Levinas’ entire project had as its aim a description of the limits of ontology and thought’s ability to disclose what can, broadly speaking, be called the “Real”. Reality is not reducible to representation, not reducible to the grasping of the “I”. Levinas will try, by means of phenomenological descriptions of the sorts of experiences that challenge, or reveal the limits of, phenomenality and the intentionality of the “I”, to approach the “Real”. Such experiences are what, according to Levinas, summon or direct us beyond the world as we know it. Such experiences transform time, even if briefly, into a relation with “God”, or Mystery.
Levinas’ conception of philosophy can be understood in terms of an escape from Being, or an approach towards the Otherwise. Indeed, his first attempt to articulate such a conception of philosophy, in an essay written just three years after his 1932 doctoral study on Heidegger’s ontology, was titled “On Escape” [De l’évasion]. Like Heidegger, whom he studied under, Levinas thought that philosophy had, up until that point, overlooked something fundamental. For Heidegger, this was the question of Being; while for Levinas, this was the question of the Other.
Western philosophers had, according to Heidegger, wasted their time trying to answer the sorts of abstract, metaphysical questions that hinged upon the kind of beings we are, without making it a point to first of all understand the more fundamental question of this existence itself— that is, of what it is to be the kind of beings for whom these sorts of questions even arise. Levinas would begin by agreeing with Heidegger, that Western philosophy had, up until that point, overlooked the more fundamental question of Being, or existence. However, for Levinas, Heidegger too had overlooked something even more fundamental: namely, the question of an Outside-of, or Otherwise-than Being. The metaphysical concepts and categories with which philosophy had, up until Heidegger, operated with, did indeed hinge upon our human mode of Being in the world (what Heidegger called “Dasein”)– the kind of beings for whom Being is ultimately a question. But our own existence, or Dasein, hinges upon an Otherwise-than-Dasein, upon that which Dasein is not. Even more fundamental than the question of my Being-here is the question of an Otherwise than my Being-here.
The difference between the two is perhaps best highlighted when it comes to their discussions of death. Whereas Heidegger spoke of death in terms of the anxiety that results when we are presented with the prospect of nothingness, or Dasein’s end, Levinas spoke of death in terms of that which brings us before that which we know not, that which is Otherwise than the categories of Being and nothingness. Death affects us by means of the trace of the Otherwise that it leaves in our lives. So whereas ontology became first philosophy for Heidegger, it was ethics for Levinas (and “ethics” can here be understood broadly as signifying our relation to the Outside– of ourselves, of the “I” that Heidegger described as having been “thrown” into the world).
Both Heidegger and Levinas look to undermine the prioritizing of representation and propositional ways of thinking within the western philosophical tradition— that is, the prioritizing of our own terms of thought, of “beings”, and for Levinas, “Being” and “nothingness”. In a way, both want to “bracket” these, both want to direct their attention to what is not apparent. Heidegger has his “ready-to-hand”, and Levinas has his “Otherwise-than-Being”.
For Heidegger, the target of his critique is “metaphysics”, which remains wedded to the language of “beings”, and which fails to turn properly to the more fundamental ontology— the modes of Being. The western philosophical tradition has failed to push thought further, towards a real study of Being, insofar as it has remained trapped within the logic and categories that are a result of Dasein’s grasping. Philosophers have, according to Heidegger, failed to direct their attention beyond these categories, toward a study of Being which acknowledges the terms of our thought as secondary to the more fundamental ontology upon which they are predicated: namely, that our Being (or Dasein, as Heidegger calls it) is the kind for which Being is itself in question. We are beings who care, who have projects, who are aware of their own finitude, and who worry about their own Being, their own future. We use language as beings for whom Being is a question. A crucial part of Heidegger’s project will be to find new ways of writing, a new language and way of doing philosophy which will enable us to finally return to the more fundamental topic of Being. This will, in the end, mean turning towards what can be considered a more “poetic” language.
One of the problems with all of this, for Levinas, was that Heidegger remained too self-ish in his analyses. Like the philosophers Heidegger accused of overlooking the question of Being, Heidegger overlooked the question of the Other. For Heidegger, I am the kind of being for whom Being is a question: what drives me is an awareness of my own finitude, a concern for my own projects. Heidegger never addressed the ways in which the Other orders us. Levinas is critical of Heidegger, in God, Death, and Time, for being too limited in his philosophy of Death, for seeing man as the kind of being who is ordered from within, by anxiety, by an awareness of his own death. But what of the Other? And what of the Other’s death? Death presents us with the prospect of an Outside, or Otherwise-than-Being, rather than a nothingness. And it is not only from within the confines of the Same that Death announces, for me, this prospect. That is, it is not only an awareness of my own finitude that affects me, and that presents me with an “I know not what”. The Death of the Other is as much a question for me as my own. Rather than speak of Death in terms of the amphibology of Being and nothingness, Levinas speaks of Death in terms of an outside: the Outside that is the Other’s, and not merely my own, death; and the Outside that is the “I know not what”, felt in the face of my own and the Other’s death.
So yes, according to Levinas, Heidegger was right to point out that philosophy has suffered a limitation, insofar as it has remained wedded to the framework of the logos and has treated as primary the terms of Dasein’s grasping. We need to take philosophy further, to push it beyond these boundaries. However, for Levinas, we have to take philosophy even further than Heidegger did: we have to push it beyond the amphibologies of Being and beings, and Dasein’s Being and the nothingness that is, for Heidegger, the prospect delivered to us in an awareness of our own mortality. Philosophy has, since Kant, Levinas says in God, Death, and Time, been a philosophy of finitude without infinity. Levinas wants to bring infinity back into the equation. That is, Levinas wants to bracket the Same— that is, the “I” with the terms of its own grasping— in order to appreciate the Other, the non-Same, or Outside-of-the-I. The point in doing this, it must be said, isn’t to know the Other, or to get at the Real-in-itself, but to prioritize the Other as primary, as that upon which the amphibology of Being and beings, as well as the logic and categories that rest upon it, rests.
Heidegger rightly saw it as a mistake to prioritize the logos, or representational thought, as primary. For this is, according to Heidegger, predicated upon Dasein’s being the kind of being for whom Being is a question. However, for Levinas, it’s not Dasein’s being the kind of being for whom Being is a question that is primary. Ontology is not, as it is in Heidegger, first philosophy. For Levinas, ethics is. Our being the kind of beings for whom Being is a question is itself predicated upon that which is truly primary, according to Levinas: namely, the Other, or the outside of the “I”. Before we are the beings Heidegger saw us to be– that is, beings for whom being is a question– we are beings facing the other. “The identity of the subject,” Levinas writes, “comes from the impossibility of escaping responsibility”.1
Levinas sought to escape Being by means of those experiences that communicate to us the limits of Being, of ontology. These are the sorts of experiences that “unhinge” us, as John Caputo puts it2; that leave us with a sense of something Other, something that can’t be articulated in terms of the ontological difference, between Being and beings. Thus, for Levinas, internal to the order of things is the trace of something Other than it. Put differently, one of the facts of Dasein is what Levinas calls the “profound need to get out of [it].”3
Yet such an “escape”, as Levinas calls it, works not to transport us out of the world, but to reorient us in it; that is, it works to draw us up out of our own life-worlds, to direct us towards what is Other-than them. The trace of the Transcendent left within the world, and the “need to get out of being” that is a fact of our Being, should be understood therefore as serving an ethical purpose, of orienting us towards the world, and towards others, in new ways.
1Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 14
2Caputo, On Religion, p. 29
3Levinas, On Escape, p. 72