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  • Europe and EmbodimentA Levinasian Perspective
  • James Mensch (bio)

The question of Europe has been raised continually. Behind it is the division of the continent into different peoples, languages, and cultures, all in close proximity to one another. Their plurality and proximity give rise to the opposing imperatives of trade and war. Since ancient times, the need to promote trade and the desire to prevent war have driven the search for a basis for European unity. Various candidates, from that of Roman law in ancient times to the current economic and regulatory union of today, have been tried. Such bureaucratic solutions, however, have not proved sufficient. They regulate external relations but do not touch what is within. This, however, is the difficulty: how do we understand nations and their relations from within? On an individual level, it is customary to speak of the inner as “subjectivity.” Such a term generally means the “subject” of experience, the unique and individual self that has experience. If we are to avoid the Cartesian conceptions of this self, we have to speak of such a subject as an embodied whole: an organic unity that is both conscious of its environment and distinguishes itself from the latter. Such an organic unity cannot be thought in terms of Descartes’s distinction between mind and body, the mind being nonextended and the body being extended. The body grasped simply as extended is inanimate. To use [End Page 41] the German term, it is a Körper, a material body among bodies. The corresponding term for the animate, living body is Leib. A living body is characterized both by its organic needs and its ability to satisfy these through its “I can” (i.e., its capability to act to fulfill such needs). Subjectivity, as embodied, has to be thought in terms of the latter.

Such thoughts, however, only increase the difficulty of speaking of the subjectivity of nations. Nations are political concepts. To speak of them as organic unities seems to return us to a discredited analogy, where we say just as the body has a common boundary separating its inside from the outside, so a nation has its frontiers. Similarly, we assert that just as an organic unity embraces the mutually dependent functioning of its parts — e.g., its various organs and limbs — so the state consists of the interdependent functioning of its classes and professions. Paul employs this analogy in speaking of the body of Christ.1 It also appears in Plato’s division of the classes of the state. One can also see it at work in the division of castes in Hindu society. As such examples indicate, its focus on natural classes makes it an inappropriate analogy for the modern state, where citizenship rather than class is the dominant conception. What, then, would be an appropriate way to speak of the subjectivity of nations? In what follows, I am going to use Levinas’s conception of corporalité (Leiblichkeit in German) to answer these questions. My claim will be that it permits the extension of subjectivity to the national level. Such an extension, I will argue, is crucial for understanding the group of nations that we call Europe. It is what allows us to catch sight of Europe’s particular identity.

Two Views of European Identity

There is a certain paradox in attempting to speak of the identity of Europe. Given the spread of the scientific rationality that originated in Europe, it is often claimed that what distinguishes Europe is the universality of the rationality that defines it. Husserl, in the twentieth century, made this claim. Such universality, he writes, is “contained from the start in the idea of philosophy” that appeared in Greece.2 [End Page 42] Philosophy, for the Greeks, was a general term that included “all the special sciences” — mathematics, astronomy, and so on — that developed as part of it. All these make universal claims. What they assert is claimed to hold everywhere, without exception. As Husserl admits, “philosophy, together with all the special sciences, makes up only a partial manifestation of European culture.” But for Husserl, “this part is the functioning brain” of “European spiritual life.”3...


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pp. 41-57
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