Archive for March, 2008

Lewis and Levinas on the Other as Iconoclast

For all their obvious differences of opinions on multiple matters, C.S. Lewis and Emmanuel Levinas seem to be in agreement on at least one point: the iconoclastic nature of the Other. That is, the ability of the other to “incessantly triumph over your mere idea” of them, in the words of Lewis (A Grief Observed, pg 66), and cause a fissure as a “being who breaks my categories,” in the vocabulary of Levinas (Hilary Putnam, The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, pg 42).

In A Grief Observed, Lewis recounts his experience and agony following the death of his wife Joy Davidman. In this, the book provides a powerful and emotional account of one man’s thoughts and emotions from such an extreme loss.

In the passage that I would like to draw attention to, having just read through his previously written thoughts, Lewis is recounting his frustrations with himself in feeling like his writings portray a person who is only concerned with his wife’s death in how it has effected him. In response, Lewis resolves that he needs to “think more about H. [the sign he uses when talking about his wife throughout the book] and less about myself” (GO, pg. 18). However, he quickly realizes that thinking about her isn’t the real problem, but thinking rightly about her, an action that ultimately escapes him apart from her presence critiquing his thoughts. It is not the the things that he thinks of are untrue about H., but they are selective and, therefore, ultimately lacking. Lewis states in his own words that his thoughts are

“[f]ounded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing ficticious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly by being so thoroughly herself and not me” (GO, 18).

Later on in the book Lewis picks this theme back up with reference to images of the divine. God is the great iconoclast he urges, the one who’s presence is so often marked by such shattering of our images (referencing the incarnation as the supreme example of this) (66). “All reality is iconoclastic,” he continues. “The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness…”Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour” (66-67). For Lewis, the tendency we are all confronted with is acknowledging all others (be it God or people) not as who they are, but according to the picture or perception of them that we have constructed in our mind. A critique similar to that of Levinas, leveled against Edmund Husserl.

Emmanuel Levinas is known largely for his insistence upon the primacy of ethics, or ethics as first philosophy. For Levinas, philosophy should not be primarily understood as the “love of wisdom,” as it traditionally is, but, rather, as the “wisdom of love.” So, whereas traditionally philosophers have sought out knowledge and truth as primary, building ethics upon this understanding of “the way things are,” Levinas argues for an ethic of infinite responsibility upon the subject toward the other (a term which in Levinas’s writings almost always refers to an other person) that precedes any understanding of them. Allow me to try and explain in brief.

Given Levinas’s Jewish background, there are many places in his writings where one finds biblical allusions that tend to guide his thoughts. For instance, his discussions of the ethic of responsibility that is placed upon the subject has a background in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament.

Recall, for a moment, the story of Samuel (while 1 and 2 Samuel aren’t usually categorized as “prophetic literature” in many english bibles, the traditional Jewish TaNaK ordering of the OT places them among the prophetic lit.). While Samuel is serving in the Temple under Eli, the LORD calls him. Samuel replies, “Here I am!” (hineni), and mistaking the voice runs to Eli. This occurs two more times until Eli realizes that the voice calling Samuel was the voice of the LORD. He then tells Samuel what he should say if he hears the voice again, etc.

For Levinas, this sort of encounter, between Samuel and the LORD, serves as a paradigm for the the encounter of the other by the subject. In the language of Levinas, the other is spoken of in terms that often have a divine echo in the Hebrew Scriptures. So, in Otherwise than Being Levinas speaks of the encounter with the other as experiencing “the Glory of the Infinite” (OB 140-162), an encounter that elicits an infinite responsibility in the subject and an obligation to be for the other.

It is important to note that, for Levinas, this ethical obligation to the other is not derived from any metaphysical or epistemic grounding. To do so would be an act of violence upon the other, reducing their difference and bringing them into a level of sameness with the subject.  The other, in their difference, will always allude your grasp; and here is the connection with Lewis. As Hilary Putnam has stated in his discussion on Levinas and Judaism (The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, pg 42), the “encounter with the other is an encounter with a fissure, a being who breaks my categories.”

So with both Lewis and Levinas,  the other functions in an iconoclastic role, shattering our images of them in their difference, a difference that ultimately calls us to service. In another work of Lewis he speaks of this encounter that leads to service in terms of recognizing the “weight of glory” in the other. For Levinas it is the experience of the “glory of the infinite.” However, for both, the other elicits our service as a being who alludes our grasp and critiques our images of them. Confronted with something beyond us, we are drawn into to an existence of a giving up of ourselves for the sake of the other.

I will leave you with a quote by Lewis in his essay The Weight of Glory as an attempt to provide some application, from a Christian perspective, on some of these abstract concepts.

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in  some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of  these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people…next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses” (The Weight of Glory and Other Adresses, 18-19)

…and for those who still feel like they need a little more inspiration I have included the following by Thomas Kincade:

Slavoj Žižek on toilets and ideology


I was thinking this morning about the books my friend recommended to me and a Žižek excerpt came to mind on toilets and ideology. I may just have to give these books a chance. Who knows, there may be more to them than I thought.

Looking for Good Resources, Can Anybody Help?

To whom it may concern (or whomever might be reading this blog),

I recently sent an email to a good friend of mine that contained a bibliography for a paper I am working on. I wanted to him to look over it and give me any feedback he saw fitting. He commented on a few of the books, The Evolving Self by The Evolving SelfRobert Kegan (one of his favorite authors), Exclusion and Embrace by Miraslov Volf (which is a great book despite what the cover suggests, causing one to think that the publisher must have Exclusion and Embracesimply drawn a blank and solicited the help of a 7th grade graphic design class, only to select the least creative kid), and a couple of others that I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t know if anyone has come across them in their studies but I thought I would ask around just to see. As with any topic, the problem usually isn’t finding relevant resources, but finding the most relevant resources to read within your given time constraints. Anybody have any helpful feedback on these two below?

Where's the Poop? It Hurts When I Poop

On Food and Philosophy: Why “only a being that eats can be for the other”

Emmanuel Levinas

“only a being that eats can be for the other.” (Levinas, Otherwise that Being, 74)

In his seminal work Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor makes the point that Descartes in his ethic, as well as epistemology, establishes a philosophy of “disengagement.” It is a disengagement from both the world and the body, and thus assumes an instrumental stance towards them. In noting the variations of the concept of reason between Descartes and Plato Taylor states,

“Just as correct knowledge doesn’t come anymore from our opening ourselves to the order of (ontic) Ideas but from our constructing an order of (intra-mental) ideas according to the laws of evidence; so when the hegemony of reason becomes rational control, it is no longer understood as our being attuned to the order of things we find in the cosmos, but rather as our life being shaped by the orders which we construct according to the demands of reason’s dominance…”(Taylor, 155)

So, Taylor argues, in Descartes “[r]ationality is now an internal property of subjective thinking , rather than consisting in its vision of reality. In making this shift, Descartes is articulating what has become the standard modern view” (Taylor, 156).

However, such an ethic that takes a stance of disengagement from the self, world, and people, in order to rightly relate to the self, world and people, is ultimately incapable of sustaining any genuine reciprocal relation between the self and all others due to its indebtedness to an ontology of substance and a totalizing (and therefore violent) relation to all others. In contrast to such an ethic, Emmanuel Levinas persuasively argues for an alternative.

Critical of the primacy of “intentional consciousness” in the thought of Edmund Husserl, “claiming that the later was theoreticist, where the subject maintains an objectifying relation to the world mediated through representation” (Simon Critchley, The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, 20), Levinas calls for a move from representation to enjoyment, arguing that intentional consciousness is itself conditioned by life. Life is lived from the elements, rather than over against them, so “we live from good soup, air, light, spectacles, work, sleep, etc.” and according to Levinas “[t]hese are not objects of representation” (Totality and Infinity, 110, quoted in CCL). According to Levinas, “life is sentience, enjoyment and nourishment. It is jouissance and joie de vivre” (CCL, 20). In what Simon Critchley calls Levinas’s “material phenomenology of subjective life” “the self-conscious subject of intentionality is reduced to a living subject that is subject to the conditions of its existence” (CCL, 20). Through this reduction the “subject of intentionality” is thus placed within a working order of interconnectedness, no longer in a posture of disengagement from the self, world and others, but, rather, is grounded in his/her creatureliness. It is here that the conditioned self, having been subjected, is capable of being questioned and critiqued by the encounter of the other. So for Levinas, the “ethical subject is a sensible subject, not a conscious subject…an embodied being of flesh and blood, a being that is capable of hunger, who eats and enjoys eating” (CCL, 21).

Levinas himself is wary of ontological language, despite his ironic use of such ontological language to make his move away from ontology (this was Derrida’s critique of Levinas in “Violence and Metaphysics”), because of its tendency to swallow up the other, what Jean-Paul Sarte has called a “digestive philosophy.” However, Levinas’s description of the ethical relation between the I and the Other (I would add here Others as I see in Levinas’s ethical thought the capacity to be extended beyond just the relation to other humans, but to all others: God, animals, earth, etc. This, however, still stands to be substantiated as it remains a largely unexplored area in Levinasian thought, and one even Levinas himself didn’t spill too much ink over.), seems to offer a helpful corrective to the disengaged philosophy of Descartes, reengaging the subject of intentionality with the world by which he is conditioned, and allows for something much closer to an ontology of relation rather than an ontology of substance.