Francois Raffoul, ‘Being and the Other’
I think this is an excellent discussion of the relationship of Levinas to Heidegger and of ethics to ontology. Highly recommended. Two thumbs up.
Raffoul sets out to, as he puts it, “question the pertinence” of the opposition between ontology and ethics which is posited by Levinas on the bass of his interpretation of Heidegger. Raffoul contends that there is a certain aggressiveness to this interpretation which partly misconstrues Heidegger. His aim is not a critique of Levinas for such a perceived shortcoming but rather to deepen the understanding of the both ethics and ontology. Raffoul attempts to trace the basis of Levinasian critiques of Heidegger so as to question the necessity for the departure of ethics from ontology.
The first major critique of Heidegger by Levinas consists in a disavowal of the neutrality of Being. The neutrality is derived by Levinas through his understanding of Heidegger’s project as a fundamental ontology. As such, it is viewed by Levinas to be “the knowledge of being in general.” Raffoul asserts that this interpolation is equivalent with “the identification of Being with the generality of beings.” Being becomes conceptual generality in that it is the abstraction of beings into Being. The logical entailment is that all beings are subsumed within being so that all relations remain within a totalizable whole and so are both subordinate to the whole and incapable of being alterior to it and hence become symptoms of it; the Same.
Raffoul claims that there is at stake within this initial reading of Heidegger a misinterpretation. For while Levinas may have understood Heidegger to be the culmination of centuries of Western thought which produced only cases and instances of the same, Heidegger was in fact a rebuttal of that lineage. Heidegger performs his inversion by delineating between beings and Being. By doing so, Raffoul holds, Heidegger has made Being the Other of all beings. In that sense then, the two are anterior to one another. Furthermore, all beings “suppose Being” which entails that beings cannot be an abstraction of Being, since this would be to reverse to order. Thus, an understanding of Heidegger’s Being as a generalized concept is a defiance of “both the spirit and letter of Heidegger’s thinking.”
This demonstration of the manner in which Levinas has directed his own reading of Heidegger also serves within Raffoul’s piece to illustrate the possibility that ethics and ontology need not be opposed. For Levinas’ need to conceive the other as a transcendence of Being arises directly from his understanding that it is being which subsumes that non-relation or openness to the truly alterior. But is the alterior is in fact the basis of Heideggarian ontology, then it seems that seeking alterity outside it is a strategy which is unnecessary because it is predicated on a misconstrual of Heideggarian Being.
The other element of the possible reconciliation between ethics and ontology arises through Raffoul’s investigation of Levinas’ second major concern with Heidegger; the egoism of Being. Raffoul describes the origination of Levinas’ concern with the subsumption of the other in the Same as partially tied to Levinas’ conflation of mineness of Being with sameness. Levinas states, “The other becomes the same by becoming mine.” This thread is expounded in Heidegger, Levinas feels, through Heidegger’s depiction of Being as towards death. Since each of us is a being whose Being is towards death, and since no one but us can be a substitute for our own death, death supersedes the other. At this point, Levinas’ read of Being as neutral combines with the understanding of mineness inherent in the towards death, to make both the effects of egoity. For, if mineness is a symptom of sameness, and each of us is the Being of mineness, then the relation of beings becomes that of the relation of egos. That is, being with becomes predicated first upon the identification of others with ourselves. Hence, Levinas proposes being for as opposed to being with.
Raffoul points out that this second opposition is itself predicated upon the combination of the initial misconstrual of beings as symptoms of Being and also on a second misreading of the mineness and towards death. For, precisely because beings are not abstractions of Being but rather, the disclosure of it, mineness does not indicate an egotistical assertion on the part of beings. Rather it is a character of Being insofar as Being appears as beings. That is, Being is a disclosure of beings which takes the form of mineness and thus the mineness precedes beings such that it cannot be construed to reflect a relationship between beings as the same as one other. Or, “Dasein is understood as openness to the other entity, its individuation cannot be understood to mean the exclusion of the other.” Mineness is, as Being, other to beings and so illustrates the tension between them and it rather than their reproduction of themselves through it.
The reinterpretation of Heidegger’s distinction between Being and beings and hence of mineness leads in turn, to the negation of the critique of Levinas of the Being towards death as also a foreclosure of alterity. Rather than saying that because each being is towards its own death, all beings are the same in being concerned only with themselves, Raffoul argues that Being towards death illustrates the way in which Being is towards death and as such paves the way for a being for another through the possibility of giving one’s life to them. For it is precisely because each person must die its own death that I may “die for another but not in place of another.” In that way then, this essential feature of Being lays foundation for ethical behavior because of the difference I assumes between beings; that one cannot be for another.
Raffoul does an excellent job of succinctly tracing the foundation of Levinas’ aversion to Heidegger and by so doing, illustrates some fundamental misapprehensions, the revisiting of which paves the way for an ethics and ontology which are not at war with one another.