After Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of the metaphysical God and Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics as onto-theological thinking, one might wonder: is it still possible today to do metaphysics? Even further, is it still acceptable to speak of God in this metaphysics that has fallen from favor? At the risk of following in the footsteps of Nietzsche’s madman—who continues to cry out in the darkness for God after his demise—these are some of the central questions Emmanuel Levinas raises in his thought.
In “Death and Time,” Levinas asks: “In philosophy, has not the disquietude of God other meanings than the forgetting of being and the errancy of onto-theo-logy? Is the God of onto-theo-logy—who is perhaps dead—the only God; are there not other meanings to the word ‘God’?” (GDT 59; italics added). We can see here an open challenge to Heidegger, to the godless ontology of his early years, and perhaps also to the godless thinking he calls for in his later thought in an attempt to go beyond what he understands to be the onto-theological constitution of philosophical metaphysics. To put matters simply, in response to Heidegger’s Being without God, Levinas proposes instead a sense for God beyond Being. [End Page 29]
I am stating nothing new here in bringing out the antagonistic relationship Levinas had with Heidegger in his thinking. But a good enemy can be as influential as a good friend: as such, in order to understand Levinas’s seeking of sense for God beyond Being, it is necessary to grasp what he took to be objectionable in Heidegger’s ontology. Further, in hope of opening up a broader perspective beyond Levinas, it is worth delving into what Heidegger is in fact saying about Being, and examining how far the gods do and do not come into Heidegger’s thinking of Being.1
Indeed, if we allow ourselves to step out of what we will see is a somewhat caricatural depiction of Heidegger by Levinas, then a truly interesting dialogue can be opened up between the two thinkers. Though both tend to speak in what may appear to be contradictory vocabularies, a deeper understanding of their respective languages may surprisingly reveal their paths of thinking to be less divergent than originally thought. For though there are certainly important differences between the two thinkers, I will argue that both are inspired by a desire to get to the heart of metaphysical thinking and the passivity that constitutes it.
Let us begin, however, by way of opposition in order to discover this hidden point of convergence. Four main oppositions will be addressed in what follows:
1. Heidegger’s privileging of Being against Levinas’s privileging of a beyond Being;
2. Heidegger’s critique of the onto-theological character of the history of philosophy as metaphysics, against Levinas’s criticism of most of the history of philosophy as comprised of totalizing philosophies of Being, which he attempts to go beyond by returning to a more originary philosophical sense that he identifies, among other things, as metaphysical;
3. The “god-less-ness” of Heidegger’s thinking of Being against Levinas’s attempt to find a sense for God both within and beyond philosophical thinking on Being; [End Page 30]
4. The deconstruction of values and ethics in Heidegger’s later thought on Being against Levinas’s privileging of ethics as first philosophy.
Being or Beyond Being?
In a sense, one of the main motivations behind Levinas’s formulation of a beyond Being originates with Heidegger himself, in a criticism of his early fundamental ontology from Being and Time. It should be mentioned that this critical stance toward Heidegger is not only theoretical in nature, but also stems from Levinas’s personal life experience as a Jew (having lost most of his family during the Second World War) faced with Heidegger’s prewar embracing of National Socialism. Levinas’s most extended critique of Heideggerian fundamental ontology appears in Existence and Existents, a book that he began to write while held in a prisoner of war camp during the war. In this book, we find his recasting of...