Why? Why, and how? Why should I talk, today, in this place, about love? Why love, and why the ethics of love? How could I manage to mention, in 15 minutes, more than what we all already know about love? Is love even a philosophical question? Or would philosophy, like psychology, sociology or biology, fail in grasping the core of what makes love? In my experience, philosophy is a language, and the main value of any language is to insist on particular perspectives that other languages may miss. Such perspectives may seem to you odd, or far removed from the everyday experience of love. But they could also build upon a set of intuitions that many of us have felt about love. It is my case. Today, I would like to discuss the question of subjectivity in love. What exactly is that relationship between two beings, which we call love? What happens to the being that I am when I love someone else?
The question of love requires a context, a background. The backdrop of love is: subjectivity. First is my existence: I am; and only later, with some chance, I may meet someone, and grow in love with her or him. Because, indeed, before becoming love, romance starts in an encounter. Love is, fundamentally, coming across another being and developing a very special type of interaction with her or him. Love would thus fall under the domain of inter-subjectivity, or, the undeniable fact that human life is unique for having encounters as one of its most constituting events. For many centuries, western philosophy was the name of a series of discourses, in which each lonely philosopher would generalize his feelings about the world. Thus, it took some time for inter-subjectivity to be addressed more directly. This took place in the last century, from the opening of the tradition started by Edmund Husserl: phenomenology. It culminates, according to me, in the thought of one of his students, and one of the proponents of this tradition in France: Emmanuel Levinas.
The life of Emmanuel Levinas traversed the 20th century. He was born in 1906 in a Jewish family of Lithuania. Levinas came to France at 18 years-old to study philosophy. After discovering phenomenology under Husserl and Martin Heidegger in Freiburg, Germany, in 1928, he returned to France and contributed to the spread of this tradition. It would take three decades for Levinas’s thought to find maturity, to find a language: in 1961, Levinas signed his first masterpiece, Totality and Infinity. In this essay, Levinas builds upon the everyday, phenomenological experience of the face-to-face, to develop a radically new understanding of one of the key fields of philosophy: ethics.
Levinas has entered the philosophical field of ethics at a very advanced stage. By the 20th century, the ethical question, that is, the question of the good, had already been addressed in a number of ways. Levinas follows, to some extent, the altruistic understanding of ethics of Immanuel Kant. Like Kant, and unlike the other traditions of, say, virtue ethics, consequentialism or utilitarianism, Levinas believed that the question of good can never really be reduced to that of my own good. Kant, in his Christian framework, believed that it is only by acting correctly and for the good of all that I, the agent, would, in turn, also receive the fruits of my actions. Levinas, after Kant, explores the meanings and possible forms that this morality for the other, may imply. Levinas, after Kant, talks of duty and responsibility.
In twenty five centuries of history, western philosophy and western science have offered the human always more sophisticated thoughts and tools to control her environment, to control objects, to control other humans. But it never managed to find an attitude, a space, a humility to welcome the Other who is really Other, that is, who is different from everything I know and even everything I can understand. Western philosophy and western science cannot accept that parts of the world are out of their reach.
However, it is precisely at this point that Levinas’s thought appears as the deepest rejection of Kantian philosophy. Indeed, Kant, like so many others, missed one major problem: universalism. Kant’s philosophy is universalist, because it assumes that what is true for one individual (the historical person Immanuel Kant) must also be valid for humanity at large, in all places and in all times. This makes of philosophy an attitude based on the assumption that all humans should, basically, be just like the subject of reference, me. When Levinas says that western philosophy has always attempted to reduce the Other into the Same, he is seeing in the history of western thought the deep root of what Edward Said, fifteen years later, would call Orientalism. For Levinas, western philosophy has never been able to address the question of the Other as Other. In twenty five centuries of history, western philosophy and western science have offered the human always more sophisticated thoughts and tools to control her environment, to control objects, to control other humans. But it never managed to find an attitude, a space, a humility to welcome the Other who is really Other, that is, who is different from everything I know and even everything I can understand. Western philosophy and western science cannot accept that parts of the world are out of their reach.
The ethics of western philosophy is, thus, for Levinas, a major paradox: we have talked for centuries of what is good for oneself and others, but we never encounter this Other. We never encounter the Other, because, by definition, the Other is outside of me, external, out of my reach. Levinas suggests another term for the Other: the Infinite. The Other is the alterity, the otherness, which can never successfully be transformed into the Same. I can attack, I can reduce, I can enslave or kill the Other, but he or she still remains different and distinct from me.
Is the Other infinitely Other in all our relations? We would all agree that most of the human beings we encounter remain quite puzzling, and strictly separated from us. But, as humans, we also tend to develop privileged relations with certain individuals. Family, or the community, give this background of privileged relations, and friendship and love are the names of the privileged relationships that we intentionally develop during life. Love, in particular, is usually seen as a relation that transcends all others in terms of depth, of emotions, of commitment and personal investment. Perhaps love would be that once-in-a-lifetime, only Other, whom we take the time to truly encounter and love in her or his Otherness. Is the loved Other the Other that I love and cherish as an Other, as someone Other than me, as someone that I do not try to change into what I am? Or into what I would like her or him to be? Is love this final, long-awaited name for our only true encounter of the Other as Other?
Interestingly, the last part of Totality and Infinity addresses love. It is an exploration of what Levinas, in his poetic and delicate prose, called Eros, that is, the love relationship specified by the shared experience of sex. The loved Other, for Levinas, is the partner with whom I experience the life-changing experience of sex. But getting close is everything but breaking distance. Levinas is categorical: in Eros, we do not encounter the Other as Other. On the contrary, Levinas says that even in Love, even in sex, even in the intense proximity that is sex, the Other remains Other, fundamentally different and distinct from me. Love is not the place of encounter of the Other. My attempt, in this essay, is to suggest a few arguments to comfort, and to confront, some of the views of Levinas on love. These speculations are somehow too abstract, and arguably too boring, for me to discuss them here. Time is also lacking to allow me to aim at anything convincing. But I can mention one of them, briefly. I discovered in the French expression point de fuite a motif that may match my understanding of Levinas on love. Translated in English as vanishing point, it is, in the technical language of painting and photography, the meeting point of the horizon line, with the lines of perspective starting from the foreground. I suggest that this motif could correspond to our false hope of self-transcendence in love, our hope of a total merging of our subjectivity with, or in, the subjectivity of the loved Other. The loved Other is my horizon, the furthest and widest scope for my whole life, and the point de fuite is the hope of my merging with her or him. Overwhelmed by the heavy omnipresence of my own limited self throughout my life, I hope to escape myself in the beauty of the loved Other. In French, fuite is the word for fleeing.
I wish, here, to quote another French philosopher. He is not really famous; in fact, nobody but me knows him as a philosopher. His name is Yves Buchoul, and he is my father. Having retired six years ago, he has, now, all the time to indulge in the pointless speculations that we like to call, in MCPH, philosophy. In a recent email, he responded to my little hypothesis:
“When I love, it is perhaps that I wish to escape from myself, but this is not without risks… In any case, and even if I feel the impression that I am forgetting myself while contemplating the loved Other, I hopelessly remain myself… There is only one way to escape this tyranny: deciding to love myself, loving this self, assuming what I am, and appreciating it. It is even the only condition for me to open to the other, whoever he or she may be.”
For my father, subjectivity precedes inter-subjectivity: I must accept myself before going towards the Other. He concludes:
“It is possible that Levinas (whom I never read) said similar things. And better expressed, of course…”
It is not only out because I am an exhibitionist, that I mention my father here. It is also because Levinas quickly transforms the question of Eros into that of fecundity. While my loved Other remains irremediably Other, unreachable, impossible to encounter entirely in her full otherness, it is not the same case with my child. My child is an Other and myself at once. He or she is that unique being in the whole world, who is, for me, equally myself and an Other, without the two being self-contradictory. He or she indicates that there is, inside my self, inside the realm of the Same, the birth of the Other. Otherness is inside me.
Levinas shows that ontology or logic are only machines to change the Other, what is new and uncontrollable, into the familiar, into the framed and the understood.
This is the sort of statement that appears as technically illogical, formally impossible and unacceptable for the western traditions of philosophy, which have been largely limited by the rules of logic and reason from the time of the Greek cradle. Beyond ethics, love or fecundity, Levinas is important because he invites us to do philosophy in a new way. Levinas is a western philosopher: he agrees with a number of earlier philosophers, and he accepts to express his discoveries in the language of academic philosophy. But Levinas is not just Greek. He is also Jewish. And it is this other type of influence that allows him to develop ideas that would otherwise be, by definition, out of reach, or irrelevant, for Greek and European philosophies, which took logic and reason as their founding principles. Levinas shows that ontology or logic are only machines to change the Other, what is new and uncontrollable, into the familiar, into the framed and the understood. It is only in the immediacy of the relationship, in its urgency, that I can truly sense the absolute Otherness of the Other. When Levinas argues that ethics is prior to ontology and logic, he contends that the most fundamental feature of the human is not reason or even some basic substance, but the fact that we are those beings who are, everyday, confronted to the challenge of encountering our Others. To understand Levinas, and to follow his path, we must welcome other traditions of thought capable to complement the rational explorations of western philosophy. In spite of Levinas’s late recognition, this message is still marginal in western philosophy today. But it may, I believe, get another reception here. That is my hope.
Image courtesy: She’s Like a Ghost
|An Ethics of Love|
|EXPLORE THE SERIES|
|An Ethics of Love|
|Part 1.1||Part 1.2|
|Others and the Loved Other||The Escape|
|Part 1.3||Part 1.4|
|Epistemological Escape||Ontological Escape|
|Part 2||Part 3|
|Love and Time||Separation, Death and Remaining the Other|
|An Ethics of Love – Overture||An Ethics of Love – Annex|