Over the years, the question of sensibility has largely been discussed in a variety of discourses developed in the humanities and has gained attention in psychology and the cognitive sciences. Sensibility has been seen as a constituent part of subjectivity, endowing subjectivity with meanings developed in different layers of subjective and inter-subjective life, but also as setting new horizons of ethical becoming. In this context, Emmanuel Levinas represents a unique philosophical approach: sensibility reveals the core of the ethical encounter with the other person, including traumatic experience and ethical gift of this intersubjective encounter. The ethical event starts from sensibility and from the radicality on which the face-to-face relation is built, but it also results from the sensible life of subjectivity. I address here a famous line in Levinas’s Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence: “Only a subject that eats can be for-the-other” (OB 74). In its hunger, and in its constant search for the means of feeding itself, subjectivity is for the first time disclosed as a vulnerable and affected self. This vulnerability [End Page 1] is different in its nature from the vulnerability provoked by the appeal of the other. The satisfaction of needs, the ability to enjoy food, to enjoy laboring to acquire it, but also the memory of the pain caused by hunger all indicate fundamental levels of vulnerability whereby the self is exposed to the affection of the otherness. In the following sections of Otherwise than Being, Levinas moves further toward disclosing a sensible subjectivity endowed with transcendence. Sensibility becomes structured as the other-in-the-same, where the trace of the other is exactly transcendence impregnating subjectivity. Here, being affected by the other, the vulnerable and the sensible self takes its crucial forms: it is pure passivity, it is an ultimate exposure, and it is nonintentional. These modalities of sensibility are to indicate ethical mapping of subjectivity where responsibility for the other eventually becomes irreversible.
To approach the novelty of sensibility as the central component of the face-to-face relation, I elucidate the function and meaning of mechanisms enabling subjectivity to be structured as the other-in-the-same. The face-to-face relation is, first of all, an experience of the affective trace left by the appeal of the other. Thus, my goal is to explicate how this affection, manifested as the address of the other, is embedded in Levinas’s reading of sensuous intuition and how the affection enlightens an ethical sensibility at the level of nonintentional consciousness and passivity. Beginning with Husserl’s view of hyletic data, I discuss the work of affection and sensation in intentional consciousness and how these feelings participate in constructing sensibility. I analyze the importance of Levinas’s innovative idea of nonintentional consciousness, leading up to the concept of passivity, which acts as the host of transcendence or, in other words, of the other-in-the-same. Finally, I turn to the phenomenon of two sensibilities and provide an interpretation of their structures and their role in building face-to-face relations.
Sensation and Affection
The first step toward unraveling sensibility is to address Urhyle. Urhyle plays an essential role in the dimension of affection, sensation, [End Page 2] and sensibility. In his earlier works, Levinas addresses hyle and, to some extent, follows Husserl’s reflections on Urhyle and affection. A discussion of Urhyle will help to elucidate Levinasian logic.
For Husserl, Urhyle is “a foreign core in me” (Ichfremdekern).1 Being something foreign within consciousness, Urhyle indicates a core within consciousness, which leads to a constitutive bifurcation of the self and of the nonself. The appearance of Urhyle is indirect: it is not constitutive, it does not constitute itself, but rather Urhyle structures the constitution of the self. How can Urhyle be shown? Affected consciousness or sensible data is the first strange or alien content within the self, affecting and exciting the self as nonconsciousness (Unbewüßtsein) on the level of original hyletic (Urhyle) preconsciousness and allowing primary sensibility to grow, which apparently becomes a content of the self.2 Consciousness is, first of all, aware of something foreign striking it. In affection...