An Introduction to Levinas (Part Five-B)



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

This next paragraph is even more dense than usual, so I will take it a sentence or two at a time.

It is as a modality or a modification of insomnia that consciousness is consciousness of… , an assembling in being or in presence that – up to a certain depth of vigilance, where vigilance must clothe itself in justice – has import for insomnia.[2]
[2]See Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, pp.153-162, Autrement qu’être ou Au-delà de l’essence pp. 195-207 [239-253].[Author’s note]

a) Between 1940 and 1945 Emmanuel Levinas was a prisoner of war of the Germans. Some texts refer to him as an officer, but he was in fact a sergeant, a non-commissioned officer in the French army. He was captured along with 1.5 million soldiers in the collapse of the Battle of France. Under the terms of the armistice Germany kept these soldiers as prisoners of war, although between 1940 and 1944 about half a million were released. Levinas was never afforded this opportunity, as he was a Jew. Under the Geneva Convention and the terms of the Armistice of 1940 Levinas was protected from being sent to a death camp, but he was made to go to a special camp for Jewish French POWs where he worked at felling timber and chopping wood. He was not released until the end of the war, and it was only then that he found out that his family in Lithuania – his parents and his brothers and their families – had been murdered when the Germans invaded in 1941. His mother-in-law in France had been captured by the police of Vichy France, sent to a concentration camp, and murdered. His wife and child survived by being hidden, first by his friend Maurice Blanchot, and then by a Catholic religious order for women. It was during this time of captivity, when he had no news from his family, that he drafted Existence and Existents, which was published in 1947. In this work he provides his first phenomenological analysis of insomnia, which he reiterates here as he approaches the disruption of conditioned meaning.

b) Levinas subsequently dealt with insomnia in the 1974 essay “From Consciousness to Wakefulness : Starting with Husserl” which was included with “God and Philosophy” and other essays in the book Of God Who Comes to Mind (1986). Despite Levinas’s reference to Otherwise than Being he does not refer to insomnia in that text, but he does talk a bit more about consciousness; I’ll try and feed insights from that opus as necessary. He also talked about insomnia in a lecture entitled “In Praise of Insomnia” (delivered as part of his last lecture series at the Sorbonne in 1976 on “God and Onto-Theology”collected in God, Death, and Time); this lecture replicated pretty much this section of the essay.

c) The key words in this complicated sentence are “insomnia”, “consciousness”, “consciousness of . . .”, “vigilance”, and “justice”.

d) We’ll get to “insomnia” in a moment. Levinas distinguishes between “consciousness” as such and “consciousness of . . .”. The former is a general category, or as he will suggests, a meta-category. “Consciousness of . . .” is a sub-category or “category” of “consciousness”. “Consciousness of . . .” is what most of us thing of as thinking – paying attention to things, thinking them through, getting on with life in a wide awake world. In phenomenological terms, it is the human being being aware of the content in its perceptions and thought, and perhaps being aware that it is aware. “Consciousness” includes this, but “consciousness of . . .” is “a modality or modification” of consciousness. It is the presumption of a conscious being, but without assuming that there is intentional content in the awakening subject.

e) Levinas recognised that not all human experience is consciousness of something – sometimes it is just consciousness, a wakefulness without any intentional content. As mentioned in Part Five – A, phenomenology can consider any number of phenomena. In his pre-war book On Escape Levinas considers nausea, and in Existence and Existents he discusses fatigue, effort, and insomnia. As well as mentioning it here he also discussed insomnia.

f) Levinas describes insomnia alternatively as “wakefulness” and “vigilance”. “Vigil” comes from the Latin for “wakefulness”, so they sort of mean the same thing. However, in English “vigilance” also has this sense of watching or waiting. However, whereas “consciousness of . . . ” has intelligible content, insomnia does not. As he wrote in Existence and Existents, “It is not that there is my vigilance in the night; in insomnia it is the night itself that watches. It watches. In this anonymous nightwatch where I am completely exposed to being, all thoughts of insomnia are suspended on nothing.” The being that Levinas refers to in this passage is not the intelligible being of Heideggerrian attention, but the rustling of there is (it sounds better in French:  il y’a). It is the vigilance of the night where “an undetermined menace of space itself” evokes a horror that “strips consciousness of its subjectivity.”  “One watches on when there is nothing to watch and despite the absence of any reason for remaining watchful. The bare fact of presence is oppressive; one is held by being, held to be.” So this is not the insomnia created by squirrelly brains obsessively worrying about particular matters better left to the day, this is an insomnia that unbearable particularly because it is about nothing in particular but the incessant wakefulness. The outside world, amorphous and in general, is there, and there is no respite from this through attending to something in particular, through rest, or sleep.

g) Vigilance – that is, wakefulness, or insomnia – can “clothe itself in justice”. “Justice” for Levinas is not another theme for philosophy, as in Michael Sandel’s wonderful book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do which describes a variety of ethical systems in Western thought, including Kantian rule-based ethics (deontology), consequentialism (including utilitarianism), libertarianism, liberal economics, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Levinas looks at “justice” from a perspective that will unfold as we work through the essay. For the moment it is sufficient to know that Levinas sees “justice” as non-thematic and the origin of all significance (yes, that’s paradoxical).

Far from being defined as a simple negation of the natural phenomenon of sleep, insomnia – as wakefulness or vigilance – comes out of the logic of the categories, prior to all anthropological attention and dullness.

h) In between sleep and being fully conscious Levinas finds this middle state for which he claims the name “insomnia”. It is not just the absence of sleep, but this this vigilance or wakefulness that can inhabit a consciousness quite involuntarily. It’s this lack of choosing that is significant for Levinas: I do not choose to be awake, but I am, despite myself. It’s not the consciousness of attention, nor is it the consciousness of inattention -inattention is what I think that is what he means by “dullness”, and it might be comparable to falling asleep. No, it’s that inchoate sense of “I’m here – where am I?”

Always on the verge of awakening, sleep communicates with wakefulness; while attempting to escape from it, sleep remains attuned to it in obedience to the wakefulness that threatens and calls to it, the wakefulness that demands.

i) Levinas here is not providing a psychological analysis of sleep – he’s not interested in sleep cycles and REM. Phenomenological method does not allow for “objective” analyses of phenomena, but calls upon the reader to engage in an intuitive reflection on one’s own thought processes. Levinas does a  phenomenological analysis of insomnia and sees a categorical difference between sleep and insomnia, or dormancy and vigilance. However, the categories are connected, in that wakefulness/insomnia/vigilance calls to sleep, and sleeps seeks to escape for it. Wakefulness is a demand upon sleep, for one cannot be both waking and sleeping at the same time. The call is a call that wants obedience – be vigilant! It is disruptive to sleep (arguably, sleep is in a similar relationship to the consciousness that is “conscious of . . .” in that it cannot be denied forever, although Levinas does not make that observation).

The category of insomnia cannot be reduced to the tautological affirmation of the Same, or to the dialectical negation, or to the “ecstasy” of thematizing intentionality. Keeping awake [veiller] is not equivalent to attending to [veiller à] … , where there is already a searching for the identical, rest, and sleep.

j) The essay is, among other things, a critique of Heidegger and it won’t make much sense if you haven’t studied him, but I will try to explain. There are at least four issues in making sense of this long paragraph: first, why is Heidegger so important to Levinas? Second, what is it in Heidegger that Levinas is critiquing? Third, what is Levinas’s critique? And fourth, does the critique work?

k) Why is Heidegger so important to Levinas? Levinas began studting philosophy at the University of Strasbourg (France) in 1923. He moved on to his PhD and spent a year at the University of Freiburg (Germany) in 1928-1929. By this time he was working on his dissertation on Edmund Husserl and his theory of intuition in phenomenology. Husserl was in his last year as a professor at Freiburg, and he and Levinas became quite friendly; Levinas tutored Frau Husserl in French and was sometimes a dinner guest. However, as Levinas said, “I came for Husserl but found Heidegger. It was Husserl who founded the entire procedure – the high art – of phenomenology. Heidegger took it up and made it sparkle.” The danger of Husserl’s subjective approach to phenomenology that it had tendencies to slide into a kind of solipsism, where nothing can be known beyond the self. Husserl denied that his technique slid into solipsism, but it was and is a common critique, so much so that most phenomenologists have moved on from Husserl. Heidegger used phenomenology but started with the fact that humans are in the world, shifting the question from concerns about the epistemological conditions of knowledge which predominated in Husserl to the question of beings and Being in the world. By that move Heidegger transformed the problematic issues around reason and empiricism by shifting from epistemology and metaphysics to ontology. Levinas was so taken with Heidegger that his dissertation was very much written from that perspective.

l) Shortly after Levinas received his doctorate he began to work on a book about Heidegger. However, he began to hear that Heidegger had become a member of the Nazi Party and was using fundamental ontology to justify its ideology. This profoundly shook Levinas, and he felt he needed to move from the climate of his thought. In 1934 he wrote an essay on “Hitlerism” which critiqued the crude program of the National Socialist Party, but was very much a reaction to intellectuals like Heidegger who supported it.

m) Levinas’s thought evolved in the next forty years, between 1934 and 1974. By the time he wrote “God and Philosophy” he had thought long and hard about what was wrong with Heidegger. First, he saw it as a form of totalizing thought. Totalizing thought ignored the call of the other, but sought to reduce and categorize all beings within some overall framework. For Hegel that framework was the dialectic of Spirit/Mind, for Heidegger it was fundamental ontology. In Heidegger transcendence as such was destroyed and reduced to the mundane world in which human consciousness finds itself, a being among beings. Objective constructs such as race, nation, culture are used as determinants to define what human consciousness should value and in which meaning is found. Blood and soil becomes more attractive than liberty, equality, and fraternity, and democracy with all its failings is despised in favour of a strong, intuitive leader in whom being is expressed. Meaning is found in subjecting oneself to that leader. The individual becomes less and less important as national goals are expressed and implemented.

n) Apart from his critique of fundamental ontology, Levinas developed a positive metaphysics of ethics. Part of that development involved calling into question the  presuppositions of Heidegger, such as the nature of consciousness. In the two short sentences above Levinas does this by saying that insomnia is i) not “the tautological affirmation of the Same”, or ii) “the dialectical negation”, or iii) the “ecstasy” of thematizing intentionality.

o) The “tautological affirmation of the Same” is, I think, what Levinas would see as the search for foundations in Western philosophy, a reduction of all things to categories. Thales of Miletus in the 8th century said “All things are water.” Descartes, through doubt, came up with the Cogito “I think, therefore I am” thus equating thought and being. As Levinas reads Heidegger, anything that is other than me becomes a part of my world – so that it is no longer truly other, but part of the totality of being. Insomnia cannot be reduced in this way because it is not consciousness of anything in particular, but consciousness in general.

p) “The dialectical negation” is a reference to Hegel. As he said above, it is not a simple negation of being asleep. That would be to drive insomnia into a predetermined dialectical schema, whereas a phenomenological analysis takes the thing as it presents itself without presuppositions, perhaps even suspending them.

q) The “ecstasy” of thematizing intentionality” is a direct reference to Heidegger. Ecstasy here is understood in its literal Greek meaning, that is “standing outside”. In normal everyday English someone who is ecstatic is in “The state of being ‘beside oneself’, thrown into a frenzy or a stupor, with anxiety, astonishment, fear, or passion” (OED). It is sometimes used to describe mystical states (as in the Ecstasy of St. Theresa) and more commonly a state of heightened joy, whether induced by drugs like MDMA or more natural means. None of that is what Heidegger means, and maybe to disassociate us from those thoughts it would be better to spell it ekstasis. In Heidegger’s philosophic usage it means the movement of consciousness in the world projecting itself temporally a) into the possibilities of the future, b) into the past, and c) alongside various entities in the present. Each of these ecstatic projections of the self reaches a horizon or a limit, and comes back to itself. These horizons form a transcendent unity which we understand as the world, and which we thematize in the intentionality of the phenomena of knowledge; we are in the world and we objectify its entities, whether past, present, or future. Insomnia is not a temporal projection for Levinas; rather, it is more like something is projected into the subject, this vigilance.

r) Levinas then draws a distinction between keeping awake and attending to . . . Levinas is paying close attention to the similarity and the difference between the words in French, namely  veiller (keeping awake) and  veiller à … (attending to . . .).  With the preposition it has content, and can attend to themes such as the Same, rest, and sleep. When simply keeping awake there is no such intentionality.

It is in consciousness alone that the keeping awake [Ie veiller], already paralyzed, is inflected toward a content that is identified and assembled into a presence, into the “gesture of being,” and is absorbed in it.

s) He describes veiller (keeping awake) as a kind of paralysis. Vigilance or wakefulness is then modified or inflected; this is just the nature of human consciousness in the world, in the course of everflowing time it becomes aware of its surroundings and thinks things. The ekstasis  of thematizing intentionality is that presence, and as Levinas states, its is absorbing. However, Levinas will see eventually describe an aspect of wakefulness as carrying on through to attendingn to . . .  ; he will describe it variously as Infinity or Justice.

Insomnia as a category
– or as a meta-category
(but it is by way of it that the meta takes on a meaning)
– does not come to be inscribed in a table of categories
starting from a determining activity exerted upon the other as a given,
by the unity of the Same
(and all activity is only
identification and crystallization of the Same against the Other,
although affected by the Other)
in order to assure to the Other,
consolidated in a being, the gravity of being.

t) This quotation above is one sentence; it is the kind of sentence your composition teachers warned you never to write, because it is long, with many clauses. I’ve broken it down into sense lines. Levinas deliberately adopts this kind of writing, because, as we will see, he knows that the minute one puts things into words you’ve subjected something about human consciousness to being an object of discussion, of being an item in an ontological discussion. He is trying to get at the pre-conscious, and so says things repeatedly in different ways, like waves on a shore slowly grinding stone to sand. He’s not writing obscurantist poetry, but it feels like it. In fact, he is speaking about that which is unspeakable, that which when thematized is transformed beyond recognition. Wittgenstein said famously at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921): “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” The early Wittgenstein felt that in philosophical terms his early philosophy was pretty limited and that the things of real value – literature, politics, religion – was not subject to philosophical analysis. Levinas would agree that it is in the unspeakable that value emerges, but unlike Wittgenstein he is bold enough to try to use language to get at what cannot be spoken. So, yes, this is very weird. 

u) To figure out what is going on here let’s keep it simple. The verb is a passive negative: “does not come to be inscribed”. The subject is “Insomnia as a category”.  The object is “a table of categories”. To paraphrase, The category of insomnia is not a category that can be catalogued like other categories of consciousness. The first interjection suggests that it is better to call it a “meta-category”; “meta-” simply means “after” or “beyond”, and the relationship of insomnia to other types of consciousness is what gives “meta-” real meaning – it’s not a throwaway phrase in a hierarchy, but insomnia is actually beyond those other types of consciousness, or otherwise. The “table of categories” has within it the types of consciousness that involve “attending to . . .” and I imagine that Levinas here is thinking of Heidegger’s moods, such as fear or anxiety.

v) Here Levinas introduces the Other, but in the context of Heidegger. The other is perceived by a subjective consciousness as being given to that self. The other is a theme of an intentionality, which is to say that it is an object for that consciousness that can be discussed and engaged with in any number of ways. The Same – that is, the self or I – engages in this very ordinary kind of ontological activity in order to differentate itself from the other, and perhaps to resist being affected by the other. The table of categories – the moods – are a means by which the Self can assure the Other of the gravity of being, of what is most important in fundamental ontology.

Insomnia – the wakefulness of awakening – is disturbed at the heart of its formal or categorial equality by the Other who cores out [dénoyaute] all that which in insomnia forms a core as the substance of the Same, as identity, as repose, as presence, as sleep. It is cored out by the Other who tears this rest, who tears it from the inner side [de l’en-deçà] of the state where equality tends to settle.

w) Insomnia seeks rest, but something picks at it and keeps it restless and vigilant. The Same seeks “identity”, “repose”, “presence”, “sleep” but in vigilant wakefulness the substance of all of this is removed and replaced by the Other. The Other in wakefulness is at least an equal with the Same, and cannot be dismissed.

There precisely lies the irreducible, categorial character of insomnia: the Other in the Same who does not alienate the Same, but precisely wakes him.

x)  The Other wakes the Same. Descartes thought the paradigm of philosophical  method was to sit in a cozy warm room and use radical doubt to find out what was certain. Levinas has the Other knocking on the door or rustling the Self from sleep. It is a wakefulness that does not even know who it is that is doing the awakening, but it is the Other already in the Same. the Same is not even alienated, because it has not had time to to even know the Other is there.

This awakening is like a demand that no obedience equals, and no obedience puts to sleep: a “more” in the “less.” Or, to utilize an antiquated language, there lies the spirituality of the soul which is ceaselessly awakened from its state of soul [état d’âme], in which the staying awake itself already closes up on itself or goes to sleep, resting within its state’s boundaries.

y) These two sentences are a bit obscure to me, but I think that what Levinas is saying is that there is no satisfying the call of the Other that is the vigilant awakening of consciousness in insomnia. Unthematized and not yet spoken, it is nevertheless incessant and unanswerable. There’s no satisfying this demand; the vigilance never stops. There’s no permission to go back to sleep.

This is the passivity of Inspiration, or the subjectivity of a subject sobered up from its being.

z) Levinas uses two words here that are very important in his thought. First, insomnia is passive, and the Self is not in control here, or active in any sense. Second, it is an Inspiration, a “breathing in” of the Other in the place of the Self. Prior to becoming concerned with being or becoming drunk with the moods, it is sobered up by this coring out by the Other.

Here we find the formalism of insomnia, more formal than that of any form that defines, delimits, encloses; formally more formal than that of the form that encloses in presence and in esse, filling itself with content.

aa) Levinas sees insomnia as a meta-category because it is out of this kind of wakefulness or vigilance that value and meaning emerge, and it is precisely this Other in the Same that wakes him or her that is the meta-form. Because presence and content have value, it is ultimately derived from that meta-category.

This is insomnia or wakefulness, but it is a wakefulness without intentionality, dis-interested. An indetermination – but one that is not an appeal to form, one that is not materiality. A form not fixing its own pattern as a form, not condensing its own emptiness into content. A non-content – Infinity.

bb) Wakefulness or vigilance, being without content, has neither form or content. There is no pattern to it, no tangible object. The Other in the Same that awakens is Infinity, about which more will be said starting in Part 10 of the essay.


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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