Is philosophy still philo-sophia ? What is the shift that occurred between philosophy as philosophia and what philosophy is today ? And what is the role, or the symbol of the foreigner in this dynamic ? Setting philosophy as philo-sophia is more than simplistic or reductive. A love of wisdom would imply a particular movement. The accusative of indicates a very specific relation between love and wisdom. There, philosophy would be an affection (a passion?) for wisdom. The philosopher posits her task as one of rapprochement towards wisdom. The philosopher starts outside of wisdom and attempts to reach closer to it. There would be, once again, the symbol of exteriority common to foreignness. But the philo would be more than a mere search : love implies a proximity, perhaps an interiority. However, the familiar trope of the wandering ‘wise man,’ describing and explaining life, society and morals with an unexpected depth and scope, is narrow and misleading, and Levinas himself was not to omit that point. Not that philosophy as philo-sophia should be rejected, but that its reformulation is necessary. Levinas recounts in the third person the intuition of his approach to the writing of Totality and Infinity:
“He then asked himself whether all that was dear to the love of “the love-of-wisdom,” to the love that is the philosophy of the Greeks, was the certainty of fields of knowledge directed toward the object, or the even greater certainty of reflection on these fields of knowledge ; or whether knowledge beloved of and expected from philosophers was not, beyond the wisdom of such knowledge, the wisdom of love, or wisdom in the guise of love. Philosophy as love of love. A wisdom taught by the face of the other man !” 1
Why is our philosophy different ? A possible answer: because of the graph. Some of the Pre-Socratic philosophers ended with parts of their works assembled in compilations, but never were their individual statements meant to fit a coherent whole. When Plato attempts a writing of the teachings of his master Socrates, the technology imposes an accountability, a commensurability – the written starts, in a word, the system. The system, while undeniably not the only format of philosophy in the western tradition, nonetheless turned out to be, henceforth, the most influential way of philosophising. Cutting through a plethora of nuances and counter-examples which we should ideally mention, we can reach the point of rupture. A turn arises first with Nietzsche and genealogy as the key method of philosophical work, and more radically, with Heidegger’s turn to language. With hermeneutics, philosophy becomes an inspection of the letter, of philosophy as a discipline, a tradition and a practice of the written. This criterion may seem arbitrary but it is so prevalent that we would doubt whether to call those ‘thinkers’ who do not write as ‘philosophers’. Inversely, one would struggle to think of a major philosopher of the recent times, who has not written. Philosophy is written.
Levinas recognises that philosophy is a matter of language. Totality and Infinity, his attempt at formulating an approach to the acknowledgement and relation with the Other as Other, bereft of the reduction of the Same, would soon be tackled by Derrida’s response in “Violence and Metaphysics.” There, Derrida admits that Levinas rightly discovered the fundamental problem of western philosophy as a mechanism of reduction of alterity to familiar structures, up until and including Heidegger, but he contends that Levinas himself had laid the grounds for his own ‘totalising’ or ‘thematising’ project. Thirteen years later, in Otherwise Than Being, Levinas moves language towards the centre of his project. Levinas suggests a fundamental distinction between the Said, or the content of a linguistic utterance, and the Saying, or the event of saying, the entry in dialogue. The contrast is fascinating : while the Said, in the fundamental linguistic form ‘X is Y’, is necessarily formatted to a project of reductive thematisation, the Saying is, on the contrary, the opening of oneself to the Other via language, the demonstration of one’s ‘need’ of the Other and of one’s vulnerability to what is requested, as the Other’s response. Levinas finds in language at once the most ethical and the most reductive of the human acts. The possibility, and actual arrangement of this association is the centre of Levinas’s reflection in Otherwise Than Being.
If post-structuralism is fundamentally organised around a new understanding of the position and role of language, its scope is not limited to a transformation of philosophy to just philosophy of language.
What is the context of Levinas’s take on language within the historical evolution of western philosophy ? Nietzsche, and later Heidegger, had already delivered a lethal blow onto the format of philosophy as system. More than being language-bound, systematic philosophy was subjected to necessarily unavowed or unaware blind spots ; to the over-arching principles or assumptions that permitted the unity and coherence of each system. Derrida’s corpus of ‘deconstructive’ studies, are, then, basically practical applications of what was certainly a central intuition in both Nietzsche and Heidegger. But what is left of philosophy ? Besides retrospective studies, as partial or total falsifications of earlier views, philosophy remains accountable for, and arguably, capable of producing positive philosophy, that is, genuinely new propositions, amenable to enlighten classical problems just as much as contemporary, pragmatic, ethical or political situations. And, importantly, philosophy would also be not only an elaborated meta-discourse uniquely self-reflective of its use of language. If post-structuralism is fundamentally organised around a new understanding of the position and role of language, its scope is not limited to a transformation of philosophy to just philosophy of language. Derrida was accused, for a long time, to only indulge in a playful practice of literary or poetic writing, avoiding claims and ideologically rejecting more structured philosophical projects. His later writings proved at once the implications of his approach beyond language, as well as his personal reactivity to his critics and the needs of his times.
Philosophy is entered, at this point, as a type of discourse aware of its future self-transcendence, aware of its degeneration in the years, decades and centuries to come. Philosophy is placed back in language, in the flow of thoughts and formulations, and thus brought back to time. Philosophy is an economy, it is a logic of gain and loss, the attempt to arrive at a philosophical benefit, unlike the earlier quest for final, ultimate truths.
Philosophy, there, remains nonetheless a practice of the written, self-conscious of its language and accessing the philosophical tradition as a tradition of the written. Etymologies, vocabulary, rhetoric and stylistic turns are given prominence in the analysis, but, between the lines, certain positions are brought fourth. Derrida speaks regularly of ‘compromises’, or what he called, more formally from the beginning of his career, economy. Philosophy is an economy, it has to attempt to reach the last word, the last sent