Infinite Ethics

I

Traumatisms

We begin with traumatisms to reveal man’s struggle in his journey for self-knowledge since time immemorial. In the Pre-Socratic period, man began asking himself “What am I?” With Socrates the struggle continues with the imperative statement: “Know thyself.” Throughout the stretch of the history of philosophy, man has continued to journey on, reflecting, struggling to know himself.

In the struggle to know himself, man spent time to wrestle with beasts to prove himself and establish dominion over them, declaring himself as the rational animal. Man spent time enjoying this power to dominate, hardly had the time to think about it but just went on dominating other men, becoming political, social, sometimes artificial. By becoming such political, social, artificial body, man has become confident to have gained so much virility that he, as a collection of hungry men, becomes a force that rushes towards dominating all others, not even minding perhaps if all of those others have stepped out of the way to make space for him.

Once it had been the cosmos, then man became the center, became the measure of all things. He was put aside again—and pinned down—with the theocentric view of the Medieval Ages. He broke free once again in the Renaissance and its undefined Idealism: man’s “I think” putting an end to the Medieval thought. It didn’t matter that he was no longer a rational animal, that he was reduced to an idea, that he only had existence but no fixed essence. But that was all at that time what he basically needed; man became free to define himself, to work his way to create an essence he can rightly say as his own. Man enjoyed the pleasure of this newfound freedom that he went on pushing himself farthest to both extremes while at the same time firmly keeping hold of this his secure, center position.

With all those struggles, although he has totally outlived all of them, has persevered in being,  and has survived to this day, we still can see in man stains, traces of bruises, wounds, traumas, all of them visible in the nakedness of his face. But for man, the question remains: “Who am I?”

 

II

Escape from Totality

We have now come to the recent thoughts in Western Philosophy, the period when we are invited to a tour, “back to the things themselves.” Beyond all his needs, man desires to find the answer to this disturbing, perennial question. Our recent great thinkers have not lost hope, but have also struggled to provide man with the final answer.

Nausea and pour-soi. We first undergo with Sartre (La Nausée) in his analysis of the emotional experience. “’If anyone had asked me what experience was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself.’”[1] “’I want to vomit—and suddenly there it is: the Nausea…now I know: I exist.’”[2]

Shipwreck and Existenz. For Jaspers, man has to undergo utter defeat, failure, “a veritable shipwreck” “to take stock of what he is. And then, only then, does he become Existenz.”[3] “One has to experience defeat before one gets hold of his own existence. The common man, the one who goes through his daily routine never really understands himself. He does not even pause to question whether he exists.”[4]

Reflection about the broken world. Existence, says Marcel, can only be arrived at through reflection, reflection about the modern world.[5]

Distinction of Da-sein. For Heidegger, man is entangled in everydayness and “does not really exist authentically. He vegetates, he ruminates, he lives, but he does not exist. He is lost in the crowd of anonymity. He could be anyone but he is no one. He has no face, no personality.”[6]  Da-sein is initially entangled, lost even, in average everydayness. In the unawareness of being lost, one is in the manner of dependency and inauthenticity.[7] “Da-sein has initially always already fallen away from itself and fallen prey to the ‘world.’”[8] “Initially, factical Da-sein is in the with-world, discovered in an average way. Initially, ‘I’ ‘am’ not in the sense of my own self, but I am the others in the mode of the they….Initially, Da-sein is the they and for the most part it remains so.”[9] “Da-sein is dispersed in the they and must first find itself.”[10]

Thus far, we have toured throughout the history of ideas in philosophy, have seen man asking the same question, and certain thinkers in certain periods attempting to answer it by way of Ontology, the study of being as be-ing. And just when we thought we have transcended through the recent thoughts in philosophy, we have fallen back to square one. And, so far, we are lost.

Il y a and Separation

The subject transcends itself’? Either we have a true transcendence, but in that case the subject is carried along in its transcendent movement, and in that adventure, the subject, ceasing to be itself, loses its identity, or its substance; or the subject remains itself in its movement of transcendence, but then there may be doubt as to whether or not there is true transcendence.[11]

Earlier we have seen Heidegger attempting to distinguish between the being (as noun) and be-ing (as verb). Levinas admits that this distinction is for him the most profound thing about Heidegger’s Being and Time.[12] But he comments on such fact that in Heidegger there is distinction, not a separation.[13] He then proposes to get out of being by a different path: to approach existing without existents, now inviting us to imagine first all things, beings and persons, returning to nothingness.[14]

What if, suddenly, we all go back to nothing?  In this situation, beings fall back into nothing, but not completely nothing. There would be no thing, but not nothing[15].  Il y a is indeterminate, impersonal, anonymous.  In the state of il y a, you are not yet an I, you have not yet come out.

What remains after this imaginary destruction of everything is not something, but the fact that there is (il y a). The absence of everything returns as a presence, as the place where the bottom has dropped out of everything, an atmospheric density, a plenitude of the void, the murmur of silence. There is, after this destruction of things and beings, the impersonal “fields of forces” of existing. There is something that is neither subject nor substantive.[16]

Thus, ‘the celebrated project of the modern philosophers, in which the subject surpasses itself by creating,’ returns the subject to itself, without making a true transcendence, a going out from self, possible.[17]

Levinas tries to describe subjectivity from the absence of subjectivity, to show us a new way of understanding the subject, by making us imagine the absence of the subject. In order to become a particular being, Levinas imagined it must have taken a certain amount of effort to be in being. For Levinas, to continue to be is to fight for your space. We have to rise up from anonymity and impersonality. We have to have a strong effort to be unique, singular, and different. Levinas makes Heidegger’s Being more dynamic by showing us that it takes great effort to truly exist.

Indeed it took us great effort to truly exist. Now that we have escaped the state of il y a, what immediately comes to mind, and, yes, even unthinkingly, is to just dig in. This is jouissance!—a naïve, innocent enjoyment. We dig in, we exist, and we arrive at the peak of pleasure, a process of departing from being. It is a pleasure to have escaped from il y a, and a pleasure to truly exist! But while pleasure “appears in a constant surpassing of oneself, it breaks just at the moment where it seems to get out absolutely. It develops with an increase in promises, which become richer the closer it comes to its paroxysm, but these promises are never kept.”[18] Pleasure is, in fact, a deceptive escape, it is an escape that fails.

And after some time while we are at it, another question comes to mind, we just are not contented: Is this all? And then: Is be-ing the reason for be-ing? And while all these come to mind, we become unconsciously conscious that pleasure has deceived us, our vision blurs, and nausea kicks in.

Nausea is the state that precedes vomiting, and from which vomiting will deliver us, encloses us on all sides. Nausea does not come from outside to confine us, but rather revolts from the inside—“our depths smother beneath ourselves; our innards ‘heave’.”[19] There is in nausea a refusal to remain there, an effort to get out, of being riveted, enclosed in a tight circle that smothers. “We are there, and there is nothing more to be done, or anything to add to this fact that we have been entirely delivered up, that everything is consumed: this is the very experience of pure being.[20]

Nausea reveals to us the presence of being in all its impotence. It is the impotence of pure being, in all its nakedness. In the state of nausea, shame appears purified of any admixture of collective representations. Even when nausea is experienced in solitude, in isolation, the sick person, “who was taken ill” and who has no choice but to vomit, is still scandalized by himself, even instead wishing for the presence of another because then the scandal of nausea could be brought down objectively to the level of “illness”.

It was a shame. It was shameful, painful, a shipwreck. But there it is, we have wished for the presence of the Other. Just then, the Other shows up. Then we ask: Where did he come from? Why is he here? Is he here for me?

Just when we have thought we have dominated, totalized everything, have enjoyed the pleasure of domination, of totalization, and have failed, we see the face of the Other putting into question our perseverance in being, leading us to escape totality.

 

III

Rethinking the Other 

With the arrival of the Other, we again look back at the history of philosophy, but now beginning to realize that the study of being has all been an enterprise of domination, that the history of being is a history of conquest, that subjectivity has been always understood as virility. The Other is totally other, but is also being. The Other could be the feminine, but the human being comes first before the sexual differences, so there must be an equal relation between the two different beings. The Other could also be a son or daughter whom the I, by receding, should create a space for, for the creativity of the Other. The Other could also be a neighbor, but that the relation of person to person precedes all relation, then the Other’s just being a neighbor is just secondary. And we ask: Is to be subject to be at the base?

To all these, Levinas would say that being subject is not being on top, but being subjected to the Other, who is saving me by drawing me out. Humanism is not me, myself, but humanism of the Other. The usual view is what we see first, but we must view them “back to the things themselves”, that is, to experience the Other as face. Subjectivity, therefore, is responsibility, a responsibility already incumbent on the I. And the pre-ethical jouissance is towards the recognition of the Other, not as a competitor, but to whom one can readily say “Me here for you!”

 

IV

Infinite Ethics

‘Infinite’: “…It designates the property of certain contents offered to thought to stretch out beyond all limits. It is used in the first instance in cases in which limit has its apparently original meaning. It is appropriate to magnitudes of extension: to space, stretching out of sight, beyond the place we inhabit or look at; to time [le temps], from which the time of day [l’heure] is always torn loose; to the number of series, none of which is the greatest–quanta making up a series. But the term infinite is also appropriate to magnitudes of continuity–to extensive or intensive quanta continua, in which no part of the whole is the smallest possible.[21]

There is a need to get out of Being, but that which is neither a lack nor a privation. It is also important to distinguish between self-cultivation and responsibility: the former as a movement which goes out, takes, and comes back (pris – grasping), and the latter as a movement which goes out but not a taking that wants to go back (sur-pris), there is an Other who takes me out, I am taken out.

Transcendence is born of the intersubjective relation.[22] In such a relation, the I does not put itself in question; it is put in question by the other.[23]

The Other becomes my neighbor precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question.[24]

Before I conclude, I would like to quote a beautiful passage from “Infinite Responsibility for the Other: The Ethical Basis of a Humane Society According to Emmanuel Levinas”, an early essay on the Philosophy and Ethics of Levinas by Prof. Dr. Leovino Garcia:

We must now show the ethical dimension of the Face-to-Face encounter. In Levinas’ phenomenology of the Other’s appearance, the Other is primarily experienced as one who addressed me, as a Face who looks at me and speaks to me. In contrast with objects, the I does not give the Face its meaning. The Other’s Face resists characterization and classification. The Other’s Face appears as something new. The Face informs me about the Other’s radical otherness. In this sense, the Other is my Teacher. It is too often repeated that we only know what we really virtually know, that we discover everything in ourselves by ourselves. This is not true; we learn from the others, from the outside, I am taught, i.e., truth comes to me from elsewhere.[25]

What makes the resistance of the Face ethical? As radical otherness, the Face is not only an irreducible resistance but an extreme vulnerability. The Other comes absolutely from elsewhere. He is literally a stranger in the biblical sense of poor, widow, orphan, foreigner. Now, it is just the stranger’s misery which makes the Face’s command ethical. As strangeness, the Other demands my recognition. But as destitution (misery), helpless poverty, it can not compel me. The Other is not only my superior but also my subordinate. The Other can only beg me to come to the aid of his misery. Only through this begging does the demand become ethical. A demand is only ethical when it calls upon, begs a freedom which can not be forced. But this begging is only ethical when it includes an absolute ought. In short, the Face is ethical because it is simultaneously demand and begging command and plea. The relation with the Face is a relation with “the resistance of what has no resistance—the ethical resistance.[26]

Responsibility comes “through the Other.” It is an “occupation” by the Other, an inspiration by the Other, a “substitution” for the Other, in the sense that ethical action is first of all the passivity of having been called and only afterwards the activity of personally accepting this responsibility. The Other, in addressing me, makes me absolutely inalienably responsible. No one can answer for me. When the Other calls me, I must answer.[27]

Lastly, and as a conclusion, a quote on self-constancy from Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself As Another, quoting from Levinas’s Otherwise than Being:

Self-constancy is for each person that manner of conducting himself or herself so that others can count on that person. Because someone is counting on me, I am accountable for my actions before another. The term “responsibility” unites both meanings: “counting on” and “being accountable for.” It unites them, adding to them the idea of a response to the question “Where are you?” asked by another who needs me. This response is the following: “Here I am!” a response that is a statement of self-constancy.[28]

 

 

Ivan Richard F. Deligero

March 21, 2012

 


[1] E.S. Quito, “The Meaning of Existentialism” in F.H. Hornedo, ed. (2003), “Back to the Things Themselves”: Selected Essays in Recent Western Philosophy Originally Published in Unitas, Manila: University of Santo Tomas, p. 24.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., pp. 24-25.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., pp. 25.

[7] Being and Time (BT), Martin Heidegger (MH), p 128; J. Stambaugh (JS) trans., p. 120.

[8] BT: MH, 175; JS, 164.

[9] BT: MH: 129; JS, 121.

[10] Ibid.

[11] E. Levinas (1999), Alterity and Transcendence. M.B. Smith, trans. New York: Columbia University Press, xi. From E. Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, n.d. [1969]), p. 274.

[12] See E. Levinas (1979), Time and the Other, trans. Cohen, R., Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, p. 44.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., pp. 45-46.

[15] Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”: “Pure be[ing] and pure no-thing is the same.” This proposition of Hegel’s (Science of Logic) is correct. Be[ing] and no-thing belongs together, not because both of them agree in their indeterminacy and immediacy, but rather because be[ing] itself in essence finite and revealed only in the transcendence of existence enduring no-thing [in das Nichts hinausgehaltenen Daseins].

[16] Time and the Other, p. 46.

[17] E. Levinas (1999), Alterity and Transcendence. M.B. Smith, trans. New York: Columbia University Press, xi. From E. Levinas, ‘Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity,’ Collected Philosophical Papers, edited and trans. by A. Lingis (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987), p. 54.

[18] Levinas, E. (1982), On Escape/ De l’évasion, trans. Bergo, B. (2003), Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 62.

[19] Ibid., p. 66.

[20] Ibid., pp. 66-67.

[21] E. Levinas, “The Other Transcendence” in Alterity and Transcendence, p. 53.

[22] E. Levinas (1999) Alterity and Transcendence. Smith, M.B., trans. New York: Columbia University Press, xii.

[23] Ibid., xiii.

[24] E. Levinas, “Ethics as First Philosophy” trans. S. Hand and M. Temple, in S. Hand, ed. 1989, The Levinas Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., p. 83.

[25] L.M. Garcia, “Infinite Responsibility for the Other: The Ethical Basis of a Humane Society According to Emmanuel Levinas” in F.H. Hornedo, ed. (2003), “Back to the Things Themselves”: Selected Essays in Recent Western Philosophy Originally Published in Unitas, Manila: University of Santo Tomas, pp. 268-269.

[26] Ibid., pp. 269-270.

[27] Ibid., p. 270.

[28] P. Ricoeur (1994), Sixth Study: “The Self and Narrative Identity” Oneself As Another, trans. K. Blamey, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 165. From E. Levinas, Otherwise than Being, A. Lingis, trans. (1974), The Hague: M. Nijhoff, p. 180.

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