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.

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~ by kem04 on April 22, 2007.

One Response to “Francois Raffoul, ‘Being and the Other’”

  1. Raffoul’s argument is problematic. He practices the same irresponsible reading he imputes to Levinas. He picks out isolated statements and ‘refutes’ them without reviewing Levinas’s strongest case.

    Levinas does indeed equate Dasein with egoity. Insofar as Heideggerian authenticity is a seizing of one’s ‘own most possibility,’ and this seizing occurs against the horizon of das Man, the inauthentcity of the mitsein – which include ethics, politics, and law – in the disclosive play of Being, Heidegger establishes a kind of circuit. Dasein’s authenticity is the orienting, climactic moment of H’s ontological drama, a moment that individuates it from the merely ontic world of sociality; Being is given a revelatory function that privileges the ontological and ultimately aesthetic prerogatives of ‘one’s own-most…’. In this sense, Levinas is absolutely correct. Heideggerian Being plays the same structural role as Husserl’s Transcendental Subject with respect to ethics and social relation. And this function is in fact another incarnation of the *Same* problem Levinas sees as emblematic of Western Philosophy: The relative ‘otherness’ of forms, ideas, forces, subjects, etc. reduces the profound alterity irrupting in the face of the other. The otherness of the metaphysical tradition always happens to be a general term (whether formal or substantive) that takes priority the singularity of the person.

    Raffoul’s mere restatement of the ontological difference in now way answers Levinas’ radical criticism; such a difference is not different enough, and priveldges Dasein over mitsein. Mitdasein is somehow supposed to reopen the possibility of a ‘social authenticity,’ and thus a kind of ethics; yet we saw how well this ‘ethics’ fared in Heidegger’s adventure with National Socialism. Anyway, Raffoul’s restatement’s of Heidegger’s position doesn’t really answer Levinas’s challenge; indeed, it deeply misunderstands it. Simply reemphasizing the relational priority of Being-towards-death, and thus Being in Heidegger’s sense, over ethical relations amounts to using Levinas as a foil, to exploring ‘ethical’ interpretations of Heidegger, rather than answering Levinas’s criticism.

    The chief problem in Heidegger is the problem of mitsein and mitdasein, another way of saying the problem of politics (and ethics). Levinas is not alone in recognizing this as the loads of literature on the topic can attest.

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