Lectures on Levinas Totality and Infinity

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Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 21-30: Preface

Levinas begins the preface by opposing to morality its opposite, that of war.

He writes, “Everyone will readily agree that it is the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality. Does not lucidity, the mind’s openness upon the true, consist in catching sight of the permanent possibility of war” (Totality and Infinity, hereafter cited as TI, p. 21).

With war, we see the opposite of morality: “War … renders morality derisory” (ibid.).

This means, for Levinas, that if we want to understand morality, then we must first grasp war, which is its opposite.

Now what characterizes war is totalization. One should not forget the reference of this word, like that of “totality” to the expressions popular during the Second World War: “Totalitarianism,” “Total War,” etc.

In each case, there is the emphasis that nothing be left out: “Total War,” a phrase that Goebel’s employed, means the use of any and all means to prosecute the war. It means not distinguishing enemy civilians from enemy soldiers, etc. “Totalitarianism” means the inclusion of all life under state control.

War, according to Levinas, is the example of totalization. In his words, war “establishes an order from which no one can keep his distance; nothing henceforth is exterior. War does not manifest exteriority and the other as other” (ibid.).

Morality, as the opposite of this, is the order in which one maintains exteriority, one preserves the other as other. To enter into the moral realm is, in his words, to “proceed from the experience of totality back to a situation where totality breaks up, a situation that conditions the totality itself. Such a situation is the gleam of exteriority or of transcendence in the face of the Other (autrui)” (24).

Levinas’s claim is that totalization, the denial of alterity, and, hence, war is a feature of Western philosophy. In his words, “The visage [face] of being that shows itself in war is fixed in the concept of totality that dominates Western philosophy.” (21).

The ideal of such philosophy is that of gaining a total knowledge, one that leaves nothing out.

Ontology manifests this in its attempt to grasp being qua being, that is, being in its totality. This can only be done by searching for the sense of beings, that is, by knowing them through concepts in their “generality.”

In Levinas’ words, “For the things the work of ontology consists in apprehending the individual (which alone exists) not in its individuality but in its generality (of which alone there is science). The relation with the other is here accomplished through a third term [the concept], which I find in myself” (TI, p. 44).

Ontology, thus, does not grasp the other person as an individual. It apprehends the person through the generality of a concept. In doing so, it conceals the ethical relation, whose focus is the individual. It also reduces this relation to the realm of the “same.” It attempts to express it in the “same” terms as those of the “generality” that “I find in myself.”

From Socrates to Heidegger, this attempt has characterized the West. In Levinas’ reading of the tradition, “Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a reduction of the other to the same by the interposition of a middle and neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being. This primacy of the same was Socrates’ teaching: to receive nothing of the Other but what is in me ...” (ibid., p. 43). The reference here is to Plato’s doctrine of recollection, where to know is to recall what is already within one. The “ideal of Socratic truth” implied by this is clear according to Levinas. It “rests on the essential self-sufficiency of the same, its identification in ipseity, its egoism. Philosophy is an egology” (44).

What links egotism, egology, and the reduction of the other to the same is, as Levinas elsewhere writes, “the correlation between knowledge and...
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