Levinas and the Ancients

Levinas and the Ancients

Levinas and the Ancients

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Levinas and the Ancients by Brian Schroeder

The relation between the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions is "the great problem" of Western philosophy according to Emmanuel Levinas. In this book, Brian Schroeder, Silvia Benso, and an international group of philosophers address the relationship between Levinas and the world of ancient thought. In addition to philosophy, themes touching on religion, mythology, metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics, and politics are also explored. The volume as a whole provides a unified and extended discussion of how an engagement between Levinas and thinkers from the ancient tradition works to enrich understandings of both. This book opens new pathways in ancient and modern philosophical studies as it illuminates new interpretations of Levinas's ethics and his social and political philosophy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253000736
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/13/2008
Series: Studies in Continental Thought
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 563 KB

About the Author

Brian Schroeder is Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. He is the author of Altared Ground: Levinas, History, and Violence.

Silvia Benso is Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Philosophy. She is the author of The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics.

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Levinas and the Ancients

By Brian Schroeder, Silvia Benso

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2008 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35180-7



Silvia Benso

Are not we Westerners, from California to the Urals, nourished by the Bible as much as by the Presocratics?

— Levinas, "No Identity"

Presocratic Presences

Relinquishing the rhetorical interrogation in the above epigraph, let us restate it positively: "We Westerners...." Others have already explored some of the ways in which Levinas' philosophy is sustained by the biblical inspiration. And Levinas himself is willing to recognize, at various points in his essays, the presence of the Socratic, Platonic, and even Aristotelian legacy (to stay with some major Greek, post-Socratic thinkers) within his own thought. Is Levinas also nourished by the Presocratics as his statement suggests? And what would a Levinasian reading of the Presocratics reveal? Would different possibilities of philosophical thinking open up, within the very origins of Greek philosophy, if one were to let the Levinasian inspiration breathe through such an originary thinking? These are the questions I would like to take up in the remainder of this essay. After a necessary, brief, and certainly unsystematic excursus on some Presocratic themes that might be said to echo in Levinas' philosophy, I will focus more specifically on the presence in Levinas of a rather minor, but thus even more significant, Presocratic thinker, Anaximenes, and his "theory" that air is the arche of all things.

Some ways in which Presocratic thinkers and themes resonate in Levinas' thought are more evident than others, insofar as such echoes are identified by Levinas himself. Indeed, there are moments when Levinas is highly critical of themes inaugurated by the Presocratic tradition. Thus, an equal criticism associates the two giants of Presocratic philosophy (which some, for example, Nietzsche,1 see as representatives of two very different, distinct tendencies within Western philosophy): Parmenides, the philosopher of being and unity, and Heraclitus, the philosopher of becoming and polemos. Levinas' contention with Parmenides as being at the origin of a recurrent attempt, within the Western tradition, at reading being in terms of unity and, more specifically, in terms of a unity of being and thought — that is, in terms of a reassembling of differences within the circularity of thought — is well known, since it implicitly inspires much of the pages and themes unfolded in Totality and Infinity (see 33–52). In Time and the Other, Levinas declares his programmatic intention to distance himself philosophically from Parmenides, writing that "it is toward a pluralism that does not merge into unity that I should like to make my way, and, if this can be dared, break with Parmenides" (42). What is here rejected is Parmenides' hen kai pan, the monism of the logic of the One in which all possibilities for proximity with the Other are denied in favor of a mysticism of representation prescribing either unity in the object, as in religious mysticism (which Levinas constantly rejects), or unity in the subject, as in all theories of the conformation of the object to the subject whether configured in a Cartesian, Kantian, Hegelian, or even Husserlian and Heideggerian mode. Analogously evident is Levinas' condemnation, which once again inspires much of the opening pages of Totality and Infinity, of the Heraclitean motif of being as polemos, which ends up in an ontology of war where the other is seen as the enemy to be conquered, subsumed, annihilated. "We do not need obscure fragments of Heraclitus to prove that being reveals itself as war to philosophical thought, that war does not only affect it as the most patent fact, but as the very patency, or the truth, of the real" (TI 21), Levinas states.

Far from seeing Parmenides and Heraclitus as separate, like and yet unlike Heidegger, Levinas unites them as being the necessary counterparts in a project that aims at denying what he calls "the eschatology of messianic peace" inspired by the idea of the Infinite, "a relation with a surplus always exterior to the totality" (TI 22). Thus he writes, "The visage of being that shows itself in war is fixed in the concept of totality, which dominates Western philosophy" (TI 21). Heraclitean ontology of war (and annihilation) and Parmenidean logic of totality and unity are two explications, one practical and one theoretical, as it were, of the same attitude toward alterity and transcendence. True becoming, then, the true passage from the same to the other, is not that indicated by the Heraclitean movement of flux. Rather, in agreement with the appearance in Plato's Theaetetus (152a–e) of Protagoras, for whom "man [appears] as measure of all things, that is, [is] measured by nothing, comparing all things but incomparable," for Levinas, who rehabilitates the great sophist, "a multiplicity of sentients would be the very mode in which a becoming is possible" (TI 59–60).

Besides the ones just indicated, there are other places where a remainder of Presocratic inspirations is acknowledged as playing more positive roles in Levinas' thinking. Although the concept of il y a is not the final point in Levinas' project, nevertheless it cannot be denied that such a notion plays an essential part in enabling the constitution of a subjectivity capable of responding to the appeal of the Other, that is, capable of making itself ethical. Without the il y a, in fact, without this resurgence of being that never allows for escapes or exits into nothingness (and here the subscription to Parmenides' prohibition of the path of nonbeing should be evident), "the I" could easily find a way of contenting and thus quieting itself in a quasi-Buddhist notion of emptiness or nothingness, or in the death brought about by suicide. But the inability to rest upon itself, the impossibility to sleep, even in death, the wakefulness to which the il y a forces the I is also what prepares the I, in its exposure and vigilance, to the possibility of later being disrupted by the Other. And it is what provides the I with the elements that will enable the I to remedy the thirst, hunger, and nakedness of the Other, to welcome the Other not with empty hands.

The Heraclitean moment in the notion of the il y a is recalled by Levinas himself when, in a page of Time and the Other, he writes that "if it were necessary to compare the notion of the there is with a great theme of classical philosophy, I would think of Heraclitus. Not to the myth of the river in which one cannot bathe twice, but to Cratylus' version of the river in which one cannot bathe even once; where the very fixity of unity, the form of every existent, cannot be constituted" (TO 49). Still in the same context, Levinas dismisses possible Anaximandrian reminiscences of the apeiron, an indefinite infinite to which one might be tempted to assimilate the il y a. "The indeterminate ground spoken of in philosophy textbooks," Levinas writes, without citing any names, "is already a being — an entity — a something. It already falls under the category of the substantive. It already has that elementary personality characteristic of every existent" (TO 47–48), whereas what Levinas has in mind when speaking of the il y a is the "very work of being" (TO 48), verbal and not substantive or subjective, and therefore anonymous and impersonal (EE 57–64).

In Time and the Other as well as in Existence and Existents, such anonymity and impersonality is exemplified through expressions such as "it is raining" (TO 47; EE 58), "it is hot" (TO 47), "it is warm (EE 58), "it is night" (EI 48), "a heavy atmosphere" (EE 58), thus possibly suggesting an affinity with the general realm of what the Presocratic naturalist philosophers, namely, Thales and Anaximenes but also Empedocles (who, however, in this similarly to Anaximander, identified such a general realm with specific, particularized beings), might have called phusis — nature in its preobjective, prescientific meaning. Could Presocratic phusis resonate, then, in the il y a? To ask this question means to ask about the place of nature in Levinas' thought both with respect to being and in relation to the beyond being; that is, it means to ask, among other things, whether ethical subjectivity requires a breaking open and a relinquishing of the self's natural attitude, or whether ethical subjectivity is to an extent rooted in nature, although certainly it is not grounded there, since its reason of being comes from the transcendence of the alterity of the Other.

Presocratic phusis, or the natural elements to which many of the Presocratics refer, properly falls under what Levinas calls "the elemental" (TI 131). What is the relation between the elemental and the il y a, that is, between the Presocratic conception of elemental phusis and the il y a on which the I as hypostasis, as substance, raises (EE), but which it leaves behind in its move toward ethical subjectivity, toward subjectivity without autonomous substance or substantivity? Indeed, the elemental shares many features with the il y a. Like the il y a, the elemental is indeterminate, boundless, timeless, without origin: it is "a common fund or terrain, essentially non-possessable, 'nobody's,'" Levinas writes (TI 131); and he continues: "The depth of the element prolongs it till it is lost in the earth and in the heavens. 'Nothing ends, nothing begins'" (TI 131). Content without form (TI 131), the elemental is pure "qualit[y] without support ... adjectiv[e] without substantive," quality "determining nothing" (TI 132), and thus anonymous like the il y a: it "presents us as it were the reverse of reality, without origin in being. ... Hence we can say that the element comes to us from nowhere; the side it presents to us does not determine an object, remains entirely anonymous. C'est du vent, de la terre, de la mer, du ciel, de l'air" (TI 132). Self-sufficient, incapable of raising any questions regarding "what is the 'other side'" of it, the elemental calls for a "bathing," for an "immersion ... not convertible into exteriority" (TI 132) — what Levinas names "enjoyment — an ultimate relation with the substantial plenitude of being, with its materiality" (TI 133).

Yet in Levinas, the elemental is not simply phusis (although phusis is elemental), and the elemental is not the il y a, which means also that phusis is not the il y a. First of all, the elemental is not simply phusis in the sense of the natural elements as understood by the Presocratics, insofar as Levinas certainly includes in it earth, sea, sky, air (TI 132), light (TI 130), but also, and in a sense surprisingly, city (TI 131). That is, the elemental escapes the distinction and separation between natural and artificial, between phusis and techne, perhaps allowing for an understanding of both as forms of poiesis, perhaps enabling a reading of technology as an inevitable component of nature, or perhaps opening up some other possibility of discourse that cannot be explored in the context of this essay. Second, for Levinas the elemental is not the il y a. Whereas in the il y a Levinas stresses the verbal aspect without a substantive to support such verbality, what is stressed in the elemental is the qualitative aspect without substantiality. Thus, the two forms of anonymity differ. The il y a refers to an impersonal anonymity, to the sheer event of being without form or content because prior and indifferent to both. The elemental instead refers to an anonymity that is already identified and identifiable, personalized or hypostasized, as it were, through a certain way (a certain quality) of its being, which thus becomes its content; it is an anonymity where what remains undetermined is not the content but the form, the face, the absence of which compels Levinas to talk about the gods of nature as pagan, mythical, faceless deities with whom no personal relation can be entertained.

This lack of complete coincidence between the elemental and the il y a also means that being and nature do not coincide in Levinas. Nature is already a way of being, an existent, a content, a mode of carving oneself a niche in the anonymity of the il y a. As we know from other places in Levinas' philosophy, there are other ways of being: the egology or egoism of the ontological subject (which thus is not necessarily natural), the being-for-the-other of ethical subjectivity, the beyondbeing of transcendence (whether God or the Other), to name a few. This lack of coincidence between nature and the il y a allows for the possibility, I argue, that unlike the il y a, nature, for Levinas, may already be spiritual, that is, open to the ethical; or perhaps, which amounts to the same thing, spirit may already be natural because in fact nature is beyond the separation between materiality and spirituality, mind and body, matter and soul. It is at this point that Anaximenes' "theory" of air being the arche of all things becomes interesting.

Aer, Psuche, Pneuma in Anaximenes

We know very little, almost nothing certain, about Anaximenes' life and activities. Certainly in the eyes of the contemporary reader, often trained in the shadow of Nietzsche and Heidegger, among the three Milesians, Anaximander appears more prominent than his "associate" Anaximenes. According to Diogenes Laertius, however, Theophrastus (Aristotle's pupil) wrote an entire monograph on Anaximenes, which signals the recognition Anaximenes enjoyed in the ancient world and thus the possibly widespread influence of his thinking. Although the theory of pneuma — pneumatology — occupies an important place in the theories of the medical schools as they developed in the fifth century bce and received its most complete and significant form in the doctrines of the Stoics, it is in Anaximenes that its first philosophical mention occurs, according to a longstanding tradition in the West. Therefore, it is to him that I turn, regardless of the only alleged authenticity of the fragment in which such a theory appears (for although some alterations and rewording might in fact have occurred, this would not radically change the general sense of the quotation).

As handed down to the tradition by Aetius, the words commonly accepted as a direct quotation from Anaximenes are: "'Just as,' he says, 'our soul [psuche], being air [aer], holds us together, so do breath [pneuma] and air [aer] encompass the whole world.'" And, Aetius adds, air (aer) and breath (pneuma) are synonymous here.7 The psuche is aer; aer and pneuma are synonyms; therefore, the psuche is also pneuma.

First of all, a brief semantic observation. It is questionable what Anaximenes exactly meant by aer, whether atmospheric air (invisible) or, as in Homer, mist and vapor (visible). There is no doubt, however, that for Anaximenes air is something substantial, and indeed, the basic form of substance. Whether such substantiality retains material or spiritual features or neither is part of what I would like to address here. In the fragment reproduced above, even more radical than the association between air and breath (breath is, after all, in a merely physiological sense, warm air) is the suggestion that our soul — the psuche — is not only air but also, and at the same time, pneuma. In other words, the soul is indeed assimilated to a natural, physical principle (aer) that is seen at work in the entire universe (thus also suggesting, though not our interest here, an analogy, if not a structural coincidence, between microcosm and macrocosm). By itself, this move would amount to understanding the soul in terms of its physical makeup, of what was later called "matter," and would subject it to obedience to the deterministic, mechanistic laws that are seen at work in the universe of physicality. What would derive would be a philosophical vision in which the psychic dimension, otherwise known as spirituality, would be reduced to its natural, physical, material component. However, there is something else going on in Anaximenes' fragment.


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Table of Contents

Foreword   Adriaan Peperzak     xi
Acknowledgments     xiii
Abbreviations of Works   Emmanuel Levinas     xv
To Return in a New Way: Introduction   Silvia Benso   Brian Schroeder     1
The Breathing of the Air: Presocratic Echoes in Levinas   Silvia Benso     9
The Eternal and the New: Socrates and Levinas on Desire and Need   Deborah Achtenberg     24
Levinas Questioning Plato on Eros and Maieutics   Francisco J. Gonzalez     40
Getting Under the Skin: Platonic Myths in Levinas   Tanja Stahler     62
Lending Assistance Always to Itself: Levinas' Infinite Conversation with Platonic Dialogue   Michael Naas     79
Ethics as First Philosophy: Aristotelian Reflections on Intelligence, Sensibility, and Transcendence   Claudia Baracchi     103
Aristotle and Levinas on War and Peace: The one Against the Other   Catriona Hanley     127
Stoic Ethics and Totality in Light of Levinasian Alterity   Julie Piering     144
Of a Non-Saying that Says Nothing: Levinas and Pyrrhonism   Pierre Lamarche     165
The Time and Language of Messianism: Levinas and Saint Paul   Bettina Bergo     178
Proximity in Distance:Levinas and Plotinus   John Izzi     196
A Trace of the Eternal Return? Levinas and Neoplatonism   Brian Schroeder     210
Ethics and Predestination in Augustine and Levinas   Thomas J.J. Altizer     230
List of Contributors     243
Index     247

What People are Saying About This

from the foreword - Adriaan Peperzak

Thanks to the initiative of Silvia Benso and Brian Schroeder, the authors of this volume not only explore the easily forgotten dimension of Levinas' debt to some early sources of European philosophy, but also focus on the manners in which he has used these sources, to show their relevance for us.

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