restricted access 17. TOTALITY AND INFINITY: PREFACE (1961)
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17. TOTALITY AND INFINITY: PREFACE (1961) The preface to this major work sets out by placing it within the framework of a question not addressed in the same terms within the work itself. The question is whether or not one is “duped” by morality. Thus the book could be considered an extended answer to the question of whether there is any reason to be “moral,” whatever specific behavior morality may require of us. It resembles the Pascalian wager to some extent — but for Pascal all depended on whether faith in an afterlife (in which life’s accounts would be balanced) was warranted. Levinas’s question is not accompanied , in the preface at least, by an answer, but we are drawn into a number of related questions. The preface proceeds from the initial question to that of war, since in times of war morality seems to be suspended in the overarching struggle. Not only does war suspend moral behavior; lucidity, says Levinas, may consist in the awareness of the “permanent possibility of war.” The trial by force is the test of the real. What truth comes out in the trial by force? “Reality,” no doubt, at least in the eyes of the proponents of what has come to be known in our time as “Realpolitik.” When war breaks out, nothing, it seems, remains outside. “The visage of being that shows itself in war is fixed in the concept of totality, which dominates Western philosophy.” Hence totality is the aspect of being that is manifest in war. But just as “hard” reality was revealed to be pleonastic, so the face of being that is seen in war is being, the truth of being. And only the outcome , the objective fact of what will be, is of any importance. 210 SMITH_F19_210-215 3/1/05 6:08 PM Page 210 Levinas speaks of the “ontology of war,” and contrasts it with a “messianic eschatology.” Philosophers are wary, playing it down the middle, deducing a final peace from reason. Eschatology for them is part of opinion, not philosophy. There is a way of misunderstanding prophetic eschatology, or a way it misunderstands itself perhaps, that would have eschatology adopt the ontology of totality that comes out of war. But the true significance of eschatology is elsewhere. “It does not introduce a teleological system into the totality; it does not consist in teaching the orientation of history. Eschatology institutes a relation with being beyond the totality or beyond history, and not with being beyond the past and the present.”1 Levinas rejects the popular understanding of prophecy that contacts being beyond the past and the present, focusing mostly on the future. Levinas’s use of prophetic eschatology refers to a contact with being beyond the totality. It is to be noted that at this stage of his thinking (1961) Levinas has not broken entirely with a positive use of the word “being.” He calls for “a primordial and original relation with being.”2 Although a distinction has been made between eschatology’s reaching being “beyond the totality” and its reaching it “beyond the present and the past,” it is still being that is contacted. The “objective” totality, he says, is not the “true measure of being.” What is needed is the concept of infinity. “Eschatology,” he argues, establishes a relation with being beyond the totality or beyond history , and not with the void that would surround the totality and in which one could, arbitrarily, think what one likes, and thus promote the claims of a subjectivity free as the wind. It is a relationship with a surplus always exterior to the totality, as though the objective totality did not fill out the true measure of being; as though another concept, the concept of infinity, were needed to express this transcendence with regard to totality, non-encompassable within a totality and as primordial as totality.3 This metaphysical arrangement represents an interesting stage in Levinas’s progression toward “the one,” more fully elaborated Totality and Infinity: Preface 211 SMITH_F19_210-215 3/1/05 6:08 PM Page 211 and modified in Otherwise than Being. What should be noted here is that Levinas rejects a negation of being, a nothingness, as the milieu of externality, but the being he attributes to it is that of a “surplus.” As Levinas begins to attribute to being more and more of the negative traits he associates with the (Hegelian) totality, he will be led to substitute...


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