restricted access 4. BEING/BEYOND BEING
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4. BEING/BEYOND BEING The terms “being” and “beyond being” are ontological. But there is an underlying ambiguity in writing about Levinas’s ontology . He considered his own thinking to differ from Heidegger’s, mainly on the issue of ontology. It remains to be determined (see below, chapter 6, “Ontology/Metaphysics,” and chapter 13, “Levinas’s Critique of Heidegger”) exactly what that difference entails, but it is clear that Levinas understands his own philosophy to be metaphysical rather than ontological. Perhaps we can clarify the situation by considering a word that Levinas uses in his early (1935) essay, “De l’évasion” (“On Escape”): ontologism.1 Like Husserl’s use of the word “psychologism,” Levinas’s “ontologism” carries with it an implied critique. It is directed against those philosophers who would have the domains of the thinkable and of being coincide without remainder. Parmenides is the founding offender in this regard. Levinas’s writings frequently point out that being has been equated with truth — since to lie is to say what is not — and with excellence — for God, in the Thomistic tradition, is the Supreme Being, who lacks no quality , and being, in the theology of the ontological proof of the existence of God, is treated as a quality. Nevertheless, to speak of Levinas’s ontology is inevitable to the extent that he had important things to say about being. I begin with a characterization of being in general, taken from his late period, then discuss the il y a and the otherwise than being or beyond being. Perhaps it is precisely Levinas’s characterization of being that makes it possible for him to move beyond it. In any 56 SMITH_F6_56-62 3/1/05 6:03 PM Page 56 case, the existentialist notion of “existence,” that specific modality of being peculiar to human being (Dasein, in Heidegger) does not seem to have been assigned any important role in Levinas’s later period. In his early works, Levinas uses existence (existence) and existent (existant) to mean being (être) and entity (étant), respectively. By étant, Levinas nearly always means a human being. Levinas does not “do” much with the notion of being/nonbeing . His main interest is in describing what is of moral signi- ficance (interestedness, synchrony, competitiveness, the conatus essendi, and warfare). His early pronouncement on being, from which it is necessary to escape, is: Every civilization that accepts being — with the tragic despair it contains and the crimes it justifies — deserves the name “barbarian.”2 In those years, being was characterized mainly as an overfullness, a heaviness. Being is a burden to itself, riveted to itself. In his later work the same adjectives and characteristics are more frequently attributed to the moi, which must eventually free itself from itself to become soi. Pleasure is the process of leaving being. But it turns out that pleasure does not keep its promises.3 “On Escape” shows clearly the direction Levinas’s subsequent philosophy will take. “The brutal fact of being” that constrains human freedom is what prompts the desire to escape. Bourgeois self-sufficiency is modeled on the physical object. Already the idea of the moi is presented in close parallel with being itself and its inescapability . The two existential analyses in the piece are of shame and nausea. “On Escape” also contains an analysis of need — and it should be noted in passing that the analysis does not yet differentiate between need and desire, a distinction that, while never absolute, plays an important role in the opening pages of Totality and Infinity.4 The satisfaction of need is pleasurable, and pleasure is affectivity. Affectivity, Levinas claims, “is foreign to notions that apply to that which is, and has never been reducible to categories Being/Beyond Being 57 SMITH_F6_56-62 3/1/05 6:03 PM Page 57 of thought and activity.”5 This “affectivity” (affectivité is the French translation of Heidegger’s Befindlichkeit) will reappear 40 years later as “sensibility” (sensibilité) in chapter 3 (“Sensibility and Proximity”) of Otherwise than Being. Affectivity, sensibility — perhaps use of the more Anglo-Saxon “feeling” would help naturalize Levinas’s thought in English — are, along with subjectivity in its entirety, what we should think about when trying to overcome our heritage of “ontologism” and convey a more concrete sense of “otherwise than being.” (A fuller account of “On Escape” is given below in chapter 15.) Levinas’s Ontology; the Economy of Being In his preface to Entre Nous, Levinas uses...


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