Totality And Infinity An Essay On Exteriority Definition

Ever since the beginning of the modern phenomenological movement disciplined attention has been paid to various patterns of human experi ence as they are actually lived through in the concrete. This has brought forth many attempts to tind a general philosophical position which can do justice to these experiences without reduction or distQrtion. In France, the best known of these recent attempts have been made by Sartre in his Being and Nothingness and by Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenol ogy of Perception and certain later fragments. Sartre has a keen sense for life as it is lived, and his work is marked by many penetrating descrip tions. But his dualistic ontology of the en-soi versus the pour-soi has seemed over-simple and inadequate to many critics, and has been seriously qualitied by the author himself in his latest Marxist work, The Critique of Dialetical Reason. Merleau-Ponty's major work is a lasting contri but ion to the phenomenology of the pre-objective world of perception. But asi de from a few brief hints and sketches, he was unable, before his unfortunate death in 1961, to work out carefully his ultimate philosophi cal point of view. This leaves us then with the German philosopher, Heidegger, as the only contemporary thinker who has formulated a total ontology which claims to do justice to the stable results of phenomenology and to the liv ing existential thought of our time.

Emmanuel Levinas was born in Kovno, Lithuania, to an Orthodox Jewish family. Hebrew was the first language that he learned to read; he also acquired a love of the Russian classics, particularly works by Pushkin and Tolstoy which first stirred his philosophical interests. Levinas studied in Strasbourg, Freiburg, and Paris, developing a particular interest in the philosophers Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. He became a French citizen and eventually a prisoner during World War II, at which time his entire family was exterminated. After the war, Levinas taught at Poitiers, Nanterre, and eventually became professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1973. He has also been deeply involved in the problems of Western Jews, including active membership in the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an organization established in 1860 to promote Jewish emancipation. The experience of the ravages of totalitarianism during World War II convinced Levinas that only a rediscovery of the specificity of Judaism could deliver the modern world from itself. Levinas's central concern is with "the other"---not the self or the cosmos, but the faces of other persons who make a claim on us and provide traces of the working of an infinite other. Totality and Infinity (1961) is a central but very difficult text. In it Levinas argues that Western philosophy has been captured by a notion of totality from which nothing is distant, exterior, or other and that, thus, when persons who are different confront such totalistic ways of living and thinking, they go to war. Moving beyond totality and war requires a notion of transcendence or infinity, which can bring peace. In fact, religion is, according to Levinas, "the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality." Levinas maintains that "the existence of God is not a question of an individual soul's uttering logical syllogisms. It cannot be proved. The existence of God . . . is sacred history itself, the sacredness of man's relation to man through which God may pass. God's existence is the story of his revelation in biblical history." Levinas has said that the most common objection to his thought is that it is utopian, for people are always asking, "Where did you ever see the ethical relation [with the other] practiced?" But Levinas is convinced that, although concern for the other is "always other than the "ways of the world,"' there are "many examples of it in the world." This is the reason that his writings on Judaism, such as Difficult Freedom (1963) and Nine Talmudic Essays (1968), are at least as important as his philosophical texts.

Alphonso Lingis is Professor of Philosophy at the Pennsylvania State University and author of "Abuses" (California, 1994), "The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common "(1994), "Foreign Bodies" (1994), and other books.

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