- Heidegger’s Ethics and Levinas’s OntologyPhenomenology of Prereflective Normativity
For it is clear that you have known this all along, whereas we formerly thought we knew, but are now perplexed.— Plato, Sophist
La vraie vie est absente.— Arthur Rimbaud, Vierge folle, l’Epoux infernal
Levinas’s attack on the putative primordiality of ontology has spawned among many of his readers — both supporters and detractors — a curious form of Manichaeism that broadly associates ethics with the good and ontology with a deviation from some presumably dutiful deference to the priority of the other. This reading assumes, first, that ethics for Levinas is synonymous with moral goodness and, second, that to act ethically is nothing more and nothing less than to respect the alterity of the other by suspending totalization.1 The advocates of this pious Levinas seem to take his entire metaphysical project to be the philosophical scaffolding to just one normative [End Page 145] principle: thou shalt not totalize. For instance, in his book Elevations, Richard Cohen leaves little space for doubt when, after both pairing Levinas’s idea of ethics to some unexplained notion of radical goodness and, more curiously, offering a hagiography of Levinas, points out, “The way of goodness is, in a word, better than the thematization of being, more glorious.”2 What this could mean as a generic moral endorsement and, more specifically, what this could mean when for Cohen, the good is evidently a moral theme, remains at best obscure.
In any case, Cohen is certainly not alone in his estimation that the Levinasian corpus is in essence a moral theory that systematizes the method for determining the putative moral superiority of ethics over ontology. Silvano Petrosino opens his essay on the primacy of ethics in Levinas’s thought claiming, “The assertion that the specific feature of Levinas’ speculative proposal is found in the emphasis on the supremacy of ethics over ontology is clearly undisputable.”3 If these readings were correct, it would seem that questions about what one ought to do — the question that propels all moral theories — are reasonably easy to resolve: actions are ethical when they defer to the mysterious infinity of the other and bad when they reify or objectify it — as it has become fashionable to say — in ontological categories, thus subjecting it to being.4
Readers who subscribe to this parceling of the Levinasian universe take the critique advanced in the pages of Totality and Infinity and of Otherwise than Being to be either a partial or total rejection of ontology. However, the substantive normative claims entailed in this apparent vilification of ontology as a cognitive drive attribute to Levinas a moral theory that is, at best, hard to pinpoint in his work and at worst in direct conflict with the radical priority of ethics that is normally taken — often even by those same readers — to anchor the entire Levinasian project. Indeed, if we take seriously the claim that ethics is constitutive of all acts — that ethics is first philosophy, as is so often repeated — then it turns out that no act can be said to stand beyond the scope of ethics, not even totalization. [End Page 146]
The political agenda of these readers has had as much to do with an understandable need for a philosophically solid account of morality with its accompanying theory of action as with an equally understandable form of virtuous indignation in reaction to Heidegger’s political biography, which has often demanded the reexamination of his thought.5 Heidegger’s affiliation to National Socialism made him the prototypical target for moralizing Levinasians. These readers have promoted a Levinas and a Levinasian reading capable of bringing about the philosophical and, thus, political redemption of twentieth century phenomenology.
An excessive commitment to this approach may leave one with the impression that the existential analytic of Dasein is what the Nazi agenda was truly all about. In this regard, the political stakes of the confrontation could hardly be higher. Ethics and ontology are not mere philosophical categories employed in the articulation of a phenomenology of rule-following and action guidance; these terms stand at the antipodes of the twentieth century political spectrum...