“Totality and Infinity” Like an Inside Joke in a Foreign Film

Phil 6958: The Uncertain  Boundaries of the Subject


Short Paper on Totality and Infinity, thus far…

Thus far, Totality and Infinity resembles to me the experience of watching a foreign film. At times I understand completely what is going on and the situations are analogous to my own experiences. These are action-packed moments for me where the text has my undivided attention. At other times, I am utterly lost. It’s like there is some inside joke going on or a reference to a cultural stereotype that only exists in the foreign language and not my own. At these times the foreignness (or alterity) of the text can be enjoyable. Unfortunately, this enjoyment wears off rather quickly and the text becomes cumbersome.

I’ve been surmising that this movement between insight and enigma has something to do with Levinas’ phenomenological style. He is trying to get at/pin down/focus on the phenomenological experience of infinity, totality, freedom, etc. If this leads to logical contradiction or enigmatic metaphors, so be it. The goal is to articulate the experience and the experience could be contradictory and enigmatic. Such is the case when he speaks of infinity as always transcending or overflowing our understanding: “…infinity overflows the thought that thinks it. Its very infinition is produced precisely in this overflowing” (25). This is a good phenomenological description of infinity because it both captures the way in which we speak of infinity—as transcendent, beyond comprehension, impossible for the finite to match/meet—and it fits my own experience of infinity.

The problem with phenomenological writings is those occasions when the description of an experience matches neither the way we speak of that experience nor my personal observations. This occurred for me when Levinas writes about atheism (58-9). The way he uses the term atheism remains enigmatic for me. It appears that he is using atheism both literally and metaphorically. “One can call atheism this separation so complete that the separated being maintains itself in existence all by itself, without participating in the Being from which it is separated—eventually capable of adhering to it by belief” (58). Metaphorically, theism might mean another case of infinity. God, Being and infinity are all examples of things that overflow the thoughts that think them. So if a being or existent (a person) can deny the overflow or infinity of God or Being, it would partake in an atheism. Literally, Levinas implies that the independence one can have from “participating in the Being from which” one can separate oneself is something which atheists do. That is to say atheists are people that maintain themselves in a self-reliant fashion without adhering to belief in that which made them what they are.

I would guess that Levinas is doing two things here theologically. First, he isn’t making a necessary connection between atheism as he defines it and atheists as we commonly think of them. Levinasian atheism isn’t necessarily a bad thing according to Levinas. In fact he rejoices in it: “It is certainly a great glory for the creator to have set up a being capable of atheism…” Levinasian atheism means disbelief in God in order that we may believe in Him honestly and freely. Second, Levinas nevertheless is making a connection between his atheism and atheists. Atheists are people who are refusing to believe in God. This isn’t negative in any way, until we understand that Levinas isn’t just speaking theologically. What does Levinas mean by “the Being from which it is separated?” He must mean God but does he also mean Being in general? I’m not sure whether Levinas is showing how his atheism leads us to become human or whether we must go beyond it in order to accept alterity and Otherness. But by choosing the word atheism, it seems as though Levinas is purposefully trapping actual atheists. Would it not be inconsistent to claim that in order to embrace alterity we must go beyond self-reliant, Levinasian atheism and yet also cling to theological atheism? For God is also the Alterity theologically. I wonder if atheism involves an alterity. Just like God is the absolute Other, would not there be something in atheism that is an absolute Other?

I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s book The Varieties of Scientific Experience where he beautifully articulates the humbling experience of astronomy and its philosophical power while examining a photograph of a tiny blue dot, Earth, taken by the Voyager I spacecraft.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

Here I would say is an atheistic experience of God. The pale blue dot is the atheists’ alterity, challenging all of our “posturings.” Furthermore, Sagan uses this message not to show human inferiority, the path to nihilism, but to show humbleness, the path to caring: “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

About C.P.

Collin is a professional writer and scholar. He holds an MA in Philosophy and a BA in English literature. His philosophical work has appeared in print published by Wiley/Blackwell and Open Court. More of his writings, philosophical, literary, comic, and just plain nonsensical are available online. He currently lives in Seattle where he is writing science fiction, dressing up for Cons, and wreaking havoc on his opponents (npcs and tabletop humans alike).
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