An Introduction to Levinas (Part Five-A)

Spirits of the West


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

The Priority of Ontology and Immanence
5. We have said that for Western philosophy meaning or intelligibility coincides with the manifestation of being, as if the very affair of being led, in the form of intelligibility, toward clarity, and thence became intentional thematization in an experience. This is a thematization from which derive, or to which are susceptible, all the potentialities of experience, as they press toward it or await thematization. In the thematic exposition the question of being or of truth is exhausted. But if being is manifestation-if the exertion or action of being comes back to this exhibition- then the manifestation of being is only the manifestation of “this exertion.” That is, it is a manifestation of manifestation, a truth of truth. Philosophy thus finds in manifestation its matter and its form. Philosophy would thus remain in its attachment to being-to the existent or to the being of the existent-an intrigue of knowledge and truth, an adventure of experience between the clear and the obscure. It is certain that this is the sense in which philosophy carries the spirituality of the West, wherein spirit remained coextensive with knowledge. But knowledge [savoir]-or thought, or experience-should not be understood as some sort of reflection of exteriority in an inner forum. The notion of reflection, an optical metaphor borrowed from thematized beings or events, is not the characteristic of knowledge. Knowledge only comprehends itself in its own essence, starting from consciousness, whose specificity eludes us when we define it with the aid of the concept of knowledge, which itself supposes consciousness.

a) Did your eyes glaze over? This is a dense passage that is probably incomprehensible unless the reader has read other texts by Levinas, and has a good understanding of Heidegger. So don’t feel bad if this paragraph comes across as gobbledygook. Ironic, isn’t it, that it deals with the intelligibility of being?

b) This paragraph is a set-up for the one following, the second paragraph of section 5 of the essay. The paragraph above is describing how the human consciousness is in the world and how things are disclosed to it in a manifestation of being. It seems that Levinas has three philosophical references in this paragraph: i) Heidegger and the ontology of meaning, ii) a quick bounce off of Hegel and The Phenomenology of the Spirit, and iii) a brief critique of representationalism.

c) The description and critique of Heidegger is in the first seven sentences, down to the word “obscure”. It is a restatement of what has already been said in the essay, and something which Levinas believed as a young man in the 1920s – that Western Philosophy reached a kind of culmination in the fundamental ontology of Heidegger. Meaning or intelligibility is manifested in being. This manifestation or disclosure of being leads through ordinary intelligibility to the clarity of philosophy, and this clarity is expressed in thematizations derived from experience. One of the striking things about Husserl’s phenomenology is that it focused  on the content of phenomena, and so potentially was not about abstractions but could be about everyday things. Levinas’s first published work in 1932 was his dissertation on intutition in Husserl. It was written very much from a Heidegerrian point of view. A young Jean-Paul Sartre was introduced to phenomenology through this text, having become aware that one could make a philosophy out of ordinary phenomena and not be weighted down with Cartesian doubt and Kant’s concern with whether we can know the thing-in-itself.

d) Levinas critiques Heidegger by suggesting that ontology gets stuck at being concerned with the manifestation of being. It cannot get beyond the manifestation, and what is seen on the surface of things is really all that there is, as that’s all that can be discussed intelligibly. Philosophy, then, is a manifestation of manifestation, a truth of truth. There is no Kantian “thing-in-itself” beyond perceptions, there is just the thing itself as it is disclosed to us. Philosophy – or any other type of rational knowledge – is wedded to this understanding of being, and at best all we can do is clarify the clear from the obscure. “Philosophy thus finds in manifestation its form and content.”

e) Levinas then suggests that in “the spirituality of the West . . . spirit remained coextensive with knowledge”. This is probably an allusion to Hegel and his 1807 opus “The Phenomenology of Spirit”. This rather strange book examines how consciousness unfolds and evolves through history, culminating in the Napoleonic era and the philosophy of Hegel. In some respects Hegelianism is the totalizing philosophy par excellence, as it seems to encompass everything visible and invisible and put it in its place of dialectical triads. The word Geist in German means both “mind” and “spirit”, and so to talk about “the spirituality of the West” is in a sense to talk about what it thought about consciousness. For Levinas historically, from the Greeks through Descartes to Kant and Hegel up through Husserl and Heidegger, this meant knowledge. Heidegger radically reinterpreted knowledge in terms of being, but it was still about knowledge. What Levinas wants to do is to call this long tradition into question.

f) Before he moves on to the major move in his philosophy, Levinas makes a very Heidegerrian point in stating that knowledge is not a reflection of exteriority in an inner forum. Going back to Locke representationalism bedeviled philosophy. It was clear that human beings receive sense data, and then somehow use it to interact with the world through vision, touch, smell, hearing, and tasting. Vision became the dominant metaphor, and philosophers engaged in what looks a lot like psychological speculations to understand how sense data became perceptions and how the mind used them. That it sounds to our ears like psychology is understandable, because up until around 1900 psychology and philosophy were one discipline. Kant in particular worried over this, and eventually concluded that there was the thing-in-itself and the thing-as-it-appears, and we can only know the latter. Analytic philosophy to this day relies on representationalism; it’s a pretty powerful idea still. As noted above, Heidegger simply said that the phenomenal world is the world. We do not have a little homunculus inside of us taking the data and turning it into a representation of the world for consciousness to look at. Much of Being and Time deals with how human consciousness deals with the world, and Heidegger’s descriptions do not assume some kind of reflection being generated inside consciousness; he actually leaves it rather vague as to how disclosure happens. Richard Rorty (1931-2007) in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a book that incorporates both Heidegger and Wittgenstein, makes a devastating attack upon representationalism.

h) The final point that Levinas makes is another Heidegerrian one, which is that the concept of knowledge presumes a conscious knower. This creates a circular problem in that consciousness is consciousness of something, which is presumably knowledge, but the actual nature of the consciousness knowing is rather opaque or hidden from us. Phenomenology tries to get behind that to understand the characteristics of consciousness. Heidegger came to one conclusion in Being and Time, to which Levinas adhered for a time, but eventually found that he needed to leave that climate.

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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