Lévinas on the Other

Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-95) was an important religiously oriented philosopher within the existential-phenomenological tradition. He translated Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to French. His most famous work Totality and Infinity (French edition 1961) — dedicated to Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl — argues at top level that philosophy has often been dominated by a drive for a vision of totality, and that we should abandon this in favor of the “infinity” of our experience of the Other, which for Lévinas leads from an ethical concern to a sort of eschatology. He puts ethics before ontology, which I like, but still takes a more metaphysical approach than Marcel, for instance.

I appreciate his stress on concern for others, but have trouble applying the notion of infinity in this context. I’m more comfortable talking about the essential incompleteness of our experience as finite beings. Lévinas is right that reaching for totality is overreaching, but I think Plato and Aristotle — and also Kant, and even especially Hegel (so different from the common stereotype) — already clearly recognized this. In my view, ordinary open-ended interpretation already implicitly poses a potentially infinite (i.e., indefinitely extensible, and therefore always incomplete) task that we cut short in order to act, but we never in experience encounter an actual or completed infinite. Ethical encounter with others highlights the incompleteness (i.e., non-totality, in Lévinas’ terms) of our understanding.

This incompleteness — and the thickness and “overflowing” character of meant realities or informal “being” that is its complement — already seems to me sufficient to support an ethical, hospitable relation to the other. I want to say that an overflowing beyond objectifying schemas is characteristic not just of absolute transcendence and infinity, but of ordinary being and ordinary meaning. Routinely in everyday life, there is meaningful intelligibility and there is overflow, in the very same context. Even in the most ordinary moments, with sufficient openness we can find poetic reverie and ethical awe that takes us outside of ourselves.

Lévinas speaks of the “absolutely other” as “truth” in the sense of a religious transcendence, to which ethics is the “royal road” (p. 29). Transcendence, Lévinas says, should not be confused with ecstasy or magical communion. He has in mind a more sober kind of religion. He cites Marcel and Martin Buber on the irreducibility of the relationship to the Other to objective knowledge, and associates the driving of practice by theory with a failure to recognize this primacy of the other. With Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I think we should recognize that theoretical reason actually depends on a practical reason that renounces Mastery; that theoretical reason is more of a tool, whereas practical reason is more of an agency; and that practical reason begins with recognition of the other.

I like when he speaks of a “generosity nourished by the Desired” (p. 34). He goes on to talk about a metaphysical Desire for the absolutely Other, “non-adequate to the idea” (ibid). Less metaphysically, I see forms overflowing their boundaries without thereby ceasing to be forms, and locate meaning in a foundationless but relatively stable difference in a relation of reciprocal co-grounding with moral commitment and practical judgment.

He talks about the reduction of the Other to the Same, and seems to think most philosophy does that. I have a more optimistic or charitable view that I think is also more historiographically valid. Aristotle and Hegel especially (contrary to common stereotypes) are very careful to avoid claiming overly strong Identity, so it is really not fair to say they reduce the Other to the Same.

Directly contrary to my view, he says that “The calling into question of things in a dialectic is not a modifying of the perception of them; it coincides with their objectification” (p. 69; emphasis in original). Disappointingly, he seems to prefer an authoritative teacher whom he calls an absolute Stranger. “The absolutely foreign alone can instruct us” (p. 73). It’s starting to sound like Kierkegaard here. I feel that hyperbolic expressions like this begin to denigrate ordinary life, and ultimately lead to a sort of absolute inflation. Lévinas’ Other is supposed to be a source of gentleness rather than arbitrariness, but to me what is gentle — much as it may exceed any objectification — cannot be absolutely foreign. I prefer to emphasize goodness rather than power, and I want to say that goodness speaks to us, so it cannot be absolutely foreign. (See also Immanence, Transcendence.)

Schelling

F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) is my least favorite of the major German idealists. He is the one most strongly associated with Romanticism, and has been considered a precursor of existentialism, which does not seem to me like a recommendation. He lacked Hegel’s grounding in Aristotle and more serious engagement with Kant. Even Schelling’s admirers don’t claim much for his rather undisciplined attempt at a Romantic philosophy of nature. He castigated Hegel for his rationalism, while reviving metaphysical use of the pretentious claim of intellectual intuition that Kant and Hegel fought against.

Like Fichte whom he at first followed, Schelling expressed himself in simpler and more approachable terms than Kant or Hegel, but at the cost of sacrificing the multidimensional richness Kant and Hegel both achieved. Like Fichte, he erred in making self-consciousness an immediate intellectual intuition rather than a dialectical development, but unlike Fichte, he also revived general use of intellectual intuition in metaphysics. Fichte is largely antithetical to me due to his hyper-strong subject-centeredness, but he was principled and had a razor-sharp intellect. Schelling is superficially more balanced, but what he balanced his Fichteanism with was a shallow Romantic pseudo-neoplatonism. Having spent a few years in close study of the real Greek neoplatonists, I am very unimpressed by Schelling’s heavy-handed forays into this territory.

Schelling is the one who really does ignore Kant’s warnings about unbridled speculation. Armed with intellectual intuition, he simply leaps into a (pseudo-neoplatonic rather than Hegelian) Absolute. Among his criticisms of Hegel was that Hegel made the Absolute a result attained from a finite starting point. Schelling said this was impossible, since the Absolute is infinite. This reflects a complete failure to understand the misleadingly named Hegelian Absolute, which was precisely not a humanly unachievable theological infinite, but carefully developed in terms that made it an Aristotelian perfection after a kind achievable in an understandable way by a finite rational being without intellectual intuition. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?; Kantian Discipline; Copernican.)

Schelling in his “Identity philosophy” naively propounded the broadly neoplatonic theme of an original self-division of an infinite Absolute, without all the nuances developed by the Greek neoplatonists that made their version more interesting. (For both Aristotle and Hegel, in contrast to Schelling and the neoplatonists, the “first” principle is really an attractor and an end, not the metaphysical-theological origin of everything. I would not say “just” an end, because for both Aristotle and Hegel, ends are more important than origins.)

The late Schelling’s “Positive” philosophy again pitted intellectual intuition against reason, while also appealing to religious revelation. Early in his career, he had been influenced by the fideist F. H. Jacobi’s proto-Kierkegaardian idea that there is an uncrossable gap between “the conditioned” and “the unconditioned”, requiring a leap of faith. But at least after Jacobi publicly attacked him, Schelling distinguished his view from Jacobi’s more extreme anti-rationalism. (See also Being, Consciousness.)

In profound contrast to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, across his career Schelling seems to have had no real interest in ethics. His Romantic reliance on intellectual intuition rather than dialectic also means that although he shares some core vocabulary with Hegel, the same terms have very different meanings. (See also Pure Thinking?)

Suarez on Agents and Action

Among the greatest of the Latin scholastics, Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) was a profoundly original and highly sophisticated theologian-philosopher who significantly influenced early modern thought, and also produced monumental summaries of several centuries of Latin scholastic argument. A full third of his gigantic Metaphysical Disputations was devoted to an extremely detailed and systematic discussion of causality. A large volume entirely dedicated to efficient causes has been translated to English, and a web search popped up several secondary discussions. My comments here will be very high-level, mostly based on those.

In this scholastic context, traditional Aristotelian terms like cause, being, and substance are all given very different explanations from the nonstandard but hopefully both more historical and more useful ones I have been giving them. Latin scholastics tended to have a somewhat neoplatonizing, substantialized notion of Aristotelian causes. A common view was that any cause must be a substantial entity of some sort, whereas causes in the common modern sense are events, and I read Aristotle himself as identifying causes with “reasons why”.

Suárez held to the view of causes as substantial entities, and apparently went on to argue that all causes give Thomistic being (esse) either to a substance or to an accident in a substance. This influx or “influence” is described as a kind of immaterial flowing of being that makes or produces, without diminishing the agent. In the case of an efficient cause, this influence occurs through action, and the substantial efficient cause is called an agent. (By contrast, in the above-linked article, which has brief additional remarks on Suárez, I quoted Aristotle saying in effect that an agent’s action is more properly an efficient cause than the agent, and that something like a technique used in an action is more properly an efficient cause than the action.)

Suárez’s metaphysical emphasis on actions producing being in things has been characterized as transitional to a modern, event-based view of causality. While Suárez himself held to the idea that causes were substantial agents, early modern mechanism indeed seems to have kept his emphasis on action but moved to an event-based view.

It seems to me to have been a historical accident that mathematical natural science arose on the basis of an event-based view. While mathematics certainly can be used to develop precise descriptions of events, any mathematical analysis relevant to this can also be construed as a “reason why” rather than a mere description. On the frontier of analytic philosophy, Brandom is again suggesting that a consideration of reasons actually circumscribes — and is necessary to underwrite — consideration of events and descriptions. This suggests a new motivation for recovering Aristotle’s original reason-based view.

“Hard” Kantianism?

Kantian Deeds (2010) by Henrik Jøker Bjerre is a book-length argument for a Žižekian Kant, with extensive, relatively polite polemical discussion of Brandom and John McDowell. Non-Žižekian readings of Kant are labelled “Soft”, while a Žižekian reading is introduced as a uniquely “Hard” Kantianism.

The main ingredients seem to be an identification of Kantian freedom with voluntarism; literal endorsement of Kant’s argument that reason necessarily leads to antinomies, as a segue to Žižekian contradiction; and a Heideggerian argument for the importance of metaphysics and the question of Being. Bjerre combines these in an attempt to justify claims for the importance of an extraordinary, “extra-moral” morality in Kant alongside ordinary morality. Ordinary morality is made to sound more like social conformity.

Each part of the above summary seems wrong to me. Here I won’t repeat contents of the above-linked articles that give some of my reasons.

While I welcome the elementary insight that Kantian morality involves more than rule-following, there seems to be no real textual basis in Kant for the “extra-moral” morality of a nonrational “surplus” of the deed that this book imports or invents. Simultaneously, the breadth and substantiality of Kant’s actual discussions of “ordinary” morality is much diminished, in order to leave a bigger territory for the putative extra-moral.

Dominik Finkelde’s Excessive Subjectivity: Kant, Hegel, Lacan, and the Foundations of Ethics (2017; German edition 2015) continues along a similar path. “To put it plainly, for Kant the subject is either premoral or extramoral” (p. 8). If Kant said anything suggesting that, I would attribute it to his rather pessimistic view of human nature, not to any endorsement of arbitrariness. We are treated to the spectacle of a Kant made to sound like a Badiouian decisionist. Again, a “deed” presented as fundamentally irrational is everything, and this is supposed to be the way to social emancipation. This is illustrated by a description of Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to sit in the back of the bus as effectively a Badiouian disruptive “event” leading to a new arbitrary “truth”. Never mind that racial segregation in the U.S. was an obvious, egregious violation of ordinary Kantian respect and universality, which any truly honest person could see as irrational all along. Rosa Parks’ action was not at all arbitrary, but rather full of meaning.

Neither social emancipation nor philosophy benefits from all this metaphysics and all this apologetic for arbitrariness. Moreover, the denigration of reason and ordinary ethics as inherently “conservative” weakens the real basis of emancipation. (See also Kantian Will; In Defense of Ordinariness.)

Pure Reason, Metaphysics?

I expressed the concern of Kantian pure reason as higher-order interpretation of experience. Previously, I ventured a nontraditional, historically oriented gloss of the concern of Aristotle’s dialectical/semantic “metaphysics” in the exact same words. Obviously, this is not how it was generally understood in the later tradition, although numerous authors recovered partial insights along these lines. (See also Kantian Discipline; Aristotle and Kant; Dialectic, Semantics.)

Things in Themselves

I never understood why people would object to Kant’s thesis of “things in themselves”, or find it inconsistent with his epistemological scruples. I take this just to mean that there are ways that things are. This is an entirely separate question from whether we have perfect or certain knowledge of those ways. All that is ruled out by Kant’s Critical perspective is claims that we have knowledge of things just as they are in themselves. This just calls for a kind of epistemic modesty. (See also Kantian Discipline; Copernican; Dogmatism and Strife; Transcendental?)

People who rejected things in themselves included Fichte and the important early 20th century English translator and interpreter of Kant, Norman Kemp Smith, who was sympathetic to the phenomenalism then fashionable among empiricists (see brief discussion under Empiricism).

Hegel too was very critical of the phrase “things in themselves”, mainly because he thought the wording implied a kind of artificial isolation, but he by no means wanted to throw out the realist moment that Kant always wanted to affirm — quite the opposite. Discussions about realism and idealism get rather complicated, especially where Kant and Hegel are concerned, but Kant repeatedly affirmed a kind of empirical realism. I take this to have been a sort of pragmatic vindication of common sense with respect to ordinary experience, coupled with respect for Newtonian science. What Kant and Hegel both objected to — each in their own different terms — were strong traditional metaphysical claims. Whatever their other many differences, commentators are basically unanimous in taking Hegel to have wanted to be at least as “realist” as Kant.

Leibniz had suggested that God’s single eternal act is the selection of the best of all possible worlds from all possible worlds, and that in this context the complete essence of a thing is foreseen by God, allowing for a version of particular providence. Even though he worked out an alternative scheme for more concretely relational determination of essences in late correspondence with the Jesuit theologian Bartholomew Des Bosses, Leibniz preferred to stress the predetermination of each individual monad by God, as part of a comprehensive pre-existing harmony that put the reality of relations in the mind of God rather than in the world. In this context, Leibniz also famously suggested that monads do not really interact and “have no windows”. For Leibniz, “windows” to the outside are not really needed, because each monad contains within itself a reflection of the entire universe.

One of Kant’s earliest moves, however — long before publication of the First Critique — was to argue against Leibniz for common-sense real interaction among things in the world. It is doubtful that Kant knew of Leibniz’s alternative scheme for real relations, but in any case, Kant throughout his career stressed immanent relations among things in the world, rather than transcendent relations realized primarily in the mind of God. Since even the pre-Critical Kant had thus already undone the basis for treating each monad in splendid isolation, it seems very unlikely that the Critical Kant meant to imply any strong monadic properties when he spoke of things “in themselves”.

Saying that there are ways that things are does not have to mean that everything is determined down to the last detail. (See Equivocal Determination.)

Ethics vs Metaphysics

On my reading, the original “metaphysics” (Aristotle’s) was developed mainly as a kind of dialectical semantics. It is fundamentally about higher-order interpretation of contents we have already encountered, not about exotic existence claims. In the later tradition, however, this became greatly confused, and “metaphysics” acquired a completely different meaning.

Although Aristotle regarded ethics as of pivotal importance and recognized that all reasoning has a normative aspect, he seems to have valued theoretical reason even more than practical reason. It is to Kant that we owe the refinement of a clearly expressed thought of the primacy of practical reason. This perspective was taken up by Hegel, and later by Brandom. Things like Hegelian Spirit are mainly ethical concepts.

In the spirit of both of these, I have been developing a philosophical account of subjectivity grounded in ethics, rather than metaphysics in the usual modern sense. From this perspective, metaphysics as dialectical semantics is subsumed under ethics and meta-ethics. (See also Ethos; Aristotelian Dialectic; Aristotelian Semantics; Material Inference; Metaphysical, Nonmetaphysical.)

Ontology

Ontology as a supposed science of being acquired its basic shape in the middle ages, as a sort of reification of Aristotelian semantics. Duns Scotus was very proud of his ontological “improvement” of Aristotle. Aristotle himself preferred to shift clumsy, sterile discussions of sheer being onto more subtle and fruitful registers of form and meaning at the earliest opportunity.

Kant pointed out that existence is not a property, and Hegel pointed out the equivalence of Being to Nothing. When Hegel talks about “logic” as the form of future metaphysics, this means a return to the original meaning of “metaphysics” as Aristotelian dialectical semantics, not an ontologization of dialectic. Broadly Aristotelian dialectical semantics give us all the “ontology” we will ever need.

For the historical back story of how Scotus invented ontology as we know it today, if you read French, see Olivier Boulnois, Être et représentation: Une généalogie de la métaphysique moderne à l’époque de Duns Scot (XIIIe–XIVe siècle). As suggested by the title, this work also has extremely important things to say about the premodern history of strongly representationalist views. The famous univocal “being” invented by Scotus was defined in terms of representability. (See also Being, Existence; Aristotelian Dialectic; Objectivity of Objects; Form; Repraesentatio.)

Johnston’s Pippin

Adrian Johnston’s A New German Idealism just arrived, and I’m taking a quick look. It is mainly concerned with Slavoj Žižek’s work. But for now, I’m just concerned with chapter 2 — where Johnston launches a broadside against “deflationary” readings of Hegel, particularly the one he attributes to Robert Pippin — and the preface.

Johnston can be forgiven for not addressing Pippin’s 2018 work on the Logic, but I do not understand why he ignores my favorite book by Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy (2008).

There, Pippin dwells extensively on Hegel’s Aristotelian side. Much of interest could be said on what it means to be Aristotelian in a post-Kantian context. Many received views will be challenged by such an examination. (For a beginning, see Aristotle and Kant.) As I have said, I read Hegel as both Kantian and Aristotelian (as well as original).

In any case, Johnston seems to think Pippin in Hegel’s Idealism (1989) was intent on reducing Hegel to Kant. That book was indeed concerned to show a strong Kantian element in Hegel. But I did not think of it as reductive. If anything, I read Pippin’s book as a salutary response to those who want to reduce Hegel to a pre-Kantian, and to read Hegel as rolling back from Kant rather than moving forward from Kant. Because he assumes a bad old subjectivist reading of Kant, Johnston seems to think Pippin’s reading of Hegel necessarily rules out the possibility of seeing a realist side to Hegel.

The whole challenge of Hegel is to understand how it it is possible in his terms to be both Critical and realist, without engaging in logical nonsense. (But see Realism, Idealism.) This sort of thing typically requires significant semantic labor, but the achievement of such semantic elaboration is the whole point. Here I worry where Johnston intends to go with his defense of “undialectical” distinctions in the preface. It is one thing to recognize that Hegel does not intend to just do away with Understanding and its distinctions, and quite another to treat those distinctions as final. (See also Univocity.)

Johnston’s lengthy discussion of the positive value of Understanding in the preface does not address how it relates to dialectical transitions. He mainly wants to defend Žižek’s tactic of presenting forced binary choices at particular moments. In particular cases and circumstances this conceivably can be good pedagogy, but it is the details that matter, and Johnston offers no advice on how we are to distinguish a pedagogically good forced choice from a bad one.

(I suspect Žižek’s tactic may be related to his friend Badiou’s defense of the Maoist “One divides into Two” line, which always seemed like blustering nonsense to me. There have been some very rational strands within Marxism; I do not comprehend why someone as intelligent as Badiou would prefer to apologize for the coarsest and most anti-intellectual, but to a lesser extent Althusser did as well. See also Democracy and Social Justice.)

(Worlds away from this, Brandom has a wonderfully clear account of the nonfinality of Understanding’s particular conclusions, illustrated precisely by its very important positive role in the recognition and resolution of error, in which the operations of the Understanding on its own terms give rise to dialectical transitions at the level of Reason, understood in terms of the revision of commitments and possibly of concepts.)

Johnston also seems to assume there is something necessarily reductive about a non-ontological (or not primarily ontological) reading of Hegel. Again, I don’t see why.

I think Aristotle’s metaphysics was basically a semantic investigation, just like his physics. It is the historic forcing of this inquiry back from the wide universe of meaning onto narrow registers of being and existence that I see as reductive.

Based on the work of Olivier Boulnois on the role of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus in the reinterpretation of metaphysics as ontology, I have come to think that in general, modern emphasis on ontology tends to reflect what I take to be historically a medieval Scotist mystification of things Aristotle approached in clearer terms we should recognize today as mainly semantic. (For what it’s worth, the homonymous use of “ontology” in computer science is also mainly semantic.)

Metaphysics or “first philosophy” or “wisdom” was supposed to help us with higher-order understanding, not to be a place where strange existence claims are made.

Aristotelian Dialectic

It was no sophomoric error when Friedrich Engels described Aristotle — not Plato or some neoplatonist — as the greatest dialectician of the ancient world. Aristotelian “dialectic” is just cumulative, exploratory discursive reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty.

Broad usage of the term “dialectic” includes meanings of both dialogue and logic. For Plato, dialogue aimed directly at truth (though not necessarily reaching it). Aristotle considered a many-sided logical/semantic analysis to be the single most important tool of science, and to be more rigorous than the dialogue that was Plato’s favorite literary device.

For Aristotle, unlike Plato, dialectic is not a direct quest for truth. Plato had already emphasized that dialectic is a matter of an ethically motivated quest for truth rather than a claim to mastery or simple possession of it. Aristotle opened things up further by preferring an indirect, semantically oriented approach to the quest. Dialectic ends up being his main critical tool.

Aristotelian dialectic is a semantic and pragmatic inferential examination of opinion or what is merely said (or analogously, I would argue, of appearance). It uses the same logical forms as the rational knowledge Aristotle called episteme; but unlike the latter, yields results that Aristotle calls only “probable”, because they depend on premises that are merely “said” rather than rationally known. (This is a qualitative assessment having nothing to do with statistical probability.)

This has often been taken as a denigration of dialectic. I take it instead as Aristotle’s affirmation of the importance of semantics and pragmatics.

Because dialectic for Aristotle makes no assumptions about what is really true, it is perfectly suited for the examination of arguments for their purely inferential structure. Because it examines concrete arguments with concrete terms, the role of material as well as formal inference can be considered. (See also Inferential Semantics.)

Aristotle also says (Topics Book 1) that dialectic in just this sense is the best means we have for getting clarity about first principles. This is a good example of Aristotle’s inferentialism. Aristotle’s own approach to what later came to be called “metaphysics” is (“merely”) dialectical in this specific sense. In being so, it is essentially semantic and normative. I don’t think Aristotle regarded metaphysics as episteme (“science”) any more than he regarded ethics or phronesis (“practical judgment”) as episteme, and in neither case is it a denigration. (Aristotle is far more honest than most later writers about the relatively less certain nature of so-called first principles, compared with many other apparently more derivative results. He is the original antifoundationalist. See also Dialectic Bootstraps Itself; Demonstrative “Science”?; Abstract and Concrete.)

Hegel actually said the greatest example of ancient dialectic was the commentary on Plato’s Parmenides by neoplatonist Proclus (412 – 485 CE). (He did not know the work of the other great late Neoplatonist, Damascius (458 – 538), which included an even more sophisticated development along similar lines.) The Parmenides explicitly examines a series of antithetical propositions, which does resemble the common image of Hegelian dialectic. (See The One?) In any case, I think this is misleading.

While at least the common image of Hegelian dialectic as concerned with antitheses does not apply well to Aristotle, very fruitful clarifications of Hegel can be obtained by looking out for his use of Aristotelian-style dialectic, despite that fact he — general enthusiasm for Aristotle notwithstanding — did not much mention Aristotle when expounding his own version. Underlying the occasional emphasis on antitheses in Hegel is a broader concern for actually many-sided inferential/semantic examination of opinion or appearance, which is just what Aristotle’s dialectic does. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic; Three Logical Moments; Contradiction vs Polarity.)

My own candidate for the greatest example of ancient dialectic is the development of the concepts of ousia (“what it was to have been” a thing) and energeia (“at-work-ness”) in the central books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. As in the biological works, merely binary distinction is not the main point there.

The stereotype of a binary schematism at work in Hegel is not without basis, but more careful commentary has limited its scope. Aristotelian dialectic actually pervades Hegel’s works.

In a dialectical development (Aristotelian or Hegelian), it is common to begin with one presumed meaning for a term, and end up with a different one. The classic discussion in the Metaphysics mentioned above begins with the idea of a simple substrate that remains constant through a change, and goes through multiple transformations to progressively richer concepts. (See also Form, Substance; Aristotelian Demonstration.)