“Totality and Infinity” “As-sociation” and “Enjoyment” ?

Phil 6958: The Uncertain Boundaries of the Subject


Short Paper 2 on Totality and Infinity, thus far…

A particular line in our reading that stuck out to me was under the section f) language and justice: “If we call a situation where my freedom is called in question conscience, as-sociation or the welcoming of the Other is conscience” (100). I can see here clearly the pull of pre-ontological ethics. Conscience seems to imply association with others. Perhaps by “as-sociation” Levinas is fore-fronting the social aspect of this association? To me this encourages a Heideggerian view where conscience means not just me in association with other individuals but also me as a being-in-the-world. In fact, I think Heidegger might use the term “being-with” others. Furthermore, these others are not the same as me but may judge me differently than I do myself. This may give me anxiety because I am being judged by them according to their foreign standards. Here is a good example of what Levinas means by the Other. I should feel no anxiety if I am egoistic because I do not let the Other touch me. I assume my actions would be judged the same as I judge them. The Other provides me self-criticism. Ultimately it is the recognition of the Other, an association with him, that generates conscience.

Self-criticism is a limitation of my freedom—precisely the situation Raskolnikov feels to be in in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov believed that great men, like Napoleon, had overcome their conscience and thus were not hampered by it. I can understand Levinas’ statement, in that, I do see conscience as restraining my root desires or passing urges in lieu of others. My question here is: is this pre-ontological? We could say that I act according to my conscience because it is in my self-interest to do so. But this is an assertion made after the fact. It requires that I cognize everything already and work on the psychological level. The more fundamental level Levinas means to work on precedes the psychological level.

I think of Sartre’s famous example of “a voyeur.” When at a keyhole looking into a bedroom, he is unaware of himself, but the sound of footsteps down the hall recalls him to his being. Here I am not exactly sure what Levinas would say about this example. My guess is that he would claim before the man recalls his own being, he apprehends only the other (the footsteps). Immediately the man perceives the immorality of his voyeurism—something difficult to ascertain when one feels one is alone in the world, i.e. egoistic. Thus the first relation is ethical as conscience—at the mercy of the other—while later it is ontological—I (a)perceive myself.

I am having difficulty placing Levinas’ “Enjoyment” before Heidegger’s objects as tools (ready-to-hand). Levinas critiques Heidegger’s ontology but it is still hard for me to grasp the idea of Enjoyment and how this can be either good or bad for me. You would think that Levinas would choose a different word than Enjoyment which has a positive connotation, if this relation of Enjoyment to things can be either happiness or anxiety. Furthermore, I’m not really sure how Enjoyment is certainly prior to objects as tools (and I assume “sorge”). Levinas uses the example of bread at one point. I eat bread in order to live therefore my life is living from bread. But here I only see care (sorge). I eat bread because I care about hunger and living and avoiding pain and ultimately death. I don’t seem to take Enjoyment in being nourished without there being the hunger which I am trying to overcome.

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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