Thursday, February 21, 2013

Levinas on Totality and Infinity

Many if not all of Levinas’ distinctions can be subsumed under the headings of “totality” and “infinity”.  These headings represent an inner dichotomy, or split, in how we relate to the world and our fellow man, the Other.  Much of civilization is founded on our ability to totalize.  Physics, chemistry, biology, political science, economics, all rely on man’s ability to make order out of chaos—to bring everything into a lawful system.  Every discipline defines the boundaries and scope of its purview—by defining the limits we gain the ability to know and control.  Yet, 
somehow, we always feel a separation, a gap, a rift, a rupture, never a feeling of completeness, harmony, perfect unity, communion—never a feeling of “totality”, rather always a feeling of “infinity”—of desires that are infinite, questions that always open out endlessly, yearnings that are never quenched. (Veling, 1999, p. 278)
The infinite is ever present and lies at the edges of our consciousness.  Levinas aims to return infinity to its rightful place at the forefront of our consciousness—to let it form the basis of society and not be just an afterthought.
Veling, T. A. (1999). In the name of Who?: Levinas and the other side of theology. Pacifica, 275 292.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Levinas and the Two Traditions

Over the past few years I have been exposed to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas.  He uniquely brings the Western intellectual tradition face to face with the Jewish tradition.  Through this encounter the Western tradition is called to task for its preoccupation with Being and is called to responsibility for the Other (I realize that these terms are not yet clear).  I am still muddling my way through Levinas’ work.  However, I believe that there is much that can be gained by sharing.  I hope that by calling my friends into a dialogue about his works I will benefit them (by exposing them to something of great value) and that this will help me work through my thoughts and come to a deeper understanding of Levinas.  The best place to start is with Levinas’ descriptions of the Greek and Jewish (which he refers to as the tradition of Revelation).

In the Greek tradition,
reason is solid and positive; it begins with all meaning to which all meaning must return in order to be assimilated to the Same, in spite of the whole appearance it may give of having come from outside.  Nothing in this reason can cause the fission in the nuclear solidity of a thought which thinks in correlation with the world’s positivity, which thinks from its starting point of the vast repose of the cosmos; a thought which freezes its object in the theme, which always thinks to its measure, which thinks knowingly. (Levinas, 2007, p. 144)

The tradition of Revelation, according to Levinas is,
a relation with exteriority which, unlike the exteriority with which man surrounds himself whenever he seeks knowledge, does not become simply the content of interiority, but remains ‘uncontainable’, infinite and yet still maintaining a relation. (Levinas, 2007, p. 144)

Next time I will try to provide some commentary to explain what Levinas is talking about.  For the meantime 
I would love to hear your thoughts, impressions, questions.

Levinas, E. (2007). Beyond the verse: Talmudic readings and lectures. (G. D. Mole, Trans.) New York: Continuum.