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  • Lévinas after HegelAn Other Philosophy of Spirit?
  • Francis Guibal (bio)
    Translated by Donald Cross (bio)

If Emmanuel Lévinas ceaselessly distances himself from the dominant orientations of our philosophical tradition, it is, as has been justly observed, in order “to bring to light an other philosophy of spirit” (Housset 2012, 244). It is indeed for him a matter, mainly in Otherwise than Being, of centering his meditation on the interhuman link and the question of the “between us,” while trying to escape the power of unification, of collection, and of gathering,1 which precisely characterizes spirit as German Idealism inherits it from Greek thought. It is possible to consider, from this point of view, the Hegelian system as the most significant example of the speculative totalization to which Lévinas intends to oppose his “search for the infinite beyond being” (Peperzak 2010, 83).2 Lévinas, moreover, did not fail to recognize Hegel’s “synthetic genius” (Lévinas 1981, 20), which makes Hegel “probably the greatest thinker of all time” (Lévinas 1997, 238).3 He thus does not hesitate to affirm that, for those seeking to set out an original philosophical [End Page 113] discourse, it is important to begin by “setting his positions on Hegel” (Lévinas 2003, 95).4 I will therefore first retrace the broad strokes of the Hegelian philosophy of spirit before following Lévinas in his description of the prophetically inspired psyche and the upheavals that this inevitably entails in human interlocution: a way of seeking to “leave the System, even if we do so by moving backwards, through the very door by which Hegel thinks we enter it” (Lévinas 1997, 238).

The Deployment of Freedom

For Hegel, “the knowledge of spirit is … the highest and the most difficult” (2007a, § 377). Indeed, the very meaning of reality is presented there but in “a return” to itself “out of nature” (2007a, § 381), which is posited as its other. Neither withdrawn into the purity of an ideal interiority, nor lost in the opacity without return of a contingent exteriority, spirit reveals itself as activity or the process of generation and of self-sublation in the “utter dismemberment” of itself (Hegel 1977, 19). The “infinite pain” is therefore always at work at the heart of its energy; it is the absolute negativity of freedom that gives it the force to “maintain itself affirmatively” in the contradiction (2007a, § 382)5 and thus to achieve a being-close-to-oneself that ceaselessly gathers in itself its exit out of itself.6 Everything happens here as if spirit were destined to give itself over to the test of a painful gestation that tears it away from the burdens of natural and historical finitude, but this ethical and practical adventure of freedom finds itself always already ordered, finally, by the presence-to-self of a knowledge that leaves nothing outside itself.

a) Subjective Spirit

Because it emerges out of nature, spirit is first natural spirit (cf. Hegel 2007a, § 385). And the sensitive soul, whether it is opened to the “ideality devoid of inwardness” of light or to the “pure inwardness of the corporal” in sonorous vibration (2007a, § 401, 74),7 remains immersed in the sleep of a suffered immediacy. In passing from sensing to feeling or from sensation to sentiment, this soul does indeed become the “genius” of an individual subjectivity [End Page 114] but always in the dominant mode of passivity; in the grip of the foreignness of an internal duality that “sets it in vibration” (2007a, § 405), delivered over to the “evil genius” of the heart (Gemüt) or of an unbridled sensibility, the self risks sinking into the delirium or madness of mental alienation or “derangement” (2007a, § 408, 115).8 It must inscribe its fragility in the repeated exercises of habit toward a “bodiliness [that] has been thoroughly trained” (2007a, § 411), that expresses and signifies it most exactly: the soul becomes actual only when consciousness “awakes” (2007a, § 387) in it on the basis of a living body rendered capable of speech, language alone being able to give “straightaway its more perfect expression” to this “first appearance” of spirit that the...


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