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  • Flipping the DeckOn Totality and Infinity’s Transcendental/Empirical Puzzle
  • Jack Marsh (bio)

How does one perceive a transcendental condition?

— Martin Kavka

. . . if it is legitimate to hold Levinas to the standards that he himself imposes on certain other philosophers.

— Robert Bernasconi

I do not believe that there is a transparency possible in method. Nor that philosophy might be possible as transparency.

— Emmanuel Levinas

The question of the precise methodological status of the face has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. The best evidence for this claim perhaps lies in texts intended to introduce Levinas to a general philosophical audience. If even first-rate philosophers wrestle still with the puzzle Totality and Infinity bequeaths us, we seem to still await a full and precise diagnosis. For example, Michael Morgan holds the “face-to-face and the responsible self — they are one thing characterized from [End Page 79] two perspectives — are” “the transcendental condition for meaningful human life,” yet elsewhere concedes, “it is unavoidable that in some sense or other the face-to-face does occur as an actually lived experience.” If Morgan’s own nuanced treatment of this question still lands him in equivocation, the problem is certainly not Morgan’s own.1 As Atterton notes, Morgan must finally hold that Levinas’s method is a “transcendental enterprise of a certain sort.”2 But of what sort? Indeed, this question has been asked or analyzed in one way or another from the beginning of Totality and Infinity’s English-language reception.3 Of course, Derrida was the first to broach the question of Totality and Infinity’s general intelligibility, alleging that Levinas ultimately succumbs to a form of empiricism. Of course, de Boer was the first to mount a rigorous Cartesian reading of the text as an (apparently) “ethical transcendental philosophy.” Of course, Bernasconi’s response to de Boer, and his creative repetition of Derrida’s critical point, was the first to give the problem a precise formulation.4 Derrida, de Boer, and Bernasconi hand us the now canonical problem of what I will call the text’s “transcendental/empirico-metaphysical puzzle.”5 The issue boils down to Levinas’s dual insistence that the face “cannot . . . be stated in terms of experience,” yet is nevertheless “reflected within experience” (TI 25, 23, 67, 260). How should we understand Levinas’s references to various “formal structure[s]” — “of language,” “of interpellation,” “of the idea of infinity” — next to talk of “pure” or “concrete moral experience” (195, 79, 64, 53)? Does the Other occur in “pure experience,” or is she “deduced” as a condition of possibility for experience in general? In this essay, I will propose an internal explanation for Totality and Infinity’s longstanding methodological puzzle. By proposing to “explain” this puzzle, I am making at least three distinct claims: to show (1) that the text suffers from genuine incoherence, thus confirming the general criticism of Derrida, Bernasconi, and others, (2) precisely how this incoherence follows from the details of Levinas’s own explicit method, and (3) precisely why, philosophically, he may have constructed and performed his method as he did.6 By proposing to explain the book’s incoherence, I can [End Page 80] also make specific hermeneutic predictions. If Totality and Infinity’s transcendental/empirico-metaphysical puzzle is genuinely aporetic, it follows that no resolution to it is possible on the text’s own terms.7 As such, any attempt to resolve the puzzle must either (1) augment the text’s own descriptions, (2) utilize other philosophical resources to render its claims coherent, or (3) precisely attempt resolution in either a transcendental or empirico-metaphysical direction. As it turns out, extant scholarship reflects just these hermeneutic strategies.

Over the years many philosophers have contributed to this longstanding debate, variously arguing for or against the general intelligibility of Levinas’s account of the face. On the one hand, scholarship that questions the text’s intelligibility does so from a variety of methodological perspectives.8 On the other hand, scholarship that mounts a defense of the text seems to proceed in one of three ways: by (1) apparently repeating Totality and Infinity’s methodological problems, (2) anticipating Levinas’s later work, read...


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