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The use of the terms “testimony” and “witnesses” is widespread. It can be found in such disparate fields as literature, art, and historiography. I would like to offer a Levinasian look at the question of witnessing and the absolute responsibility placed on witnesses, and on witnesses to their testimony. According to Levinas, to be a witness means to know another, and to know the otherness of the other, meaning to bear responsibility toward that otherness. The focus of this article is the conceptual meaning of witnessing, and the witness’s responsibility for his or her surroundings.

This article considers man’s attitude toward his surroundings with regard to the challenge posed to Levinas by Martin Heidegger. My aim here is to reassess the manner in which Levinas responds to and critiques Heidegger, with a focus on a category which, at first glance, may seem a strange choice for discussion: the category of “bearing witness.” Through a careful reading of the writings of Levinas and Heidegger we gain an understanding of the notion of “bearing witness” in the philosophical realm—not in the sense of a stranger giving testimony in a court of law but as an integral part of everyday life. Although both Levinas and Heidegger address this category in their writings, they each understand and employ it in very different ways.1 [End Page 221]

The Temptation of Temptation and the Uninvolved Witness

In his famous talmudic reading, “The Temptation of Temptation,” Levinas offers the following depiction of the condition of Western man and the manner in which he relates to his surroundings. “He is for an open life,” Levinas tells us, “eager to try everything, to experience everything, ‘in a hurry to live, impatient to feel’ ” (NT 32). However, although he admires a life of adventure, he is unwilling to assume the risk it involves. Contemporary man, maintains Levinas, wants to be tempted to try everything but prefers to refrain from taking the risk of engaging in it in practice. With this, Levinas constructs one of his most curious concepts—“the temptation of temptation,” which he describes as follows: “The temptation of temptation is not the attractive pull exerted by this or that pleasure, to which the tempted one risks giving himself over body and soul. What tempts the one tempted by temptation is not pleasure but the ambiguity of a situation in which pleasure is still possible but in respect to which the Ego keeps its liberty, has not yet given up its security, has kept its distance. . . . What is tempting is to be simultaneously outside everything and participating in everything” (33–34).

Were we to apply this account to the human condition in present times, we would be forced to acknowledge that the human condition, or at least the condition of Western man, has become even more extreme since Levinas penned the above words. We would consider the fact that contemporary man has most of his personal experiences and acquires most of his information about his surroundings by watching television or sitting in front of a computer screen. Indeed, people today are faced with an infinite number of temptations that are just a click away, inviting them on journeys to faraway lands, to pictures of magnificent landscapes, and to spectacular views of the power of nature. According to Levinas’s analysis of the human condition, contemporary man, as a product of Western culture, will remain in the capacity of the tempted, or, to be more precise, that which is tempted [End Page 222] by the state of “being tempted.” People want to get to know the entire world and to experience the whole of nature but to do so while sitting on their sofa at home or with friends at a local cafe. People today can meet anyone, anywhere in the world. They can talk with whomever they please while sitting at their desk at home, drinking coffee that was delivered to them without their actually having to go outside and venture into the world. It is the temptation of knowing everything without taking risks and without joining the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2153-8433
Print ISSN
1554-7000
Pages
pp. 221-248
Launched on MUSE
2016-11-25
Open Access
N
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