An Introduction to Levinas (Part Four)

Beyond the Polarity of Faith and Reason


A Mobius Nautilus – A compound mobius strip created out of 36 interlocking mobius strips. 3d printed out of a sintered vinyl plastic, which makes it very resilient and bendable.

Note: This is the fourth part in an ongoing commentary on Emmanuel Levinas’s essay “God and Philosophy” (1974).

4. One can, to be sure, also claim that the God of the Bible has no meaning; that is, he is not thinkable properly speaking. This would be the other term of the alternative. “The concept of God is not a problematic concept, it is not a concept at all,” writes Jeanne Delhomme in a recent book, prolonging a major line of the philosophical rationalism that refuses to receive the transcendence of the God of Abraham, or of Isaac and Jacob, among those concepts without which there would be no thought. That which the Bible raises above all comprehension has here not yet reached the threshold of intelligibility!

The problem that is posed, consequently, and which shall be out own, consists in asking ourselves whether meaning [Ie sens] is equivalent to the esse of being; that is, whether the meaning which, in philosophy, is meaning is not already a restriction of meaning; whether it is not already a derivation or a drift from meaning; whether the meaning equivalent to essence-to the gesture of being, to being qua being-is not already approached in the presence which is the time of the Same. This supposition can only be justified by the possibility of going back, starting from this allegedly conditioned meaning, to a meaning that would no longer express itself in terms of being, nor in terms of beings. We must ask ourselves whether, beyond the intelligibility and the rationalism of identity, of consciousness, of the present and of being-beyond the intelligibility of immanence-the significance, the rationality, and the rationalism of transcendence are not themselves understood. Our question is whether, beyond being, a meaning might not show itself whose priority, translated into ontological language, will be called prior to being. It is not certain that, going beyond the terms of being and beings, one necessarily falls back into the discourse of opinion or of faith. In fact, while remaining outside of reason, or while wanting to be there, faith and opinion speak the language of being. Nothing is less opposed to ontology than the opinion of faith. To ask oneself, as we are attempting to do here, whether God cannot be uttered in a reasonable discourse that would be neither ontology nor faith, is implicitly to doubt the formal opposition, established by Yehuda Halevy, and taken up by Pascal, between, on the one hand, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, invoked without philosophy in faith, and on the other the god of the philosophers. It is to doubt that this opposition constitutes an alternative.

a) In this fourth section of the essay Levinas contemplates a standard polarity between rationality and faith. Philosophers such as Jeanne Delhomme[1] call into question the very intelligibility of God, declining to call it even a concept. Others are less critical of faith, but do see a true difference. Levinas invokes Yehuda Halevy (also spelled Judah ha-Levi) (1075-1141) as the Jewish philosopher from Spain who first posed the opposition. He also refers to Blaise Pascal, the 17th century Christian mathematician, physicist, and theologian from France. The rationalists (Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Liebnitz) attempted to understand God by reason alone, but in so doing did not arrive at the God of either Judaism or Christianity, but a deity that at best was conformable to monotheism. The empiricists (John Locke, David Hume) believed that our knowledge of the world was based upon experience and habit; while Locke accepted that we might be able to have an empirically based belief in God, Hume did not. Kant tried to overcome the split between rationalism and empiricism by demonstrating through the antimonies that certain opposing propositions  (such as the existence/non-existence of God) cannot be ascertained by either reason or experience.

b) Levinas deals with this by calling into question the polarity. As will be seen as he develops the idea in the rest of the essay, he reinserts the concept of transcendence into human discourse as something which disrupts the hegemony of reason. Philosophers,  by defining “meaning” as that which emerges from the gesture of being as an essence, have predermined the outcome of their investigations by restricting the meaning of “meaning”. So Levinas asks: Is there meaning prior to being?

c) Levinas here describes what he about to do – asking about a priority of meaning that is prior to being – as a translation into ontological language. The translation here is twofold, I think. First, it is that translation of the transcendence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into terms that do not require an adherence to Judaism or any other religion. In other words, his translation is not a Jewish philosophy, but something of universal significance. The other way in that it is a translation is that it is a movement from the “Saying” to the “Said”, about which he will elaborate later in the essay.

d) Levinas suggests that faith and opinion in fact speak the language of being, that it is not as opposed to philosophy as Halevy and Pascal and so many others suggest. This is a consequence of his thinking around the Saying and the Said. Human speech is always a “thematization” of something, and that thematization presumes the language of ontology. For Levinas this is just an observable fact, and the role of philosophy is to deconstruct the overwhelming claim of ontology in favor of what is prior to being, namely ethics. In the same way that the later Wittgenstein saw the role of philosophy as untangling us from the bewitching of language, so Levinas sees his meta-ethics, only with higher stakes.

e) An example of “thematization” might be to consider the word “tool” much as Wittgenstein does in Philosophical Investigations. We use the word “tool” all the time and we might even have a definition in our mind that is pretty close to the dictionary entry. A philosopher might call this the “essence” of what a tool is. A Platonist would suggest that there is an ideal form of toolness that exist independently of any particular tool and is in some sense more real than material tool. An Aristotelian would suggest that “tool” is just an abstraction from the tools in the world, and it is a name. Wittgenstein would say that all of this is misleading. The meaning of the word “tool” is defined by its use within a particular form of life. It will have many uses and many types of application, and there is a family resemblance between the uses. It is neither an ideal form nor an abstraction, but an item we use in human communication. we know we have used the word correctly if the other person responds in the expected or desired way. For Levinas the “thematization” takes place when a philosopher takes a word out of its polyvalent usage and sees it as an ideal, as an abstraction, as a definition, as an essence, or some kind of gesture of being.

f) Levinas always distinguished between his philosophical texts and what he called his “confessional writings”. Although he claimed to be no expert, he studied the Talmud extensively in the 1950s and became a noted expositor in his annual Talmudic Readings at gatherings of French Jewish Intellectuals. He also commented on any number of other Jewish topics, as well as the relation of Judaism to Christianity. In his confessional writings Levinas suspended any philosophic reservations and engaged in issues, usually in the spirit of argumentation found in the Talmud. Levinas always related the practice of the Jewish faith to ethics, and was not overly concerned with the ontology or epistemology of what was in the Bible or the Talmud. He recognised that the language which he received had these ontological propositions, but what was more important was how the transcendence of God and of the other person disrupted those propositions. This led him not to a God hat was a mere negation of these propositions (which would be nothing, a nihilistic conception of the divine) but to the true significance of the disruption, which is ethical. While Levinas would not say that one has to be religious in order to be ethical, In his own life he lived out his ethics in a religious mode.

[1] Jeanne Delhomme (1911-1983) was a Professor of Philosophy at Université de Poitiers (1957-1969), and Paris X- Nanterre (1970-1981), where she was in both places a colleague of Levinas.

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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