vrijdag 5 september 2008

How naïve is Levinas really?

Quite a few authors consider Levinas as being naïve. They mean by that that he drafted a nice theory on the essence of the human subject as ‘to-be-for-others’, but that he did not treat the question what that looks like in everyday reality.

Mark Dooley, for example, criticizes Levinas because the latter fails to provide concrete suggestions as to how suffering, cruelty and humiliation might be avoided. Because of that omission he calls Levinas politically naïve.

Philosopher Ger Groot in an article compares the work of Levinas with that of Derrida. His conclusion is that the position of the last one is undoubtedly the most realistic because he explicitly gives a place to societal institutions in his analyses.

Columnist Bert Keizer disposes of Levinas in one blow by his characterization of some honest, politically-correct people as figures “who know their Levinas”. Apparently we can speak of exemplary naïvety of the kind that passes into a proverb.

Levinasstudents who have objections against the image of a naïve Levinas sometimes try to defend him by pointing to the role ‘the third’ plays in his work. The absolute obligation which, according to Levinas, man has for the Other is being relativized because apart from the Other there are other others (thirds). To them I have absolute obligations as well, and because of that all obligations become less absolute. Weighing of all obligations against each other finds place in the political and constitutional institutions of a society. Levinas considers their existence of great importance, but he stresses that the original moral obligations are always to a certain extent betrayed by the weighing and the calculation that goes with it.

I have never been impressed very much by this kind of defense of Levinas. For, when it comes to weighing people’s intrests Levinas does not offer us any particular added value. He just sanctions a tradition of social and political philosophy which already for centuries emphasizes the importance of weighing intrests and which concentrated much more on its elaboration than Levinas did. At most Levinas can elucidate whý so much energy and thinking power is invested into that tradition. That is, because the appeal of the Other lies at its base.

Moreover, the bringing up of the third as an argument against naïvety does not remove the adduced objections. For nowhere in his treatment of the third Levinas speaks in really concrete terms (as, by the way, he fails to do in his treatment of the second/the other). So, also with the third, you can keep having the feeling that he is rather vague and doesn’t do justice to social reality. That’s why I think we should not look for the value of Levinas’ writings in the field of social philosophy. For that there are social philosophers and it has never been Levinas’s own intention to practice social philosophy.

His intention wás, actually, to show that everything we invent in the field of the weighing of intrests, never is just good. It originates in something else, namely in the absolute obligation for the other, and that obligation keeps being betrayed by the weighing of intrests. However beneficial the work of our legislators, judges and scientists may be, the selfcomplacency those institutions sometimes display is definitely out of place as far as Levinas is concerned. And the stability and quality of their products have a high illusory degree, when measured to the question how much violence is being done to the original moral obligation.

Levinas’s real contribution, I think, is in his indefatigably emphasizing the illusory character of much of our rationally constructed reality. This seems to me to be a far from naïve, but rather sharply critical position, in which political and other respectable institutions are never just taken for granted. Apart from that Levinas is very conscious of the possibly offensive nature of his position, for he explicitly links this position to the Jewish tradition of prophets and rabbis who cherished the moral voice and by that raised a lot of trouble for themselves.

Levinas knows very well that the message of the Jewish tradition which he brings, does not fit into social reality just like that. He has no illusions about the resistance that established institutes and fierce nations may display when they are confronted with appeals to conscience. Without going into the complexities of those confrontations he realizes that the voice of the Jewish conscience runs the risk of being reduced to “the whispering of a subjective voice, without being mirrorred or sanctioned by an objective order. Jewishness is: humanity on the verge of an ethics without institutions”.

Levinas is familiar with the dangers of that position. The conscience which asks subversive questions, he says, runs the risk to end up suddenly and without being warned in the comfortlessness of its exile, its desert, its ghetto or camp. “Already an icy wind sweeps through the elegant apartments, which rips the paper and paintings from the walls; it extinguishes the lights, makes the walls crack, snatches clothes into pieces and carries along the howling and roaring of merciless crowds. Is this anti-Semitic Word, which does not resemble any other word, an insult like any other insult?”

One may question whether in this passage Jewish tradition and anti-Semitism are not rendered too much reified and essentialized. But one can definitely not say that Levinas thinks too easy about the problem which is at stake. He knows all about it.