- Phenomenology and the InfiniteLevinas, Husserl, and the Fragility of the Finite
Levinas’s Phenomenology of the Face and the Possibility of an Infinite Phenomenon
Levinas’s project begins relatively familiarly. Beings appear, he maintains, in deference to the phenomenological tradition, in the context of a perceiving subject (BPW 80). What’s more, the consciousness of that subjectivity, Levinas continues in perfect accord with phenomenological orthodoxy, is always “consciousness of ” a given content (15). There are no empty intuitions, Levinas echoes Husserl. Instead, he argues, consciousness arises in relation to the beings it perceives. In further orthodoxy, Levinas insists that the perceptual content of consciousness appears on “an illuminated horizon” or “world,” which operates on that content by limiting it, thereby allowing that content to take on a meaning for the subject, a meaning that forms the basis for thought and cognition (36). All of this is perfectly kosher and in line with a traditional understanding of Husserl’s claims concerning the givenness of phenomena. Where Levinas’s departure from the phenomenological tradition [End Page 23] begins is in his account of one particular phenomenon which, by his reading, calls into question the very concept of phenomenality as traditionally conceived. This phenomenon is what Levinas terms “the face.”
According to Levinas, the human face, though apparent in the world alongside other beings in the world, nevertheless appears otherwise than those beings; for the face, he argues, breaks with the continuity of the world in which it appears. Unlike other simple phenomena that appear perfectly circumscribed by the world, the face exceeds the “illuminative horizon” of subjective apperception and appears, in his words, “in its own light” (TI 71). As such, the human face, though a discrete phenomenon in the world, nevertheless appears to us as if it came from outside of or beyond the world. The face of the other is thus for him a kind of an-archic phenomenon. It “disturbs” or unsettles the grounding order, or arche, of phenomenality — it ruptures with the horizon of its apperception (BPW 70). It is for this reason, he claims, that the face appears as an “enigma” to the perceiving subject, one situated on the “hither side of consciousness,” which can never be fully encompassed by any set of finite qualities to which the subject may appeal in its attempt to describe or circumscribe its nature (70).
Given its anarchic nature, Levinas claims, “the relation with the Other,” opened in the presentation of the face, “does not immediately have the structure of intentionality. It is not opening onto . . . , aiming at . . . , which is already an opening onto being and an aiming at being. The absolutely Other is not reflected in a consciousness; it resists the indiscretion of intentionality” (BPW 16). Indeed, quite to the contrary, the enigma of the face functions to put the intentionality of the perceiving ego into question. It is this “putting in question” (TI 195) implied in the enigma of the face that Levinas thinks opens up the possibility of ethical consideration and responsibility. “The face resists possession, resists my powers,” Levinas writes, and in doing so presents an ethical counter to my being in the world — one that reorients my perception of the world and [End Page 24] myself (197). The relation one has to the face of the other “is not therefore ontology” but “religion” (BPW 7–8). It is this claim that explains in part the tendency of thinkers like Dominique Janicaud to place Levinas’s work in the so-called theological turn of contemporary philosophy rather than in the tradition of phenomenology proper, as I will discuss in more detail momentarily.
As a result of its “refusal to be contained” by a perceiving subject, Levinas argues that the face of the other “cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed” within being (TI 194). Since the face of the other bears a special meaning and status that exceeds other existent phenomenal presentations, it appears unlike any other phenomenon. Namely, whereas other phenomena appear in and through the finitude placed upon them by the perceiving subject and its phenomenal horizon, the face of the other, claims Levinas, presents...