dinsdag 19 mei 2015

Levinas and Bergson

The biggest difference between the philosophers Henri Bergson and Emmanuel Levinas may well be situated in the cult status enjoyed by Bergson in his time as a philosopher. In Paris he invariably drew full houses, and in the US his books went by the hundreds of thousands over the counter when Bergson visited New York soon after 1900. That definitely can not be said about Levinas. He was listened to, but he was not a public philosopher.

As an outward feature the two have, whether partial or not, a Jewish descent in common. Levinas came from a Lithuanian Jewish family, Bergson was born of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.

More substantively, there is – at least initially – quite some shared territory. Or rather, there  is common ground between Bergson and Edmund Husserl, who is considered the great teacher of Levinas. You can say that Bergson and Husserl had one great concern in common. And that, with both, their thinking can be seen as attempts to answer that concern. Their problem was the materialistic spirit of the second half of the 19th century, the period in which Bergson and Husserl grew up and started their careers.

Husserl formulated his objections as follows: science, including psychology, hardly values what things mean to people. It is only interested in the existence of things. That has to be researched, proven and measured. What they mean for a human being is disregarded.

Bergson’s objection to the spirit of the times was that something, in the eyes of the then serious scientists, qualified as ‘real’ if it was measurable. With them, things – literally –counted only when they were demarcated and cut up and could be made manageable.

He illustrated this thesis on the basis of our dealing with the phenomenon of time. It was according to Bergson no coincidence that in 1884 the International Standard Time was introduced, and that seconds, minutes and hours from now were the same all over the world. What is lost in it, he said, is the inner experience of time. Thereby he was referring  for example to the phenomenon that for us a minute may seem an hour and vice versa. In the words of Husserl Bergson’s point can be expressed as follows: the deepest sense of time escapes us.

Both Bergson and Husserl found that the hierarchy should be reversed: not the flat-materialistic world was to be considered the real world, but the territory of the subjective meanings was the real reality.

Now back to Levinas. He starts, as I said, as a student of Husserl and follows him first in his quest for meaning as something primarily to be found beyond the material, everyday life. But soon Levinas becomes impressed by another student of Husserl, namely Heidegger. His exhortation to precisely recognize our lived, material existence – with its everyday concerns, labor, tools – as a wellspring of meanings, hits Levinas full in the face.

In the same way as this idea marked for Heidegger the point at which he took distance from Husserl, so it did for Levinas. From about 1930 he left Husserl’s, late 19th century triggered, thinking behind. Therewith also Bergson and Levinas had driven apart in their orientations.

Also see Sartre, Levinas and the Café and Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further