Jens Meierhenrich, Oliver Simons (Eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt, Oxford University Press, 2017

The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt
Jens Meierhenrich, Oliver Simons (Eds.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £97.00

Rafael Winkler (Ed.): Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self

Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self Book Cover Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self
Rafael Winkler (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardcover 96,29 €
XVI, 286

Reviewed by: Meghant Sudan (Colby College)

This collection of essays aims to show how questions about one’s identity (as a metaphysical entity, as a reflective knower, as a social-moral-political being) appear when difference is upheld as primary or fundamental. This approach is broadly characteristic of recent works in continental philosophy and through it the collection maintains a steady affiliation with phenomenological thought, although this is not its explicit focus. The reader is led through thoughtful explorations of topics such as how one’s self-conception is marked by a fundamental deception, or how a satisfying account of agency demands a thoroughgoing unity across my animal and my rational capacities, or how my being human and embodied entails my constitution through a dynamic of fragility. The collection contains eleven essays presented at a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, including many by local and younger scholars, and so represents philosophical work itself in a somewhat different setting.

In that very setting, the collection is timely too, since the issue of identity has recently inspired lively public debate and much soul-searching at prominent sites of the South African philosophical scene, some involving the editor and a few authors of our collection. The controversy originally arose over systemic racism many felt exists in the Philosophical Society of South Africa, and in part concerned an all-white panel on the topic of South African identity at its annual conference last year (the panellists include some authors in the present collection). The editor then broached the topic and responded to critics in opinion pieces in newspapers this year. The collection encourages several ways to think about one’s identity and deepens the debate that already took place in the newspaper columns but which naturally could go only as far as these allow. At the same time, the collection courts a like charge as that which embroiled the panel, since no anxiety about manifest tokens of racial representation seems to drive the contents of the volume, while the sole article attending to the question of South African identity argues expressly from the position of whiteness (a pressing conundrum regarding how white South Africans are to be white South Africans in a post-apartheid state). These issues of the personal and the political are truly large and urgent, and easily dwarf the fact, which I would also like to make transparent in the context of this review, that I am personally acquainted with the editor and we share philosophical interests.

It is fashionable to fret about the lack of unity in collections, especially one that is conference-based, where it is even more susceptible to such worries. I do not share these worries, and judging from the fact that Winkler’s brisk introduction does not invest great effort in imposing order on the proceedings, I do not think there was any worry about settling them either. The essays are organized along four themes: “Narrative Theory and Phenomenology,” “Politics, Authenticity, and Agency,” “Feminism,” and “Race and the Postcolonial,” but they often speak to each other beyond these divisions. For example, narrative theories of identity appear in the first section (as they must) but also substantively in the Feminism section; the formidable thought of Spivak reflecting on Irigaray reflecting on Levinas comes up in both the Feminism and the Race and The Postcolonial sections; an interest in philosophical skepticism emerges in the course of discussing Sartrean views of consciousness in the first section and leads into a historical discussion of skepticism in the next. Such conversations among the pieces are helpful and are highlighted below. An unevenness does dog the collection, however, and I will comment on this aspect in the end after briefly reviewing the individual contributions.

Dermot Moran surveys concepts of self, ego, personhood, and personality, as they travel through the history of western philosophy until their phenomenological treatments by Husserl, Heidegger, Max Scheler, and Edith Stein. After Locke, who gave the concept of personhood a strongly moral orientation, and Kant, who pressed the ego’s sensible-cum-rational entanglements as a problem, these founders of phenomenology strive in mutually responsive ways to articulate its complex and dynamic unity, and stress the following: its systematic and historical dimensions (Husserl and Heidegger), its moral and concrete individuality (Scheler), and its psychic and spiritual depth (Stein). While the essay succeeds several previous versions, it is clear that Moran’s practiced hand (the essay succeeds several previous versions) brings the various moments of this otherwise expansive sweep before us effortlessly and situates the chapters that follow.

Alfonso Muñoz-Corcuera enters debates about narrative theories of personal identity, which Moran touches on when closing his essay. Muñoz-Corcuera defends these theories against objections which disable easy transitions between literary characters and living persons, which hold that we neither understand ourselves through narratives nor is our identity in fact constituted through narrativization, and which raise concerns about diluting our practical exigencies by relying on strategies relevant elsewhere, such as writing fiction. These objections are shown to rest on a misunderstanding easily avoided by distinguishing diligently between literary and cognitive senses of “narrative,” where the latter indicates a mental framework for thinking of agency rather than formal features of sentences that count as literary narratives. The different positions in this debate are laid out in detail, but key points of Muñoz-Corcuera’s rejoinder are stated without explicit support even if they sound plausible enough, e.g., the claim that the cognitive sense somehow conditions how we construe the literary sense, or the claim that our own identity is constituted through the interaction between stories we tell about ourselves and stories others tell about us. Similarly, the formal-literary notion is a tad flat without an account of the material-historical conditions of that form itself, which would arrest misuse of that notion in thinking about ourselves.

David Mitchell makes a strong case for continuing the dialogue between phenomenological and narrative views of personal identity by examining Sartrean insights into how a dialectic of fiction and belief underwrites selfhood. It is hard to account for self-deception as a state of mind resistant to a Cartesian type of transparent self-consciousness. Freudian theories incur the paradox that the subject must be conscious of what it is to remain unconscious of in order to repress it and epistemological theories equating self-deception with ordinary adhesion to false beliefs in the face of countervailing evidence do not do justice to the distinctive features and deep conviction marking the former. Mitchell therefore appeals to Sartre’s quaintly charming psychological case-analyses, which show them as grounded in the structure of consciousness as elusive and in flight, and he offers an account of belief as essentially overcoming itself at a pre-reflective yet spontaneous level of awareness. I only wish that he set aside some of the time spent on the case-analyses to help readers learn more about the intriguing processes at work in the theory of mind according to this view.

Vincent Caudron reminds us that the desire for a seamless self, without gaps or distortions, overlooks discourses of authenticity, which dominated the early modern epoch and its tenor of religious and epistemological uncertainty, and which probed a radical incompleteness of the self. Caudron documents such views in Montaigne and Charron to show not only skepticism about a true self but also a constant pursuit of hypocrisy in oneself that drove a wedge within the self in the service of moral authenticity. Fortunately, we have a wealth of historical-philosophical literature available (elsewhere, in the area of early modern skepticism) that offers greater heft and nuance to the indications Caudron flags as important to consider.

Irene Bucelli, in the one chapter that engages analytic philosophy, proceeds in the other direction and wonders if the constitutivist views of agency championed by Korsgaard and Velleman create an untenable rift between animal-active and human-rational levels of selfhood and if an approach that synthesizes the two orders is not preferable instead. Bucelli believes that minimal self-awareness without higher reflective endorsement is not only necessary for being responsive to reasons for acting as her opponents grant, but also sometimes sufficient, which is evident in coping actions in which I am immersed. The evidence, so far as I see it developed here, draws from the more cohesive and permissive account of action that will eventually ensue from the proposed approach: cohesive inasmuch as various capacities can be integrated towards human action instead of attributing the latter exclusively to an autonomous rationality, which attribution is nonetheless supposed to depend on lower layers of mental awareness and ownership; permissive inasmuch as a continuum or spectrum of actions and mental states can fund an account of agency under more flexible circumstances than the sort that Kantian formalism permits.

Rockwell Clancy wants to deliver us from a more pernicious formalism he perceives in contemporary liberalism, which, in having freed itself from allegiance to natural law and human nature, has led, he feels, to conservative and fundamentalist reaction. He observes that disavowing political anthropology is neither possible, because the barest description of human agency is still one, nor is it desirable, because, as Clancy warns, this opens us up to vast dangers ranging from ISIS and David Cameron to Dawkins and Derrida (the warning is issued in the now recognizable style of holding postmodern playfulness responsible for the severe indifference to truth affecting public discourse today and thereby enabling whatever-you-fear-worst). In lieu of an abstract and exclusive universalism Cancy imagines an inclusive particularism that would approach human nature through a more fluid understanding of nature, which lets us collect everything needed to avoid said dangers from everyone from Mencius to Latour to build a better world (and a daunting bibliography).

Kathy Butterworth’s chapter outlines a program for conceiving a relative (she prefers “relational”) autonomy by using Ricouer’s narrative theory of personal identity, which allows for thinking of a subject, and its autonomy, as a process for permitting degrees of achievement and contextualization. We need such a concept because the post-structuralist critique of the subject, while it compellingly dismantles traditional notions of an invulnerable, all-or-nothing autonomy, thereby also imperils the resources it could provide for a post-identity subjectivity consonant with a broadly feminist perspective.

Louise du Toit eloquently argues for rethinking subjectivity through bodily vulnerability with the help of feminist legal philosophy and phenomenology. Rape, she says, is inadequately understood when we only consider its physical violence, or only its sexual side and exclusively under the concept of consent as a corollary thereof. Relying heavily on Debra Bergoffen’s work on international tribunals on war rapes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, du Toit explains, rather, that rape concerns a physically coded violation of dignity that places it on the same plane as other crimes against humanity such as torture and slavery. Comparative analysis of these enables a phenomenological interpretation inspired by Merleau-Ponty, which evokes the fundamental ambivalence of the embodied human as both object and subject and calls for a thinking in terms of our living sensuality and enmeshed erotics. The essay is laden with insights that await unpacking via critical confrontations with other feminist and phenomenological work touched on in passing or raised by suggestion.

Laura Roberts takes forward the question of erotics signalled by du Toit and frames a dialogue between Irigaray and Spivak (which is surprisingly helpful in clarifying their otherwise abstruse texts), in order to conceive a feminist ethics of solidarity that is synaptically global rather than universal in a way that subsumes the other under itself. Spivak finds in Irigaray’s concept of sexuate difference as an irreducible difference a point of departure for thinking of an ethical relation to another, and in the question of women’s pleasure an excess-within-difference that can develop it as a radically indeterminate moment moving bodies together (in love) and playing between discourses (in translation or teaching). This style of thought naturally resists straightforward exegesis, proceeds performatively, and baffles any mere spectator or reviewer, but may at the very least be taken as articulating the “sensible transcendental” conditions of possibility of a solidarity to come, if one were to press mundanely about the solidarity hereby made possible.

Sharli Paphitis and Lindsay-Ann Kelland broach the question of South African identity from the standpoint of white individuals and record their personal struggles with it. As it is avowedly a personal question, albeit posed in a collective and impersonal register, it could have occasioned reflection on the very decision to write together (along with others like the focus on their race and citizenship, rather than, for instance, their being women), even if one did not want (but why not?) to go to Spivakian lengths of autoanalysis. Paphitis and Kelland do reflect on their guilt and shame, taking these as two kinds of relationships determining identity, one with their forefathers (their word) and another with their black compatriots, and they find that, denials of history and denials of recognition respectively riddle their reflection. Yet, they refrain from using the analysis of this emotional experience to disclose any larger truths, say, about being and intersubjectivity, and accept that they have merely begun their journey of self-discovery.

Louis Blond closes the volume with a reluctant defense of Levinas against postcolonial criticism of the topic of alterity. The essay includes a useful genealogical sketch of this topic, thus bookending Moran’s own on identity, to lead us up to the basic framework of Levinasian thought and interventions by critics as well as sympathetic commentators. Although Levinas is celebrated for stressing the singularity of the other and ethical confrontations ensuing from it, critics object that this denies representational politics or repeats exclusionary gestures of a colonial extraction or they point to plain instances of bigotry. However, postcolonial thought is not always beyond reproach, especially in overstating the body’s passivity against the transcendent-spiritual orientation of Levinasian thought, while, Blond hopes, repairing blind spots in the latter can preserve its intrinsically valuable prioritization of the ethical and social relation.

As I hope to have shown, the collection is uneven: some chapters are stronger, some weaker, some are interpretive or analytical, while some are programmatically promissory or resolutely exegetical, some are dense and some lucid. Given the editorial decision to represent a variety of voices, this may even be welcome. An unevenness harder to specify, however, concerns their intended audience. For, a few chapters will appeal to philosophers searching for argumentative developments in their fields, while others speak to generalists looking for the big picture, and some to non-philosophers interested in introducing themselves to specific ideas and movements. The publisher’s blurb recognizes this and addresses itself to the humanities at large. Inasmuch as philosophers are accused of not doing so, the book corrects a fault and ably informs a diverse readership about the variety of debates prevalent today about identity, difference, and the self.


Andrea Staiti, Evan Clarke (Eds.): The Sources of Husserl’s ‘Ideas I’, De Gruyter, 2017

The Sources of Husserl’s 'Ideas I' Book Cover The Sources of Husserl’s 'Ideas I'
Andrea Staiti, Evan Clarke (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardcover 109,95 €

Burkhard Liebsch (Hg.): Der Andere in der Geschichte – Sozialphilosophie im Zeichen des Krieges

Der Andere in der Geschichte - Sozialphilosophie im Zeichen des Krieges. Ein kooperativer Kommentar zu Emmanuel Levinas' "Totalität und Unendlichkeit" Book Cover Der Andere in der Geschichte - Sozialphilosophie im Zeichen des Krieges. Ein kooperativer Kommentar zu Emmanuel Levinas' "Totalität und Unendlichkeit"
Burkhard Liebsch (Herausgeber)
Verlag Karl Alber
Paperback 40,00 €

Reviewed by: Anne Clausen (University of Göttingen)

Das 1961 erschienene erste Hauptwerk von Emmanuel Lévinas, Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’exteritorité, hat auch im Jahre 2017 nichts von seiner Aktualität verloren. Die darin behandelte Frage nach der Andersheit und dem Anspruch des (ganz) Anderen behält angesichts von Flüchtlingskrise, Terrorismus und kriegerischen Auseinandersetzungen in vielen Teilen der Welt seine thematische Relevanz, die zu dem Denken über Gerechtigkeit, Ethik und Ansprüche wie es etwa im Kontext von Habermas oder Rawls geschieht, eine ernst zu nehmende Infragestellung und Alternative darstellt.

Lévinas steht für ein Denken von Alterität oder Ander(s)heit, die sich jeder Verfügung entzieht und nur als Überschuss verstanden werden kann, der zugleich das Subjekt in seiner oder vielmehr als Verantwortung für den Anderen konstituiert. Er eröffnet damit den Blick für einen Bezug auf den Anderen, in dem wir schon stehen, bevor wir Verträge schließen und Politik treiben. So bringt er zur Sprache, was „‚zwischen uns’ geschieht, bevor es überhaupt zu normativen Fragen des Guten und des Gerechten kommen kann“ (Liebsch, 23). Der Andere begegnet dem Ich als Gesicht bzw. Antlitz und das Einzige, was positiv über ihn gesagt werden kann, ist gerade, dass er konstitutiv nicht in dem Eigenen aufgeht. Diese Fremdheit des Anderen macht zugleich seine Freiheit aus, die zu schützen die unbedingte Forderung ist, die an das Ich ergeht.

Die radikale Unverfügbarkeit des Anderen sprachlich zu fassen stellt ein Paradox dar, das Lévinas zu immer neuen Formulierungen an der Grenze der Sprache treibt. Dabei geht es darum, ein Jenseits des Seins zu denken bzw. den Anderen anders zu denken denn als „Teil einer als ‚Schauspiel’ aufgefassten Welt oder als ‚Theater’ eingestuften Weltgeschichte“ (vgl. Liebsch 46). Die Geschichte ist nicht das „Maß aller Dinge“ (Vgl. Lévinas, Schwierige Freiheit 151), sondern kann und muss von der Beziehung Von-Angesicht-zu-Angesicht her korrigiert werden (vgl. Liebsch 11), die sich der Totalität entzieht. Notorisch problematisch bleibt dabei die Frage, wie radikale Geschichtskritik und anti-historisches Denken der Alterität doch wieder mit der Geschichte und vor allem mit dem Politischen zusammenzubringen sind. Es resultiert das dringende „Desiderat, in diesem alteritätstheoretisch anspruchsvollen Sinne ethisches und historisches Denken zusammenzubringen“ (Liebsch 14).

Diesem Desiderat nähert sich Burkhard Liebsch an und fügt mit seinem 2016 im Karl Alber Verlag erschienenen kooperativen Kommentar der breiten Literatur einen neuen und informativen Beitrag hinzu, dessen Alleinstellungsmerkmal darin besteht, sich dem vieldiskutierten Werk in Einzelanalysen zu widmen, die sich chronologisch  den einzelnen Abschnitten des Werkes widmen. Der 400 Seiten starke Kommentar ist dafür in 16 Einzelanalysen plus Einführung und Nachtrag des Herausgebers organisiert, in denen bekannte Namen der Lévinas-Forschung jeweils einen kurzen Abschnitt des Werkes behandeln. Anstelle einer akribischen Interpretation bemühen sich die einzelnen Autoren und Autorinnen dabei, die Thematik des jeweils behandelten Abschnittes in einen größeren Kontext zu fassen und auf je eigene Weise zu fokussieren. Die einzelnen Analysen unterscheiden sich dabei erheblich darin, ob sie sich ganz auf den Ausschnitt beschränken oder diesen eher zum Anhaltspunkt für weiterführende Überlegungen nehmen. So entsteht ein sehr reichhaltiger Überblick mit detaillierten Einzelinterpretationen, der zudem – nicht zuletzt dem Schreiben von Lévinas selbst geschuldet – mit der Polyphonie der Stimmen ein Sagen und Wieder- bzw. Wider-Sagen der zentralen Motive beinhaltet. Die großen Themen wie der Genuss und die Sinnlichkeit des Subjekts, ein anderes Denken der Intentionalität, die Vorgängigkeit des Anderen und die Verantwortung für ihn, Ontologiekritik und das Jenseits des Seins und natürlich das Gesicht bzw. Antlitz werden so immer noch einmal neu perspektiviert. Im Gespräch mit Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, aber auch Proust und Beckett werden einzelne Diskursstränge herausgeschält, gesagt und wi(e)der gesagt. Neben der vorwiegend affirmierenden Lektüre richten sich dabei auch einige kritische Fragen an den Autor, die insbesondere die Implikationen des Alteritätsdenkens und die philosophische Haltbarkeit der vorgebrachten Thesen betreffen. So entsteht ein lebendiges, reiches und auch spannungsvolles Bild des Werkes, das zeigt, dass die Auseinandersetzung mit Lévinas auch nach mehr als 55 Jahren nicht abgeschlossen ist.

Zum Auftakt thematisiert Hans-Christoph Askani die Beziehung zum ganz Anderen, die das Ich sich selbst entreißt und die Lévinas als Metaphysik bezeichnet . Er zeigt, dass der hiermit angezeigte Bruch mit der Totalität sich in der Sprache und als metaphysisches Begehren ereignet, das dem (weltlichen, leiblichen) Bedürfnis entgegensteht. Dieser Bruch wird als Bedingung der Möglichkeit von Frieden ausgewiesen; es gibt aus der Totalität und d.h. vom Krieg „einen Ausgang, weil es in sie einen Einbruch gibt.“ (87)

Der Herausgeber selbst, Burkhard Liebsch, nimmt sich Lévinas’ „sozialphilosophisch gewendet[e]“ (89) Lesart von Descartes vor, mit der dieser  zu zeigen versucht, dass das Soziale, verstanden als Begegnung mit dem ganz Anderen, das Epistemische fundiert (vgl. 90f.). Diese Begegnung ist, so Lévinas, nur möglich in einem getrennten Psychischen, das sich der „Aufhebung in Geschichte“ (95) widersetzt. Das Begehren des Anderen bewirkt dann eine Umkehrung oder „Konversion“ des Seienden, in der es sein Glück, seinen Genuss, für den Anderen aufzugeben bereit ist. Liebsch stellt jedoch die beschriebene Selbstgenügsamkeit dieses Subjekts der Trennung in Frage – „Können wir wirklich in psychischem Leben derart bei uns selbst ‚zuhause’ sein […] ?“ (110) – die zudem in Spannung mit Lévinas’ späteren Andeutungen steht, denen zufolge das Subjekt immer schon ein Empfangenes, d.h. dem Anderen schon begegnet sei.

Bernhard H.F. Taureck gibt den wohl am wenigsten favorablen Ausblick auf Lévinas. Seine Analyse der Freiheit stellt „kritisch-polemische“ und „eklektische“ „Evidenzen“ heraus, die nur durch die weitere „Evidenz“ der „Verklärung“ eine gewisse Attraktivität erhalten, und sieht Lévinas letztlich in einer Komplementärstellung zu Beckett: „Wenn Levinas die Verwüstung verklärt, so wird hier die Verklärung verwüstet. […] Was der eine befestigt, reißt der andere ein und umgekehrt.“ (134f.)

Auf den dann folgenden Seiten stellt Sophie Loidolt die „Intentionalität des Genießens als Grundstruktur der Subjektivität“ (136) heraus, die sowohl zu der Intentionalität Husserls als auch zu der Sorgestruktur des Daseins bei Heidegger eine Alternative darstellt. Als „leben von…“ hat Existenz eine irreduzibel sinnliche Qualität, die es nur gestattet, eine Unabhängigkeit des Subjekts in der Abhängigkeit von etwas zu denken, die die Voraussetzung für die Begegnung mit dem Andern ist. In dieser Darstellung fährt Alwin Letzkus fort, der den Genuss als „die eigentliche, weil tiefste Wurzel der Intentionalität“ (161) herausstellt: Die Vorstellungen des Bewusstseins selbst sind vom Genuss getragen. Nur diese Konzeption eines nicht auf Intentionalität und Repräsentation reduzierten Bewusstseins soll es erlauben, die Transzendenz des Anderen zu denken.

Pascal Delhom arbeitet die „Struktur der bedingten Bedingung“ (186) heraus, die sich zuerst in der doppelten Vorgängigkeit von Gegenständen und Ich zeigt (176f.) und sich bezüglich der Begegnung mit dem Anderen wiederholt: Einerseits setzt diese die Trennung des Individuums voraus, andererseits ist diese Trennung aber nur möglich, weil das Subjekt dem Anderen bereits begegnet ist, d.h. von ihm empfangen wurde. Delhom sieht hier „jenseits aller Dialektik“ eine spezifische Verbindung von Aktivität und Passivität beschrieben, die die Setzung eines Ichs ermöglicht, das der Offenbarung des Anderen fähig ist (vgl. 187).

Auch Gabriella Baptist stellt die Vorgängigkeit der Begegnung mit dem Anderen heraus, durch die eine „Dimension der Aufmerksamkeit eröffnet [wird], die sich vom Genuss der Elemente und von den Bedürfnissen des Lebens und deren Nahrung befreien kann“ (192) und die letztlich auch die Enteignung durch den Anderen, nämlich das Geben, erlaubt. Die Autorin kontrastiert Lévinas’ Darstellung der Bleibe mit dem In-der-Welt-sein bei Heidegger, dem sich auch Antje Kapust noch einmal als der Bedingung und dem Anfange menschlicher Bezugnahme zur Welt widmet (vgl. 203).

Matthias Flatscher und Sergej Seitz gehen auf die Rolle der Sprache ein, die bei Lévinas „nicht in epistemologischer Hinsicht betrachtet, […] sondern als ein responsives Geschehen gefasst [wird]“ (220) und Transzendenz ermöglicht (vgl. 223). Der Andere sei kein Inhalt, der sich thematisieren ließe, sondern er wird angesprochen und drückt sich aus; ihm gegenüber steht das Ich in der Verantwortung, die es erst konstituiert. Gegen die Selbstkritik von Lévinas an seinem eigenen Werk schlagen die Autoren vor, „eines der produktivsten Momente von Totalität und Unendlichkeit [] [in dem] Anbieten eines alteritätsaffinen Seinsbegriffs [zu] verorten“ (234).

Der Frage, wie etwas zugleich Modalität des Bewusstseins und Exteriorität sein kann, widmet sich Alain David. Um diese paradoxe Qualität des Gesichts zu denken, muss – gegen Husserl und Heidegger – eine Sinnlichkeit gedacht werden, die die Intentionalität des Bewusstseins überschreitet und bei der es nicht um „die Offenbarung der Welt, sondern [um] diejenige der Sprache – als Sprache des Anderen“ (255) geht.

In einem stärker systematisch orientierten Zugang beleuchtet Werner Stegmaier die Destruktionen, die Lévinas vornimmt, indem er den Blick für die ethische Beziehung zum Anderen öffnet: An die Stelle des Spekulativen, des Prinzipiellen, des Theoretischen und des Definitiven rückt das Über-sich-hinaus-gezogen-werden des Denkens, die ethische Beziehung, die Umorientierung im Denken des Denkens, der Sprache und der Gesellschaft. Der Beitrag von Hans-Martin Schönherr-Mann hat eine ähnliche Stoßrichtung, indem er den Institutionen, dem Werk und der Geschichte, in denen das Individuum nicht als solches erhalten bleibt, den Pluralismus entgegensetzt, der sich in der Beziehung zum Anderen ereignet und durch die Geduld, die Epiphanie des Antlitzes und die Verantwortung expliziert wird. Wie der Autor zeigt, ermöglichen es diese Figuren, eine Subjektivität zu denken, die sich von sich selbst entfernt, ohne dass dies als Unterwerfung unter das Universelle zu denken wäre.

Vor dem Hintergrund eines Überblicks über die großen Themen, die in Totalität und Unendlichkeit verhandelt werden, – die Priorität der Alterität vor der Identität, die (Inter-)Personalität und Pluralität vor Universalität und Rationalität und die Individualität und Responsivität vor der Intentionalität und Totalität – gibt Christian Rößner ein Bild jener „Phänomenologie des Eros“ (313, nach einer Überschrift in Jenseits des Seins), wo die „Zweisamkeit zu keiner erotisch-platonischen Einheit“ (316) verschmilzt. Dabei stellt er heraus, dass dieser Teil des Buches, der vor allem feministische Kritiken auf sich gezogen hat, seine literarische Vorlage in Prousts Albertine hat. Christina Schües stellt die Fruchtbarkeit, die Lévinas im letzten Teil seines Werkes behandelt, als eine Möglichkeit heraus, Transzendenz zu denken, indem sich das Subjekt hier nicht „mitnimmt“ und damit die Einheit der Selbigkeit aufgebrochen wird. Der Sohn bedeute die Befreiung des Vaters und erlaube es, eine unendliche und diskontinuierliche Zeit zu denken, in der Vergebung möglich sei.

Dieter Mersch stellt im Sinne der „Konversion des Bezugs“ (351), die die Destituierung der Ontologie, die Priorisierung der Passivität vor der Aktivität und eine Ethik der Alterität beinhaltet, das „Von-Angesicht-zu-Angesicht“ als Quelle des Sozialen heraus, das einerseits dieses Soziale anders verstehen lässt – nämlich nicht als Gefüge von „‚Interaktion’ bzw. den Regeln interpersonaler Verständigung“ (359) – und andererseits eine „Ethik ohne Gesetz“ (369) begründet.

Und schließlich differenziert Alfred Hirsch zwei Stufen der Freiheit: zuerst jene willkürliche und einsame Freiheit des genießenden Subjekts und dann die moralische Freiheit, in die das Ich durch den Anderen eingesetzt wird. Hirsch sieht durch den Eintritt des Dritten die „Möglichkeit der Symmetrie, des Austausches und die Gerechtigkeit“ (386) gegeben, wobei es der „Asymmetrie des ethischen Anspruches durch den Anderen “ bedarf, die „verhindert, dass der Staat nicht zum Unrechtsstaat mit gutem Gewissen wird.“ (387)

Hiermit kehrt das Buch letztlich zu der Ausgangsfrage nach der Stellung des Anderen in der Geschichte zurück. Abschließend lässt sich sagen, dass es sich bei dem kooperativen Kommentar um eine solide Einführung in das erste große Hauptwerk von Lévinas handelt, die zudem an vielen Stellen Bezüge zu anderen Schriften des Autors herstellt und Verbindungen zu anderen Autoren eröffnet. Naturgemäß werden die bekannten Gedankenfiguren behandelt, die für Lévinas-Vertraute eher keine Neuigkeit darstellen werden. Darüber hinaus bietet das Buch aber auch Fokussierungen auf randständigere Aspekte des Werkes und besticht durch detail- und kenntnisreiche Analysen. Der im Titel angekündigte Geschichtsbezug wird dabei allerdings nur sporadisch aufgegriffen und darf durchaus auch weiterhin als Desiderat gelten.


Raoul Moati: Levinas and the Night of Being

Levinas and the Night of Being: A Guide to Totality and Infinity Book Cover Levinas and the Night of Being: A Guide to Totality and Infinity
Raoul Moati, Translated by Daniel Wyche, Foreword by Jocelyn Benoist
Fordham University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Innocenzo Sergio Genovesi (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

From Deleuze to Derrida, from Badiou to Nancy and Marion, the concept of event (évènement) witnessed an important development in the last fifty years of French philosophy and it is present in the most influential authors’ thought. Today, this notion still plays a central role in several attempts to rethink ontology and phenomenology, such as Claude Romano’s evential hermeneutics (hermenéutique événementiale). Even if the ideas of these philosophers substantially differ from each other and cannot be simply grouped together, we can trace at least one common issue in the notion of possibility. Events – with capital E – are happenings inaugurating a new horizon of possibility. They can actualize unforeseeable potentialities or make the impossible possible. For this reason, Events are said to be extraordinary moments and it has been argued that they should be unpredictable (imprévisible) or even impossible (impossible) since they lie beyond the ordinary structure of possibilities in which normal ontological movements take place. It goes without saying that the foundation of the modal structure of Being in such Events attests several theoretical problems If such Events overstep the general structure of Being, how are they supposed to happen? And where should an Event take place and have a place if Being cannot harbor its excess?

Some years before the flourishing of French “event” philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas formulated the notion of nocturnal events (événements nocturnes) in the preface of his masterwork Totalité et Infini. Levinas’ purpose is not to develop a philosophy of events. Indeed, in the whole book the expression “nocturnal event” is no more used and the adjective “nocturnal” appears just a few more times. However, even this parsimonious use of the term is enough to give us an important suggestion. The ultimate events that allow the deployment of new possibilities and which our comprehension of the world is based on are maybe not to be thought as impossible (im-possible), neither as unpredictable (im-pré-visible). They could rather be just invisible (in-visible).

After his impressive book on Derrida and Searle, Raoul Moati keeps deepening his researches about contemporary French philosophy dedicating an entire essay to Levinas and his idea of nocturnal events. What these two works have in common is the great attention given to the concept of intentionality and its Husserlian origins in the phenomenological tradition. Levinas and the Night of Being offers a fine reconstruction of the path undertaken by Levinas in Totalité et Infini to trace the way from the sensible ego to the infinite Other. Moreover, Moati shows us to what extent Levinas takes distance from other phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre as well as what does he own to their ideas. This review will first address which are the ontological and phenomenological involvements of nocturnal events that Moati highlights in his book. We will then retrace the way to the infinite in the context of a nocturnal conception of Being. Finally, we will have an overview of this book and its English translation by Daniel Wyche.

The Night of Being.

What Levinas reproaches to ontology and phenomenology is not, as other philosophers would have it, to be a sort of metaphysics of presence. Moati shows that the main critique that Levinas addresses to ontology and phenomenology is to be in a certain sense a metaphysics of light: they are based on “structures of illumination” (65), such as intuition, intentionality or comprehension. Sight and touch tended to have absolute primacy in the philosophical tradition, where “to be” means thus to be visible and graspable (67). The immediate consequence of this “diurnal sense of being” (XVI), from which Totalité et Infini attempts to liberate ontology, is that there is no more room left for otherness and exteriority: being becomes a totalizing structure and the Other is reduced to the self. A drastic rethinking of ontology, as a nocturnal broadening, is therefore needed in order to establish a place for those events that cannot be understood as being part of Being as a totality. That is to say, the nocturnal events:

There must be an ontology that establishes a place for ultimate events of being. […] Such events will no longer draw their significance from a Hegelian totalization or even from phenomenological constitution (Husserl) or the comprehension of the sense of being (Heidegger). The horizon of their deployment consists in a relation to being that overflows the light of objective evidence and of which all of these cases constitute various avatars (11).

The representation of Being that Moati presents us with is thus not that of a light irradiating the sensible world anymore, nor would it be that of a unique and totalizing illuminated surface. There are actually more than one illuminated surfaces, and we are only able to perceive them because of the dark background that encloses and undergirds them. Being does not correspond to these bright spots, but rather to the infinite night surrounding them. This night can be lightened by our “structures of illumination” and this is what originates diurnal events. However, there will always be a dark part not being seen in which nocturnal events are taking place.

Nocturnal events are “the nocturnal dramas by which being exhaustively produces itself” and amount to “a more originary experience for consciousness than transcendental constitution” (15). Is it possible to find a concrete case of nocturnal events? Moati provides us several examples taken from Levinas’ philosophy to describe these “nocturnal dramas”, among them we find the erotic encounter, fecundity, sociality and messianic peace. All these are for Levinas elements that, on the one hand, ground our primordial openness toward the Other and his or her face and which, on the other hand, constitute the base of an ontology that renounces to contain Being within the unity and recognises rather its plurality, taking up the discontinuity of the same and the other (81).

Even though Levinas affirms the primacy of events that are more primordial than subjective comprehension and transcendental constitution, Moati decisively stresses that this gesture does not correspond to a denial of the fundamental role that subjectivity, sensibility and ego play on the path to infinity. Indeed, without the ego’s sensible rooting in Being, no experience of infinite otherness would be possible: “the metaphysical alterity of the Other requires the precondition of the position of the self, a here-below positioned in relation to an over-there” (30). We will now see how nocturnal events and the sensible ego lead us on the way to infinity.

The Terrestrial Condition.

While in the first and last chapters of Levinas and the Night of Being Moati outlines the idea of a nocturnal ontology and unfolds the ontological involvements of nocturnal events, in the central chapters he deploys Levinas theory of the sensible ego and follows the path to infinity he had already sketched in Totalité et Infini. The book structure self is in this way a good representation of the nocturnal conception of being, where nocturnal events are the dark frame of our illuminated terrestrial experience.

First of all, Moati recalls the Levinasian notions of jouissance and element (élément). As it is known, according to Levinas the pre-objective degree of sensation corresponds to what he calls il y a (there is), that is the undefined existence without the existent, the undifferentiated element in which the self is originally immersed, the starting point of any further experience: “the element is the content from which forms are carved out, but it is not, as such, itself delimited by anything” (52). The first break in the uniformity of the element coincides with the subject’s jouissance, representing “the concrete mark of separation” (41). Enjoyment is “the contact between sensibility and the formless quality of the element” (94). It corresponds to sensation and more precisely to the very moment when the instrumental schema of the sensible is rejected and the subject just perceives his or her distinction and independence from the elemental world. Before having the possibility to be part of an ethical encounter with the Other, the subject should first have an ontic consistency: “enjoyment thus reveals the fundamental priority of the ontic for ontology” (47). This idea of a detachment and a constitution of the subject from and through the element questions the phenomenological distinction between constituent and constituted. Indeed, if on the one hand the ego shapes objectivity starting from the undifferentiated element, it is itself in turn delimited by the element:

Enjoyment reveals the impossibility of reducing the constituted to the position of the intentional correlate of the constitutive acts of transcendental consciousness. Every constituted object reveals itself through enjoyment just as much as it occupies the position of the constituent, which is to say the sensible nourishment of the self (55).

Once subjectivity consolidated, the self is ready for the encounter with the Other. This encounter begins in two other well known topoi of the Levinasian production: the dwelling (demeure), that is “the starting-place of any finalized human activity” (91), and the labor (travail), that consists “in the transformation of elemental nature into a world of identifiable things” (94). In order to encounter the Other, that is to manifest himself or herself to the Other, the subject should first have some possession to share with the Other, something to communicate to him or her. Here lies the fundamental importance of labor. It allows us to substantialize the element and fix it between the dwelling’s walls. Through labor we make the world and its objects identifiable and we start having possessions. At this point, Moati highlights and develops another great Levinasian intuition that, as the idea of a nocturnal ontology does, anticipates and responds to several difficult theoretical issues emerging in later event philosophy, especially the ones related to the possibility of the given and to its ontological status. Labor and possession – says Moati – turn the category of being into the category of having and they do that through a neutralization of being:

The thing is also, therefore, nothing more than the element, because it coincides with an element whose ontological independence has been neutralized and, in other words, whose being has been anesthetized. Put differently, through labor and the possession that results from it, the being (l’être) of the element becomes the having (l’avoir) of the self. […] The element becomes something only through the suspension of its being. Here, the ontological frontiers of the element no longer exceed those of the self, which is to say that we are now dealing with being insofar as it is possessed by someone (the self) (95).

Furthermore, in the event of the encounter our possessions become gift for the Other (136), and this gift is the content of the fundamental relation of teaching, that is the constitutive relation that marks the Other as such. As someone being my master not because of his or her deeper knowledges, but because of his or her radical otherness (126). Our shared world, that is the object of our ontology, does not follow the logic of being anymore, but that of having and giving. We are here facing a movement from être to il y a, from sein to es gibt.

Nocturnal Events.

Our possessions, shared in the social contest, exceed thus the ontology of light and become constitutive of the nocturnal event of sociality, a feature that marks us as humans. As the last step of the reconstruction, Moati finally points out how such nocturnal events, way far from being transcendent moments indirectly concerning the terrestrial condition, are not to be thought separately from our sensible way of being and how it grounds all other diurnal activities. We will now cite two cases Moati presents us with: sociality and fecundity.

Sociality is the base of our relationship with the Other. Because ofit we always already possess the idea of the infinite (107), which otherwise would be paradoxical and unreachable, for it would be reducible to totality of the self. Through sociality, ultimate event of Being, it is possible to articulate a relationship between the two terms (me and the Other) and at the same time maintain their separation (112). It is remarkable that sociality is an event of Being itself, constitutively belonging to its nocturnal structure. Because of sociality, Being is not a totalized monolithic Eleatic Being but is rather open and plurivocal. Moreover, in reason of this fundamental sociality, subjects can live their ethical relationship with the others expressing themselves through their discourse and interlocutory presence. Discours and teaching are the way in which the Other reveals to us his or her transcendence and allows us to have a relation with the infinite without reducing it to ourselves. Moati stresses one more time that this kind of expression is not to be understood in the context of a structure of illumination: “The one who expresses himself or herself does not draw his or her intelligibility from the light ‘borrowed’ from intentionality and unveiling, from which the same emerges” (115).

If sociality allows a relation without totalising elements of a plurivocal being, fecundity makes possible the production and realization of the infinite becoming of being. Moreover, it also represents a valuable alternative to the Heideggerian Geworfenheit to describe our terrestrial condition and our rooting in the concrete temporal situation. Moati recalls the famous example of the father/son relationship and gives us an account of its ontological meaning:

For the self, to be is also, through fecundity, to be other. The father is his son, in the precise sense in which the father transcends the horizon of his own selfhood in the son. The selfhood of the son, in the form from which the self of the father emerges, no longer coincides with the selfhood of the departure, that of the father. In fecundity, the self is discontinuous, fragmented. This discontinuity is an ultimate event of being itself, insofar as it is social, which is to say, transcendent and plural (172).

Levinas and Phenomenology.

As we mentioned before, together with a detailed development of the concept of nocturnal events and a reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation with the infinite, Moati provides us with illuminating comparisons between Levinas and other prominent phenomenologists throughout this book . These comparisons aim at explaining to what extent he kept following the Husserlian and Heideggerian ideas and what kind of disagreements he had with his contemporaries.

It goes without saying that the greatest dissent with Husserl concerns the ideas of transcendental ego and intentionality. We already saw how Levinas gives up the primacy of intentionality as a mean of objective representation since it is reduced to a structure of illumination, and how the distinction between constituent and constituted is questioned. Besides it, Moati also stresses the fact that Levinas cannot accept Husserl’s notion of transcendental ego for at least two reasons. First of all, the ego is always already sensible and we cannot think of an ego beyond its sensible situation. Second, Levinas reproaches the subjective non determination of the concept of transcendental ego. Indeed, its generality “hinders the possibility of establishing a relation that departs from the concrete immanence, from which only the other may speak — which is to say, deploy its ethical infiniteness” (182). All these remarks could be summed up in the general critic that Husserlian phenomenology brings about a totalization of the other and reduces it to the self.

Concerning Heidegger, Moati highlights that in the eyes of Levinas his historical and temporal conception of Dasein and thrownness (Geworfenheit) surely represent a step forward compared to the Husserlian suprahistorical model of consciousness. However, it would be a mistake to describe the sensible installation of our sensible ego within the element in terms of thrownness. More specifically, the concept of thrownness is linked to a conception of our existence based on the notion of power, that Levinas instead wants to quit: thrownness reveals our limits only in regard to the power that we have over our being. On the contrary, for Levinas our primordial situation is a position that locates consciousness beyond any positive or negative reference to power (78) and corresponds to the nocturnal event of fecundity. While thrownness puts us in the tragic condition of being powerless faced with our historical sensible determination and subject to the given horizon of possibility that is opened up to us with our birth, fecundity frees our terrestrial condition from this tragic connotation. Indeed, fecundity is here situated in the context of an ontology that renounces every claim of totalization and, therefore, renounces the primary role of power in representing our relationship with the Other: “the primacy of sensible happiness over any condition of misfortune becomes intelligible only once the nocturnal event of fecundity is elucidated, which in turn opens up the sensible depth of our being-in-the-world. It is thus fecundity that exhausts the reference to power and allows us to grasp the depth of our foundation in being” (83).

Another important disagreement drawn by Moati concerns Sartre. It is true that for both Levinas and Sartre the Other cannot be the object of a phenomenological reduction because of his or her transcendence and the encounter with the other takes the form of a dispossession of the world. But in this disagreement, Sartre understands this dispossession as a kind of alienation from the world, while for Levinas it actually corresponds to the “real becoming an objective world” (135). Indeed, Levinas sees a world that is only possessed and not shared, a silent world without discourse, as a contradictory world that remains subjective and relative. Since sociality grounds our being in the world, sharing our possessions with the other becomes the realization of our humanity and does not imply for us any kind of loss. The world is always a common world.

The last comparison that Moati presents us with is the one with Derrida and focuses especially on Derrida’s essay Violence et métaphysique. First of all, Moati points out a misunderstanding concerning the concept of “transcendental violence” in Derrida’s reading of Totalité et Infini. This misunderstanding is caused by the different grasping of the concept of intentionality and egoity that the two authors have: while Derrida thinks about the ego in the ethical relation as a transcendental ego (even if, as we all know, he strongly criticizes the Husserlian idea of transcendental), Levinas is instead talking about a sensible ego. The critique Derrida addresses to Levinas on “transcendental violence” thus misses its addressee, since Levinas refuses to problematize the subject’s relation with the other in transcendental terms (181). Moreover, the most stimulating remark that is formulated by Moati in this comparison is for sure the one concerning their two different conceptions of eschatology, for this thematic directly relates to event philosophy. Roughly, the greatest difference between the two authors lies in the fact that Derrida thinks the infinite in eschatology as a negativity, an endless process of spacing produced by the infinite waiting for an Other that never comes. In other words, as an infinite différance. For Derrida history designates “the ever-unachieved work of transcendental constitution” and is to be understood as “opening up to a nonpresence at the heart of phenomenality” (186). On the other hand, eschatology “lies in history as the movement of overflowing the closure of finite sameness” (187). Quite the opposite, Levinas sees eschatology as a relation to positive infinity. The Other manifests his or her infinite transcendence to us in a positive way, without a negative withdrawing. For Levinas eschatology is not contained within history but rather suspends it, “not only in that the transcendent passage from finite totality to the positivity of the infinite happens through it, but also in that eschatology suspends any recourse to our constituent powers to deduce the event of the revelation of the infinite” (187).

I would like to underline this final remark. In his late works, starting with Psyché. Inventions de l’autre, Derrida explicitly mentions the event of the coming of the Other as a fundamental – even quasi-transcendental – element of our experience and the human condition. Nevertheless, for Derrida the Other never comes and should never come in order to keep open the empty space needed to welcome him or her. This is why the event is impossible for Derrida; its conditions of possibility are its condition of impossibility. Levinas’ nocturnal events, and above all the event of sociality allowing our relationship with the infinite transcendence of the Other, free us from the paradox of an impossible foundation of our experience and knowledge. Indeed, both in Derrida and Levinas, our theoretical openness is based on the previous ethical striving for the Other. But while the Levinasian ethics finds its foundation in the nocturnal event of sociality, Derrida always misses the fundamental encounter with the Other.

In the night of Being, the Derridean spectre of the impossible could be chased by invisible ghostbusters: the nocturnal events.


Levinas and the Night of Being is an outstanding work of research in which Raoul Moati fully develops the ontological and phenomenological consequences of the notion of “nocturnal event” – on which very few was previously written – and properly contextualizes Levinas production in the phenomenological frame. Moati’s reading of Levinas thus provides us with new conceptual instruments to understand the key concept of ethics and otherness, theoretical core of Totalité et Infini. Inlight of his knowledge of phenomenology and French philosophy, Moati manages to explain with a remarkable clarity what is Levinas’ relation toward Husserlian phenomenology and how it is developed in contemporary philosophy, while also presenting critical readings of his work, such as the Derridean argument. Even though the chapters dedicated to the reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation to infinity give us a general glimpse of Levinasian main concepts, I would not suggest reading this book to first approach Levinas’ philosophy because of its complex critique of ontology and phenomenology. I would rather warmly suggest this reading to anyone who is already familiar with Levinasian ideas in general and with Totalité et Infini in particular. Indeed, Moati’s book not only helps us understanding his work by giving us a rigorous phenomenological context but it also prevents us from misreading Levinas as an anti-metaphysical or anti-ontological author. On the contrary, Moati shows us that an ontology is definitively possible insofar as we accept to also consider its nocturnal component.

Last but not least, I would like to spend a few words about Daniel Wyche’s translation as conclusion. Translating such a book is for sure not an easy task. Beyond the difficulties caused by philosophical jargon and complex argumentative structures there are several expressions in French, untranslatable in English, that should be rendered with neologism or directly rewritten in French. The most complex paragraphs may therefore prove more difficult to understand in the English version. It is maybe for this reason that the author chose to completely rewrite several passages exclusively for the English version. Overall, Wyche’s realized an elegant translation and managed to render in English concepts that are so idiosyncratically French. However, I would suggest to francophone readers to check also the original version, at least the least clear passages.

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