restricted access 1. TOTALITY/INFINITY
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1. TOTALITY/INFINITY The fundamental importance of this opposition is reflected in the title of Levinas’s major 1961 work Totality and Infinity. Although the opposition between totality and infinity is not a dialectical one in the Hegelian sense, it would be a mistake, as the French philosopher Pierre Hayat warns us, to think that Levinas is inviting us to choose between infinity and totality.5 This chapter begins with a synopsis of two short pieces by Levinas on “totality” and “infinity” as independent concepts in the history of philosophy, before moving on to the specific way in which they are used by Levinas and their role in his philosophy. Two Short, Formal Treatments: The Entries in the Encyclopaedia Universalis In 1968 Levinas wrote two articles to be included in the Encyclopaedia Universalis: “Totalité et totalisation” and “Infini.”6 Pierre Hayat suggests that they may be read “as a response, perhaps , to the reproach that Levinas makes an overly personal, and slightly equivocal use of the categories of totality and infinity.”7 These two succinct treatments of totality and infinity will prove useful in leading off our consideration of each of these important philosophical concepts in the philosophy of Levinas. The fact that they were written about midway between the publication of Levinas’s two major works (Totality and Infinity, 1961 and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, 1974) makes them 19 SMITH_F3_17-36 3/2/05 7:22 PM Page 19 particularly valuable in gaining insight into the movement of his thought in this interim period. “Totality and Totalization” “Totality and Totalization” begins with a quick summary of Kantian and Aristotelian views on the subject, then moves on to the idea of an extrapolation from empirical totalities to the abstract notion of an all-inclusive totality that leaves nothing outside. Levinas traces the relationship between the totality that vision can encompass and the purely logical thought of totality — an empty generality, the pure thought of the thinkable. The logical totality is subject to both analysis and synthesis, which move toward — and stop at — some smallest or largest, respectively. But may such analyses not go beyond the province of the true or untrue? asks Levinas. Here he is thinking of the true or untrue as that which does or does not correspond to the way things are in the spatiotemporal world. This further opposition — that of thought as restricted to and modeled along the lines of the experiential, contrasted with the thought that goes beyond being, the thought of the infinite relation of proximity between human beings — is a central motif in Levinas’s work. Levinas finds in Kant a basis for the distinction he makes, although the main thrust of the latter’s noumenal/phenomenal distinction was inspired by his desire to overcome Humean skepticism, and to do so by declaring the noumenal world to be unknowable in principle, and therefore within the realm of the decisional, the “practical” or ethical.8 Levinas then touches upon the Hegelian totality; it is no longer the completion of a perceptual whole, or representation, but the whole of being, with its organized parts, moving toward the concrete universal. Next, he introduces totality in the context of hermeneutics: the interdependence between the whole and the part. Finally, since Western thought has emerged out of a Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition, Levinas discusses the “troubling” element of transcendence, to 20 Part One: Concepts SMITH_F3_17-36 3/2/05 7:22 PM Page 20 which totality presents a negative aspect. Part 1, “The Whole in Intuition,” decompresses this extremely condensed material. In this part Levinas attends to the Gestalt notion of a perceptual whole and reviews the main distinctions between wholes drawn by the Ancients (natural wholes, i.e. wholes of phusai; wholes with no distinguishable parts, or pan; wholes with distinguishable parts and a specific ordering of them, or holon). This portion ends with a thumbnail description of Husserl’s notion of the totality of the object, with its content and horizon. In part 2, “Totality without Reality,” Levinas takes up the distinction Kant makes between reason and understanding. Science can give conditions, but never gets to the ultimate condition, which reason requires. Totality remains a regulative idea, or an “idea in the Kantian sense.” The section ends with a question. “Since the absolute does not lend itself to totalization, one may wonder whether intelligibility is reducible to comprehension, to an encompassing without...


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