In conversation three of Ethics and Infinity, Levinas recounts the philosophical and existential implications of the il y a, the ‘there is’ or what he calls the “phenomenon of impersonal being” (48). The “there is” is many things at the same time: it is a belief, a feeling, an experience and even an affect (the source of the Judaic affect proper to one of philosophy’s “turns” in the 20th century) on one side and an ontological claim, an objective state of affairs, and even the (proto-)origin of Being and Nothingness on the other.
If the “there is” is not a simple mixture of Being and Nothingness, it is at least the source of their mixing and unmixing. Beyond the fact that there are objective and subjective aspects to the full impact of this attempt to conceptualize the “there is,” what should be noted is the way in which the “there is” animates the theological and ethical orientation of Levinas’ discourse of the social relation with the Other. What follows endeavors to construct the beginnings of an ‘analytic’ of the “there is” in order to better understood how it plays a fundamental role for Levinas in his conception of ethics as first philosophy.
The conversation about the “there is” begins with a contrast between the conceptions of Appolinaire and Heideggerian ontology: it designates neither the abundance or joy of being nor the ‘es gibt’ of Being to Dasein. Going beyond the limitation of givenness to Dasein, a conception which could very easily found a humanist Heideggerianism, Levinas stresses that there is no “generosity” in the “there is” because the latter constitutes an impersonal dimension of being, a silence that is simultaneously a noise: “neither nothingness nor being” (48).
One of the most fascinating statements concerning the “there is” occurs very early in the conversation and posits its primacy in relation to the conditions of existence: “[The “there is”] is something one can also feel when one thinks that even if there were nothing, the fact that “there is” is undeniable. Not that there is this or that; but the very scene of being is open: there is. In the absolute emptiness that one can imagine before creation—there is” (48). What can we unpack from this passage?
To begin with, what should first be identified in this concise passage is the presence of the “there is” as a feeling, an affect, but also a faith based on an ontological claim. The scene of being is open and not foreclosed means: existence necessarily is. This statement is undeniable in two senses: first as objective claim or matter of fact, then as the basis for a belief or matter of faith. Levinas is trying to describe an ontological state of affairs that is not reducible to any particular thing but is the pre-individual, impersonal, and universal permeation of existents by existence. Yet the belief in this ontological claim almost seems to turn Being into the always-already given, and thus to save it from any real disaster that would threaten the sustainability of this givenness. In other words, it seems to be a faith in the fact that things will always exist, and that even if the existence of particular things is contingent, existence itself is necessarily absolute.
It would be wrong to see this ontological belief as an argument based on a personal God. If there is a God in Levinas, it comes through the Other’s face or leads beyond Being. What I mean to say is that the thought of the “there is” is meant to be the horror that the persistence of impersonal existence wreaks upon the individual. This impersonal aspect bears affinities with Heidegger’s thrownness, in that existence only comes to the things that are thrown into the totality of the “there is,” as though gladiators into an arena to wage the war that existence demands of itself. This is the Heraclitean/Nietzschean image of Being as the cosmic struggle where things are always ontologically at war through their own becoming and struggle of forces. If ontology’s prerequisite is the war of existence/being, what leads beyond this struggle and allows an access to the requirement of ethics as first, indeed as first philosophy that henceforth subordinates ontology to it?
The impersonality of being, its rumbling, exists beyond the requirement of the World and its sustainability. This is a faith that requires a reinvestigation of the meaning of disaster. Following Blanchot, Levinas recognizes disaster as that which “signifies neither death nor an accident, but as a piece of being which would be detached from its fixity of being, from its reference to a star, from all cosmological existence, as dis-aster” (50). This evocation of a persistence of the possibility of existence, supra-cosmological or existing beyond the conditions of the cosmos (and even life and its sustainability?) is the opening beyond the totality of being, the totality of the “there is” that contains our own being, and thus an elevation to the heights of the absolutely other, there where the infinity of the social relation, of a new understanding of holiness as the ethical beyond being and ontological war, an escape beyond the cumbersome of the totality of existents and existence (which is characterized in Levinas’ sayings like: “The social is beyond ontology” and “It is not a matter of escaping from solitude, but rather of escaping from being” (58-59).
How do we escape from being and or move beyond it? As Levinas suggests, the overcoming of ontology begins with a question or even problem of mastery, even, one might say, of a certain position in relation to the totality of things as a system to be mastered (man as the custodian of the things of the universe) and to the infinite as social relation exceeding being, and thus non-totalizable: this is the infinite ethical opening of the Other beyond being. Yet this opening does not leave the totality of Being untouched in relation to my existence as a subject or ego in the intersubjective relation: “For the ego that exists is encumbered by all these existents it dominates. For me the famous Heideggerian “Care” took the form of the cumbersomeness of existence” (52). As Levinas interprets it, Heideggerian care is too caught up with ontology and things, its position doesn’t justify that of man as Other: “to escape the ‘there is’ one must not be posed but deposed; to make an act of deposition, in the sense one speaks of deposed kings” (52). This new idea about the subject’s relation to the Other emphasizes the Latin of the word sub-ject: the subject is literally thrown under the Other’s height or at the Other’s feet due to the asymmetry that Levinas believes to separate the subject from the Other. The Other calls upon me from the height of God through the face, and my ethical responsibility is to respond to that calling from on high, to throw myself under the yoke of the ethical relationship. This new emphasis on Heideggerian care now indicates the opposite of what Levinas found in Being and Time: instead of being the cumbersomeness of existence, it represents the moment of clarity where the Other lifts the weight of the sovereign self by calling into question the absolute self-enclosed separation of my ego, i.e. calling into question my ipseity.
The position of the subject in the ethical relation is that of an ability to respond, a responsibility in relation to the height of the Other, precisely the call or appeal of the Other that demands a response. The selfsameness or ipseity of the ego is called into question by the ethical relation insofar as the face of the Other requires a response that does not leave the speaker intact as subject, insofar as my “I” is called into question by the Other’s alterity. The height of the Other, as absolutely Other and thus as presence of God through the face, is the reinterpretation of the social as first based on a religious, i.e. ethical foundation rather than one that is ontological, i.e. political. But this is a religion that annuls itself as an ethics, an ethics that is responsibility to the Other, even to the point of being the hostage of the Other in the face-to-face, but that does not call for the worship of the Other, except insofar as it founds the social beyond the political in a bond that remains to be fulfilled, precisely the infinite bound of duty that can never be exhausted by the subject due to the fact that its content itself is infinite, i.e. the demand of the Other. This is why Levinas states that, more so than the Other allowing me to escape solitude, the Other allows me to escape from the totality of beings as ultimate determination of (my) existence itself.
As Levinas specifies in relation to the ethical significance of the face in his Totality and Infinity, signification is guaranteed only by the face of the Other, and it is only insofar as this face appears and directs me that the meaning of the ethical relationship, which is constitutive of my freedom as Other and for the Other, that my own selfsameness and ipseity is called into question (206). It is the signification of the Other’s face and speech that disrupts and disturbs the separateness of the ego in the social relation. As Levinas makes clear, the face of the other and the instantiation of the socio-ethical relation is a fundamental encounter and event that breaks down the confines and limits of my existence and subjectivity. This overcoming of the self and the sublation of the ego’s interests is the first step towards the Aufhebung of the politico-ontological vanity of the subject towards the true creation of peace and social harmony, which is for Levinas beyond Being and politics in the ethical and religious root of the socius: “Politics tends towards reciprocal recognition, that is, toward equality; it ensures happiness. And political law concludes and sanctions the struggle for recognition. Religion is Desire and not struggle for recognition. It is the surplus possible in a society of equals, that of glorious humility, responsibility, and sacrifice, which are the condition for equality itself” (64). Whereas politics strives for equality, religion is the ground upon which it strives. Although this could read as though Levinas were condoning a sort of fundamentalist return to the domination of society by an eminent religious state, it should be noted that Levinas’ concept of the holy does not entail the re-injection of religious sentiment into social life; on the contrary, the idea of the holy for Levinas is to be found in a de-secularization of the world, or, in other words, the holy is opposed to the sacred insofar as the latter emanates from a false, illusionary transcendence whereas real holiness constituted by a community of Others invokes the ethical responsibilities of the socius that Levinas nevertheless still prefers to call “religious.” We shall see why and why this conception entails a revision of the theories of justice in a community.
It is precisely because the face is the turning point for the entrance into social and ethical life that Levinas can begin Totality and Infinity from the standpoint of the self-subsistent ego that is separated both from a charitable God and a social milieu. Levinas begins this work by positing a completely self-reliant ego that knows neither the presence of God nor has any need of that presence. In truth, Levinas does not at all presuppose the religiously devoted ego as the subject of his study, for, in a sense, that would make the exercise of the text all too easy, presupposing what it would be necessary to demonstrate. In fact, Levinas has to start from the completely self-involved subject in order to make his arguments about the Other, language, and ethics make sense. He presupposes nothing or presupposes that which would be most resistant to his new theory of ethics and society: precisely the atheistic subject who does not come ready-equipped with what it means to believe in a transcendent God who would guarantee meaning for all existence or who does not necessarily find within social fellowship the religious inspirations of the communal bond. It is this new notion of religion, which takes on its real autonomy in the social sphere only as an intersubjective ethics, that requires my responsibility for and to the other to become a bond that rests upon a new conception of justice.
Earlier we described the way in which the Other calls into question my own selfsameness or ipseity. This deposing of the sovereign subject indicates that the I or the cogito is not the end-all be-all of existence. In other words, the cogito as a psychism which is an event in being does not suffice of itself to produce justice. This is one of the reasons why Levinas does not believe that ontology can be first philosophy. Instead, ethics (with a specific Levinasian religious foundation) poses itself as first philosophy because it provides the basis for justice in the social sphere, while ontology promotes the war of all against all insofar as they wish to be equal. As Levinas writes: “Ethics is the spiritual optics…The work of justice—the uprightness of the face to face—is necessary in order that the breach that leads to God be produced—and “vision” here coincides with this work of justice. It is our relations with men…that give to theological concepts the sole signification they admit of” (78-79). Thus, justice is rooted in the ethical relation with the Other who is only holy because there is no transcendent, ontological God (God as Being or a being) to guarantee the value of that ethics. This indicates the fact that, in the ethical relation of the face-to-face, the Other precisely coincides with the idea of God insofar as the former also contains the infinity of the ideatum that overflows the idea: the only real religion comes on the scene when God has been removed from the sky, and the only real ethics takes on its truth-as-justice when the Other is seen as ordinary man in the face.
But this does not yet ground the idea of justice. Instead, it almost threatens to unground it due to the infinity of the Other in the ethical relation. What redeems this notion of justice? In a sense, the ipseity of the ego, the selfsameness of myself, is called into question by the ethical, intersubjective relation: to look in the face of the Other leaves no Self unchanged and unsettled. This transformation of the self, which is an ongoing event demanded by the efficacy of the socio-ethical relation, not only uproots a certain ipseity of the self but also establishes an illeity (literally based on the Latin for ‘he’) in the self, a sort of third-person position that is coterminous with the I. It is this illeity immanent to the ethical relation that guarantees the overcoming of a spontaneous ipseity: in other words, the movement from an I to a You in relation to a Thou (the holy Other) is guaranteed by the existence of a he or she, or maybe even it, if we consider Levinas’ penchant for the impersonal aspect of existence. It is this illeity in the self that allows for God to become invisible, disembodied, and immanent to the ethical relation, legitimating the statement that theological concepts are simply anthropological to a higher degree (Cartesian “perfection,” even if it is based on a negative valuation of man). It is the third-person in me that cries out against the tyranny of the ego in its self-satisfied separation. This is precisely how morality is defined in Totality and Infinity: the ability to reflect upon my actions as violent and arbitrary, and thus to come to the real critique of ipseity.
If Levinas, as he claimed, went against the major tendencies of the history of philosophy in its treatment of man, this may be because Levinas was one of the few philosophers to take Plato seriously and assert that the Good is beyond Being, that ethics is primary over ontology and first, and that knowledge is not the culmination of existence, but learning, teaching, and discourse with the Other are. Subordinating knowledge to teaching and learning is one of the ultimate ways in which Levinas redeemed the face to face relation as an encounter with the infinity of the Other through signification. Nevertheless, if learning and teaching were subordinated to knowledge, we would have the structure of ipseity, the master discourse for determining what is legitimate knowledge and what is excessive. This structure simply cannot stand withstand real democracy in thought and the face of the Other.