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Whereas traditionally first philosophy denoted either metaphysics or theology, only to be reconceived by Heidegger as fundamental ontology, Levinas argued that it is ethics that should be so conceived. But rather than formulating an ethical theory , Levinas developed his philosophy in opposition to both these aforementioned approaches. It takes the form of a description and interpretation of the event of encountering another person.
However that may be, his work is in ongoing, critical dialogue with three philosophers: Husserl, Heidegger, and Hegel. He is also indebted to Heidegger for his hermeneutics of being-in-the-world. In this entry, attention is focused throughout to the contribution of commentators, with a view to providing a gateway to recent secondary literature.
In the s, Levinas continued to publish studies of the thought of his two principal teachers, Husserl and Heidegger. As we shall see, he will reconceive transcendence as a need for escape from existence, and work out a different analysis of lived time in that project. In the two imbricated dimensions of human life, sentient-affective and intentional, our experience of being comes to pass, in the relationship between body and egoic consciousness.
This quite materialist approach to transcendence is nevertheless motivated by the question of our mortality and finite being, but unlike Heidegger, it also examines the enigma called infinity. It flees its uncanny thrownness by distracting itself in social pursuits, a position that Levinas will not adopt. Levinas then observed:. As if it had the certainty that the idea of the limit could not apply to the existence of what is … and as if modern sensibility perceived in being a defect still more profound.
When transcendence is removed from theological or metaphysical frameworks i. Reconceived in this way, the entire question of transcendence changes, revealing the struggle to get out of our all too finite existence. In short, is our first response to mortality not the urge to take leave of our existence, if periodically? But unlike Heidegger, true authenticity does not lie in securing our freedom for our most personal possibility, death.
Levinas argued that we can approach death as possibility only through that of others and that we grasp being as finite by way of their mortality. Later, of course, Levinas will attribute infinity to a different experience, that of the unbounded quality of the face of the other. However, intersubjectivity is little discussed in the essay. The encounter with the other first comes into view as a theme in his s works TO and EE.
In contrast, Levinas proposed other ways by which the gap narrows between being itself and the beings that we are. Following his leitmotif of our recurrent urge to escape, Levinas examined the invariable disappointments following our attempts at transcending our existence: the aforementioned states of need and pleasure give way to a sobering up or disillusionment.
In affective and physical states like shame and nausea, the bodily self is experienced as a substance trapped in its stifling existence and desperate for a way out. As regards stifling existence, when Levinas refers to being, it is as ongoing presence, rather than the event of disclosure that Heidegger described. Thus, in immediate experience, I am my joy or my pain, provisionally, just as I may observe myself joyful, like a third person.
For Levinas, by contrast, escape represents a positive, dynamic need. In this youthful work, he also rethinks need as fullness rather than as mere privation.
As we indicated, he is working toward a different understanding of existence itself. Whether it is characterized by pleasure or suffering, need is the very ground of that existence.
The priority of present-time, concentrated into an extended now-moment is opened up through sensibility and affectivity. In pleasure as in pain, we need —not out of lack—but in desire or in hope. Levinas approaches that presence through modalizations provided by sensations and affects that were unexplored by either Heidegger or Husserl.
In , Levinas was convinced that through sensation and states of mind we also discover the futility of getting out of existence. In the physical torment of nausea, we experience being in its simplest, most burdensome neutrality. To this, Levinas adds three provocative themes. Second, nausea is not simply a physiological event. It shows us dramatically how existence can encircle us on all sides, to the point of submerging us. As Rolland observes, in that case social and political life may also nauseate us.
Being is existence, and it is firstly our existence. The mark of creaturely existence is need and, by extension, a struggle with being. Levinas concludes polemically,. The question remains: how shall we best think through the sensuous need to transcend being? Embodied need is not an illusion; is transcendence one?
Levinas will answer this question fully in In Existence and Existents and Time and the Other , being now has a dual aspect, of light and of dark indeterminacy. It is as though being were divided between the being of a created world and the darkness out of which light was brought.
We fall asleep, curled about ourselves, thereby exiting our conscious existence. Embodied consciousness thus begins and ends with itself. As such, it is both dependent on and independent from its environment, and Levinas will urge that the subject, upon awakening, uses and masters being. In the middle period essays, the partial transcendences of pleasure and desire, already sketched in , receive fuller development and variations.
The son incarnates alterity in a curious way. He is, in a sense, his father and not his father. However, his birth opens a focus on the future. No longer conceived as one of open possibilities, as Heidegger had argued, the time opened by the son responds to two basic limitations on our understanding and representation: death and the other person.
But even as such it escapes everyday understanding. Hence Levinas will qualify death as an alterity as radical as that of the other human being who confronts me. In death the existing of the existent is alienated. To be sure, the other that is announced does not possess this existing as the subject possesses it; its hold over my existing is mysterious. It is not unknown but unknowable. TO: Of course, we can and do constitute the other an alter ego.
Yet such constitution by phenomenological analogy never exhausts his fundamental difference TO: 78— Two reversals should be noted, here, relative to The second reversal concerns moods themselves. In Heidegger, anxiety, joy, and boredom were states of mind, with anxiety as the privileged mood by which humans are confronted with themselves, their lack of ground, and with the question of their existence.
In his middle period, Levinas will expand the experience of being to moods now including horror. Nighttime being reveals an indeterminate dark presence that is not pure nothing. Once again, Levinas recurs to bodily states, this time including fatigue, indolence, insomnia, and awakening. In the first three, the aforementioned gap between the embodied self and the intentional I increases. Upon awakening, the embodied ego soi-moi reasserts its mastery over things and even its own bodily torpor.
Consequently, intelligibility is well figured by light. Phenomenological evidence is guaranteed by lighted circumstances—albeit for someone.
Thus, if being is equated with illumination, for Levinas it must also include the dark anonymity of night EE: Consequently, the question that inaugurates fundamental ontology: Why is there being instead of simply nothing? Nothingness, understood as pure absence, may be thinkable, but it cannot be experienced. Over the course of his analyses, this self-ego will hearken to a call.
However, the call comes not from being but from an alterity that Levinas compares with death itself. Husserl understood transcendence in several ways, of which one significant dimension was that typical of consciousness extending toward, and encountering, the worldly objects at which it aims.
After Husserl, Heidegger will define transcendence as the essence of our existing in the world; Da-sein is always already in the world among things, according to a worldly transcendence or being out-there. For Levinas, these senses of transcendence are acceptable but not primary. Instead, he aligns transcendence with exteriority, in the sense of what lies outside myself but eludes my comprehensive knowledge: the other person TI: But this other speaks to me, implores or commands me.
In responding, I discover my responsibility to them. This is the ground of ethics or indeed our concern with ethics as the good of the other person. As Levinas argues, when ethics goes in search of its existential ground, before any consideration of utility, virtue, or duty, it discovers the intersubjective enactment of responsibility, which resists being integrated into accounts in which the other is a universal other to whom it is my duty, for example, to act ethically or in the hope of increasing the happiness of the collectivity.
Utility, virtue, and duty are crucial to ethical debates. Yet Levinas is pointing to their common lived origin in the irreducibility of the face-to-face encounter. He reminds us that Levinas is working at a pre-theoretical and embodied level that represents the impetus behind ethical systems forged through reflection, tradition, and critique. At the same time, I respond to that other. As Levinas writes,. Already Husserl argued that the objectivity of thought consists in being valid for everyone.
To know objectively is therefore to constitute my thought in such a way that it already contain[s] a reference to the thought of others. What I communicate therefore is already constituted in function of others. TI: , emph. We can even note parallels between Levinas and some contemporary ethicists. Moral intuitionists like David Wiggins and John McDowell have, similarly to Levinas, focused on our sensibility when it comes to grasping moral truths.
In discussing authentic education, McDowell argues that acquiring an ethical sensibility makes possible our intuitions of what is right and good. It even fosters a flourishing rational will able to discern bona fide ethical requirements McDowell , Wiggins .
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