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Is Ontology Fundamental?

Levinas’ original question in an early essay was quite simply ‘Is Ontology Fundamental?’2 His target here is Heidegger, who employs the term ‘ontology’ in senses (a) (b) and (c) as described in the introduction. His target is particularly Heidegger’s taking of an understanding fb eing to be an understanding as being, which he sees as perpetuating the epistemological assumption of knowledge being the assimilation of difference. One knows the Other by becoming like him, by removing difference. Contra Heidegger, Levinas argues that a conceptual knowledge of the Other is impossible; one grasps the other as something beyond direct comprehension. The Other signifies that which transcends one’s grasp. The confrontation with the Other is the confrontation with his face, the part that is seen (a connotation lost in the English ‘face’, as opposed to, for example, the French visage or German Gesicht), the part that compels ethically and serves in itself as a prohibition on murder:

The face, it is inviolable; these eyes absolutely without protection, the most naked part of the human body, offer, nevertheless, an absolute resistance to possession, an absolute resistance in which the temptation of murder is inscribed: the temptation of an absolute negation. The Other is the sole being that one can be tempted to kill. This temptation of murder and this impossibility of murder constitute the very vision of the face. To see a face is already to hear: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’3

It is not a practical philosophy within an existing theoretical framework which obligates, but the very presence of the Other, who is not understood conceptually. Our primary - in terms of temporal priority - mode of interaction with the Other is not a cognitive one. The face of the Other obligates by itself, and therefore ontology is not fundamental.

Hegel is treated even more harshly than Heidegger by Levinas, on the basis that he prioritises an ontology which takes the focus away from the face of the Other, deepening the rupture between ethics and ontology. However, Levinas acknowledges his own debt to the Phenomenology in particular. One particular sticking point, however, is the symmetry of (ethical) relations in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic (and generally). For Levinas, the ethical relationship with the Other is not primarily symmetrical:

In Levinas the ethical relationship is characterised by asymmetry, where the Other appears to me as from a height, making a demand on me which I can never fulfil. I go out to the Other, but there is no return to self and the asymmetry in favour of the Other is maintained.4

Must an ethics which functions as first philosophy be grounded on an ethical asymmetry? There is a link between ethical asymmetry and the absence of a fixed and immutable subject, and the discussion of the broken middle in the Introduction to this work.5 On the one hand, there is a vision of autonomous, equal individuals with fixed and immutable moral agency determined in some way by epistemological and metaphysical factors - this would be something like the Kantian picture, or at least a caricature of this picture - as mentioned in the Introduction, the picture is actually somewhat more nuanced.6 On the other, there is Levinas’ picture of the face which compels ethically all by itself - no understanding of the ontological status of the self or the Other is necessary to hear that ethical call. Thus, the idea of a theoretical framework for practical obligations is redundant. Most crucially of all, a Levinasian recognition of the Other would not involve a conceptual understanding of that Other, and thus there is a clear difference between that and Hegelian recognition. This might well be insurmountable. However, this does not mean that Levinas is right to say that Hegel’s Other is always met as the enemy. This view is likely to have been shaped, as so many other views in 1930s and 1940s France and beyond, by his attendance at Kojeve’s lectures, and the terms in which Levinas talks throughout his scholarship are of murder and struggle to the death.7

As I hope to show in this work, this conclusion is entirely unwarranted. Certainly, it does not follow that an Other encountered intellectually or cognitively and as Other must be characterised as enemy, and one encountered in a raw state, as something always already present, is confronted as something close, as a friend. Indeed, on one line of argument friendship is something that it is quite difficult to make room for on Levinas’ account, since the Other is so present to the self. This is the repression thesis mentioned in the Introduction and discussed in section 3.iii below, or at least a version of it, following the basic objection that human subjects are insufficiently differentiated from one another to enter into meaningful relationships. Here, it is different in a basic respect from when it is levelled by Theunissen et. al against Hegel - it is Hegel’s monistic ontology that is seen as preventing genuine intersubjectivity, whereas in Levinas’ account it is the basic ethical, the presence of the other which precedes ontology in sense (a) as described in the Introduction, which might stand in the way of inter-relations. Of course, this might still be regarded as an ontological position in sense (c).8

If the Other constitutes part of the self, this certainly gives weight to the repression thesis as detailed below, but at the same time has an important link to Judith Butler and Gillian Rose as discussed in the Introduction. For Judith Butler, the ethical subject is not fixed, autonomous and somehow immutable, and for Gillian Rose, touching clearly on a Levinasian theme, love is always violent - although this violence should not be seen in the overwhelmingly negative sense which it generally is, as it is merely a consequence of the fact that the subjects are constantly being remade. The counterpart of this violence is desire, which, as Derrida notes, works in a very different way in Levinas and in Hegel.9 What is desire for Hegel is need for Levinas; the latter has a distinction between desire and need which sees desire as, by definition, impossible to fulfil. For both thinkers, however, it is desire which drives on primordial relations with the Other. For both, everything is in a state of flux in some sense, and it is this which inspires Butler and Rose’s engagements with Hegel too.

Butler, Rose, and Levinas are not making the same argument - they do not have the same target in mind - but the concern of each is relations with the Other, and it is possible to use observations from all three thinkers to form a way of looking at the social self and connect this to ethics as first philosophy. Imperfect and in some way incomplete (Rose’s broken middle), the self in its relation with the Other is ever-changing and being remade (metanoia, Hegelian sublation or Aufhebung) and is influenced by the Other and the wider commu?nity to such an extent that we cannot speak of full autonomy, though there is a clear space for ethical responsibility (Judith Butler’s self-narrating subject). This ethical self is not ontologically pre-defined, but forms itself in the encounter or confrontation with the Other, who calls the self to ethical action and to the primary direction not to kill (Levinas).

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