Sunday, August 4, 2013

Transcendence and Intelligibility by Emmanuel Levinas / Chasing Sophie

Emmanuel Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas
Emmanuel Levinas was born into a Jewish community in Lithuania in 1906 and died in 1995. In 1924, he started studies at the University of Strasbourg. After becoming a French citizen in 1930, he was drafted into the French army and became an officer. This meant that when Hitler conquered France, Levinas was sent to a military prison camp even though he was Jewish. Unfortunately, many of his family in Lithuania were not so lucky. Levinas went on to teach after the war, though he didn't receive any real recognition until the publication of Totality and Infinity in 1961. "Transcendence and Intelligibility" was given as a lecture in 1983 and published as a small book in 1984. (For 1984, think Ronald Reagan as USA president and negotiations over the return of Hong Kong to China) For further information, see Emmanuel Levinas.

Transcendence and Intelligibility

First of all, don't let the title scare you. Transcendence= What we can't understand, what is out of our reach. Intelligibility= What we can understand, what is within our reach. To understand this essay, you're going to have to understand what Levinas means by the Other. The Other is what's not me. Generally, it's other people, but it can also stand for animals, for anything that's different from me.

One example is infinity. Levinas uses Descartes's notion of infinity as something beyond us, as an example of something totally Other. Or, for another example, let's say I downloaded all of your memories into me. I would still not understand you, because I would not be you, I'd be you plus me. "Knowledge is a relation of the Same with the Other in which the Other is reduced to the Same and divested of its strangeness... the other is already appropriated, already mine. " (Emphasis Levinas's.) I don't think Levinas is saying we shouldn't get to know someone, but that our goal is to live with others. When I try to "flatten" someone's identity, I'm really trying to own them.

For Levinas, philosophy should start, not by trying to reduce the Other, but by trying to live with the other. Levinas says that we should start with "ethics," that is we need to start by recognizing our responsibility to others, and then move to other issues.


While I didn't cover everything in Levinas's lecture, I tried to give a basic idea of what's important to Levinas. When philosophy strays from, "How then should I live," it's really lost its purpose. We can't be so consumed with knowledge that we miss people. "Oh, that's what women do." "Oh, his family's just like that." "Oh, he's just not very bright." All too often, we reduce other people so that we can dismiss our responsibilities (For more on this, see my review of Derrida's The Gift of Death).


I think we need to be careful as Christians that we don't baptize something that's really not Christian. On the one hand, we can't get caught up in talking about the Other so that we forget about Christ. On the other hand, we can get our judgment of other people confused with God's judgment. We are not God, and we need to approach both God and other people with the humble knowledge that we will never completely understand them. When we treat people dismissively, it's very easy to forget our responsibility to them.


I'm indebted to the many introductory contributions to Basic Philosophical Writings by Emmanuel Levinas.

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