The Problem of World, 4

Emmanuel Levinas

Though, of the four thinkers with whom this series of essays is concerned, Emmanuel Levinas and his Totality and Infinity (1961) comes the latest, it was he who, in 1931, brought Husserl and the concept of intentionality to France with his translation of the Cartesian Meditations. This familiarity with the tradition of phenomenology is immediately apparent in his 1961 work and provides us with an opening for the study to follow. As we have noted previously, phenomenology is guided by the fact of intentionality, which we, following Don Ihde, presented formally as (I-world). “Subject” and “object” are not two isolated terms, corresponding with each other according to some magical logic; rather, they are articulated, joined with the hyphen of “original tension,” the play or resonance of being. It is with Heidegger that intentionality expands from its intellectualist leanings in Husserl and is sunk into existence, into the lifeworld. The transcendental subject is not an absolute cogito, standing over against or hovering somewhere above the world; the subject is in the world, in communion with it in its being. Human being is tuned to the hum of being, taking up the being of being in its very being, and is thereby open to the question of being, the most original, most fundamental, and most eminent of questions. For Heidegger, this is the ontic level, which precipitates its own overdetermination by the ontological, the existential structuration of being into beings, the articulation of existence into existents. There are therefore two levels or moments of human being, the ontic and the ontological, which reciprocally influence each other in our ontic-ontological constitution. Following upon this Husserlian foundation and these Heideggerian insights, we have seen how Sartre privileges the ontological level, contending that the ontic is transphenomenal, and therefore inaccessible to our perception. Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, emphasizes the hyphen, the joining of the terms (I-world) and levels (ontic-ontological), fruitfully prefiguring Heidegger’s own later thought. The present study will argue that Totality and Infinity is in fact oriented toward the ontic level, and that Levinas, in search of his ethics, attempts to get behind the ontological determinations of the workshop, finding a radical responsibility to the other arising from the space of the dwelling. He thus reconfigures the world, excavating (or perhaps expressing?) an inclination of being in a way not seen in the prior three thinkers, giving us a perspective which will complete our schematic of phenomenology as a problematic and as a historical movement.

Totality and Infinity is subtitled An Essay On Exteriority, and it is Levinas’s commitment to the “exterior” as a concept that will guide the present inquiry. First at issue in the concept of the exterior is war—”[n]ot only modern war but every war”—which “establishes an order from which no one can keep his distance; nothing henceforth is exterior” (21). This amounts to saying that, in war, everything is interior; there is no outside; there are no walls, no gaps, no spaces, no shelters.1 All of being find itself ordered by an “ontology of totality,” wherein the “meaning of individuals (invisible outside of this totality) is derived from the totality” (22). No existent, no being, is possessed of any being of its own; each is “incessantly sacrificed” to the “ultimate meaning,” the transcendent end that will confer upon the individual its own “objective meaning,” which is, nevertheless, not truly its own (22). The individual existent becomes lost in the mass of others deprived of their otherness, and “identity” is evacuated of all content (21).

To oppose the “ontology of totality,” Levinas turns to “prophetic eschatology,” the only “phenomenon” in which a “primordial and original relation with being” can be discerned and through which the identity of existents might be resuscitated (22). “Eschatology institutes a relation with being beyond the totality,” he contends (22, Levinas’s emphasis). Individuals no longer find their meanings routed through the ultimate meaning of the totality; beings are no longer forcibly dissolved into the supermassive sameness of an absolute object. This beyond is not the beyond of a “void,” however, but a “surplus,” one that is “always exterior to the totality, as though the objective totality did not fill out the true measure of being” (22, Levinas’s emphasis). Thus, whereas in Sartre the being of the for-itself, consciousness, is a withdrawal into nothingness, a nihilation of being, which is the only possible otherness admissible to the monism that he maintains, Levinas welcomes a surplus into the fold of being. The objective—or, we might say, concrete—totality does not fill being; being yet includes “another concept, the concept of infinity,” a “transcendence with regard to totality” (23). One should not rush here to accuse Levinas of dualism, as one should not rush to accuse Sartre of the same. Just as in Sartre, where the nihilating for-itself is nothingness of being, in Levinas, infinity is of being, a potentiality of being, an infolding of the fold of what is, a “non-encompassable” opening “within a totality” that is as “primordial as totality” (23). Levinas’s infinity is thus not not-concrete, but more-than-concrete. His “surplus” is a transcendence within being (as Merleau-Ponty also proposed, albeit in different terms), but as “surplus” it cannot be described in “purely negative fashion,” as does Sartre (23). Being is thick (to borrow a Merleau-Pontyian term), and the upsurge of an eschatological relation is possible precisely because of this thickness.

How do we describe this eschatological relation? Levinas asserts that it is not “teleological” (22). It is primarily relation, and here we benefit from our insistence up to this point on intentionality as tension, as bond, joint, or hyphen. The relation (I-world) should not be interpreted as one term lancing toward the other. The hyphen is not a projectile in a vacuum;2 I and world certainly interpenetrate, but originally, in their being, and not in any way according to a causal logic. Thus, in the eschatological relation, wherein individuals relate to that which is beyond totality, this relation does not signal an action or effort of power, but a return to and recovery of that original communion—not a mingling and dissolution of identity, but an “exist[ing] in relationship ... on the basis of themselves and not on the basis of the totality” (23). Individuals, beings, existents: these singular entities remain distinct, possessed of an exterior, and so also sheltered, possessed of a commensurate interior. In a continued inversion of Sartre, the individual is no longer a hole in being, but a supersaturated and opaque region of being, full of its own being, without need of reference to any absolute object. The eschatological relation is therefore a “breach of the totality” that is not a draining, but an overfilling, the introduction of surplus, excess, abundance to that which is already thick with being (23). This breach “reveals the very possibility of signification without a context,” which is to say, the signification of an existent of its own being, its constitution of its own meaning on the basis of this being (which is surplus, infinity, transcendence), and the opening of “morality” as more than a project of being, more than dealings among concrete existents, but as an original stance that is an “intentionality of a wholly different type” (23). The workshop is thus, for Levinas, a second-order structure.

At this juncture, it is necessary for us to cut across several chapters of Totality and Infinity without paying them scrutiny to arrive at our destination by a sort of traversal. In Section II.D, “The Dwelling,” Levinas begins to elaborate that belonging which precedes work, a mediate space that does not presume to attain to what Heidegger terms the ontical and Levinas the “elemental,” and not yet to Levinas’s “infinite” (131, 32). The dwelling is a special instrumentality, the “utilization of an “implement” among “implements” (152). For Levinas, “within the system of finalities” of human projects and actions, “the home occupies a privileged place” (152). It not an “ultimate end,” not an absolutely orienting totality (152). Rather, it is perspectival: “the dwelling is not situated in the objective world, but the objective world is situated by relation to my dwelling” (153). It is the space outside of myself that my consciousness inhabits in the world, where I can be “[s]imultaneously without and within,” where I can go “forth outside from an inwardness” (152). Thus, the dwelling is my own, my situation and my perspective, the space of my interiority and its “inhabitation,” which is not a space like that of the workshop where I take care in my projects, dealing with others and things (153). The dwelling is my being always already outside myself and yet never fully being lost in the world. My “consciousness of a world is already consciousness through that world,” and this “through” signifies my having always already configured a home for myself of the world within the world, a space of “intimacy” that is not available to “knowing,” “thought,” or “idea” (153). The dwelling is thus not a total abandonment to ontical play, but the “first concretization” of “consciousness” as “incarnation,” the “concretization of the separated being effectuating its separation” (153).

Sartre writes of the decompression of being that is consciousness, of consciousness as negation and draining, a hole or nullity in being. This is a reductive abstraction of consciousness to an ideal nothingness, a weightless power floating across the world—valuing, acting, and free. But for Levinas, consciousness as the “first concretization” is an “overflowing of concretization” (153, my emphasis). The decompression that is consciousness is not a rent in being, but the opening of a well from which existence pours—which is to say, from which the unfolding of existents in mutual entanglement occurs. In its concretization, its emergence, consciousness is already outside itself constructing a dwelling in the midst of the element; it is not the “becoming conscious of a certain conjuncture,” but an “outpouring of consciousness in things” (153, my emphasis). The “conjuncture” is thus the hyphen of intentionality, that original spacing of the withdrawal of consciousness from being that is not an emptiness but the excess of a relation, an articulation, an expression, a signification. I do not become conscious of the conjucture, because my consciousness is the conjuncture, the intentional-instrumental system of (I-world). So we see with Levinas, then, that the “subject contemplating a world presupposes the event of dwelling, the withdrawal from the elements,” the very reciprocating movement of our ontic-ontological being (153). Where in Being and Time we are inclined to privilege the ontological,3 as does Sartre following upon this early work, Levinas’s dwelling points backwards and forwards, as it were, highlighting the taking place of concrete existentiality in the hyphen between ontical play and ontological perdurance.

The space of the dwelling is key for Levinas. In reflecting upon our ontic-ontological being, it can be easy to separate these levels or moments from each other (and certainly, Heidegger does so when he first introduces them in Being and Time). We consequently see the privileging of one term or the other, an inclining of the hyphen that disregards the fact of its original or primordial being. We are originally hyphenated, originally in and of the world, originally ontic-ontological. Even here, as above, we privileged the ontic in our reading of Levinas to open Totality and Infinity in opposition to Being and Nothingness, but this cannot be the entirety of our reading. Like Merleau-Ponty, Levinas emphasizes the hyphen, locating the essential structure of the dwelling there, between ontical play and ontological perdurance. The dwelling is the first concretization; it is the primordial space of consciousness. And it is on the ground of this concretization, this space, that the “face” of the Other confronts us. The dwelling is the first instrumentality, wherein I arrange things around me as a home, an invisible and intimate habitation that is not a project but the basis for all projects. From within the dwelling, I go without into the workshop of the world, and find there that things are “given,” there for me (194). In taking space, in the withdrawal of consciousness that constitutes consciousness, I "gain[] access” to these given things, and so “maintain myself within the same” of being (194). The world is ordered, destined (as we have said previously, following Heidegger) in such and such a way, structured in a system of references. But within this system, I also encounter the “face,” that which is “present in its refusal to be contained,” its refusal to be utilized or implemented (194). The “face” is not given: “it cannot be comprehended,” cannot be “encompassed,” cannot be “seen” or “touched” (194). This non-encompassable other is “infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that can be common to us” (194). Where in Heidegger Dasein is inauthentically at home with the “they,” anonymously involved in the workshop because it is in flight from the uncanniness, the unhomeliness, of its authentic being, in Levinas the human being is first at home with itself, in his dwelling established in the element. Anonymity and work in the world of the they are second to this self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction. The unhomely, then, the foreign and the strange, is precisely that which confronts me from without the “logical hierarchy” of my home and my dealings. The face is that which interrupts my work, obliges my hospitality, and finally “puts the I in question” (195). It is the other, for Levinas, who constantly disturbs the ossification of the ontological, who constantly overturns the careful order of the workbench, who crosses my threshold, who brings me back into play.

The dwelling is thus a necessary step for us to see the face of the other. Only in the face do we encounter that “[a]bsolute difference” disclosing infinity, revealing the superabundance within being that splits open all rigid existentialities (195). But only in the rupture of the dwelling previously established by the face can infinity be allowed to manifest itself. The destining of my world is comfortable, a consequence of my being at home. But I am not required to ever change this destining, nor to ever have my own being put into question, if I am never faced with an infinite demand. My own demand for satisfaction is the infinite demand that I make of the element, my will for nourishment and enjoyment. Contrary to this stance, the “facing position, opposition par excellence, can be only as a moral summons” (196). Beyond instrumentality, beyond my uses, the face of the other obliges me, calls me, and this speaking that arouses the “idea of infinity alone maintains the exteriority of the other with respect to the same” (196). The “exteriority” of the being of the other “is inscribed in its essence,” the absolute insistence of its existence (196). I am exceeded by the other; the meaning and being of the other do “not come from [my] a priori depths” (196). Yet these “depths” are also necessary. The limit of my dwelling, my finitude, precedes my encounter with the infinite obligation, the absolute difference: “the infinite presupposes the finite, which it amplifies infinitly” (196). So, finally, “the finitude of man before the elements, the finitude of man invaded by the there is, at each instant traversed by faceless gods against whom labor is pursued in order to realize the security in which the ‘other’ of the elements would be revealed of the same”—all this is indeed necessary, but entirely unjustified (197). The within-without exteriority of my dwelling is a contingent shelter, without basis or ground. It is the “other absolutely other” whose summons “call[s]” me “to responsibility,” “founds” and “justifies” me, brings my system of relations and projects into discourse and into question with the systems of relations and projects of the others with whom I speak. My exteriority is inscribed in this absolute relation; my self is a gift of the other’s question and call.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Translated by Joan Stambaugh, revised by Dennis. J. Schmidt, State University Press of New York, 2010.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. 1961. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne, 1969.


  1. The resonance of “shelter” with Heidegger’s later thought (Discourse on Thinking; Question Concerning Technology) should not be disregarded. For Heidegger, sheltering and harboring forth are vital concepts at play in the revealing and concealing of being. The present essay is not, however, suited to the necessary drawing out of these connections. 

  2. Is such an interpretation a consequence of our being-projected? Insofar as our being-in-the-world is originally (at least for Heidegger) taking care, our being embroiled in dealings with things in the workshop, does intentionality as projectile become an easy reading of this condition? Action becomes a violence; power becomes the rule. Perhaps in Levinas’s configuration of the world an alternative disposition will emerge. 

  3. As early as Introduction to Metaphysics, though, Heidegger has already begun to move beyond this privileging. 

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