Remembering Levinas

In one of my recent articles, “Objectivism Revisited”, I criticized the underlying philosophical justifications behind Ayn Rand’s epistemological theory and its support for unfettered free-market capitalism. My motivation for this piece came from the recent Congressional battles over support for the $700 billion economic bailout plan, which House Republicans strongly derided on the grounds that any and all governmental encroachments into the market would cripple the contemporary American business ethic. Pundits on television and in the print media engaged in a war of words over the theories of Objectivism without realizing where their ideas were coming from or the long-standing philosophical debates intrinsic to their discussion. I wanted to invoke that intellectual history in relation to the current American fiscal crisis in order to shine some additional light on the barrage of unjustified claims waged by both sides of the economic debate. In the ensuing point-counterpoint that followed on, I remembered an often forgotten intellectual giant, who also attempted to move beyond the war of ideas in a unique and unquestionably brilliant fashion. Before I introduce his thought to this forum, I think that it is important to summarize where the discussion has taken us so far.

Indeed, there are variety of justifications for free-market capitalism, many of which I strongly agree with. Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom”, now somewhat of a Cold War relic, correctly points out the variety of benefits that capitalism has bestowed upon the human population, from increased food supplies to structural insurance for individual freedom to the global stability that comes with economic interdependence. Life expectancies are longer and the quality of life has been better for more people in a world driven by capitalist logic than the regulatory paradigm of statism. All of these benefits are nothing short of historical facts. Capitalism has been a positive development in many regards for human beings. Objectivism, however, takes a step further in its justification for the historical phenomenon of capitalism that I consider to be philosophically violent and a continuation of the same dangers she rejects.

In Rand’s attempt to construct an unwavering and eternal justification for the free-market, she developed a theory of knowledge – an epistemology – that gave credence to the idea of objective knowledge, otherwise known as “truth”. Objectivism claims that there is objective truth for any individual based upon what their survival, purpose, and rational self-interest require, albeit relational to society. If I am hungry, then, “objectively”, food is of value to me – it is “true” that I need food, even though the words/concepts I use to describe this need, given to an individual by society, are arbitrary. From this position on the nature of knowledge, Rand argued that protecting these individual declarations of “truth” was the essential task of both government and any system of morality. Rand believed that the only regulatory regime capable of sustaining the freedom necessary to sustain these expressions of truth is free-market capitalism. Capitalism allows these desires and needs to be weighed justly, she contended, because the free-market never marginalizes the claims of an individual or intervenes on behalf of some greater philosophical principle. For Rand, the free-market is an expression of perfect justice – it assigns the proper value to all things. Therefore, interventions into the market, like the proposed economic bailout package in Congress, are always detrimental to individuals, because they infringe on the neutrality and justice of the system.

Rand constantly criticized the monotheistic religions for their construction of moral systems that did not have a basis in the needs and desires of the individual, but in a higher authority. She saw their ideological power as only destructive of the true potential of human beings to ascend through motivated action and sustained purpose. From this existentialist rejection of religion, Rand denied the possibility of altruism – a purely unselfish act towards an other – on the grounds that all actions were inherently self-interested. This impossibility, she argued, was because of the fact that all people ever express is their objective demand towards attaining what is in their rational self-interest. Even if you help someone, it is because you wish to express your benevolence and the benefits of doing so will reflect on your social capital, et cetera. I was previously criticized for portraying Rand’s Objectivism as Rationalism – the belief in the ability of the individual’s rationality to solve any problem – so I hope that this description of her epistemology and moral justification of capitalism gives better weight to the pluralism that Rand endorsed. In any case, it does not really matter what I portray Rand’s ideology as, because it is still ideology and that is what I ultimately want to tear down, not just Objectivism.

At a first glance, Rand’s epistemology and ethical/moral justification for free-market capitalism seems quite legitimate, if not obvious. Freedom is unquestioned in her paradigm and she advocates a system of political, economic, and social regulation that maximizes the rational self-interest, purpose, and esteem of a population. The problem with an epistemology that allows for the existence of human truth, however, is actually quite severe. Just like the monotheistic religions that Rand so viciously assaults, Objectivism takes the instances of objective truth tied to individuals and places it in the hands of a supervenient knowledge device – in this case, the free-market. The free-market becomes God for Rand, a perfect arbiter of justice and interest. The free-market, however, is no more godly than the textual contentions of the monotheists – it is entirely the production of human thought and action. That is ultimately my criticism of Objectivism. In its attempt to eternally justify capitalism through objective value and its denial of authority, it constructs an ideology that gives preference to capitalism and reason, rather than highlighting the responsibility we have towards other human beings. Ethics – traditionally defined as societal rules of conduct – for Rand, is brought about through the active construction of reasoned thought. This active construction of ethics is what makes her thought ‘just the same’ as everything she tears apart throughout intellectual history.

In my opinion, there can never be any objective truth in our plane of reality. There are only subjective knowledge claims, always open to interpretation and reevaluation dependent upon contingency and time. In this regard, I want to highlight Rand’s conclusion that altruism does not exist using the example of hunger and food. While it may be true that you need food to survive and it is of value to you, it is still a subjective choice to eat food. Let’s say that a mother and son are stranded on a desert island. They know that help is coming, but it won’t be there for one month. There is only enough food for one of them to survive in that time. The mother, acting against her self-interest, may declare to her son that he should eat the food, because she loves him and would rather die than see him do otherwise. Rand denied the possibility of such an event, an altruistic action by the mother, because she thought that any action is inherently self-beneficial. Clearly, as this thought experiment shows, that is not the case. The mother sacrifices herself for her son in a way that is entirely to her detriment. Rand is missing the point with her definition of ethical/moral conduct. There are other obligations that exist prior to reasoned thought and self-interest, as demonstrated by the mother-son example.

Rand, in many ways, is tied to the rise of existential thought, brought to bear by authors like Jean-Paul Sartre, Soren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger. Sartre and Kierkegaard wanted to tear down the idealism of truth long entrenched in the Western tradition since the seminal thought projects of Plato and Aristotle, much like Rand. Sarte, however, was motivated by the linguistic/phenomenological turn of French thought to argue that values and ideas exist only in the vacuum of what an individual decides to give preference to. Language, and all structures within society, are arbitrary and relational. Kierkegaard had similar goals, but sought to define the meanings held fast by an individual in relation to a personal conversation with God. The danger in Objectivism and existentialism, something that I failed to effectively grapple with in my last article, is that both prioritize thought and reason instead of actual instances of dealing with people in a face-to-face manner. For Rand, this ended up with her denying the possibility of altruism and seeking God in the free-market.

With this brief background completed, I want to progress onto the real subject of this article – the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas is an extremely complicated thinker and, admittedly, my grasp of his work is probably juvenile. Much of my understanding comes from a wonderful article written by Professor Anthony Beavers at the University of Texas-Austin entitled, “Introducing Levinas to Undergraduate Philosophers” and I must give credit where it is due. That being said, I think that Levinas’ conceptualization of ethics is the most advanced I have ever heard and I thoroughly believe that engaging his work is essential for humanity to progress beyond the violence of the past. Please bear with me while I try to elucidate his work, it’s quite complicated, but highly relevant to our discussion of Rand and ethics.

Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew, whose family was expelled to the Ukraine, because of their religious beliefs. Pursuing a higher education, Levinas moved to France to study phenomenology under the eminent Edmund Husserl and from there, he moved to Freiburg, Germany to study under Martin Heidegger. Levinas, unlike many philosophers in his tradition who turned to existentialism, turned to Judaism and Talmudic interpretation. He sought a basis in morality through the most ancient collective study of morality available. During World War II, Levinas enlisted as a translator in the French army and when it fell, he was captured and sent to a labor camp. There, he dealt first hand with the horrors of ideological power made manifest through Nazism. His own former teacher, Heidegger, came to embrace Nazism, which he retroactively justified through existential thought as the action of the heroic Being of Dasein. How could this wonderfully intelligent rationality and exploration of Being could justify or even culminate in Nazism was beyond Levinas. The meaninglessness and alienation inherent to existentialism and its allowance of the individual to define their own meaning in regard to their own self-interest led him to question the basis of reasoned thought as a basis for ethical action. There was something entirely unethical for Levinas about using your ideas to define the “other” – the other person, the ‘not same” – before contact with the other was even established.

With this background, Levinas spent the rest of his life trying to answer the question of the moral “ought” – in other words, why be good? For Rand and other existentialist thinkers like Sarte, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche ethics – the conduct of the individual towards the other – comes about through reasoned thought. However, the “active” construction of ideas, Levinas argues, in the tradition of Descartes, is an entirely individual production. If ideas are only productions of the mind and ethics refer to your actions in regard to real people, then reasoning and thought cannot found the basis for ethics. Beavers explains:

“If we can accept this notion that ideas are inventions of the mind, that ideas are, when it comes down to it, only interpretations of something, and if ethics, in fact, is taken to refer to real other persons who exist apart from my interpretations, then we are up against a problem: there is no way in which ideas, on the current model, refer to independently existing other persons, and as such, ideas cannot be used to found an ethics. There can be no pure practical reason until after contact with the other is established.”

Therefore, when you construct another person through your ideas, you cut off the “connection” to the other. Levinas calls this process of shutting out the other “totalization” and it occurs whenever you reduce someone to rational categories, “racial, sexual, or otherwise.” Levinas believed that Nazism, and indeed all violence, comes about from totalization. Totalization is unethical, because it denies the otherness of the other by reducing the other to your own ideas without regard for the real contact between persons that is the basis for an ethics in the first place. Therefore, in order to construct an ethics, one cannot turn to ideas about the other, but instead must turn to “sensibility”. Sensibility exists prior to thought – it is the “passive” nourishment of the self by the environment. Beavers uses the examples of food and music in order to explain what nourishment through sensibility refers. When you eat, you actively make the food part of your body. When you listen to music, you “digest” it and it becomes part of you. Living and sensibility are matters of “consumption” – you take what is in your environment and make it a part of you. Levinas explains further, “Nourishment, as a means of invigoration, is the transmutation of the other into the same, which is the essence of enjoyment; an energy that is other, recognized as other, recognized … as sustaining the very act that is directed upon it becomes, in enjoyment, my own energy, my strength, me.”

The act of nourishing your “self” is pure enjoyment; it is the source of the joy of life. Before you enjoy something, however, you must distance yourself from it and comprehend your own independence from it. In doing do, you construct the egoistic self. Beavers explains, using the example of food, “I can represent the bread, but this will not feed me. I must eat it. But then in eating my bread, the memory of hunger, evinces a separation between the bread and me. Thus, in enjoyment, the self emerges already as the subject of its need.” Thus nourishment is happiness, but selfish happiness. This selfish happiness through environmental nourishment is the “flux” that is “subjectivity”. Sensibility is the foundation of the subject, for Levinas, not rational thought, and, as such, it achieves an extra-mentalism that rationality lacks. Therefore, the foundation of the subject is not active, but passive. With this, Levinas comes to the “ethical moment” – when the egoistic self encounters another person and it wants to nourish itself with that other person, but it cannot. Indeed, “The other resists consumption.” The other “pushes back” and denies the egoistic enjoyment that the “I” desires with the initial encounter. The other has power over you, because it is “transcendent” and beyond the rational capabilities of your intellect to digest it – it is from the “other side of Being.” This encounter is most expressly manifested in the “face-to-face” with the other person. Your passivities intersect in the dual attempt at nourishment when the “ground of interpersonal contact” – the face – is measured through sensibility. Levinas calls this imperative moment “proximity”:

“…the proximity of the Other is not simply close to me in space, or close like a parent, but he approaches me essentially insofar as I feel myself—insofar as I am—responsible for him. It is a structure that in nowise resembles the intentional relation which in knowledge attaches us to the object—to no matter what object, be it a human object. Proximity does not revert to this intentionality; in particular it does not revert to the fact that the other is known to me.”

At this moment of proximity, the critical distinction that I want to invoke between existentialist authors like Rand and Sarte becomes tantamount to my writing. Where Rand sees the active process of illuminating the other as a method of rationality, purpose and esteem and Sarte sees the alienation and “antagonism” of the other, Levinas “finds the ground upon which ethics first shows itself.” Your very subjectivity is determined in this moment, where neither of the two people can lay claim to the other or reduce each other to the “same”. Your subjectivity is literally held “hostage” by the other. Beavers explains again:

“The self is subjected to the other who comes from on high to intrude upon my solitude and interrupt my egoist enjoyment. The self, feeling the exterior in the guise of the other pass through its world, is already obligated to respond to the transcendent other who holds the self hostage. In turn, this means that “the latent birth of the subject occurs in obligation where no commitment was made.” I do not agree to live ethically with the other at first, I am ordered to do so. The meaning of my being a self is found in opposition to the other, as an essential ability to respond to the other. I am, above all things, a social self indentured a priori, made to stand in the place of the other.”

This standing-in-the-place-of-the-other is deemed “substitution” and it is the crux of Levinas’ construction of ethical responsibility. When you are held hostage by the other, in the face-to-face, your identity is defined. This moment of substitution is the ethical moment. “In substitution my being that belongs to me and not to another is undone, and it is through substitution that I am not ‘another,’ but me.” Please read that sentence again, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read. Substitution is the “sacrifice of self” and stands exactly contrary to Rand and the existentialists. Where Rand sees the moment of self-interest, Levinas sees the moment of other-interest. In an almost direct response to Rand, Levinas says, “One is held to bear the burden of others: the substitution is a passive effect, which one does not succeed in converting into an active initiative or into one’s own virtue.”

The virtuous action of the Objectivist is secondary to the passive substitution inherent to Levinassian thought. You have to stand before the “other” before “freedom and reason” even enter into the equation. As such, the ethical responsibility that you have towards other people is a priori to the individual freedom and rationality inherent to Objectivism. The conceptual science of Rand falls to the wayside in the face-to-face – your own subjectivity is secondary to the other person. Levinas explains, “Ethics, here, does not supplement a preceding existential base [as Heidegger would have it]; the very node of the subjective is knotted in ethics understood as responsibility.”

Thus, the responsibility to substitute your own existential Being for the other’s is the foundation for the moral “ought” when engaging the proximity of the other. Wow. Clearly, Levinas’ conceptualization of ethics is difficult, not only because of its verbiage, but because it requires the same active thought, reason, and engagement with language that he denies is the foundation for ethics. As such, Levinas is full of contradictions – something that Rand explicity denies legitimacy as something that we “wish” to be true, but isn’t. This is where Rand falls apart – she gives greater credence to the logical than the real person standing before you. In doing so, she ends up creating an entire epistemology and morality of capitalism that is more important than the actual responsibility we have to help other people. Levinas gives the best Western (not the hotel) intellectual justification for the Buddhist/Taoist belief in practicing kindness as the fundamental ethical philosophy of action that I’ve ever heard. I find that in philosophy it is hard to traverse the gap between words and action, because the words necessary are so difficult that you get lost in them. That is, in my opinion, precisely what happened to Rand. She lost sight of, what my colleague Walther calls, the “practical.” With respect to the initial problem of the economic bailout that I posited at the beginning of this essay, it would be most ethical to disregard the complex ideologies of Objectivism and simply consider what, right now, would help the most people. It appears that, of all people to act Levinassian, Warren Buffett has accomplished that with his words to the Congress yesterday. A bailout, instead of the war of words, will come and hopefully the suffering of the American people at the hands of the free-market ideology of the Bush administration will cease.

Levinas provides a unique and brilliant path from the words to the actions, without falling apart intellectually, and that is precisely why we must remember him. If you remember one thing from this article, remember this: Levinas advocated the “wisdom of love” instead the “love of wisdom”. I know I always will.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Levinas”

  1. “The free-market, however, is no more godly than the textual contentions of the monotheists – it is entirely the production of human thought and action.”

    So, your objection to human thought and action is that it is human?

    “That is ultimately my criticism of Objectivism. In its attempt to eternally justify capitalism through objective value and its denial of authority, it constructs an ideology that gives preference to capitalism and reason, rather than highlighting the responsibility we have towards other human beings.”

    So, the problem with Objectivism is that it does not accept a premise which is destroyed by its ethics? That’s not an argument. You haven’t said why the ethics is wrong, or anything supporting that, but have said to the effect that:
    ‘My problem is, true as this may be, this is true also – and if two things are true, one truth must destroy the other’. This is an epistemological error that even an infant should recognise as a ‘contradiction’. It’s what lead to the oft. quoted phrase, ‘Check your premises’.

    “In my opinion, there can never be any objective truth in our plane of reality. There are only subjective knowledge claims, always open to interpretation and reevaluation dependent upon contingency and time.”

    Well, there you go then. Despite your misrepresntations of Rand (please point to me where she said, if your life is meaningless without a certain value, you SHOULDN’T risk your life for that value? Have you even read the climax of Atlas Shrugged?), here is the crux of your argument.
    There is no truth – at least not objective. All we’re doing is printing a bunch of marks on an ephemeral network of computers, all signifying nothing.
    In fact, there is no point in me using language, since it’s all subjective. I might as well grewyt nortu fijhtayi asala Tria! Ort wort gfhu?

  2. RE: Rory,

    I don’t recall reading in the article that, since two truth-claims coexist, they must destroy each other. In fact, that was your subtle addition.

    Anthony was simply saying (I believe) that no truth-claim can be definitively determined to be ‘true’ in the social terrain; conversely, in the natural terrain, objective truths (science) can be determined.

    We prefer constructive debate, not snide mockery…


  3. I appreciate you taking the time to read my article, but I fear that you only did so to reaffirm your own belief in Objectivism. I took that feeling away from your comment, because you don’t mention the focus of the article, Levinas’ ethics, once. My writing on Levinas answers the majority of your questions, but I will try to address them each as best I can.

    1) I don’t have a categorical objection to human thought whatsoever. Human thought provides some of the most beautiful expressions of life available. Indeed, we could not have this discussion without it. What I do object to is the philosophical axiom that takes human thought as the basis for ethics. This is Levinas’ main argument – when you construct ethics from reasoned thought, you “totalize” the objects of those ethics – real, other people – by closing off your mind to them and only going off of your own internal ideas. In doing so, you deny the otherness of their other, because the other resists perceptual consumption. My criticism of Objectivism comes from Rand’s contention that a human thought can be objectively true. When something is true, it cannot be refuted, because it is truth. This is the purpose of my comparison of Objectivism to the major monotheistic religions. Both claim, despite the highly divergent nature of the claims themselves, that through one path or another – for Rand, reason; for monotheists, divine texts – that they can access the truth of an ultimate reality. The fact is that our reality is not that ultimate reality and, as such, we do not have access to truth as objective knowledge. In a sense, you are correct – my objection is that human thought is always relational to space and time and therefore not privileged to be truth – it is human. When one argues that they possess truth, historically it leads to violence, because no one can disprove a true statement. Truth functions outside of debate. Therefore, many times, the solution is to kill the other person whose truth conflicts with yours, because that is the only way to maintain your monopoly on a truth claim.

    2) My problem with Objectivism is that it has a premise that I disagree with. That is precisely an argument. Rand says: there is objective knowledge; I say: no there is not, here’s why. Moreover, your steadfast adherence to a perfect, logical denial of contradictions is indicative of the problem with the majority of Western philosophy. You are so willing to try and rationalize every aspect of Being that you overwrite objections to violence on the grounds that it is logically justified. Levinas’ whole point is that ethics must, and do, exist prior to the reasoned engagement of a real person.

    3) What you indict here, in my support for subjectivity, is that I am an existentialist. I do not believe that life is all sound and fury signifying nothing, but that we cannot know the truths of life through the construction of reasoned thought. Ironically, Rand is highly existentialist by the account of her own website. Do a Google search for Rand and existentialism – you’ll find that she is indeed saying that you can only express your own meaning as truth against the nothingness of Being. As for the subjective and arbitrary nature of language, you are missing the point. The sounds that humans make to indicate real objects are arbitrary. This is most obviously demonstrated by the existence of different languages. The word for “shirt” in English, is “chemise” in French. Neither of those phonological sounds have any tie to the actual, real object of the shirt/chemise, but a subjective hold on its presence. I make arbitrary sounds, because they have shared meaning. That meaning, however, is not objective, but relational to the other people in society who recognize its object.

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