Notes on Totality and Infinity

comments 5
being / blanchot / ethics / event / exteriority / future / gleam / Hegel / history / infinity / judgment / levinas / peace / Politics / totality / vision

Does objectivity, whose harshness and universal power is revealed in war, provide the unique and primordial form in which Being, when it is distinguished from image, dream and subjective abstraction, imposes itself on consciousness? Is the apprehension of an object equivalent to the very moment in which the bonds with truth are woven?


I will not say that the disaster is absolute; on the contrary, it disorients the absolute. It comes and goes, errant disarray, and yet with the imperceptible but intense suddenness of the outside, as an irresistible or unforeseen resolve which would come to us from beyond the confines of decision.

Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster

Levinas begins the preface to Totality and Infinity by asking whether war is not the most serious objection to the lucidity — the sanity — of ethics. For war robs our institutions and obligations of their eternity; it is the concrete suspension of the ethical. In war morality vanishes. The violence of war does not only affect us as the most real, the most palpable fact, but as the very truth of the real. Thus it is not just one of the ordeals morality lives. War renders morality derisory, rescinding its imperatives for the interim. Politics, winning at any cost, is enjoined as the very exercise of reason itself — opposing itself to morality as philosophy to naivete.

Fragments of Heraclitus are unnecessary to show that being reveals itself as war to philosophical thought. Reality rends the words that dissimulate it. War is produced as the pure experience of being, cracking the veils which covered its nudity. The ontological event of war is mobilization, a casting-into-motion of beings once anchored in identity. The trial by force is the test of the real. Yet the violence of war does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating people, but in interrupting their continuity — forcing them to play roles in which they can no longer recognize themselves.

People are made to betray not only commitments but their own substance, and made to carry out actions that destroy every possibility for action. “Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them.” War produces and establishes an order from which nothing and no one can keep their distance. Nothing remains outside. War does not manifest exteriority, the other as other; it destroys the identity of the same. The vision of being glimpsed in war is “totality,” a vision-in-one which dominates Western philosophy.

Individuals become bearers of forces commanding them unbeknownst to themselves. The meaning of individuals, invisible outside the whole, is derived from the totality. The implicit univocity of each present is sacrificed endlessly to a future appealed to bring forth the objective meaning. The ultimate meaning alone counts, and only the last act transforms beings into themselves. Thus we are what we will appear to be in the already plastic forms of the epic.

In this context, oracular discourse would seem to accept the ontology of totality issued from war; but in fact the real import of prophetic eschatology lies elsewhere. It does not introduce a teleological system into the totality, but rather consists in teaching the orientation of history. Eschatology institutes a relation with being beyond totality, beyond history. It is not a relationship with a being beyond the past, beyond the present, nor with the void surrounding the totality where one could, arbitrarily, think what one likes — thus promoting the claims of a subjectivity free as the wind. Rather it is a relationship with a surplus ever exterior to the totality. It is as though the objective totality does not fill out the true measure of being.

It is as though another concept, the concept of infinity, were needed to express this transcendence with regard to totality, non-encompassable within a totality, and yet as primordial as totality. The eschatological, the “beyond” of history, draws beings out from the jurisdiction of history, of the future, and arouses them in and calls them forth to their full responsibility. Submitting history as a whole to judgment, exterior to the wars that mark its end, it restores to each instant its full signification in that instant: all the causes are ready to be heard.

The eschatological notion of judgment is contrary to the judgment of history in which Hegel imagined its rationalization, and implies that beings have an identity “before” eternity, before history is accomplished, before the fullness of time — in other words, while there is still time. It implies that beings exist in relationship but on the basis of themselves and not on the basis of the totality. The idea of being overflowing history makes possible an existence both involved and personal, beings that can speak rather than lending lips to an anonymous utterance of history. “Peace is produced as this aptitude for speech.” The eschatological vision breaks with the totality of wars and empires in which one does not speak.

The first “vision” is eschatology reveals the possibility of a breach in the totality, the possibility of a signification without a context, in short, the very possibility of eschatology as distinguished from the revealed opinions of positive religion. The experience of morality consummates this vision, rather than simply proceeding from it. Ethics is an optics, but yields a vision without image, bereft of the “synoptic,” totalizing virtues of vision. It is a relation, or intentionality, of a wholly different type. Of peace there can only be an eschatology, Levinas claims. Yet this should not be taken to mean that when affirmed objectively it is believed by faith instead of being known by knowledge. It means that peace does not take place in the objective history disclosed by war, as the end of that war, or as the end of history.

But does not the eschatology of peace, beyond the evidence and experience of the philosopher — coinciding with war and totality — live on subjective opinions and illusion? Unless, Levinas writes, philosophical evidence refers from itself to a situation which can no longer be stated in terms of “totality”; unless the non-knowing with which the philosophical knowing begins coincides not with pure nothingness, but only a nothingness of objects.

Without substituting eschatology for philosophy, without philosophically “demonstrating” eschatological “truths,” it is possible to proceed from the experience of totality back to a situation where totality breaks apart, a situation conditioning the totality itself. This situation is the gleam or glare of exteriority — or of transcendence in the face of the other. Rigorously developed, this concept of transcendence is expressed by the term infinity. What remains exterior to thought within thought is thought within the idea of infinity. It is conditions every opinion and every truth. It is the mind before it lends itself to the distinction between what it discovers by itself and what it receives from opinion. The relation with infinity cannot be stated in terms of experience; it overflows the thought that thinks it. Its infinition is produced precisely in this overflowing, which accomplishes experience in the fullest sense of the word.

The eschatological vision does not oppose to the experience of totality the protestation of person in the name of his personal egoism or even his salvation; such proclamations of morality based on the pure subjectivism of the I are refuted by war and the totality it reveals — the objective necessities. Rather a subjectivity born from the eschatological vision is opposed to the objectivism of war. The idea of infinity delivers subjectivity from the judgment of history to declare it ready for judgment at every moment — called to participate in this judgment. War does not break up against an impotent, detached subjectivism, but against the infinite, more objective than objectivity. Do particular beings yield their truth in a Whole in which their exteriority vanishes? Or, on the contrary, is the ultimate event of being enacted in the outburst of this exteriority?

Infinity is produced in the relationship of the same with the other; the particular, the personal, magnetize the field in which production is enacted. It both brings about and brings to light: effectuation and revelation at once, ambiguously. The idea of infinity is not an incidental notion forged by a subjectivity reflecting the case of an entity encountering nothing on the outside which limits it, overflowing all limits, and thus infinite. The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity, for it is precisely the disproportion between the idea of infinity and the infinity of which it is the mode of being, the infinition, of infinity. Infinity does not first exist, and then reveal itself. Its infinition is produced as revelation, as a positing of its idea in me.

The Author

mostly noise and glare


  1. I was confused on several points. Perhaps I just require clarification.

    When you write that “It is as though another concept, the concept of infinity, were needed to express this transcendence with regard to totality, non-encompassable within a totality, and yet as primordial as totality. The eschatological, the “beyond” of history, draws beings out from the jurisdiction of history, of the future, and arouses them in and calls them forth to their full responsibility. Submitting history as a whole to judgment, exterior to the wars that mark its end, it restores to each instant its full signification in that instant: all the causes are ready to be heard,” several definitions of words that I would presume to be analytically implied by their meaning (in the Kantian sense of “analytic”) seem to be transgressed in your usage of them.

    This might simply be a problem I have with Levinas, and not your interpretation of Levinas. For if the word “totality” designates something absolutely total and indeterminate, which by its nature encompasses everything, it would be a violation of its meaning to say that it did not encompass infinity. That is to say, such a so-called “totality” would be non-total. Hence it would not truly be a totality, in the absolute sense.

    My answer to this seeming contradiction is (of course) Hegelian. Since infinity (derived from the Latin infinitas) implies unboundedness, and absolute totality has similar connotations (in that it limits and is in-itself unlimited), the obvious conclusion would seem to be that the truly infinite is the totality. This infinity would obviously be qualitative and not quantitative (mathematical, linear, etc.). The true infinite is the identity of (spurious) infinity with the finite. It would be most similar to the absolutely infinite substance posited by Spinoza in Part I of his Ethics.

    So to say that infinity would somehow fall outside or fail to be encompassed by a totality only indicates to me that you are working with a false notion of totality.

    The eschatological moment you mention in the passage I cited seems to me not to bother this assessment at all. Judgment day is the coincidence of the infinite, atemporal Kingdom of Heaven and the finite, temporally-delineated history of God’s revelation through history (Providence). This would be their moment of synthesis, in which each moment in its particularity would be exhibited as partaking in the universal will of God, such that the universal will is itself constituted by these moments (the reciprocity of sameness and difference). Only this would constitute the totality or the truly infinite: the conjunction (absolution) of the finite Kingdom of the World with its negatively-defined antipode in the Kingdom of Heaven.

    I hope this criticism does not appear too harsh. It might be entirely misguided. How might you define infinity and totality?

  2. Thank you for your wonderful questions!

    Infinity — for Levinas, at any rate — is produced in that “improbable feat” wherein a separated being, fixed in its identity, nonetheless contains in itself what it can neither contain nor receive solely by virtue of its own identity.

    He explains that subjectivity realizes these impossible “exigencies” (the astonishing feat of containing more than it’s possible to contain) through welcoming the Other, or hospitality, in which “the idea of infinity is consummated.” It shatters at every moment the framework of a content. It crosses the very barrier of immanence, without reducing itself to a concept of “crossing” or “descent into being.” Philosophy produces merely a play of lights when it seeks to express this descent into the real with a concept of thought interpreted as a pure knowing. The opposition between theory and practice disappears before the metaphysical transcendence by which a relation with the absolutely other is established (ethics, he thinks, is the “royal road” to this relation.)

    He claims the notion of act involves a violence essentially, a “violence of transitivity” which is lacking in the transcendence of thought, closed in itself despite all adventures (purely imaginary, in the last analysis.) I’ll let him speak for himself here:

    “What, in action, breaks forth as essential violence is the surplus of being over the thought that claims to contain it, the marvel of the idea of infinity. The incarnation of consciousness is therefore comprehensible only if, over and beyond adequation, the overflowing of the idea by its ideatum, that is, the idea of infinity, moves consciousness. The idea of infinity (which is not a representation of infinity) sustains activity itself. Theoretical thought, knowledge, and critique, to which activity has been opposed, have the same foundation. The idea of infinity, which is not in turn a representation of infinity, is the common source of activity and theory.”

    Why emphasize that the idea of infinity is not simply a representation of infinity? It makes clear that consciousness doesn’t consist in equaling a being with a representation, but in overflowing this play of lights. This “phenomenology.” Levinas will concede that philosophy discovers the signification of events, but he argues they are produced without discovery — or truth — being their destiny.

    The welcoming of the face, the work of justice — these condition the birth of truth itself. They are not interpretable in terms of disclosure. The relation of the same and the other isn’t always reducible to knowledge of the other, not even to the revelation of the other to the same.

    Levinas opposes Hegel on the grounds that Hegel posits the infinite as the exclusion of every “other” which might maintain a relation with the infinite (and thereby limit it) — in effect, Levinas argues, he returns to Descartes in maintaining the positivity of the infinite while excluding multiplicity from it.

    For Levinas, the infinite can only encompass all relations: “We recognize in the finititude to which the Hegelian infinite is opposed, and which it encompasses, the finitude of man before the elements, the finitude of man invaded by the there is, at each instant traversed by faceless gods against whom labor is pursued in order to realize the security in which the ‘other’ of the elements would be revealed as the same.” Levinas’ point is that the other absolutely other — the Other — does not limit the freedom of the same, but calls it to responsibility. It founds this freedom and justifies it. The relation with the other is desire: the teaching received, the pacific opposition enacted as conversation.

    The idea of infinity effectuates the relation of thought with what exceeds its capacity — with what at each moment it learns without suffering shock — what Levinas calls welcoming the face. The idea of infinity is produced, in other words, in the opposition of conversation, sociality, but is nonetheless “my” Idea — i.e., a commerce, a relation maintained without violence, in peace with this absolute alterity.

    Thanks again for shedding light the obscurities in the work. I hope this got us somewhere in terms of your questions!


  3. Thank you for your clarification. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced by Levinas’ grounds of opposition to Hegel. My quarrel is with him, it would seem, and not you.

    Hegel does not exclude non-identity from the identity of the infinite. It contains more than its mere concept in abstraction, i.e., infinity negatively defined as not finite. For in this case the infinite would be determined (it would have a terminus or limit imposed on it). It must be absolute identity, which constitutively includes non-identity. It is, as Hegel says in a much-maligned phrase, “the identity of identity and non-identity” (Science of Logic).

    Into this notion of infinity, the true totality of all in all, there is at least as much resolution between contradictory opposites (the same and the different, the self and the other) as there is a dissolution of their antinomical status. This is the labor of dialectic, the negative end of the procedure, which is by its reflexive nature coupled with the positive moment of speculation. The multiplicity of particulars is shown side by side with the unity of the universal.

    Importantly, the combination of these sides is for Hegel also an essentially violent operation, as you say it is for Levinas, but the wounds that dialectic inflicts leave no trace on Spirit, as he says in the Phenomenology.

    Levinas’ objection to Hegel’s supposed reduction of all physicality (evidenced in Levinas’ emphasis on the face, the embodiedness of pain, etc.) shows a plain ignorance to Hegel’s Aesthetics. Moreover, his criticism where he accuses the Hegelian infinite of only trying to show the essential sameness of the apparently (“accidentally”) Other (“the security in which the ‘other’ of the elements would be revealed as the same”) seems to me more a criticism of Hegel’s predecessor/contemporary Schelling. Hegel himself distanced his notion of the Absolute Idea (= the truly infinite) from the conceptual crutch into which all opposition is immediately dissolved, or “the night in which all cows are black.”

    I don’t think I’m the first to raise hell against Levinas’ critical interpretation of Hegel. Derrida certainly made some gestures in this direction in his piece on Totality and Infinity. Your thoughts?

  4. Wow, I don’t know how I found this blog but this has really helped me understand Levinas better for the paper I’m writing on totality and infinity in the context of Lawrence’s . You guys seem like really smart and interesting people. Thank you for your analysis and making this kind of information accessible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.