3. On the Coherence of
Hermeneutics and Ethics
An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas
GERALD L. BRUNS
Does not philosophy consist in treating mad ideas with wisdom?
My purpose in what follows is to take up the relation of hermeneutics and ethics as it emerges in a post-Heideggerian philosophical context. In terms of proper names this means giving an account of the conceptual symmetries and differences between Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics and Emmanuel Levinas's ethical theory, which is sometimes called an ethics of al-terity or of responsibility, in order to contrast it with subject-centered theories that emphasize thinking and acting in accord with rules, principles, duties, codes, beliefs, teachings, communities, theories of the right and the good, and so on, where to be in accord with such things, however we figure them, is what justifies us, or anyhow puts us above reproach. Levinasian ethics is concerned with the claims other people have on us in advance of how right we are with respect to rules and beliefs or how in tune we are with a just and rational order of things. For Levinas, ethics is not possible from a starting point of self-interest.
Being under claims of history and tradition rather than claims of concepts and rules is central to Gadamer's thinking, which is critical of sub-jectivist accounts of human understanding in ways that coincide with Levinas's project. As Gadamer puts it, understanding is so permeated by “the historicity of existence” that it is “not suitably conceived as a consciousness of something” (GW3: 18/PH125). Better to say: understanding something comes from dwelling with it. Likewise Levinas: “Humanity … must not be first understood as consciousness” (AE132/0X683). Consciousness is always separate from its objects, impervious and indifferent to them (which is all that objectivity means). “What affects a consciousness,” Levinas says,
Foundational for both Gadamer and Levinas is Heidegger's “herme-neutics of facticity,” with its characterization of our relation to the world (and to others in it) in terms of habitation rather than intuition or representation. In Being and Time Heidegger regards our practical involvement with the things of everyday life as ontologically prior to the theoretical attitude that determines the formation of concepts and propositions (SZi49/BTi8g). How the world touches us matters as much as how we grasp it conceptually. Heidegger's idea is that the theoretical attitude, whatever its philosophical importance with respect to how knowledge is possible, is oblivious to the world we inhabit. Theory is indifferent to what is singular and irreplaceable. Whereas by contrast our being-in-the-world is a relation of concern or care (Sorge) rather than one of disinterested regard (SZigi-96/6X235-41). It is an (arguably ethical) relation of being-with and at-tunement rather than a logical relation highlighted by the prepositional attitude. “The world of Dasein,” Heidegger says, “is a with-world [Mitwelt]. Being-in is Being-with Others” (SZi 18/6X155). However we describe it, our relation to the world and to others is closer and more intimate than is suggested by any philosophical culture whose ideal is the self-certainty of an objectifying consciousness (SZi58/BTaoo-2Oi).
This proximity of the world and of others in it is a matter of central importance to both Gadamer and Levinas—but each thinks through this issue much differently from the way Heidegger introduced it. Levinas, for example, sharply criticizes Heidegger for repressing the ethical dimension of our being-in-the-world in favor of ontology, where ontology means a concern with the unity of being or totality of all that is. If Heidegger situates us in the world as inhabitants rather than disengaged punctual observers, he is nevertheless still asking the disengaged subject's question: What is our relation to the being (that is, the totality) of things? If the answer is “care,” Heidegger's interest is nevertheless in the ontological rather than ethical meaning of care, and Dasein's care is always ultimately for itself, not for others (SZ317-23/6X364-70: “Care and Selfhood”). In his analysis of dwelling and habitation in Totality and Infinity Levinas points out that “In Being and Time the home does not appear apart from a system of implements,” and there is no one in the house but me (TeIi84/TIi7o). I dwell among implements designed to domesticate the world for me, and it is one from which others have to be excluded if I am to come into my own, working out my ownmost possibilities or my destiny. To be sure, as Heidegger says, “As being-with, Dasein ‘is’ essentially for the sake of Others” (SZi23/BTi6o), but it is just this condition of being-for-others that must be overcome if the
Levinas reverses completely this interpretation of being-for-the-sake-of-others in order to replace fundamental ontology with a fundamental ethics, where the relation of one-for-the-other is no longer an ontological defect. For Levinas, it is not that I am a self aiming for freedom and authenticity but tragically find myself blocked and absorbed by a faceless otherness. On the contrary, it is the face of the other that singles me out and makes me what I am (defines what it is to be human). For Levinas, being human starts out from a position of responsibility to and for others rather than from one of consciousness and self-reflexive freedom. Being-for-others is the adventure—“the fine risk to be run” (AEigi/OTBiao)—that gives human existence its meaning and transcendence (or, more exactly, as we shall see, its meaning as transcendence).
Meanwhile Gadamer's hermeneutics starts out from section 32 of Being and Time, with its idea that interpretation is never a presuppositionless grasping of something given but always proceeds according to a forestruc-ture of prejudices (SZ150/BT191-92). The question for Gadamer is what happens to these prejudices in our encounter with whatever calls for understanding. Gadamer follows Heidegger's insistence on historicity: our understanding of texts (or of tradition, or of other people) is always local and contingent; it is always an event circumscribed and conditioned by the historical and cultural situation in which it occurs. In a word, understanding is always finite. However, this finitude entails the fact that what we try to understand is irreducible to the concepts and categories that our situation makes available to us. Tradition, for example, is always in excess of our capacity to appropriate it. So we can never understand the other purely and simply in terms of ourselves or by remaining fixed in what seem to us self-evident determinations of how things are (WM265-6g/TM28i-85). The example of the classical text shows that understanding the other always entails a critical demand for a change (in us), whether in terms of a revision of prior understanding (prejudices) or, more radically, in terms of a conversion of our habitual modes of thought and feeling to other ways of being that are opened up to us in our encounter with others (WM273-75/ TM28g-go). This means (whatever else it means) that our relation to the other is not simply one of cognition, nor is it even simply a relation of
The symmetry between Gadamerian hermeneutics and Levinasian ethics begins with the recognition of human finitude clarified in the accusative case rather than in terms of whatever might limit the nominative, declarative, or imperative sovereignty of a consciousness presiding over a domain of objects. Levinas expresses this by remarking how philosophical modernity is structured on the model of Homer's Odyssey (DEHHigi/TTO348). That is, its hero is a consciousness capable of self-reflection, a movement of departure and return that defines subjectivity as knowledge and action against opposing forces. I go out into the world in order to take it in, and if I suffer, it is in a struggle for self-possession and possession of the world as if it were my household. Likewise my every action presupposes a redemptive economy of commensurate rewards and punishments. Even gift giving is structured on the model of eventual return. Against Odysseus, however, Levinas places the figure of Abraham, who is called out of his homeland by an absolute other for the sake of a time and a world to come that he will never experience; and there is no turning back (HAH46/CPP93). It is this “departure without return” and without reward that defines the ethical subject (DEHHigi/TTO349). On the model of Abraham, the “I” is for-the-other: a pure gift outside every possibility of exchange or compensation. As Levinas puts it, “the/or of the-one-for-the-other … is a/or of total gratuity, breaking with interest” (AEi54/OTBg6). Levinasian ethics is an ethics of “radical generosity” (DEHHigi/TTO349).
For example, what happens when I encounter another person? Sartre in his famous account of the look treats this encounter as an event of cognition in which, being seen, I become another's representation, a piece of furniture in another's world of intentional objects. Levinas maps onto this encounter another model—not the Greek or philosophical model of knowing and being known but the Jewish or Biblical model of election, of being summoned out of one's house or place of security and comfort. This is the prophetic experience of being called into the wilderness, of being inspired, exposed to the world, offered as a sacrifice, turned inside out like a cloak and put under a claim that cannot be redeemed. For Levinas, the ethical subject is defined by a responsibility that is prior to any rational deliberation
TOWARD THE STRANGER
It follows that neither hermeneutical understanding nor the ethical relation of myself and another is an action or movement capable of being brought under the description of rules or principles. On the contrary, openness or responsiveness to one's situation and to others in it replaces the figure of an autonomous agent acting upon what is given from a position justified in advance. Unlike Habermas, for example, neither Gadamer nor Levinas conceives the ethical in terms of the justification of norms. Gadamer, for example, thinks of understanding on the model of Aristotle's concept of cpgovrjaic;, or practical wisdom, which is a ground-level or dialectical mode of thinking different both from theoretical consciousness (s7uaTr||j,r|), or knowing what things are, and from technical know-how (TS%VT|), or knowing how things are made or how they work. cpgovrjaic; involves responsiveness to what particular situations call for in the way of action, where knowing how to act cannot be determined in advance by an appeal to rules, principles, or general theories (WM3O4-5/TM321-22). Knowledge here cannot be conceptualized or codified in general terms because it has to do with singular and unprecedented states of affairs, particularly as these involve us with other people (cpgovrjaic;” is in fact the name of “the arete proper to human dealings”) (GWy: 148/1037). At the level of everyday life we are beneath the reach of universals. The classic example is knowing what friendship calls for in our being with others. Knowledge in this event cannot be separated out from experience; it is, so to speak, embedded in situations that we live through and which shape us in very particular ways. It
Indeed, cpgovrjatc;” (and Aristotelian ethics generally) presupposes the condition of familiarity that comes with being with others and learning one's way around in a shared and settled environment, and the same can be said of hermeneutics, where understanding is never a process that starts from scratch but, as in Heidegger's analysis, is a condition of belonging to the world, a mode of being that one enlarges by integrating what is alien into what is at hand. Thus to understand is to contextualize, to arrange and assemble into a unity in which nothing is foreign or out of place. Levinasian ethics, however, takes us onto radically different ground. In his “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity” (1957), Levinas distinguishes between two kinds of truth. On the one hand, there is the truth of identity that characterizes propositions (s is p). Truth here is the truth of representation and cognition. It is what governs the integration of differences into an order of things, as when one makes sense of what is strange by finding a place for it within one's conceptual scheme, a movement that Levinas calls “the reduction of the other to the same” (DEHHi65-66/CPP48). Here everything follows the logic of identity. On the other hand, however, there is the truth of experience that is essentially a reversal of this reduction to identity:
For experience deserves its name only if it transports us beyond what constitutes our nature. Genuine experience must even lead us beyond the nature that surrounds us…. Truth would thus designate the outcome of a movement that leaves a world that is intimate and familiar, even if we have not yet explored it completely, and goes toward the stranger, toward a beyond, as Plato puts it. Truth would imply more than exteriority: transcendence. (DEHHi65/CPP47)
For Levinas, transcendence means departure from “the immanence of the known,” that is, from a world defined by consciousness and its representations. The ethical relation—the encounter with another—is a movement toward the stranger, that is, toward the nonidentical, rather than a movement of recognition in which I take the other into my world, gathering up the other as a component of my self-possession or as part of my domestication or familiarization of my world. Indeed, it is not too much to say that for Levinas the dispossession of the self is the condition of the ethical as such.
As if the ethical were, philosophically, a world upside-down-as, in crucial ways, it is — Levinasian ethics derives from a historical world in which the Holocaust is not unthinkable but is, in fact, a premise that cannot be evaded, part of an ineradicable background memory that must inform all future reflection on what it is to be human. Indeed, Levinas is deeply critical of a philosophical anthropology that starts out with — in order to justify — an autonomous ego acting in its own interests. Such an idea presupposes a Hobbesian/Hegelian world in which my relationship with others is always a struggle for domination in which I either subsume or eliminate what is not myself. In such a world the Holocaust is horrifying but not surprising. By contrast Levinas proposes a world in which being human means being a gift or offering for others. Since our imaginations and, indeed, our historical experiences are Hobbesian/Hegelian, such an anthropology is more than a little frightening — and Levinas's language makes no attempt to disguise the extremity of his thought, where persecution, for example, is not a metaphor but defines ethical responsibility as existence despite oneself. Not surprisingly, it is in his commentaries on the Talmud that Levinas is most explicit on this point: “To bear responsibility for everything and everyone is to be responsible despite oneself. To be responsible despite oneself is to be persecuted. Only the persecuted must answer for everyone, even for his persecutor” (SS46/NTRi 14-15). As Robert Bernasconi says in glossing this line, Levinasian ethics is not derived from the philosophical tradition. “Levinas's achievement is that he has developed a philosophy that arises from the non-philosophical experience of being persecuted.” It is a philosophy marked by historical realism rather than by the formal realism of a thinking that aims at the logical justification of its concepts and assertions.
Persecution defines a condition of radical passivity in which I am no longer an “I” but a who or a me. The who or the me, Levinas says, is a “term in recurrence,” a oneself (soi) who exists “on the hither side of consciousness and its play, beyond or on the hither side of being which it thematizes, outside of being, and thus in itself in exile” (AE 163 /OTB 103). Levinas characterizes this condition as a hypostasis, that is, a condition of exposure in which I no longer exist as afor-oneself (pour soi) according to the traditional philosophical definition but am entirely for-another — no longer the autonomous agent of Kantian ethics but instead one who exists in the accusative. This is how I am constituted as an ethical subject. “In obsession,” Levinas says, “the accusation effected by [grammatical] categories turns into an absolute accusative in which the ego proper to free consciousness is caught up. It is an accusation without foundation, prior to any movement of the will, an obsessional and persecuting accusation. It strips the ego of its pride
“To give his cheek to the smiter and to be filled with insults” [Lamentations 3:30], to demand suffering in the suffering undergone … is not to draw from suffering some kind of magical redemptive virtue. In the trauma of persecution it is to pass from the outrage undergone to the responsibility for the persecutor, and, in this sense, from suffering to expiation for the other. Persecution is not something added to the subjectivity of the subject and his vulnerability; it is … subjectivity as the other in the same. (AEi yG/OTBi 11)
As Levinas likes to say, the other “slips into me like a thief” (Job 4:12).
Subjectivity structured as “the other in the same” is what Levinas means by “substitution”: “The word I means here I am [me void: literally, see me here], answering for everything and for everyone” (AEi8o-8i/OTBi 14). I am no longer self-identical but am one-for-the-other. It is important to stress, however, that Levinas does not regard this as a condition of alienation. On the contrary, the other is now internal to my identity, “because the other in the same is my substitution for the other through responsibility, for which I am summoned as someone irreplaceable. I exist through the other and for the other, but without this being alienation: I am inspired. This inspiration is the psyche. The psyche can signify this alterity in the same without alienation in the form of incarnation, as being-in-one's-skin, having-the-other-in-one's-skin” (AEi8i/OTBii4). If my relation to the other is a movement outside self-possession toward the stranger, it is nevertheless not a pathological event. For Levinas, the ethical relation of one-for-the-other is what makes being human possible. It is why a humanism that simply emphasizes the autonomy and self-transparency of the ego is, as Levinas says, “not sufficiently human” (AEao3/OTBi 29). For Levinas, as Adriaan Peper-zak says, “the self in the accusative [se, soi-meme] is the core of human significance.”
ETHICS AS HERMENEUTICAL EXPERIENCE
Levinasian ethics is not easily translatable into Gadamer's language, but it is not outside his philosophical horizon. On the contrary, philosophical hermeneutics presupposes something like an ethics of alterity and respon-sibilityjust to the extent that it characterizes the hermeneutical situation on the model of dialogue in which I am not a subject surveying a field but am caught up in a ground-level movement of question and answer that alters me as it unfolds. My openness to this event is the condition of its possibility,
Of course, this looks very much like what Gadamer means when he insists upon openness as a condition that makes not only dialogue but all human relations possible (WM343-44/TM36i-64). The difference is perhaps that Gadamer runs together openness to tradition, openness to the claim of truth in what is said, openness as the “logical structure” of the question, and openness to other persons, whereas a Levinasian would insist on discriminating between openness in these various senses, including the sense of Heidegger's “Gelassenheit” (openness to things, or to the “mystery”), and the more radical openness of hypostasis, “the risky uncovering of oneself … abandoning all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability” (AE8a/OTB48). The point of such discrimination would be to underscore a subtle but fundamental difference between hermeneutical and ethical conceptions of subjectivity. However, it is possible to think through these different conceptions in ways that intertwine them.
For example, a useful distinction can be drawn between being-with (or being-alongside-of) and being face-to-face as alternative modes of relationship with the other. The first is predominantly hermeneutical, as Gadamer clarifies this term; that is, it implies a relationship of mutual understanding, participation, attunement, being on the same track, being in the swing of the game, having words and interests (not to say a world) in common. Ethically it is a relation whose culmination is friendship or at least solidarity. My relation to the other in any case aims at a “we” and implies the possibility of community. The face-to-face relation as Levinas understands it is different
Similarly, Levinas calls the face-to-face encounter “an experience in the strongest sense of the term: a contact with a reality that does not fit into any a priori idea, which overflows all of them…. A face is pure experience, con-ceptless experience” (DEHHi77/CPP5g): it is conceptkss because experience is not a mode of cognition but the opening up of subjectivity, exposing it to alterity. “Consciousness,” Levinas says, “is called into question by a face. … A face confounds the intentionality that aims at it. … The I loses its sovereign self-coincidence, its identification, in which consciousness returns triumphantly to itself to rest on itself. Before the exigency of the other the I is expelled from this rest” (HAH53/CPP97). Experience is “a reversal of subjectivity” (DEHHa25/CPi 16), so that now subjectivity is that of
a man of flesh and blood, more passive in its extradition to the other than the passivity of effects in a causal chain, for it is beyond the unity of apperception of the / think, which is actuality itself. It is a being torn up from oneself for another in the giving to the other of the bread out of one's own mouth. This is not an anodyne formal relation, but all the gravity of the body extirpated from its conatus essendi in the possibility of giving. The identity of the subject is brought out, not by a rest on itself, but by a restlessness that drives me outside of the nucleus of my substantiality. (AE222/OTBi42)
Still, the crucial difference between Gadamer and Levinas is that ultimately Gadamer will want to understand this event as redounding to oneself in the way of self-knowledge. “In the last analysis,” he says, “all understanding is self-understanding” (GWa: 13O/PH55). To be sure, for Gadamer hermeneutical experience is not just an experience of limits or an “experience of one's own historicity” (WM34O/TM357). “Hermeneutical experience is concerned with tradition,” where tradition is not simply an archive or treasure-house of culture; rather, “it is language—it expresses itself like a Thou” (WM34O/TM358). This means that tradition can never be reduced to an object of cognition, no more than a person can (WM34O-41/TM358-59).
In human relations the important thing is … to experience the Thou truly as a Thou—i.e., not to overlook his claim but to let him really say something to us. Here is where openness belongs. But ultimately this openness does not exist only for the person who speaks; rather, anyone who listens is fundamentally open. Without such openness to one another there is no genuine human bond. Belonging together always also means being able to listen to one another. (WM343/TM36i)
But for Gadamer listening-to is always ultimately a listening-for: our relation to the other or to tradition is always a relation to what is said, that is, to a Sache: the claim of the other is a truth claim as well as an ethical claim, and our responsibility takes the form of understanding and acknowledgment rather than the radical form of generosity envisaged by Levinas as substitution or being “one-for-the-other” to the point of being “a hostage” (AEiSG/OTBuy). Moreover, truth here is not simply adequatio in re; it is rather that what is said bears upon me in my situation with the force of law, and my task is to see and understand myself in the light of what is said. My understanding of the other is for me; its goal is, among other things, the enlargement of my horizon. From a Levinasian point of view, hermeneutics is thus faithful to a philosophical tradition that remains recognizably Greek in its fundamental outlook. Departure is balanced by return. Gadamer would not disagree. The first hermeneut was Odysseus, who turned himself into the other—and back again.
Indeed the relation between Gadamer and Levinas is not so much one of disagreement as one of mutually illuminating differences—differences that are paradoxically coherent with one another. This is the more true since Levinas does not oppose Jewish and Greek traditions in any exclusionary way but seeks something very like a fusion of prophetic and Platonic horizons. For example, from a Gadamerian standpoint what is remarkable and instructive about Levinasian ethics is its constant recourse to hermeneutical categories of speaking and signifying, expression and communication, enigma and sense, as a way of clarifying the ethical relation of responsibility. Thus the face for Levinas is not a phenomenon—not something given to perception like a mask; rather, the face is a language without words, a primordial language that signifies of itself. “The face speaks” (TeI6i/TI66), but not in the sense that discourse emanates from its mouth. “The primordial
As Levinas elucidates it, the distinction between signification and sens entails a corresponding distinction between different dimensions of herme-neutics, an exegetical or historical-cultural dimension and a dimension of transcendence, that is, an ethical dimension that cuts across the limits of historical and cultural significations and therefore stands apart from the vast heterogeneous array of moral systems, each with its own logic and capacity for self-justification. Exactly how the difference between historical and ethical dimensions of hermeneutics is to be understood is perhaps most fully articulated in Levinas's 1964 essay “Meaning and Sense” (Signification etsens). Like Gadamer's hermeneutics, “Meaning and Sense” starts out from section 32 of Heidegger's Being and Time, with its idea that the intelligibility of things is not a given but is essentially a hermeneutical construction: namely, taking “something as something,” that is, understanding things in the context of our involvement with them or in our belonging-together within the world (SZ149/BT189). So Levinas: “There is no given already possessing identity. … To be given to consciousness [is to] be placed in an illuminated horizon—like a word, which gets the gift of being understood from the context to which it refers. The meaning [signification] would be the very illumination of this horizon” (HAH2O/CPP77). That is, the signification of a thing—and, ultimately, of being—is a relation of part and whole, a movement within a hermeneutical circle whose circumference is at once onto-logical and linguistic (or at all events semantic).
The given is present from the first qua this or that, that is, as a meaning [signification]. Experience is a reading, the understanding of meaning an exegesis, a hermeneutics, and not an intuition. This taken qua that—meaning is not a modification that effects a content existing outside of all language. Everything remains in a language or in a world, for the structure of the world resembles the order of language, with possibilities no dictionary can arrest. (HAH22/CPP78)
This is roughly what Gadamer means by saying, “Being that can be understood is language” (WM450/TM474). “In the this qua that,” Levinas says, “neither the this nor the that are first given outside of discourse…. There never was a moment meaning came to birth out of a meaningless being, outside of a historical position where language is spoken. And that is doubtless what is meant when we were taught that language is the house of being” (HAH23/CPP78-79).
This is to say (with Heidegger) that being is internal to time and history and so is distributed across multiple and heterogeneous cultures as a plurality of meanings. Being is epochal. Accordingly, as Levinas says, “Culture and artistic creation are part of the ontological order itself. They are onto-logical par excellence: they make the understanding of being possible” (HAHsS/CPPSs). Hence the universal—but also endlessly historical—scope of hermeneutics. “There exists no meaning in itself [signification en soi], which a thought would have been able to reach by jumping over the deforming or faithful but sensory reflections that lead to it. One has to traverse history or relive duration or start from concrete perception and the language established in it in order to arrive at the intelligible” (HAH31/ CPP83). In other words, being—“the intelligible”—is given in tradition: “All the picturesqueness of history, all cultures, are no longer obstacles separating us from the essential and the intelligible but ways that give us access to it. Even more! They are the only ways, the only possible ways, irreplaceable, and consequently implicated in the intelligible itself” (HAH31/ CPP83-84).
Unlike Gadamer, however, Levinas is no historicist. He is a moral realist for whom the absence of a meaning in itself—“the pure indifference of a multiplicity” distributed along a horizontal plane of historical and cultural differences (HAH4O/CPP89)—is an absurdity, a reduction of the ethical to the anthropological. To be sure, there is nothing outside of time and history, but for Levinas there is more to time and history than the epochal history of being. Granted that human cultures are multiple, heterogeneous, and entirely relative to one another (the others of each other but not of any One). What matters is that these cultures are porous and penetrable, thus allowing “the possibility of a Frenchman learning Chinese and passing from one culture into another.” But what about this passage? It is not just a lateral movement that would eventually assemble human cultures into an anthropological totality of cultural differences; rather, it discloses a deeper orientation. What is it, after all, that leads “a Frenchman to take up learning Chinese instead of declaring it to be barbarian (that is, bereft of the real virtues of language), to prefer speech to war?” (HAH39/CPP88). What is it to translate oneself into the other? Levinas sees in this translation the ethical movement of substitution or generosity, the essential movement of the one-for-the-other that gives the multiplicity of cultural meanings “a unique
One is reminded of the prophets who addressed the world from outside the city and its priestly codes. The other's address to me occupies this kind of transcendental position (exteriority with respect to the world as so many cultural structures): “the epiphany of the other involves a signifyingness [signifiance] of its own independent of [any] meaning received from the world. The other comes to us not only out of a context, but also without mediation; he signifies by himself” (HAH5O-5 i/CPPg5). Indeed, the idiom of
However, there is more: the epiphany of the face has a Platonic as well as a prophetic character. If “the ethical situation of responsibility is not comprehensible on the basis of an ethics” in the sense of moral system (I'ethique: AEigi/OTBiso), that is because the “unique sense” of the face is itself the basis of ethics; it is a transcendental condition of ethical judgment:
The saraband of innumerable and equivalent cultures, each justifying itself in its own context, creates a world which is, to be sure, de-occidentalized, but also disoriented. To catch sight, in meaning [signification], of a situation that precedes culture, to envision language out of the revelation of the other (which is at the same time the birth of morality) in the gaze of a man aiming at a man precisely as abstract man, disengaged from all culture, in the nakedness of his face, is to return to Platonism in a new way. It is also to find oneself able to judge civilizations in a new way. Meaning [signification], the intelligible, consists in a being showing itself in its nonhistorical simplicity, in its absolutely unqualifiable and irreducible nakedness, existing “prior to” history and culture. (HAH6o/CPPioi)
A “return to Platonism in a new way”? The point is that the face of the other is a supplication aimed at me (and no one else); it “imposes itself upon me without my being able to be deaf to its call or to forget it, that is, without my being able to stop holding myself responsible for its distress” (AE52-53 /OTBgG-gy). It is, Levinas says, “as though the whole edification of creation rested on my shoulders” (AE53/OTBg7). However, this burden also has a foundational meaning. If my responsibility disengages me “from all culture,” it also (and therefore) enables me “to judge civilizations” from a nonrelativist position, the way Levinas himself judges Kantian and utilitarian
otherwise than being. It no longer keeps accounts. … It destroys without leaving souvenirs, without transporting into museums the altars raised to the idols of the past for blood sacrifices, it burns the sacred groves in which the echoes of the past reverberate. The exceptional, extra-ordinary, transcendent character of the good is due to just this break with being and history. To reduce the good to being, to its calculations and its history, is to nullify goodness. (AE35-36/OTBi8)
As if what Levinas were proposing were a hermeneutics beyond tradition.
For Gadamer, of course, breaking with “being and history”—breaking with tradition—cannot be made intelligible and defensible for the very reason of human finitude. Grant all that Levinas says, my encounter with the other will always be within the horizon I inhabit; otherwise it will simply be unreal. The point is that my horizon is not a conceptual order in which the other would merely appear as an intelligible component. I do not inhabit my horizon simply as a cognitive agent grasping whatever is placed before me. Horizons are not reducible to perspectives or worldviews, which are essentially overdrawn metaphors of spectatorship. Neither are they totalities in the way Levinas imagines totality, namely as the world objectified by consciousness, a world whose components are integrated one with another according to a logic of identity or “the reduction of the other to the same.” For Gadamer, horizon is a concept of finitude, not of totality.
Part of what needs to be sorted out here is the difference between the ways Levinas and Gadamer think of history. In “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity,” Levinas speaks of “the conquest of being by man over the course of history” as if history were the history of consciousness expressing itself in ever-widening processes of rationalization and control (DEHHiGG/ CPP48). Not that this idea doesn't capture something, as readers of Max Weber and Adorno will quickly recognize. But for Gadamer history is incompatible with totality. History is precisely what resists rational ordering of every sort. This resistance, moreover, is not a defect to be overcome but a limit of reason, a fact of human finitude that exposes the (by turns comic and tragic) absurdity of modernity's ideal of “smooth functioning as a good in itself.” This conception of the historicity of history explains why Gada-mer's famous notion of the “fusion of horizons,” contrary to many quick summaries of it, has nothing to do with any logic of integration or unification of perspectives, but rather presupposes the ethical character of existence in which one's horizon—one's finitude—is defined by the proximity of others whose presence cannot be objectified: this is what the dialogical
ON THE PROXIMITY OF THE GOOD
Gadamer is a classicist who follows Plato in conceiving the ethical as the desire for the good, but his classicism is (like Levinas's) a return to Plato rather than a continuation of a certain reception of Plato within the history of philosophy. (Tradition is not repetition.) Thus in The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy Gadamer reads Plato against Aristotle's charge that Plato's conception of the good is a supreme but empty Gsropia divorced from human life. It is true that in the Republic (5086) the good is the sun that radiates throughout the world but is inaccessible in itself. But in the later dialogues Plato's concern shifts away from the good as such. What matters to Plato in the Phikbus, Gadamer says, “is not the idea of the good but the good in human life” (GW7:144/1630). The desire for the good is not meant to take us out of the world but to enable us to inhabit it in the right way. The good is not a “supreme mathema” indifferent to human concerns; on the contrary, it is the human “turning away from the realm of the ideal to what is best in reality” (GW7:144/1630). The good is thus not an object of |j,a6s|j,a. “In the Philebus,” Gadamer says, “the good has precisely the function of providing practical orientation for the right and just life as this life is a mixture of pleasure and knowing” (GW7:145/1631). “Knowledge of the good,” Gadamer says, “is always with us in our practical life” (GW7:159/1657). In this respect the good as Plato (and Gadamer with him) conceives it is very close to Levinas's notion of a sens beyond being, which is likewise an orientation or movement rather than an idea.
For Levinas the good is also always with us, but it is so specifically and exclusively in the face of the other, which inspires in us the movement of one-for-the-other, that Levinas, citing the Philebus (506), characterizes as a desire “that is conditioned by no prior lack” (HAH48/CPPg5). In other
Would Gadamer think this good? I think in the end he might fault Levinas for setting the ethical relation too sharply against hermeneutics—for having, finally, too abstract a conception of the ethical or, indeed, what amounts to the same thing, for having an impoverished conception of hermeneutics, reducing hermeneutics to the purely logical procedure of con-textualization. For Gadamer, understanding constitutes the historical and practical condition for all human relations, social and political as well as ethical. The universal scope of hermeneutics moves from the ground up (rather the way, for Levinas, the ethical relation of proximity and singularity constitutes “the condition for all solidarity” and provides, moreover, for the possibility of justice that makes human life livable after all, even in the aftermath of the Holocaust and in the midst of modernity as “the era of “man-made mass death” (AEiSG/OTBuy). However, an account that would clarify the ethical as the condition of solidarity would, a Gadamerian might argue, require something very like a detour into hermeneutics.
For example, one might say that from Gadamer's perspective Levinas's conception of the ethical is too purely ethical, not sufficiently social (not
Language as the presence of the face does not invite complicity with the preferred being, the self-sufficient ‘I-Thou’ forgetful of the universe; in its frankness it refuses the clandestinity of love, where it loses its frankness and meaning and turns into laughter and cooing. The third party looks at me in the eyes of the Other—language is justice. It is not that there first would be the face, and then the being it manifests or expresses would concern himself with justice; the epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity.” (Tel234/ TI213)
So (this would be Gadamer's point) the ethical does not and cannot stand by itself, outside of every context, because my responsibility to and for the other cannot stop with the other but opens onto (among other things) politics, where responsibility entails responsiveness to the here-and-now exigencies of social action.
At all events Gadamer glosses the formula “beyond being” (en&x&iva i&C, ouaiac;) by locating it precisely within the here and now. For Gadamer (in contrast to Levinas), “The good is no longer the one” (GW'j: iga/IGi 15). The good belongs to the hermeneutical domain of the “between” where ethics and aesthetics (or, for all of that, cognition and action, theory and practice, the transcendent and the everyday, and so on through whatever list of oppositions one might devise) constitute a mixture that cannot be distilled into distinct orders of reality, much less into separate categories of experience. Here is where Gadamer differs most completely from Habermas, who divides the human life-world into separate cultural districts of science, social practice, and art, over which philosophy is then installed as a quasi-transcendental “guardian of rationality.” In the context of the Philebus, Gadamer says, ‘“the good,’ which is at the same time ‘the beautiful,’ does not exist somewhere apart for itself and in itself, somewhere ‘beyond.’ Rather, it exists in everything that we recognize as a beautiful mixture. What is viewed from the perspective of the Republic (or the Symposium) is here determined to be the structure of the ‘mixed’ itself. In each case it would seem to be found only in what is concretely good and beautiful” (GW'j: 192-937 IGi 15). This means that the good cannot be conceptualized apart from the question of how one should live within the contingencies in which one finds oneself. Or, in other words, at the end of the day, the question of the good is the question of cpgovrjatc;”.
1. For example, self-respect and the need to be free of self-reproach (the goals of “a rational plan of life”) are the main features of John Rawls's ethical theory. See A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), esp. 433-46. Much of contemporary moral philosophy sees ethics as a function of rational choice, where my concern is always with what will help me to achieve my goals, which comes down to the question of what comes back to me in the way of profit for my right conduct. In the long run decency toward others pays. The writings of Martin Hollis on this matter are very instructive. See, for example, The Cunning of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Levinas's philosophy can be read as a thoroughgoing critique of rational-choice theory. [BACK]
2. See Adriaan T. Peperzak, “On Levinas's Criticism of Heidegger,” in Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Evanston, 111.: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 204-17. For a discussion of the ethical in Heidegger's thinking—where the ethical includes the relation to a nonhuman as well as human alterity—see Joanna Hodge, Heidegger and Ethics (London: Routledge, 1995). [BACK]
3. In “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity,” Levinas writes: “Cognition consists in grasping the individual, which alone exists, not in its singularity … but in its generality, of which alone there is science.” To which he adds:
And here every power begins. The surrender of exterior things to human freedom through their generality does not only mean … their comprehension, but also their being taken in hand, their domestication, their possession. Only in possession does the I complete the identification of the diverse. To possess is, to be sure, to maintain the reality of the one possessed, but to do so while suspending its independence. In a civilization which the philosophy of the same reflects, freedom is realized as a wealth. Reason, which reduces the other [to the same], is appropriation and power. (DEHHiGS/CPPso)
Likewise in “Ethics as First Philosophy,” Levinas writes:
In knowledge there … appears the notion of an intellectual activity or of a reasoning will—a way of doing something which consists … of seizing something and making it one's own, of reducing to presence and representing the difference of being, an activity which appropriates and grasps the otherness of the known. A certain grasp: as an entity, being becomes the characteristic property of thought, as it is grasped by it and becomes known. Knowledge as perception, concept [Begriff, from greifen, to grasp], comprehension, refers back to an act of grasping. The metaphor should be taken literally: even before any technical application of knowledge, it expresses the principle rather than the result of the future technological and industrial order of which every civilisation bears the seed. The immanence of the known to the act of knowing is already the embodiment of seizure. (LRy6) [BACK]
4. Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 344-58. [BACK]
5. See Habermas, “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification,” in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), 43-115. [BACK]
6. On the social character of cppovrian;” see P. Christopher Smith, “The I-Thou Encounter (Begegnung) in Gadamer's Reception of Heidegger” (PHGG5i4-ig). See also Joseph Dunne, Bach to the Rough Ground: ‘Phronesis’ and ‘Techne’ in Modern Philosophy
7. See Gadamer, “Freundschaft und Selbsterkenntnis Zur Rolle der Freund-schaft in der grieschen Ethik” (GW7:3g6-4o6). [BACK]
8. See Adriaan Peperzak, “Transcendence,” in Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, 162-70. For Levinas, ontology and epistemology run together, so that “transcendence,” “beyond,” and “otherwise than being” refer to a dimension of existence outside the grasp of cognition, or beyond subjectivity conceived as spirit, consciousness, intentionality, or conceptual determination. This dimension of exteriority (on the hither side of being) is the dimension of ethical reality. [BACK]
9. A translation of the 1968 version of “Substitution” appears in Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 79-95. [BACK]
10. The singular is, in other words, outside the relation of universal and particular, that is, it is an infinity outside every totality. As Plato puts it in the Parmenides (i64c), we are the others of each other, not of any one, “for there is no one.” See Totality and Infinity (Tel21-45/33-52), and “Transcendence and Height,” in Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, 10-31, esp. 12: “The Other [I'Autre] thus presents itself as human Other [Autrui]; it shows a face and opens the dimension of height, that is to say, it infinitely overflows the bounds of knowledge.” [BACK]
11. That is—against Kant—responsibility is prior to freedom; it is not an exercise of autonomy. Levinas writes, “To be without a choice can seem to be violence only to an abusive or hasty and imprudent reflection, for it precedes the freedom non-freedom couple, but thereby sets up a vocation that goes beyond the limited and egoist fate of him who is only for-himself, and washes his hands of the faults and misfortunes that do not begin in his own freedom or in his present” (AEi83-84/OTBn6). [BACK]
12. Levinas scholars have still not come to terms with these concepts of obsession, persecution, and hostage as descriptions of the structure and condition of the ethical subject. What seems generally recognized is that these terms are meant to define the radical character of a passivity that situates the subject outside the alternatives of the active or passive voice. Passivity, as Levinas understands it, is absolute, that is, outside (for example) the master-slave relation, where submission is still a position that one occupies as a consequence of one's decision (not to risk death, for example), whereas “the passivity more passive than all passivity” refers to a passion in which one is gripped or possessed before one realizes it. Passivity means being porous, subject to the passage whereby the other is inside my skin. [BACK]
13. In Otherwise than Being Levinas characterizes the condition of despite oneself in
14. See Bernasconi, “‘Only the Persecuted’: Language of the Oppressor, Language of the Oppressed,” in Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Lev-inas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak (London: Rout-ledge, 1995), 85. [BACK]
15. In an essay “Response and Responsibility in Levinas” in Ethics as First Philosophy, Bernhard Waldenfels emphasizes the face-to-face relation of responsibility as constitutive of human subjectivity:
Behind somebody who “gives himself” when giving an answer, there is no person in the form of the nominative. There is neither a sovereign speaker or actor preceding the responding nor a judge considering both sides; the respondent who does not merely transform existing sense becomes what he is by and in the very process of responding. He or she is not a subject in the traditional sense, “underlying” certain acts, but a respondent through and through, who in a certain sense remains unknown to him-or herself. If we want to continue calling him a “subject,” then we do so in the sense of his “subjection” to the demands of the Other. (42) [BACK]
16. Peperzak, Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, 104. [BACK]
17. Levinas distinguishes between Saying (leDire) and the Said (leDit), where Saying is a movement toward the other, “the risky uncovering of oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and the abandon of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability” (AE82/OTB48), whereas the Said is the product of a logical movement in which I take a position toward something, thematize it propositionally, fix it as an object (AE65/OTB37). [BACK]
18. The “height” of the Other is not a position of strength but, paradoxically, one of destitution and weakness. In Totality and Infinity Levinas writes: “The being that presents himself in the face comes from a dimension of height, a dimension of transcendence whereby he can present himself as a stranger without opposing me as an obstacle or enemy. More, for my position as / [moi] consists in being able to respond to the essential destitution of the Other, finding resources for myself. The Other who dominates me in his transcendence is thus the stranger, the widow, the orphan, to whom I am obligated” (Tel237/Tl2i5). [BACK]
19. See James Risser, Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other: Re-reading Gadamer's PhilosophicalHermeneutics (Albany, NY: SUNYPress, 1997), 172-82. Risser points out that, in contrast to Paul Ricoeur's “hermeneutics of the text,” Gadamer's is “a her-meneutics of the voice,” and that the concept of voice entails conditions of proximity, even intimacy, such that I am never in a position in which I can simply take over
every speaking is a speaking to the other as a desire for the other. There is always in the communicative situation the voice of the other as the desired voice. In this context it is difficult to understand how the event of understanding can be construed as appropriation, as making something one's own, turning the event of understanding into a unity of understanding …. [For] Gadamer it is precisely the voice of the other that breaks open what is one's own, and remains there—a desired voice that cannot be suspended—as the partner in every conversation. (181) [BACK]
20. See Gadamer's remarks on participation in “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” in Hermeneutics: Questions and Prospects (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 64. In Truth and Method Gadamer writes, “Understanding is to be thought of less as a subjective act than as participating in an event of tradition” (WM274-75/TM2go). [BACK]
21. See Gerald L. Bruns, “On the Tragedy of Hermeneutical Experience,” in Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), 179-94, esp. 183-84. [BACK]
22. The section “Substitution” in Otherwise than Beingputs it more extravagantly: the encounter with the other “is an accusation without foundation, prior to any movement of the will, an obsessional and persecuting accusation. It strips the ego of its pride and the dominating imperialism characteristic of it. The subject is in the accusative, without recourse in being, expelled from being, outside of being, like the one in the first hypothesis of Parmenides, without a foundation, reduced to itself, and thus without condition. In its own skin” (AEi74-75/OTBi 10). [BACK]
23. It should be noticed, however, that Gadamer goes on to say that self-understanding should not be construed as self-possession [Selbstbesitzes]: “For the self-understanding only realizes itself in the understanding of a subject-matter and does not have the character of a free self-realization The self that we are does not possess itself; one could say that it ‘happens’” (GW2:13O/PH55). Here Gadamer and Levinas are very close. Self-understanding is an event in which the self journeys out of itself. Gadamer cites the example of Augustine, for whom the self is inaccessible except in its exposure to God. [BACK]
24. Speaking of Gadamer's hermeneutics in terms of a desire for the other, James Risser writes, “The voice of the other, as desired, draws one beyond oneself, to think with the other, ‘and to come back to oneself as if to another’” (Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other, 182). See Gadamer's essay “Destruhtion and Deconstruction” [DDno/GW2:26g]). [BACK]
25. Possibly Levinas blurs Heidegger's distinction between the “hermeneutical ‘as,’” in which the structure of something-as-something concerns whatever is ready-at-hand within our everyday practical concern, and the “apophantical ‘as,’” in which something is objectified by means of an assertion and so stands before us “as a ‘what’” (SZi587BT200). [BACK]
26. A “past that was never present” is Levinas's way of figuring the concept of the
27. One of Blanchot's essays on Levinas is entitled “The Relation of the Third Kind: Man without Horizon,” in The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 66-74. For Blanchot the other is outside every world; he (if he is the word) belongs to the outside as such, which one might describe in terms of space as surface rather than as volume, so that the other is always in a condition of exile, traversing the surface of the earth in endless restlessness since he is incapable of experiencing space except as radical exteriority. [BACK]
28. See “Notes on Planning for the Future” (EPHi6g). [BACK]
29. See Gerald L. Bruns, “What is Tradition?” in Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern, 208-11. [BACK]
30. Maurice Blanchot poses just this question in “The Relation of the Third Kind.” Blanchot's argument is that if one is to pursue Levinas's own thought rigorously, and to situate the other in an absolute transcendence, radical alterity must be thought of as neutral, that is, neither human nor nonhuman but in excess of every category or name, even beyond the unnameable name of negative theology (God): “autrui [Blanchot insists on the lower case] is a name that is essentially neutral and that, far from relieving us of all responsibility of attending to the neutral, it reminds us that we must, in the presence of the other who comes to us as Autrui, respond to the depth of strangeness, of inertia, of irregularity and idleness [desceuvremmt] to which we open when we seek to receive the speech of the Outside” (TheInfinite Conversation, 71-72). The “depth of strangeness” would therefore be a region more transcendent than that of the ethical relation of myself and another: for Blanchot it would be the region of poetry or writing (the region of exile or absolute noniden-tity). See Gerald L. Bruns, Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). [BACK]
31. See Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and the Era of Man-Made Mass Death (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989). [BACK]
32. See also Levinas, “The Ego and Totality” (EN3o-38/CPP2g-35). [BACK]
33. See Habermas, “Philosophy as Stand-in and Interpreter,” Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, esp. 14-20. [BACK]