“EMMANUEL LEVINAS – Dialogues with Philosophers In COVID-19 Times” by Saurabh Todaria
Care Consciously! # DEFEAT CORONA

Just yesterday I saw two people on bike distributing the cooked food to the poor people in our colony. They had been looking for the underprivilegeds in the colony. Obviously, they were not practicing the social distancing which has now become the acknowledged ethos of the community. It is becoming clear that lockdown is not affecting the people in the same way. Privileged can afford it as the ‘leisure time’ while for others it is full of financial and psychological woes.

If someone dies of starvation then can I escape from the guilt? Don’t I owe some responsibility towards the people who have been starving, stranded or in psychological distress due to lockdown?

The women who were trudging towards their homes, carrying their babies in the shoulders or the people who are getting assembled in the railway stations, what should we call them? Unruly crowd, illiterate mass, carriers of Covid?

In the rapid moving TV images, we can only see the swarm of heads, indistinct faces and the jostling bodies. May be each person has some story to tell, some pain to share. But they are carrying the existence which has been nullified in what Agamben calls the ‘state of exception’.

The tragedy is that we have failed to perceive these people as singularities and they have become the common name: migrant labourers.Ironically, this name refers to some nameless and faceless entity. While we claim to understand their pain. But can we really understand the pain of the other person? How can I empathize with the situation of which I don’t have any lived experience? I guess Wittgenstein is right when he says that we cannot know the pain of the other through their pain behaviour but only through the sincere avowal of the sufferer.

This takes my imagination towards the philosopher who thought of the otherness, alterity as the ethical responsibility, Emmanuel Levinas. As Levinas does not live very far so I visited his home. As usual, he was busy in feeding his Dog to whom he refers as the ‘last Kantian’.

Me- Hello!

Levinas- Hi!

Me- How are you sir?

L- Well, I am doing fine.

Me- See how your philosophy has been challenged by the spread of Covid 19! Now in the times of lockdown and social distancing, where could one find your Other?

L- (Smiles)Well, who said that I ever talked about the other in the lived time rather I talk of the other existing in the past which can never become the present.

Me- What does it mean?

L- See, if you think that the other can be captured or reproduced through memory then there cannot be any surprise or alterity. Since the other belongs to the past, which I called as the ‘originary past’ therefore it always remains out of the reach of subjectivity.

Me- You mean to say that the surprise is the criteria of defining the other?

L- Look, the notion of other should be understood in the context of my fundamental point that the ethics should be the first philosophy.

Me- Ethics as the first philosophy, why?

L- This is because the western philosophy has been obsessed with the idea of same.

Me- How?

L- See if you look at the history of philosophy you will notice that the philosophers are always afraid of the dispersion. They rather think of something which can contain this dispersion or excess.Hence, the samneness is thought through the different names: Idea, Reason, Being.

Me- Yes, the thought of Logos and Being in the Greek philosophy also points towards this.

L- Yes, even in Husserl you will find that the phenomenological reduction always try to avoid this excess in favour of the transcendental ego. Similarly, Kant also discovers the categories to subsume the overwhelming sensations. Hermeneutics too privileges the whole in the part-whole relationship.

Me – Yes. It is called as the Hermeneutical circle.

L- Exactly. Hermeneutical circle already interprets the part in terms of the whole but I conceive of the ‘part’ which is pure singularity and can be thought only in terms of the Infinity.

Me- Infinity?

L- Yes, philosophy has ignored the idea of Infinity but it is only through the Infinity that the finitude can be understood.

Me- How?

L- For example, Husserl tries to understand the object only in the background of the infinite possibilities which horizon offers.

Me- But what the Infinity get to do with the alterity?

L- Infinity is the Other! Thought tries to reduce all differences into the same. You must not forget the Hegelian dialectics which engulfs the labour of negative into the service of Begriff, Absolute idea. However, infinite is the pure exteriority which cannot be grasped by the thought and therefore it becomes the other. In theological terms, God becomes the alterity as he is infinite.

Me- But how can we consider God as the other, he is our very own.

L- In Jewish Kabbalah tradition, God is considered as the infinite, secret, which cannnot be exhausted.

Me- Hmm. Negative theology again!

L- Yes. In Kabbalah tradition, God is infinite, mysterious who manifest in the finite world but cannot be exhausted.
Me- That’s why you have used the words like the fecundity, voluptuousness with respect to the experience of other. The use of feminine terms also intresting as female is also an other, which cannot be comprehended through the patriarchal categories.
But again, how come the ethics become the first philosophy?

L- When we experience the face of other, it makes us responsible towards the other; therefore ethics becomes the first philosophy.

Me- Face?

L- Face does not mean the physical face, which one looks in the mirror. The face of other is something which is beyond all expressions and anticipations; it is through which the surprise comes and something unexpected enters into my world. This is the advent of otherness in my world, which changes the existing sense of my world.

Me- You mean to say that the face of the other make oneself responsible towards the other?

L- Yes. Take an example. Can you tickle yourself? No. Because only an other person can tickle you. Similarly, you can’t surprise yourself. Surprise comes only through the other. As surprise cannot be calculated in advance otherwise it is no surprise. The phenomenology of surprise requires an essential unknowing, the ability to get affected on the part of subject; then alone it can be caught by surprise. When the other surprise us, it affects us and we become vulnerable towards the other and realise our essential relation with it.

Me- This is really intresting. I never thought that the ability to get affected shows the essential relationship between the self and other.

L- Yes, this is what is called as I-Thou relationship by Martin Buber.

Me- Yes, he talks about the non-objectifying relationship between the self and other like between the two lovers or the strangers meeting in train. Nobody tries to master another.

L- Yes. This I call as transcendence. Other is the beyond towards which the subjectivity transcends and cannot remain in its shell. This is the phenomenology of existence.

Me- Intresting. But you have also discussed about death in your work with respect to the other.

L- Yes. Infact I have problematised Heidegger’s notion of death. According to Heidegger, we become resolute in the face of death. However, I say that the death shows our essential nakedness that we cannot face the death and we are dependent on the other. Death points to our essential dependence on the other. Contra Heidegger, I say that death is the, ‘impossibility of possibility’.

Me- What does that mean?

L- Actually in the experience of death, human being comes out of the solitude of their existence and realise their utter helplessness and become dependent on the Other to come out of this solitude. Hence, it is not my death but the death of the other which make me responsible.

As I was listening to this enchanting words from Levinas, I remembered what Stanley Cavell said about Levinas. There are two kinds of moral theorists: first, who gives the rules and procedures like Kant or Habermas. But there is another category of moral theorists who explains the importance of the existential situation which gives rise to ethics in the first place. Levinas belongs to this category.

Disclaimer: The opinions endorsed by the speaker is solely the author’s and not in any way endorsed by the Institute/Programme.