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Tracing the Sacred, Tracing the Face: From Rosenzweig to Levinas
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Levinas’s Face

Most readers of Levinas’s Totality and Infinity are aware of his remark in the preface about his apparent debt to Rosenzweig’s work: “L’opposition à l’idée de totalité, nous a frappe dans le Stern der Erlösung de Franz Rosenzweig, trop souvent present dans ce livre pour être cite” (TI 28 / TeI 14).1 However nowhere else in the text does he cite Rosenzweig’s name or give us a clear indication of the nature of his indebtedness. Instead, he claimed that what animated his work, through phenomenology, is the aspiration to exteriority, which is the metaphysical, which is truth, but most importantly an aspiration that leads through ethics to a relation with the absolutely other. But what is absolutely other for Levinas entails specifying what he means by the sacred. My thesis is that we can better ascertain what Levinas means by the absolutely other—in reference to the sacred—through retracing what Rosenzweig says about the face, truth, and God in the closing sections of Der Stern der Erlösung, but on the basis of what Levinas says about infinity and the face in Totality and Infinity . For Levinas, “The true essence of man is presented in his face, in which he is infinitely other than a violence like unto mine. . . . Man as Other comes to us from outside, a separated—or holy—face” (TI 291–92). Levinas refers to this relation as a “curvature of intersubjective space” and that “this ‘curvature of space’ is, perhaps, the very presence of God” (291). In what follows, I present some reflections that I hope will enable us to better determine to what extent this “curvature of space,” and thus “the very presence of God,” may have been prefigured for Levinas by Rosenzweig.

But first, to set the table so to speak, I turn to what Levinas said about expression and Spinoza’s ethics. In order to better understand the radical departure of Levinas from naturalist ethical theories based on rational reciprocity or pragmatically efficient utilitarian calculations, we need to ask: What do we know of expression from Spinoza? Despite himself, Gilles Deleuze provides support for Levinas’s contention that, taken to its logical conclusion, expression set in a Spinozistic framework results in the inevitable collapse of whatever might be considered monadic singularity into the one metaphysical substance:

On the one hand, essence is reflected and multiplied in attributes, attributes are mirrors, each of which expresses in its kind the essence of substance: they relate necessarily to an understanding, as mirrors to an eye which sees in them an image. But what is expressed is at the same time involved in its expression, as a tree in its seed: the essence of substance is not so much reflected in the attributes as constituted by the attributes that express it; attributes are not so much mirrors as dynamic or genetic elements.2

Despite his attempt to enliven Spinoza’s theory of attributes, Deleuze attempts to explicate what he contends is a core dimension in Spinoza’s philosophy of expressionism, namely, that real distinction is formal distinction between expressed attributes. Played out to its logical conclusion, that proposition leads to the positive argument that all natures (attributes) are perfect since all forms of nature, all attributes, are equal: “the absolute is in its nature infinite in all its forms.”3

According to Levinas, this sort of metaphysics presupposes a philosophy of unity that suppresses separation and interiority as irrational or mystical but which then entails, in the process, that the metaphysical as a phenomenal process is supposed to somehow absorb the metaphysician as well in its logic of ultimate unification. Levinas suggests that these sorts of metaphysical movements are simply conundrums on the theme of recovery from a fall, repair of a rupture, or deliverance from privation. He likens their logical narratives to this or that metaphysical odyssey, moving out from an unspecified origin with a nostalgic yearning for a return to an illusionary unity. Each results from an unexamined metaphysics of need, such that, “Need indicates void and lack in the needy one, its dependence on the exterior, the insufficiency of the needy being precisely in...



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