each other than they differ from each other. Both begin with nonrational criteria, yet both subsequently move toward rationality in attempting to provide reasons for the life of the philosopher or believer.

The philosopher, Strauss maintains, believes that his own judgment is the starting point of all knowledge. Yet this can only be the case after the philosopher faithfully commits to the philosophical life. Philosophys weakness in regard to revelation lies here because the philosopher unlike the believer contends that the source and final authority of truth comes from the philosopher. Revelations weakness in regard to philosophy, on the other hand, lies in the impossibility of making revelation wholly evident on the basis of human experience.

Nevertheless, despite this mutual tension between philosophy and revelation, between Athens and Jerusalem, the Bible and Greek philosophy agree not merely regarding the place which they assign to justice, the connection between justice and law, the character of law, and divine retribution. They also agree regarding the problem of justice, the difficulty created by the misery of the just and the prospering of the wicked. All solutions are questionable. Therefore, the right way of life cannot be established metaphysically except by a completed metaphysics, and therefore the right way of life remains questionable.

Here, however, we need to recognize that the question of whether Strauss thought Maimonides was insincere, as many critics and fans of Strauss suggest, is the wrong question. The question to be asking is whether the tension between the starting points of philosophy and revealed religion is philosophically irreconcilable. If one disagrees with Strausss premise that these assumptions are irreconcilable, it is difficult to imagine that Strauss considers Maimonides philosophically sincere. On the other hand, if one takes Strausss premise seriously that the relation between revealed religion and philosophy is philosophically, though not politically, irreconcilable then one might understand Strausss reading of Maimonides as a reflection on what Strauss argues and argues that Maimonides argues is a, if not the, profound philosophical problem.

Where Strauss comes down on the question of what Maimonides really thought is a complicated topic beyond the scope of this chapter. Even if this is the case, it does not change, as Strauss says, the question of whether philosophy and revealed religion are philosophically irreconcilable. The question in regard to Strausss interpretation of Maimonides then is not whether Maimonides is insincere or not, but whether Maimonides is a philosopher, in Strausss sense of the term, which means one who begins and ends his reflection by virtue of his own sense of wonder and not by divine authority.

Id like to add to Greens thesis about the importance of Strausss engagement with Maimonides the view that it doesnt matter philosophically what Strauss thought Maimonides thought about revelation. Nor does it matter philosophically if Strauss was personally a nonbeliever. The philosophical issue that Strauss is interested in and claims Maimonides is interested in is the tension between philosophy and revealed religion. And part of taking this tension seriously for Strauss is an acknowledgement of the fundamental limitations of philosophy when it comes to grounding and articulating the bases of ethical and political life.

For Strauss, it is revelation, and not philosophy, that can ground ethical and political life. As he puts it in Philosophy and Law, The necessary connection between politics and theology metaphysics. And this procedure, so far from resulting in the underestimation of these problems, actually offers the only guarantee of understanding their proper, that is their human, meaning. If, on the other hand, one begins with the metaphysical problems, one misses. Once again, the form of Strausss argument brings him closer to Levinas. The relation between Athens and Jerusalem for Strauss, as for Levinas, serves political and ethical ends, again understood as the fulfilling of the material needs of others.

For both, Athens and Jerusalem exist in a necessary tension. Metaphysical speculation philosophically secures the ethical possibilities of society, but politics and ethics make metaphysics possible in the first place. As Strauss puts it, the philosophic foundation of the law, in spite of outward appearances, is not a teaching among others but is the place in the system of the Islamic Aristotelians and their Jewish pupils where the presupposition of their philosophizing comes under discussion.

And Strauss concludes with Heidegger that philosophy is incapable of transcending sociality. Instead of concluding too quickly that Strauss wants to maintain an illiberal elite-mass distinction which still may be the case , we must first recognize that Strauss insists on a fundamental limitation of philosophy as it has come to be understood in the modern period.

Strausss view of the moral and political limitation of philosophy has everything to do with his association of religion with the public and social sphere. Strausss argument in this regard is intimately connected to what is, historically, an accurate depiction of Jewish religion. Jewish religion, as opposed to Protestant religion, is concerned fundamentally though not exclusively with outer forms of social life, forms that are enacted primarily in public. Levinas wants to maintain that philosophy can ultimately account for the truth of religion and that this accounting has profound social implications indeed, one could sum up Levinass entire project with this one sentence.

Contending that prophecy is the fundamental fact of mans humanity, Levinas argues that next to the unlimited ethical exigency, prophecy interprets itself in concrete forms. In these concrete forms, become religions, men find consolations.

Leo Strauss

But this by no means puts the rigorous structure I [Levinas] have tried to define back into doubt. Levinas argues that religions offer consolation,. Let us now turn back to the question with which we began in Section 1. I have argued that Levinass and Strausss arguments for the impossibility of Jewish philosophy are premised on a shared argument for the philosophical possibility of the truth of revelation.

I would like to suggest that as such, when compared with one another, Levinass and Strausss philosophies do enact philosophically a type of late-twentieth-century Jewish philosophy. Jewish philosophy would here be defined only by the negative task of showing philosophically that Jewish revelation cannot be disproved philosophically and that this conclusion has profound implications for philosophy.

Indeed, both Levinas and Strauss fit Strausss description of Judah Halevis argument in the Kuzari: In defending Judaism, which according to him [Halevi], is the only true revealed religion, against the philosophers, he was conscious of defending morality itself and therewith the cause, not only of Judaism, but of mankind at large.

His basic objection to philosophy was then not particularly Jewish, nor even particularly religious, but moral. The Jewish philosophy of Levinas and Strauss is thus in the service of defending morality to humanity at large. Part of the goal of this chapter has been to show not only that there is a profound, if at first unlikely, philosophical affinity between Levinas and Strauss but that Strausss thought fits this characterization of Jewish philosophy. If comparing Levinas and Strauss helps us to rethink Strausss place within the context of the rubric of Jewish philosophy, the comparison also helps us to rethink Levinas in a number of other ways.

Perhaps ironically, comparing Levinas and Strauss on the impossibility and possibility of Jewish philosophy shows Levinas to be more a defender of philosophy than Strauss. Indeed, this is the implication of their difference on the relationship between Judaism and philosophy. To return to Strausss characterization of Halevi, Strauss writes: by going so far with the philosophers.

For if the philosophers are right in their appraisal of natural morality,. Strauss emerges here as the defender of the moral necessity of revelation against Levinas who maintains that philosophy is not fundamentally agnostic and that therefore at no moment.

As a preliminary answer, I would venture, yes. Recall Levinass statement, philosophy derives [derive] from religion. While Levinas is critical of aspects of the western philosophical tradition, his task is to return this tradition to what he argues is its true meaning: Platos notion of a good beyond being. As Levinas puts it in an interview, Despite the end of Eurocentrism, disqualified by so many horrors, I believe in the eminence of the human face expressed in Greek Letters and in our own, which owe the Greeks everything.

It is thanks to them that our history makes us ashamed. While this is certainly one aspect of Strausss project, the comparison with Levinas allows us to see that for Strauss, philosophy is much more limited when it comes to ethical and political matters than it is for Levinas. This isnt to deny the importance of philosophy for Strauss, but rather to emphasize the classical character of Strausss understanding of philosophy as a way of life that by definition questions all purported solutions to the question of how the human being ought to live. For this reason, Strauss argues strongly that philosophy itself cannot articulate a universal ground for morality, while Levinas contends that it is a matter of finding the right philosophy to articulate this universal ground.


Strauss argues that philosophy is fundamentally limited, but he nevertheless reserves a role for philosophy in social and moral thought. Strauss argues perhaps most clearly in Natural Right and History that if philosophers acknowledge the philosophical relevance of the nonphilosophical foundation of revelation, philosophers have a clarifying role in deducing a social philosophy. Yet if philosophers do not acknowledge the possibility of revelation, philosophers can only have an adversarial role in regard to social and moral philosophy. This is because for Strauss philosophy is not fundamentally social in character.

Levinas assumes a social and political status for philosophy that Strauss puts into question.

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In Strausss words: In most of the current reflections on the relation between philosophy and society, it is somehow taken for granted that philosophy always possessed political or social status. Here, we are touching on what, from the point of view of the sociology of philosophy, is the most important difference between Christianity on the one hand, and Islam as well as Judaism on the other. For the Christian, the sacred doctrine is revealed theology; for the Jew and the Muslim, the sacred doctrine is, at least primarily the legal interpretation of the Divine Law talmud or fiqh. The sacred doctrine in the latter sense has, to say the least, much less in common with philosophy than the sacred doctrine in the former sense.

It is ultimately for this reason that the status of philosophy was, as a matter of principle, much more precarious in Judaism and in Islam than in Christianity: in Christianity philosophy became an integral part of the officially recognized and even required training of the student of the sacred doctrine. This difference explains partly the eventual collapse of philosophic inquiry in the Islamic and in the Jewish world, a collapse which has no parallel in the Western Christian world.

This long quotation comes from the introduction to Strausss Persecution and the Art of Writing. In this context, Strauss maintains that awareness of the historical lack of social status of philosophy should alert us to the complex relation between esoteric and exoteric writing. While I have certainly not provided a comprehensive account of Strausss view of esoteric writing, to be discussed in greater detail in Part 3 of this book, I have suggested in this chapter that Strausss concern with esotericism is rooted in what he considers the profound philosophical problem of the relation between philosophy and revelation.

Rather than focusing here on Strausss account of esotericism, however, I would like to focus now very briefly on the philosophical and historical issues that Strauss raises here in regard to contemporary conceptions of what philosophy is. While Levinas and Strauss share with Heidegger the notion that philosophys most fundamental insight begins in and does not transcend our natural attitude toward the world, Levinas maintains a role for philosophy that is closer to Husserls than it is to Heideggers.

No doubt, the endpoints of Husserls and Levinass projects are different. For Husserl, the task of phenomenology is to know thy self. Nonetheless, Levinas understands his philosophy as continuous with the Husserlian project. As Levinas puts it,. The framework of Husserlian phenomenology may have been broken open in the course of the transcendental analysis, but the destruction of the dominant me in which it was anchored is not some step along the way to the insignificance of the person. The discovery of others not as datum exactly, but as a face!

Much like Heidegger, Strauss maintains that philosophy cannot ground or even articulate, on its own terms, social practice. We can begin to appreciate Levinass and Strausss different conceptions of philosophy by turning once again to another remarkable parallelism between their projects, which is their shared interest in articulating a conception of human nature in response to the Nazi genocide.

In keeping with the general argument of this chapter, my suggestion is that once we appreciate the similarity of Levinass and Strausss quests to rethink human nature, we can also appreciate their profound difference, which concerns philosophys relation to human nature. Strausss concern with the possibility of rethinking nature after Spinoza and Hobbes is well known, though not necessarily well understood given the disputes between various Straussians especially on this matter.

Strausss concern with nature is with human nature. Despite the way in which he is often interpreted, Strauss does not provide a final definition of nature. Rather, the question of nature is precisely a question. Strausss concern is not with final definitions, but with the question of what is lost and gained for the meaning of what it is to be human by not asking questions about the nature of human beings. Describing his Walgreen Lectures published as Natural Right and History in a letter to Eric Voeglin in , Strauss wrote I do nothing more than present the problem of natural right as an unsolved problem.

Many, if not most, of Levinass central motifs for describing the ethical are taken from nature. For instance, Levinas describes the ethical relation as paternity, maternity, senescence, and fraternity. As he puts it, The biological human brotherhood conceived with the sober coldness of Cain is not a sufficient reason for me to be responsible as a separated being. The sober coldness of Cain consists in conceiving responsibility as proceeding from freedom in terms of a contract. But responsibility for another comes from what is prior to my freedom.

Responsibility does not come from fraternity, but fraternity denotes responsibility for another, antecedent to my freedom. Put another way, Levinas contends that our natural being is our ethical being. Levinass view of the naturalness of ethics is expressed perhaps most basically in his understanding of our natural condition, which is that we age. In the patience of senescence what is unexceptionable in proximity is articulated, [which is] the responsibility for the other man.

While there is much to be said here about Levinass contentions in Otherwise than Being, and how they relate to his earlier claims in Totality and Infinity,62 what we need to note for our purposes is the increased intensity with which Levinas equates the natural state of being a human being with ethics. His argument is that the natural is the ethical. This claim will no doubt be surprising to some familiar with Levinass work because Levinas is actually often at pains to criticize what he calls nature.

But I want to point out that when Levinas uses the term nature negatively he does so, as he acknowledges, with a post-Hobbesian view of nature in mind. Yet, rather than a dismissal of the relevance of nature for conceiving ethics, Levinass philosophy is a rethinking of nature to articulate the meaning of ethics. Describing his terms as deriving from biology, Levinas writes: If biology furnishes us the prototypes of all these relations, this proves, to be sure, that biology does not represent a purely contingent order of being, unrelated to its essential production.

But these relations free themselves from their biological limitation. The human I is posited in fraternity: that all men are brothers is not added to man as a moral conquest, but constitutes his ipseity. Ethics does not concern the moral conquest of nature for Levinas. Rather ethics is the moral meaning of nature. Levinass use of the term fraternity, in Totality and Infinity onward, is infused with the attempt to claim an ethical meaning for a concept of nature. Fraternity is for Levinas the generalized relation of responsibility for the other that stems from the unique relationship between father and son.

As such, fraternity concerns both equality and unique responsibility. In Levinass words: The unique child, as elected one, is accordingly at the same time unique and nonunique. Paternity is produced as an innumerable future; the I engendered exists at the same time as unique in the world and as brother among brothers. I am I and chosen one, but where can I be chosen, if not among other chosen ones, among equals? The I as I hence remains turned ethically to the face of the other: fraternity is the very relation with the face in which at the same time my election and equality, that is, the mastery exercised over me by the other are accomplished.

Levinass explication of the ethics of fraternity is rooted in the natural model that he presents. My brother is my brother only by virtue of my uniqueness, which concerns my fathers relationship to me. Levinass notion of fraternity is not a liberal notion of natural equality. On the contrary, the equality of fraternity for Levinas concerns, as he states, the mastery exercised over me by the other. We are all equal in our unique responsibility, Levinas argues, but this implies not my independence from the other but the servitude I owe him: Thou shalt not kill that means then Thou shalt cause thy neighbor to live.

Events of sociality prior to all association in the name of an abstract and common humanity. The right of man, absolutely and originally, takes on meaning only in the other man. A right with respect to which I am never released! We see then that while their conceptions of nature are no doubt different from one another, Levinas shares with Strauss the attempt to rethink the meaning of the nature of the human being. Indeed, Strausss and Levinass. If the liberal notion of natural equality implies corresponding rights that we have as human beings,68 Strauss and Levinas both contend that our obligations precede and make possible our rights.

As Strauss puts it, Hobbes had to. Ironically, we see that Levinas actually has a more overdetermined philosophical view of nature than Strauss does. For Strauss, the concept of nature acts as an impetus for ongoing critical reflection. Nature, however, is not a fixed and final result of critical reflection. For Strauss, critical reflection divorced from politics, culture, and religion is by definition weaker than it is for Levinas. As Strauss puts it, Socrates implied that disregarding the opinions about the nature of things would amount to abandoning the most important access to reality which we have, or the most important vestiges of truth which are within our reach.

This recognition, Strauss maintains, embodies Socratess break with his predecessors: In contradistinction to his predecessors, he [Socrates] did not separate wisdom from moderation.

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  4. In present-day parlance one can describe the change in question as a return to common sense or to the world of common sense. I have argued in this chapter that, in different ways, Levinas and Strauss both claim that the Jewish philosophical tradition, and the medieval Maimonidean tradition in particular, is philosophically relevant to the possible. In terms of the form of their respective arguments, I have suggested that the basic argument between Levinas and Strauss is not so much about revelation but about philosophy. Although Levinas is today often considered a philosophical defender of Jewish revelation, I have suggested that Levinass project is to defend the possibilities of western philosophy for directing social and political life.

    In contrast, I have suggested that while Strauss argues that philosophy has a clarifying role in society, he is critical of what he argues is the modern premise that philosophy has the ability to direct social and political life. As such, when compared with Levinas, Strauss emerges as a defender of the philosophical possibility of revelation. A comparison and dialogue between Levinas and Strauss raises a number of basic questions about contemporary philosophical discussions about the possibilities of religion after metaphysics.

    The assumption that religious truths are fundamentally metaphysical or onto-theological in character is in tension with at least some dominant aspects of the historical Jewish traditions primary but not exclusive emphasis on the social and political forms of religious life. We should appreciate that the very story about religion after metaphysics so popular now in continental and increasingly American philosophical conversations may be a very particular, if not misleading story. This story is infused with what I would suggest is a particular Protestant narrative which may not do justice to the full array of the Protestant tradition that disassociates religion from public life.

    While it is, of course, all too simple to call this Protestant caricature, and what is likely a caricature of Protestantism, symptomatic of modernity, Id like to suggest that there is some truth to this claim. Could it be that the dissociation of religion from public life goes hand in hand with a particularly modern claim that philosophy is capable of grounding social and political life? And could it be that a rejection of this modern role for philosophy opens up the possibilities of conceiving religion as a public, and not only private, matter?

    Yet I would like minimally to suggest that just as the debate between Levinas and Strauss concerns the status of philosophy, contemporary debate about religion after metaphysics or religion after onto-theology reveals more about the current status or lack of status of philosophy than it does about religion. I am in agreement here with Hent de Vries who, in his very interesting book, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion, attempts to demonstrate the philosophical relevance of the religious without resorting to the axioms or the types of argumentation of either metaphysica specialis that is, ontotheology or its mirror image, the empirical study of.

    If, as I have argued, questions about the turn to religion in much of recent continental philosophy are largely questions about the status of philosophy, what is the philosophical question that is at stake here? There are certainly strictly philosophical reasons to question the modern status of philosophy, but there are also pressing existential reasons, the most important of which are the perceived evils of the twentieth century.

    If philosophy in the late twentieth century has turned to religion, it did so largely in response to these particular horrors.

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    As Derrida, drawing on Kant, writes in Faith and Knowledge, The possibility of radical evil both destroys and institutes the religious. We will turn then to how Strauss might interpret this story. Levinas makes much of the meaning of Abels murder in Totality and Infinity and in some earlier essays now published in Difficult Freedom. As Levinas puts it: For in reality, murder is possible, but it is possible only when one has not looked the Other in the face.

    The impossibility of killing is not real, but moral. The fact that the vision of the face is not an experience, but a moving out of oneself, a contact with another being and not simply a sensation of self, is attested to by the purely moral character of this impossibility. A moral view [regard] measures, in the face, the uncrossable infinite in which all murderous intent is immersed and.

    This is precisely why it leads us away from any experience or view [regard]: it is not known, but is in society with us. The commerce with beings begins with You shall not kill does not conform to the scheme of our normal relations with the words, in which the subject knows or absorbs its object like a nourishment, the satisfaction of a need.

    It does not return to its point of departure to become self-contentment, self-enjoyment, or self-knowledge. It inaugurates the spiritual journey of man. A religion, for us, can follow no other path. It was only possible for Cain actually to murder Abel, Levinas argues, because he did not look at his brothers face. Here Levinas emphasizes a point made by many traditional commentaries on the narrative of Cain and Abel.

    Levinas maintains that this silence between Cain and Abel results from Cains refusal to look at his brothers face. According to Levinass analysis, had Cain looked at his brothers face, had he listened and spoken to him, he would not have been able to murder his brother. What is most significant for our discussion of the ultimate difference between Levinas and Strauss is the implication of Levinass position that morality is not something that needs to be taught because it is part of our very makeup as human beings. Philosophy is not responsible for morality in the sense that it posits moral rules because as Levinas states again and again, morality is not a cognitive matter.

    Such a philosophical articulation is the goal of Levinass phenomenological analyses. To use Levinass own words, ethics is first philosophy. As regards religion and the veracity of any conception of divine law, Levinass argument is that philosophy articulates the human, ethical meaning of religion and law. Levinas reads the story of Gods dialogue with Cain in this way: The personal responsibility of man with regard to man is such that God cannot annul it.

    This is why in the dialogue between God and Cain Am I my brothers keeper? Instead it comes from someone who has not yet experienced human solidarity and who thinks like many philosophers that each exists for oneself and that everything is permitted. But God reveals to the murderer that his crime has disturbed the natural order, so the Bible puts a word of submission into the mouth of Cain: My punishment is greater than I can bear.

    The rabbis pretend to read a new question to this response: Is my punishment too great to bear? Is it too heavy for the Creator who supports the heavens and the earth? Rather than understanding Gods question to and punishment of Cain as an indicator of a divine law above human will, Levinas understands these. Levinas reads the rabbis as making precisely this point. Cains punishment is meant as a human rebuke to God rather than a divine rebuke to the human.

    Cain can only recognize that the murder of his brother disturbed the natural order when he recognizes the centrality of human, and not divine, nature. Levinass faith is in the human and more narrowly in the ability of philosophy to articulate, without recourse to history, culture, or religion, what it means to be human. And it is on both of these points that Strauss parts with Levinas. The reality of evil for Strauss means that we should have faith neither in the human being who is capable of creating such suffering nor in philosophy divorced from its complex relationship to politics, culture, and religion.

    Philosophy in itself cannot, in the end, give an account of the necessary strictures of divine law. As I will show in greater detail in Chapter 6, from his early writings on Jewish themes to his broad argument in Natural Right and History, philosophy, for Strauss, can articulate a local morality, but not a universal one. Cain needs God to tell him that he is his brothers keeper. Strauss does state in Natural Right and History that the experience of history and the less ambiguous experience of the complexity of human affairs may blur, but they cannot extinguish the evidence of those simple experiences regarding right and wrong, which are at the bottom of the philosophic contention that there is a natural right.

    This is not something that the human being can know by himself and it is not something for which any phenomenological analysis can account. For Strauss, moral education, if it is to have any universal application, as opposed to a more limited application within a closed society, begins with stepping out of the human order. This is Gods lesson to Cain: God is watching.

    You are your. For Levinas, in contrast, no education is necessary for we already are moral beings. What is necessary is a philosophical articulation of our fundamental nature. In Chapter 2 we will explore this difference between Levinas and Strauss more deeply. There I take up in more detail my claim that Levinas is a defender of a particularly modern philosophical project, while Strauss is a critic of it. To do so, I focus particularly on Levinass and Strausss respective analyses of Descartes. While Levinass ethical philosophy certainly is an attempt to reformulate the modern notion of the autonomous subject, it nonetheless affirms the truth of the modern and specifically Cartesian view of a separate and separable human subject.

    We turn now to this topic and its significance for understanding the meanings of the philosophies of Levinas and Strauss. By this he means to criticize primarily the priority given to ontology, to the question of being as such, particularly in Martin Heideggers philosophy and more generally in the western philosophical tradition. Levinas aims to show that my obligation to another person constitutes the starting point of all truth.

    Philosophy cannot fully grasp what Levinas calls the face of the other. Philosophy can, however, by way of a phenomenological retrieval, recover what ontology the quest for the meaning of being has forgotten: namely, the way in which the subject has already been called into responsibility by the revelation of the others moral authority. In this sense, Levinass thought challenges the totalitarian impulse of western ontology, which constitutes much of the western philosophical tradition.

    And it is Jerusalem, or Hebrew, as opposed to Athens, or Greek that, Levinas maintains, allows him to challenge philosophys hegemony from within. This description of Levinass project not withstanding, I argue in this chapter that Levinass relation to the western philosophical tradition, and to the modern philosophical tradition beginning with Descartes, is far more complex than Levinass interpreters have allowed. While Levinas certainly does claim that the western philosophical tradition is totalizing, he also maintains that various figures in this tradition including first and foremost Plato and Descartes, Heideggers villains par excellence articulated key aspects of the ethical philosophy that he, Levinas, seeks to retrieve.

    I focus in this chapter on Levinass retrieval of Descartess philosophy to show that despite his arguments about the inability of philosophy to grasp the face of the other, Levinass project is nothing short of a defense of the modern philosophical project after Heidegger. My evidence for this argument is Levinass texts and Totality and Infinity most particularly, in which Levinas boldly and blatantly claims that he is Despite these obvious statements by Levinas, the scholarly literature on Levinas and Descartes is surprisingly sparse.

    Some attention has been given to Levinass use of Descartess conception of infinity and some attention has been given to Levinass use of Descartess evil genius in arguing for a goodness that is beyond being. If postmodern philosophy takes as its villain the subject of the cogito, the reading of Levinas presented in this chapter calls into question the view of Levinas as a postmodern thinker.

    It is the separate, independent, indeed atheistic self that Levinas means to affirm in Totality and Infinity. Yet surely, one might quickly reply, Levinass subject is not Descartess subject. I argue in what follows, however, that the subject described by Totality and Infinity is, according to Levinas, none other than Descartess so-called modern subject. In an important sense, this claim isnt even a claim because Levinas says as much.

    If Heidegger, in Being and Time, takes Descartes to have expressed and determined the modern dichotomy between subject and object, Levinas seeks nothing less than to reaffirm such a distinction. To appreciate Levinass arguments, as well as their impetus, we must turn to Levinass debt to and reliance on Husserls view of the ego. To be sure, Levinas completely transforms Husserls egology into an ethics of the other.

    Yet against Heidegger, Levinas turns to Husserls account of the ego to offer his view of ethics. We will see, however, that in returning to Husserl Levinas returns as he says to Descartes. Whereas Husserl locates Descartess mistake in claiming that the ego is a piece of the world,3 Levinas reaffirms, against Husserl, Descartess initial impulse.

    The first half of the chapter Sections 2. The second part of the chapter Sections 2. Following Strauss, I argue that Descartess innovation concerned not just the invention of the modern subject per se epitomized by a dichotomy between subject and object , but more importantly the possibility of the invention of modern philosophy, which concerns the bracketing of social and political concerns from philosophy and a forgetfulness of philosophys proper role and place within society.

    The second half of the chapter thus analyzes Levinass defense of this project in the context of what I will suggest is his puzzling claim, especially in the context. The chapter concludes Section 2. Indeed, Levinas seems to move from claim to claim without any apparent attempt to alert his readers to a clear progression of thought. A number of interpreters of Levinas have commented that this lack of linear argument is part and parcel of Levinass philosophical claim that ethics is first philosophy.

    These interpreters contend that Levinass claims about ethics do not lend themselves to propositional argument. I make this claim for two reasons. First, this view conforms to Levinass own self-understanding. Levinas very much understands himself as a philosopher in the phenomenological tradition. As such, he must have an argument to present that can be questioned, for this is the business of philosophy.

    Second, by appreciating the actual argument of Totality and Infinity we can grasp Levinass central philosophical claim, which is not, as many might believe, a claim about the selfs obligation to the other. While this contention, of course, marks Levinass entire philosophical project, his central argument in Totality and Infinity is for a separable, independent subject. If Levinas can adequately describe and argue for such a subject, then his claim about ethics follows. I have set myself the not small task of explaining the structure of Totality and Infinity.

    Yet despite the books complexity, there is a structure to the book and the books argument emerges from this structure. To appreciate this structure, we should look first to the order of the book, which I reproduce here: Totality and Infinity, Table of Contents Section I. The Same and the Other A. Metaphysics and Transcendence B. Separation and Discourse C. Truth and Justice D. Separation and the Absolute. Section II.

    Interiority and Economy A. Separation as Life B. Enjoyment and Representation C. I and Dependence D. The Dwelling E. Exteriority and the Face A. Sensibility and the Face B. Ethics and the Face C. Beyond the Face A. The Ambiguity of Love B. Phenomenology of Eros C. Fecundity D. Subjectivity in Eros E. Transcendence and Fecundity F. Filiality and Fraternity G.

    See a Problem?

    The Infinity of Time We must recognize first that while the book has four sections, the first section is different from the other three. In Section I The Same and the Other, Levinas lays out what will be the argument, to be made in greater detail, in the next three sections. Section I has four parts that mirror the structure of the book as a whole. In Part A of Section I, Levinas lays out his general claim that ethics precedes ontology and that ethics is transcendence. What then is the argument? Once again, Levinas contends that ethics is first philosophy. My obligation to another person, Levinas claims, logically precedes anything that we can say about the nature of being.

    The most fundamental fact of my humanity concerns this obligation I have to another person. Levinas means to upset the equation between self and other, politics and ethics,. By virtue of its own language, it is possible to read Totality and Infinity as establishing these dichotomies. Yet Levinass philosophical goal is much more complex. Levinas intends to show not that there is a dichotomy between self and other, politics and ethics, or totality and infinity, but rather that the latter term in each of these pairs makes possible the former term, without subsuming the reality of the former term into itself.

    In the case of self and other, this means that Levinas argues not for altruism, which is in fact a view of ethics predicated upon a dichotomy between self and other, but for an ethics of infinite responsibility that makes truly independent selves possible. We will have occasion later in this chapter to discuss Levinass view of the relation between politics and ethics, and totality and infinity. But these arguments, along with Levinass radical claim about ethics grow out of Levinass initial contention about the separable self.

    Indeed, Levinass entire argument in Totality and Infinity hangs on his contentions about a truly separable, independent self. Before turning to the specifics of Levinass arguments, let us look once again at the structure of Totality and Infinity. The first subtitle of each of the four parts of Section I, Desire for the Invisible, summarizes Levinass broad claims.

    Ethics for Levinas is the movement beyond the visible. The face of the other, which would seem to imply visuality, is for Levinas not graspable by vision or thought. Desire for the invisible is for Levinas the desire for infinity. However, the desire for the invisible can only happen within the visible. Hence, an account of the invisible requires an account of the visible.

    An account of infinity requires an account of totality. If the desire for the invisible is the task of ethics and Levinas begins his study by stating that it is then he must first provide an account of the visible. Simply put, the argument of Totality and Infinity is as follows. If we desire the invisible which Levinas defines as the ethical stance then we must recognize what is necessary to make this desire possible. The first and, I will argue, most important element in Levinass argument is an argument for atheism or the will.

    In the detailed phenomenological descriptions of Section II of Totality and Infinity Interiority and Economy Levinas sketches a picture of the atheistic self. Again, Levinass arguments about my obligation to another. Section IV of Totality and Infinity, Beyond the Face, is Levinass attempt to bring his analysis of the self and the other, of the worlds of totality and infinity, into phenomenological relation with his descriptions of the world of social relations, defined here for him primarily by the relations of the family.


    Returning to Levinass subtitle of Section I Part D, Separation and the Absolute, it becomes clear that Levinass attempt in Section IV is to describe the ways in which separate beings come together to create the ethical relation, which is for Levinas the absolute. But Levinass ethical relation is not one of mutuality. For Levinas, while the erotic encounter between two separate beings is not ethical, it can create the asymmetrical ethical relationship between parent and child.

    In the conclusion of Totality and Infinity, Levinas considers the implications of his view of separation and the absolute for the concepts of religion and politics. These are themes that he continues to develop throughout his later work. While there is, of course, too much more to be said about the structure and argument of Totality and Infinity, what I would like to make clear is that the central argument of Totality and Infinity is for the separable self.

    Levinass radical claim about ethics rests neither on a philosophical argument for altruism nor even on a philosophical argument for ethics per se. Rather, I suggest that the philosophical claims of Totality and Infinity rest upon Levinass attempt to affirm phenomenologically a picture of an independent, isolated, and separable subject. In affirming an isolated, separable subject Levinas moves back from Heidegger to Husserl. As is well known, in Being and Time, Heidegger denies precisely Husserls view of the ego, claiming that Husserl presents an ontic self, not an ontological one.

    In simpler terms, Husserl argues for a view of the ego that can be distinguished from the historical self and the selfs being in the world. Heidegger, in contrast, maintains that the self only gains its identity through its being in the world. Significantly, Husserl makes his argument in Cartesian Mediations against Descartess notion of the ego, which from Husserls point of view is too much. As Husserl puts it against Descartes, Just as the reduced Ego is not a piece of the world, so, conversely, neither the world nor any worldly Object is a piece of my Ego.

    Husserl thus affirms Descartess cogito, but gives it a new twist: To say, I am, ego cogito does not therefore mean I, this human being, am. What we need to appreciate, however, is that Husserl claims to be following Descartes in affirming a unique subject whose uniqueness derives from the stripping away what Husserl called the bracketing of its historical and social situation.

    From Husserls perspective, this further stripping away of the Cartesian cogito beyond any remnant of this world is consistent with, and in fact demanded by, the Cartesian method.

    In Being and Time, Heidegger accepts Husserls view of Descartess legacy as epitomizing the modern, acontextual subject. When Heidegger criticizes the philosophical dichotomy between subject and object, he does so with Husserl and Descartes in mind. To show that from the perspective of being there are no absolutely separable subjects, Heidegger perhaps somewhat ironically returns the proper pronoun to the ego that Husserl had tried to deny. As Heidegger puts it, Because Dasein has in each case mineness, [Jemeinigkeit], one must always use a personal pronoun when one addresses it. I am, you are.

    The ego, for Heidegger, is fundamentally relational. That I am I is only possible because I exist in a web of relations. Outside of these relations, there is no subject. So while Heidegger, in arguing against Husserl, might seem to be returning personal identity to the ego, he is, from another perspective, also denying any notion of personal identity in the sense of absolute identity which is what Husserl wants to affirm.

    One might think that based on his view of the primacy of ethics that Levinass notion of the self would be closer to Heideggers than to Husserls. But Levinas maintains, contra Heidegger, that identity is not wholly fluid but rather concrete. In this, he returns to Husserls notion of a truly separable.

    Rather, he argues that the truly unique, separate self is one that can be encountered phenomenologically only by way of an appreciation of sense experience. Unlike Husserls transcendental ego, Levinass ego is not a thinking self, but a self that senses itself, by way of sensible experience, as uniquely separated from being. For Levinas, in order for the ego to think, it must first be separate from being, it must sense itself as itself. It is the selfs sense of itself as a separable, independent self that is the core philosophical argument of Totality and Infinity. Against Heidegger, Levinas maintains that there is a separable subject whose identity cannot be reduced to any web of relations.

    From Levinass point of view, Heideggers mine reduces the self to nothing, while Husserls mine overly cognizes the identity of the ego. Levinass attempt to make ethics first philosophy is captured in his mine, which contra Husserl is not a cognitive matter and contra Heidegger transcends social and historical relations.

    Levinass mine concerns my unique responsibility for the other person. This responsibility is mine alone and I am uniquely defined by it. I do not possess this responsibility; rather this responsibility is me. But in being me, my unique responsibility requires a self who experiences itself as unique, a self who stands outside of the social and historical order. To begin to posit such a self, Levinas turns back from Heidegger to Husserl. But as we will see in Section 2. We will leave for the conclusion the question of how this sentient being is linked to Descartess I think therefore I am.

    As Marion puts it: [T]his fundamental dispute with Husserl does not keep Heidegger from agreeing with him. He consistently agrees to interpret Descartess cogito, ergo sum in terms of intentionality, in terms of the displacement of ecstasy brings about, in terms of. Only one difference remains. At the point where Husserl acknowledged an anticipation of phenomenology, Heidegger denounces a form of metaphysics. But whether they approve or disapprove of intentionality, they give the cogito, ergo sum the same interpretation in terms of it. Marion shows that Descartes rejected the idea of intentionality that Husserl and Heidegger associate with his philosophy.

    Descartes, Marion argues, does not, as Husserl and Heidegger maintain, claim that every thought is accompanied by an I think. As Descartes put it, this view of the cogito is as deluded as our bricklayers saying that a person who is skilled in architecture must employ a reflexive act to ponder on the fact that he has this skill before he can be an architect.

    We cannot discuss here the complex philosophical and historical issues of Descartes scholarship in twentieth-century France. But this brief mention of Marions discussion of Michel Henrys interpretation of Descartes provides us an important starting point for understanding Levinass view of Descartes.

    It is interesting that Marion does not refer to Levinas in this essay, published first in , on Henrys reading of Descartes. While Levinas certainly does not give a comprehensive account or reading of Descartes or even of the cogito, the general theme of receptivity is the key to understanding Levinass construction of the self. For Levinas, the self is not one who represents itself to itself through thought the view that Husserl and Heidegger both attribute to Descartes.

    Rather, Levinass self senses itself as itself by way of sensible experience. While not systematic in its presentation, Levinass discussion in Totality and Infinity of Descartes provides the framework for Levinass phenomenological description of the separate and independent subject. From the beginning, Levinas frames his effort in this section as an attempt to find a middle point of sorts between Husserl and Heidegger.

    Levinas criticizes Husserls claim that every intentionality is founded upon representation, but states also that his goal is not to be anti-intellectualist like the philosophers of existence and Heidegger in particular in understanding the existent only in terms of doing and labor. For all his analysis of the moods of Dasein, Heidegger, Levinas suggests, has not taken the mood of satisfaction seriously because he has reduced our understanding of things to their use.

    On Strauss’s Thought | The Leo Strauss Center

    Levinas argues against Heideggerian phenomenology that hunger is not related just to the need for food, but also to the possibility of contentment. Levinas stretches the limits of Husserls notion of intentionality, claiming that the self senses itself as a separate, isolated, and independent self in a noncognitive way. Levinas continues by stating that Kant follows Descartess view of sensation in distinguishing between knowledge and sensible experience and was right to do so.

    Yet Kants view of sensibility is ultimately too negative. Levinas means to return to what he claims is the fullness of the Cartesian view of sensibility, which he argues accesses a reality that cognitive knowledge cannot access. Sensibility, Levinas contends, grounds the self as self, beyond instinct and beneath reason.

    Sensibility does not constitute representation, which is the province of reason, but it does constitute what Levinas calls the very contentment of existence, which is my unreflective sense of myself. Heideggers Da, Levinas maintains, cannot account for sensibility: It is not care for Being, nor a relation with existents, nor even a negation of the world, but its accessibility in enjoyment.

    Before the self makes objects of the world, sensibility, for Levinas, is the receptive capacity of the self to bear and be shaped by the world in which it lives: The bit of earth that supports me is not only my object; it supports my experience of objects. The relation with my site in this stance [tenue] precedes thought and labor.

    My sensibility is here. In my position there is not the sentiment of localization, but the localization of my sensibility. Sensibility is the very narrowness of life; the navete of the unreflected I, beyond instinct, beneath reason. Levinas claims that sensation is not the subjective counterpart to objectivity but is prior to objectivity. Sensibility is not muddled thought but gives access to a reality to which reason cannot reach. A reality that serves no theoretical or practical purpose, contentment and enjoyment are the location of the transhistorical, transcognitive self.

    Levinas calls this sense of self a surplus for it cannot be captured by reason, biology, or society. Again using the example of eating, Levinas writes: Eating, for example, is to be sure not reducible to the chemistry of alimentation. But eating also does not reduce itself to the set of gustative, olfactory, kinesthetic,. This sinking ones teeth into the things which the act of eating involves above all measures the surplus that is not quantitative, but is the way the I, the absolute commencement, is suspended on the non-I.

    Throughout Section II of Totality and Infinity, Levinas provides detailed analyses of the ways in which the I separates itself from the world in the surplus produced by sensibility. If you have previously obtained access with your personal account, Please log in. If you previously purchased this article, Log in to Readcube. Log out of Readcube. Click on an option below to access.

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