Adriaan Peperzak: “On Levinas’s Criticism of Heidegger”

Examining Levinas’s critique of Heidegger, Peperzak proceeds from the premise that philosophy cannot be separated from the prephilosophical elements of a particular form of life. The distinction between existential and existentiell cannot be upheld because thinking always testifies to an existentiell position, and thus “every philosophy expresses a particular ethos and a morally qualified attitude” (205). Considering Levinas’s conviction that Heidegger was not merely a Nazi collaborator, but a thinker who reflected Nazi mentality and inspiration, Peperzak assumes Levinas’s assertion of profound relationships between philosophy, ethos, and morality and attempts not only to explore Levinas’s critique of Heidegger’s thinking, but also to pursue the relationship Levinas perceives between his thought and his position on Nazi politics.

Peperzak emphasizes that despite common objectives, the inspirations that animate the work of Levinas and Heidegger are starkly different. Seeking to ask two different (yet related) questions, their works express deeply different convictions about life, simplified by Peperzak as “Greek” and “Jewish.” For this reason, Peperzak asserts that although quotations from Heidegger’s texts might be used to parry Levinas’s attacks on him, those attacks nonetheless stand as justified criticisms of the spirit of Heidegger’s thought.

As Peperzak acknowledges, Levinas and Heidegger are asking different questions. For this reason, to examine the relationship between Levinas’s and Heidegger’s political and ethical theory, Peperzak, like Levinas, must confront and question Heidegger’s statement that he is not concerned with ethics. Peperzak thus seeks to locate and evaluate the ethical implications of Heidegger’s work by explicating the particular ethos that is implied in his thinking, and by questioning the neutrality of Heidegger’s exclusion of ethics from his fundamental ontology.

Rather than merely postponing questions of ethics, Peperzak argues with Levinas that this exclusion renders ethics a secondary, nonfundamental concern of philosophy. Observing that for Levinas, Heidegger’s philosophy ignores the demands of morality, Peperzak remarks that a mere failure to recognize ethical phenomena for what they are could still be amended. Instead, Levinas regards Heidegger’s approach as being symptomatic of a way of thinking that relegates moral considerations to a secondary and separate discipline. He writes: “According to Levinas, the very suspension or epoche of the ethical, the seemingly neutral decision to postpone philosophical ethics until the foundational questions of philosophy have been treated, testifies to a false understanding of reality” (205). For Levinas, exposition of the ethical is in fact a constitutive component of first philosophy. Levinas asserts that every philosophy true to experience must be ethical from the outset, insisting that it is impossible to think seriously and fundamentally if moral perspective is placed in parentheses. Peperzak elaborates: “First philosophy must show that “is” and “ought,” the theoretical and the practical, are not originally distinguishable, and thus that “the Good” is another name for the very source” (207).

Peperzak describes Levinas’s starting point as the Other, and presents his assertion that “being for the Other” is the basic definition of the I. He proceeds to question whether Heidegger has correctly described the way of being of the phenomenon of the Other. Though Peperzak thoughtfully allows for different interpretations of Heidegger’s work, he concludes in any case that Heidegger has nonetheless precluded the way of being of Levinas’s Other and the morality that emerges from the relationship with it. Summarizing Heidegger’s discussion of others, Peperzak notes that for Heidegger the Other is understood as a being-together/being-with in the form of a we. He writes that Heidegger’s question “remains concentrated on the being of the Dasein that is always mine, and through this on Being in general” (209). Peperzak elaborates: “Insofar as Heidegger thematizes the Other as merely a coconstituting moment of the Dasein that is always mine, and carries out this thematization only within the horizon of Being in general, we can say that for him, too, totality reduces the Other’s particularity to the status of an instance or moment” (209).

Peperzak acknowledges the possibility of defending Heidegger’s work by claiming that Being does not represent a totality or a whole, but rather that which gives the universe its being. Nonetheless, he quotes an array of passages that he suggests render Heidegger susceptible to the accusation that privileging Being grants no place for the infinite dignity of the Other’s existence, and thus for Levinas’s ethics. The passages feature discussions of the wholeness that characterizes Dasein, seeming to render it both primary and self-constitutive. Peperzak quotes Heidegger: “Only because Dasein can be on its own, thanks to its transcendence, can it also be in the world with another self qua thou. The I-thou relationship is not yet itself the relationship of transcendence, but rather is founded on the transcendence of Dasein. It is a mistake to think that the I-thou relationship is as such primarily constitutive for the possible discovery of the world” (211). The interpersonal is subordinate within Dasein’s relation to itself. Peperzak writes: “The originary relationship is the self-reference of care; responsibility for Others is a subordinate moment within this” (212).

Peperzak notes that if Heidegger’s Being is not to be understood as a totality, its violent character would remain for Levinas in that it describes anonymous powers that constitute the world, unsubordinated to the intersubjective and the moral laws this produces. In Otherwise than Being, Being, rather than totality, becomes Levinas’s target. This Being is characterized by Peperzak as a mythology of an anonymous divine that precludes respect for the infinite that is revealed within the faces of other humans. It produces a concept of peace that depends on an harmony that contains balanced conflicts, bringing together through rational structures of society a reconciliation of beings with each other achieved by limiting every egoism. Being is tied to appearance, assuming that beings can be made present through representation or perception. It implies conceptions of truth and intelligibility that are capable of domesticating all that is strange, encompassing the other within the sphere of the same, and allowing beings to be identified, gathered and comprehended. Against this formulation, Levinas presents the look of the Other, which inevitably escapes this adequation, capable neither of being perceived as a bodily presence nor established by a conceptual definition. Peperzak concludes that this does not suggest that Levinas would dismiss ontology or every thought of Being; Rather, for him the concepts of ontology receive their meaning from something other than Being, deriving worth from a right relationship to Others.

Peperzak concludes this chapter by returning again to a question of practice in order to consider the relationship between Heidegger’s thinking and practice that opened up the line of analysis. Peperzak highlights a section of Levinas’s essay “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us,” written after the first voyage to outer space, which explores the meaning of Heidegger’s view of practice. Levinas claims that Heidegger’s critique of the essence of modern technology, a protest against the objectifying, calculating exploitation of nature and humans that reduces us to factors in a utilitarian framework, is rooted in a self-understanding that claims we have lost ourselves by losing sight of Being and our place within it. Peperzak quotes Levinas’s eloquent assessment of this view at length. For Levinas, it is a self-understanding that rehabilitates paganism, revering a holy notion of the world and place. Remarking that the mystery of things is the source of cruelty toward humans, he writes that attachment to place “is the very scission of humankind into natives and strangers. From this perspective technique is less dangerous than the ghosts of the Place” (217). Peperzak concludes by pointing out that this attachment to place, characterized by art and political power rather than respect and justice, has too much affinity with the Nazi glorification of soil and blood. From Levinas’s perspective, technology delivers us from Heidegger’s superstition of the place by allowing us to discover beings beyond the borders of the local. He writes: “Freed from all holy abodes, we can discover the authentic meaning of the human way of being-in-the-world: we are here in order to provide food and shelter for the Others. Disenchanting nature and demystifying the world are the reverse side of existing for the Infinite that exceeds all horizons” (217).

While I found many of the arguments in this chapter to be supple and thought-provoking, I found the logic of the final conclusions unsettling, and they left me questioning some of the arguments about relations between philosophy, ethos, and practice I had previously thought I understood. Without expounding any broader philosophical conclusions, I can say simply that I believe technology is at least equally employed to enable the impersonal and anonymous as to foster connection and communication. It objectifies, frames, and constrains us at least as much as it enables and empowers us. The same revolutions in technology that allow us an unprecedented ability to transcend the particulars of place have simultaneously allowed us to kill other human beings both on a mass scale and in anonymity, without ever seeing or being seen by them. If modern technology indeed provides “invaluable possibilities for liberation” (216), it seems to hold comparable potential to facilitate oppression, exclusion, negation of the personal and human, mediation of relationships by the anonymous, and unthinkable destruction and violence. To greatly oversimplify the arguments that conclude this chapter, I was surprised to see that perhaps the most specific and concrete example in this text of a meaningful connection between philosophy and practice centered on whether and why technology should be either celebrated or critiqued. I have not read enough to know whether this reflects the limits of the two thinkers’ discussions of technology or whether it is Peperzak’s interpretation of them. However, I couldn’t help feeling that without discussing technology in a way that at least acknowledges its diverse operations and aporias, the concluding thoughts seemed to me to show the reality and history in which practice must situate itself being distorted through appropriation by philosophy rather than revealing a more complex or co-constitutive relationship between ethos, practice and philosophy.

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~ by agordon on April 22, 2007.

3 Responses to “Adriaan Peperzak: “On Levinas’s Criticism of Heidegger””

  1. what is the point of just reiterating peperzak’s text without any contribution, any further interpretation??
    this is very bad “cut-and-paste” writing…

  2. This was an assignment for an undergraduate course to summarize a given secondary source.

  3. What I would conclude from this is that rather than negate what Hiedegger is saying, he must be amplified by Levinas’s critique. I don’t think it is helpful to dismiss Heidegger as “pagan”. Is not pagan part of the originating?

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