Levinas and the Elements of being in his work ‘Existence & Existents’

by Richard Mcallister

I must note first that this is an essay written after only a short time studying the text and Phenomenology itself, it is not meant to be a definitive guide to Levinas’ work or to be referenced in any one else’s work. 

The book Existence and Existents is as Levinas himself states ‘a preparatory one’ it examines the relationship with the other. It is this relationship with the other that seems to play such a large part in Levinas’ concept of the human condition and could even be said to have the most important effect upon the existence of the existent. As we see in his later works such as Time and the other, or Totality and Infinity, the other is that which leads us to understand the ethical sphere which we inevitably must enter if we at any instant experience the other. However I have come to understand Existence and Existents in regards to the other as being a set of instructions in a way that is meant to help remove the terror caused by the idea of being upon the existent.

Levinas attempts to explain how position and place within existence affects being and experience. Regardless of the result of position I believe it to be of some importance to discuss exactly why this is significant in regards to the human condition as Levinas sees it.

To begin he suggests that as opposed to regarding thought as being outside of space, an abstraction as it were, we should think of it as in the here.  When we say I am a person who thinks, it is apparent that thought is not a part of the person, it is with the person, therefore thought is posited[1], which in return suggests that it has its place regardless of the position of the existent, and this then suggests that being itself and the beings that we appear to be are no longer so far apart from one another, the gap is lessened through an attempt to be infinite, but the existent must still come face to face with itself at some point.

Levinas uses the example of sleeping to settle his idea; the simple act of sleeping is in itself something that seems obviously inextricably linked to mundane existence, but if we follow Levinas’ train of thought, it is sleeping which directly removes the world from existence, it is the moment in which our consciousness exits the world, confines existence to that place and to that position[2] and therefore at the same time our consciousness is confined to our being and our thought to that position and that place. But this condition is always there, it is not to say that when not sleeping that the consciousness flies away to inhabit another place but that when in a wakeful state, the consciousness is in all the places that are possible in that position, in the room, in the house, in the town, in the world. It is a condition of human existence that our consciousness has place and position, whether limited or limitless. It is an unavoidable thing that when one awakes he must accept the mantle of his consciousness, he then goes about his daily acts and existence, and then he sleeps, avoiding his own consciousness once more[3].    

The solitude of the human condition, as stated in Totality and Infinity “is precisely a question of a self, a being absolutely isolated, whose isolation causality would compromise by reinstating it in a series”[4]. From this it can be taken that the isolated human is completely its own being. It can say truly that it is only of itself, there is no Other to intrude upon its solitude, even within the light and the world. “The world and light are solitude, these given objects, these clothed beings are something other than myself but they are mine”[5] are the words that set out Levinas’ explanation that give meaning to this solitude, and as he says it is in the understood universe that I am completely alone, because all of the meaning held to these objects and these beings is given to them by me. From me the Other gains its foothold on my existence and only at this point is it able to do this, as opposed to the unknown world, which is oppressive to me, the things and objects that I do not understand are the ones that invade my being, that do not leave me in my solitude.

Here I would briefly mention the way that this ‘intrusion’ of the other upon our being endows us with a responsibility towards that other; this is the point at which ethics becomes first philosophy, and this responsibility it would seem is an unavoidable condition of human existence. When the other presents itself in the ‘glean’ of the face, it immediately commands “Thou shalt not kill” through the weakness and the raw exposed nature of that face. So when the other enters into our sphere, our sphere immediately becomes the ethical sphere, in vague relation to Kierkegaard, we jump from the aesthetic sphere of existence into the ethical sphere of existence[6] as soon as the other presents itself. For Levinas, to deny this ethical responsibility in the face of the other, there is only evil left, but in truth it is impossible to deny the responsibility, as at the moment of conceiving the other we become tied to them and cannot return to the self in solitude[7].

I will now attempt an explanation of the elements of Indolence and Fatigue within the human condition as Levinas presents them. Levinas decrees that fatigue arrives first with the refusal to exist[8], at the moment of refusal it is a weariness, as Levinas says, of existence itself. For as opposed to Baudelaire’s travellers, who never let up, letting their existence carry them whichever way[9], we let this weariness get the better of us. Weariness reminds us that we cannot, however hard we try, escape existence and it is at this point when we are most weary of our existence that we are furthest from our own being, however no matter what the call of existence will always bring us back, as Levinas says “like an inevitable ‘one must’”[10]. However indolence is not a case of refusing to exist, according to Levinas indolence is a state in which an intention is already formed, in which we are not overwhelmed by the weight of what it is to exist. Rather indolence lies between the knowledge of what is expected from the immediate overbearing existence, and on the other side is the knowledge that it can indeed be overcome, but this indolence will not allow it. Unlike weariness, indolence seems to suggest that an action could be done if one is so disposed to act upon it, but one does not want to, one is entirely happy in one’s inactivity. The difference then it seems, between fatigue and indolence, is that fatigue and weariness cannot be escaped with an act of existing, but indolence is an act in itself, it requires an effort to do nothing, as Levinas says “The man who gives himself over to pleasure, entertainment and distraction is fleeing indolence as much as he is fleeing work”[11].                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

I shall now attempt to explain the condition of insomnia, as presented in Existence and Existents. Levinas supposes that in the process of insomnia, the true skeleton of being is revealed, purely because as this insomnia takes place, it strips existence down to a mere presence[12]. This presence is referred to by Levinas as the il y a(the ‘there is’) and it is this that is left when all of the light leaves the world, when we are left with nothing but our being, and even this seems removed from us. This insomnia sinks within the consciousness and causes a rift between us and those objects about us; “Insomnia…designates not only the disappearance of every object, but the extinction of the subject”[13].

It could be said, and I interpreted it to be so, that it is during these moments of insomnia that the subject is the closest to escaping its existence. For even in the deepest sleep it is possible to dream of certain situations from the everyday life, and in weariness we are want to escape the shackles of the coming efforts that existence wishes to ask of us, but it is only in this insomnia, when the objects and echo of said objects is lost, that the subject is released. This may seem to be a strange idea considering that insomnia causes one to stay awake when all that is needed is sleep, but in the darkness there is nothing to secure the subject in existence, except their fears.

The darkness mentioned is, in my opinion, one of the most important conditions of human existence that Levinas expands upon within Existence and Existents. This darkness coupled with light are two things that objectively distinguish between modes of existence within a subjective whole that is being. Darkness enshrouds the existent in a veil of freedom in that it allows the insomniac to wallow in that which is not itself, not its own being, and through this apparent freedom the insomniac has to give his own form to all of those things which are no longer available to the senses. It can now be seen that though the night releases one from the shackles of objects and the self, it is not to be grasped at so quickly if we consider what it is that we would be grasping for; Levinas describes the darkness as Husserl would describe the phenomenological reduction[14], in the way that after all is removed, only being remains[15].

Levinas describes this experience as though one is surrounded by an empty space and it is suddenly filled by darkness, by being and by the participation of the subject in that being[16]. The silence of darkness is the thing that Levinas supposes to be that which is so ironically deafening in its approach upon us and the menace that Levinas speaks of is the il y a. He posits that it is this darkness, and only this darkness which is able to strip our consciousness of its subjectivity, to place it in a place that does not allow for anything but being[17]. It seems that the ultimate horror which one is driven to in the darkness is not that one might die by some unseen ghoul’s hands or even that there stands death waiting in the shadows, but in fact it is quite the opposite according to Levinas; He suggests that it is exactly the fact that there are no exits[18] in the there is, there appears to be no way out, and all that can be acknowledged is the eternal status of existence.

The light that comes after darkness allows us to come away from ourselves, although it would not be correct I think to acknowledge this light as a bringer of freedom as it is the light that enables us to witness the ‘face’ of the other and so be endowed with responsibility, a shackle of sorts. With light comes the process of the world, the events and objects that go on and on in the mechanistic way described by Levinas, and this light as he also says seems to grant a temporary illusion of freedom[19]. It is this illusion that grants us the feeling of being within being, and it suggests to us that we are all at once being and a part of existence. But this is not so according to Levinas; he declares that when entering into this so called being, we are in fact only then capable of removing ourselves from being.[20] The light allows us to be outside of ourselves, through the illumination of objects and the other, because at that interaction we are not apprehending ourselves; it is this illumination that allows us to be outside of being.

I believe that these conditions presented within Existence and Existents are important because they prepare one for Levinas’ later works in regards to how he thinks of the condition of the human being. All of the conditions discussed in this essay help to define what it is that Levinas wishes to say are the same for every human being, in a generalised way. The responsibility for the other person (Autrui) is necessary for any philosophy to begin; it presupposes philosophy as he says in entre nous[21]. However this responsibility is only brought about when introducing the face of the other, the other conditions discussed such as sleep, place, position and insomnia are all conditions which help us to understand what it is about our existence that can be construed as actually being, if at all. It is a common thought that as I am alive and acting, that I am then ‘being’ but it is this perception of ourselves that I believe Levinas wanted to challenge, through questioning the most basic conditions of our existence. What is more common to almost every man than the fact that there is light and there is darkness? Very little it would seem, and this is the reason that such examples can be so effectively used in trying to discern empirically an ontological basis for existence. In Existence and Existents it seems that Levinas is trying to personify the being of the human being, which has previously been unknown except physiologically, the anonymous existence of the human being is a hindrance to the encounter with the other person and so what is required is the movement from anonymity towards subjectivity. This subjectivity is the gateway that leads to Levinas’ later works, and it is the conditions of human existence that I have attempted to expand upon in this essay that help to define and clarify this subjectivity.

 

 

Bibliography

Critchley, Simon and Bernasconi, Robert, “The Cambridge Companion to Levinas”, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Husserl, Edmund, “Shorter works”, University of Notre Dame press & The Harvester press, 1981

Levinas, Emmanuel, “Existence & Existents”, Trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University press, 2001

Levinas, Emmanuel, “Entre Nous”, Trans. Michael Smith and Barbara Harshav, Columbia University Press, 1998

Levinas, Emmanuel, “Totality and Infinity”, Trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, 1969

McKinnon, Alastair, “Søren Kierkegaard’s Psychology”, Wilfrid Laurer University Press, 1972

Internet Resources

 

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/levinas/index.html#InfTraVarBei, Section 3, 17/04/2013

Tangyin, Kajorn, http://www.academia.edu/606687/Reading_Levinas_on_Ethical_

Responsibility  18/04/2013,

 

 

 

 


[1] Levinas, Emmanuel, “Existence & Existents”,Trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University press, 2001, page 65 (From here on referred to as EE within the Footnotes)

[2] EE pg.66

[4] Levinas, Emmanuel, “Totality and Infinity”, Trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, 1969, Pg.119

[5] EE Pg.85

[6] Alastair McKinnon, “Søren Kierkegaard’s Psychology”, Wilfrid Laurer University Press, 1972

[8] EE Pg.11

[9] EE Pg.12

[10] EE Pg.12

[11] EE Pg.16

[12] EE Pg.61

[13] EE Pg.64

[14] Husserl, Edmund, “Shorter works”, University of Notre Dame press & The Harvester press, 1981

[15] EE Pg.53

[16] EE Pg.53

[17] EE Pg.55

[18] EE Pg.56

[19] EE Pg.44

[20] EE Pg.43

[21] Levinas, Emmanuel, “entre nous”, Trans. Michael Smith and Barbara Harshav, Columbia University Press, 1998, Pg.103

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