An Introduction to Levinas (Part Two)


The Gesture of Being

2. This dignity of an ultimate and royal discourse comes to Western philosophy by virtue of the rigorous coincidence between the thought in which philosophy stands and the reality in which this thought thinks.For thought, this coincidence signifies the following: not to have to think beyond that which belongs to the “gesture or movement of being [geste d’etre]”; or at least not to have to think beyond that which modifies a previous adherence to the “gesture of being,” such as ideal or formal notions. For the being of the real, this coincidence signifies: to illumine thought and what is thought by showing itself. To show itself, to be illumined, is precisely to have a meaning; it is precisely to have intelligibility par excellence, underlying any modification of meaning. Consequently, it is necessary to understand the rationality of the “gesture of being” not as an eventual characteristic that would be attributed to it [the gesture of being] when some reason comes to know it. Intelligibility is precisely that a thought might know the rationality of the gesture of being. It is necessary to understand rationality as the incessant upsurge of thought driven
by the energy of the gesture of being or by its manifestation, and we must understand reason starting from this rationality. Meaningful thought, thought of being: these would be pleonasms and equivalent pleonasms, justified, however, by the vicissitudes and privations to which this identification of the thought of the meaningful and of being is exposed de jure. (Emmanuel Levinas, “God and Philosophy” (1974))

Note:  In this Introduction to Levinas I intend to go paragraph by paragraph through his essay “God and Philosophy” and to make comments on it. This will be a long series! I will assume that you’ve scanned over the previous section.

a) This is the second section and third paragraph of the essay. As mentioned before, Levinas is describing the position which he wants to critique. Here he gets deeper into it. The position is essentially that of Heidegger.

b) In the first sentence Levinas states that Western philosophy sees a coincidence between “the thought in which this philosophy stands and the reality in which this thought thinks.” What does this mean? The rest of the passage helps to clarify.

c) The theory which Levinas will eventually criticize is description of being as being inherently meaningful and intelligible. Phenomena is not observed and then represented to us within our minds with intelligibility somehow added. Rather, an aspect of the world is shown to us, disclosed to us already with meaning. We can only think about those things that are already intelligible.

d) Levinas suggests that this approach sees human consciousness as driven by the energy of the gesture of being, and that the recognition of the intelligibility is a recognition of rationality, from which reason is derived.

e) This view turns Descartes upside down. Descartes abstracts himself from the world by a radical skepticism, and is driven in meditation to conclude that the only certain thing is that he, as a thinking thing, exists. Thus he relies on reason to build up the foundation of his philosophy and world. The view that Levinas is describing instead sees thought emerging from an engagement with an already meaningful world. Heidegger avoids the problems of Descartes that set up the developments of Empiricism and Rationalism down to the synthesis of Kant by dispensing with radical skepticism and describing what it is to be a conscious being in the world.

f) Levinas, still in a Heideggerian mode, describes “meaningful thought” and “thought of being” as “pleonasms”. A pleonasm is created when one uses two or three words when one will do; it is an inherently redundant phrase. Examples might include, “book filled library”, “tall skyscraper”, positive yes”, or “spiny vertebrate”. The extra words do not actually add to our knowledge of the subject, although they might act rhetorically to create emphasis or sound quality. “Meaningful thought” is a pleonasm in that all thought is meaningful, and if something is meaningful it can be thought. In “thought of being” likewise anything that is thought is a thought about being, and anything that is part of being can be thought. Levinas also seems to suggest that “Meaningful thought” and “thought of being” are equivalent in pleonastic meaning; both say in more words than is necessary the same thing.

g) We need to be careful that we do not attribute to this Heideggerian view that the meaning is necessarily the same for all conscious beings. Language can cover up the being of some phenomenon. To get at the truth of a phenomenon will usually require the exercise of a science of interpretation. This science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. If one does not have a good system of analysis for interpretation then one will indeed subject “meaningful thought” and “thought of being” to any number of “vicissitudes and privations”. Indeed, this is more common, which is why Levinas suggests (in a very sad joke) that this happens de jure, as if by law. True being is normally concealed. The philosophical method of phenomenology, as initiated by Husserl and continued in modified modes by Heidegger (and Levinas) seeks to uncover these truths from being hidden or buried. Phenomenology does not ask abstract questions about, “How do we know?” or “What is real?” Instead it but assumes that we are already in a meaningful world, and that we already have an understanding and concern for being/existence. The real questions, determined by attention to the content of the phenomena of consciousness, is to ask what are the conditions and forms for knowledge of the real; these are “the ideal or formal notions” of the gesture of being.

h) “Being” here is not something that is added on to something else, and it is not something abstracted from individual beings. Being is not a property, nor is it a category. Rather, as conscious beings we live in the world, and everything we do and think presumes being. Being is self-evident – I am here in this place at this time, and I am listening to this music and feeling this way and writing on this laptop. Even the way in which being is hidden or buried or is inauthentic makes use of being. Being is not something “other” than anything else, it is the precondition for considering any thing.

i) I may well have misinterpreted Heidegger here (he can be a bit slippery), and I may have misunderstood Levinas (he can be even more slippery), so I welcome corrections, objections, criticisms, and on-topic expostulations.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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