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Tradition and Its Disavowal: Levinas and Hermeneutics

From: Levinas Studies
Volume 6, 2011
pp. 159-177

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Tradition and Its Disavowal
Levinas and Hermeneutics


With the thought of Emmanuel Levinas political theory is faced with an enigma. Ostensibly an ethical philosophy, while at the same time seemingly devoid of any normative content, Levinas’s work not only fails to illuminate the political realm but seems to be a premonitory sign of the ethical trade-offs of just such an endeavor.

For Levinas the power-drive and the will to understand are intimately related; the political is in the last analysis inextricable from Lichtung, the clearing wherein beings show themselves. In his later work, Levinas’s opposition to Heidegger is not that of a barren reversal, at once quietist and fideist, but instead attempts to maintain the tension between Heidegger effacing the gap between the realm of the political and that of disclosure, and the ethical deficiencies of a thought centered in overcoming metaphysics. Is not the inner core of metaphysics—the representation of beings in general and in the highest—the ethical truth of the Delphic imperative “Know thyself,” namely, “Know that you are a man and no god”?1 Levinas’s early work, culminating in Totality and Infinity, attempts just such an ethical rehabilitation of metaphysics. Despite the fecundity of the themes developed there and the author’s claims about them, the work fails to effectively confront Heidegger, as Derrida has shown in the essential [End Page 159] essay “Violence and Metaphysics.”2 The step back out of metaphysics, the question of why all men by nature desire to know, what calls for thinking, is not, as Levinas had claimed in his first great work, a violent appropriation of persons to anonymous truth.

In his later thought Levinas opposes Heidegger in a more coherent fashion, and it is here that there arises the quandary for political theory. For what is true of Heidegger—that there is no direct application of his thought, that there can be no “applied Heidegger”3—is even more true for Levinas, creating an aporia that is heightened with Levinas’s continued use of ethical language in his descriptions. Is not ethics, of all the sciences, that for which application is most imperative? How can we accept the late work of Levinas as a valid critique of Heidegger if it both concedes to the latter its fundamental gesture, the step back out of metaphysics, and fails to appeal to practice? What is the significance of Levinas’s later thought for practice? If there is none, should we not again ignore the polemics Levinas directs against his teacher in Otherwise than Being for the opposite reason than for his first magnum opus, namely, that this later work is its equivalent in everything save its vocabulary?

If Heidegger’s thought is insufficiently ethical, it is not because of this or that particular immoral consequence of his thought, but rather because it fails to account for the ethical aspect of man’s dwelling as such. And since this last expression is a pleonasm, such a critique could not at the same time fail to be less than fundamental. A fundamental critique of Heidegger, however, would be required to go beyond being and ethics. This is exactly what Levinas attempts to do in his later work, which therefore cannot be considered ethical in any real sense. The first canon of interpretation of Levinas’s later thought therefore must be the following: that it is not an ethics. To effectively deal with Heidegger, one must abandon the complaint that his thought is unethical. In his later work, culminating in Otherwise than Being, Levinas steps back from the science of ethics, mimicking Heidegger’s step back from metaphysics. [End Page 160]

Ethics, the science of the goods achievable by action, is inseparable from the master art of politics. Just as metaphysics is onto-theology, that is, both ontology and theology in a unified way, so social science, the science of the goods achievable by action, is in a unified way both ethics and politics. Social science is ethico-political; it involves a correspondence between the good achievable by all individuals generally and the good achievable by the highest statesmen deciding for the whole community...