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.


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