‘Levinas and the Struggle for Existence’ (R. Bernasconi)

After reading Totality & Infinity and Otherwise Than Being, Levinas’s project emerges as an anti-political doctrine and does not extort any particular political philosophy. Rather, it appears that, Levinas offers a philosophically polemical argument against the academic traditions of Martin Heidegger’s ontology and modern politics. The absence of the political component in his work comes to appearance when Levinas (on a basic level) argues for not only an anarchical-absolute responsibility for the ‘Other’, but for a separate and unique subjectivity. The double-sided-ness of Levinas project, are interwoven or interlocked, an individual senses his uniqueness’ through the encounter with (or response to) the ‘Other’. Moreover, this central argument for Levinas does not directly invoke or attend to the discourse of politics in general and no obligation to the political world, (rather the responsibility for the other which does not necessarily signify the ontology of the political world). Politics equals totality and violence for Levinas and there appears to be no path or engagement in his text that can return us back to the political world. However, Robert Bernasconi’s article “Levinas and the Struggle for Existence” sheds a new light on the layered complexity of Levinas’s philosophical project and on his personal “struggle” to develop a political philosophy and a path towards the political of his own.

Bernasconi, throughout his article, challenges the notion “that there is little to no political philosophy in Levinas”, while also acknowledging how this is not an easy connection or assumption to have. Bernasconi’s challenge, not only, brings to light the depths of Levinas’s philosophical argument but also Emmanuel’s personal and ethical struggles to find a path out of the climate of Heidegger. To begin, Bernasconi opens his argument by first pointing out Levinas’s attentiveness to social Darwinism and its kinship to modern philosophy, which harbor and expound human suffering. Particularly what animates Levinas is the application of Darwin’s ideas in philosophy, especially in Heidegger’s conception of “Dasein” and Kurt Schilling’s conception of an individuals “struggle for existence”. Eugenics (as Bernasconi acknowledges) and its contribution to human suffering in the western world via the creation of “modern state” (also, the arguments of the welfare state) owes it intellectual energies not only Darwin, but Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus, Charles Lyell, and biological sciences. Levinas’s inquiry towards the relationship between human suffering, eugenics, social Darwinism, and philosophy makes his attunement of the political evident. Furthermore, the connection between Kurt Schilling’s Darwinism is also apparent. But the connection between Heidegger and social Darwinism appears almost improbable, but is an endeavor (in consequence) that pulls Levinas’s argument to new heights and paradoxes.

On a intimate level, Levinas own personal suffering, not only when it comes to his exposure to Nazism but his severed relationship with Martin Heidegger brings light to his commitment and formulation to his own project. There is an ambiguity in Levinas’s reading of Heidegger and its connection to social Darwinism. It is only in two interviews Levinas draws out segments of Heidegger’s thought that he believes connections Martin to Darwin. One piece, was Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, which Levinas believes in its elaboration of the Dasein is “in almost [a] Darwinian fashion as a being which is concerned with his own being”; the second interview, Levinas states, is Heidegger’s beginning statements in Being and Time again constructs the Dasein as “a being who in his being is concerned for being itself. That’s Darwin’s idea: the living being struggles for life”(Bernasconi 173). Moreover, I personally do not believe Darwin’s idea of biological preservation evokes Heidegger conception of the Dasein and Bernasconi points this out when he asks ‘is Dasein concerned with it existence in the sense of its longevity, its preservation’ (173)? The Darwin and Heidegger connection becomes even more ambiguous when one acknowledges, as Bernasconi does, that Martin in several lectures raises crucial objections to Darwin’s thought and its impact on how we conceive being(175). Even though the connections are not cemented, Levinas commitment to exposes guises of Heidegger’s thought-to-believe neutral concepts, illuminates his personal inflictions and also his struggle to unveil the paradigm of western thought he finds in the air of Heidegger.

On a philosophical level, Bernasconi raises attention to the fact that even though Heidegger is the aim of most of Levinas’s philosophical polemics, his quarrels are not dependent on Heidegger’s “ecstatic conception of existence with provides the immediate context”(Bernasconi 172). To be exact, when Levinas speaks of the climate of Heidegger he is referring to the ‘conatus’ of his thought, which resonates in the being that is concerned for it own being. It is the relationship between existent and existence, which harbors the elemental evil that Levinas is trying to combat. One could find the conatus or the conception of the “struggle for existence or perseverance in being” in philosophical though since the Hobbes, Spinoza, and Heraclitus (176). Additionally, Levinas target it is also the teleological philosophies in western though, especially the philosophies which totalize the human being into a conception or an idea, which creates divisions in humanity and violence(177). Furthermore, Levinas wished to turn the attention, not to eliminate it, from the struggle for existence, or a being that is concerned for it own being, to the struggle against violence which is engulfed with the ethical question of “my right to exist”(177).

Does Levinas question of the ethical, which is a central question in all of Levinas work, resolve the political realties of human suffering? Also does Levinas solve the issue of violence or the bad consciousness that is harbored in it? Finally does Levinas move us beyond and through the thinking which philosophy extorts? For Robert Bernasconi, these questions are left unresolved, but are still attended to Levinas thought. This is an interesting position because, politically, Levinas was strongly opposed to the violence of nationalism but was in strong support of the establishment of the state of Israel. This political move for Levinas reflects the aporia of violence itself. What is the difference between State violence versus revolutionary violence? As Bernasconi points out, what is in violence we cannot escape because one would need violence to combat violence, he writes, “Hence the problem of violence gives way to an aporia: the only violence that one could engage in with a good conscience is a violence that arises from the agony of a bad conscience, fearful of making the innocent suffer. The aporia arises from the ambiguity of the face…Levinas declares that ‘the true problem for us Westerners is not so much to refuse violence as to question ourselves about a struggle against violence”(178). This struggle against violence, in my own personal opinion it is the task of not only politics, but political philosophy to take on the unending and evolving question towards the ethical and political organization. Bernasconi believes, which I also do, Levinas “failure to take his political philosophy to the point of a philosophy of institutions is a serious omission”(Bernasconi 180). Either way, Bernasconi’s article reoriented the layered and problematic aspects of Levinas thought, while also acknowledging the political philosophy grounded in his own work and the struggle to approach the political.

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~ by aahasan on May 30, 2007.

4 Responses to “‘Levinas and the Struggle for Existence’ (R. Bernasconi)”

  1. Hi, have not read Bernasconi’s article but am currently researching for a dissertation about Levinas and the relationship between evolution and ethics. My conclusions are similar in that I take Levinas to be criticising a view of humans that was based on Darwinian ideas of the struggle for existence between organisms. Levinas’s arugment seems to concentrate upon the idea of how ethics could arise within being if beings are constituted by the struggle for existence which evolution entails.

    My criticism of Levinas is that he does not take into account the ‘genes eye view’ of evolution and arguments from neo-Darwinsits and evolutionary psychologists. From this view it would be quite possible (and a large amount of empirical evidence to support this) that selfish genes could produce humans with a sense of morality. The gene does not care how it gets itself replicated, so it does not matter whether the gene machine which replicates it is selfish is altruistic.

    By taking the genes eye view of evolution there is no need to posit the idea that beings are necessarilty self-enclosed egos that are struggling against each other. This view of being seems necessary for Levinas’s theories and so by showing that this view of being is based upon a old and misleading view of evolution does knock away some of the ideas that Levinas has about the necessity of ethics having a non-material/transcendental opening.

    Ideas would be appreciated as I’m doing my dissertation away from a university, which means I don’t have any place to express my views apart deom the internet

  2. What a bunch of bullshit. There is nothing Darwinian about Heidegger’s conception of “dasein”. To say Dasein is concerned with Being is not to say that Dasein is concerned with its material survival, its life, its existence in that sense of the word. Such is an obvious misreading.

  3. Well, given Bernasconi’s status as a Heidegger and Levinas scholar, I don’t think anyone can just say “an obvious misreading.” Especially when the reading is one that identifies crossing conceptual trajectories, rather than strict parallels or sameness.

  4. heidegger’s Dasein has nothing to do with Darwinism is complete non-sense:)

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