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...
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