Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Terrence Malick’s film A Hidden Life depicts the life of the Austrian World War II conscientious objector and Catholic martyr Franz Jägerstätter, executed by the Nazis for his refusal to serve the cause of the Reich and swear allegiance to the Führer. Is Jägerstätter’s sacrifice best understood in religious terms, or can it be conceived within a secular moral framework? In the latter case, might it be understood as giving credence to a moral realism in which moral truth-claims are undergirded by metaphysical facts, or rather as divested of any transcendental sanction? In this article I argue for the latter interpretation, and describe how Jägerstätter’s act demonstrates the highest moral purpose in an existential-humanist sense.

Published in Overland Literary Journal online, April 3rd 2020:

Thinking about Jägerstätter: the making of moral meaning

The full text with original formatting (missing in published version) is given below:


Terrence Malick’s recent film A Hidden Life depicts, as its title suggests, that of the Austrian martyr Franz Jägerstätter—a life which, in its apparent simplicity of purpose, and in its end, presents the viewer with a kind of moral fable, raising questions that could not, however, be more complex. While academic scholarship on Jägerstätter grows, and his own words are recorded in letters to his wife, what follows engages only the most overt facts and events of his life. For clarity of discussion, knowing these is sufficient to engage the question of what his sacrifice might signify to us today.

On its face, Jägerstätter’s life and death could not be more straightforward. Following the Anschluss of 1938, able-bodied Austrian men were called to serve the cause of the Third Reich, especially once World War II had broken out. Malick’s film initially presents the peasant Jägerstätter, a seemingly ingenuous but deep-feeling Catholic, leaving his wife and three daughters and the farming community of the Radegund mountains, to comply with mandatory military training. He appears wary, but compliant, finding camaraderie with like-minded countrymen, who approach the Nazi incursion on their lives in still uncommitted and perhaps naive terms. Jägerstätter is shown making light of the regulation bayonet training, puppeteering with straw dummies, turning inanimate objects of lethal duty into paragons of whimsical affection. It is a telling image, that recurs at the end of the long film, just before Jägerstätter goes, willingly, to the guillotine—as the viewer knows he must.

This word ‘must’, a sign of duty or obligation, is important because it will soon implicitly take two forms. Firstly, and most obviously, Jägerstätter must be condemned to death for defying Nazi demands made of him as a subject of the Reich. This is the legal register of his death qua execution, however much he or the viewer as a moral agent might deplore the death penalty for any crime, least of all Jägerstätter’s. But the second sense of ‘must’, which we could call an internal counterpoint to the external judicial one, lies with Jägerstätter himself: he must go willingly to his death just because he has consciously, even wilfully, chosen it, knowing it as the irrevocable consequence of what he has done, or failed to do. That is, he must follow and obey his own conscience, which obedience morally transcends the first ‘must’ attached to the punitive status of its consequence. This second sense of must results not so much in his execution—a mere description of his punishment—but rather in a morally saturated death that he has chosen, in all faith, as the most significant decision of his life.

Why does it hold this significance? Jägerstätter could have chosen otherwise, and thereby chosen the continuation of other goods: the love and care of and for his wife and children, or serving his conscientious objection in other ways. But instead he chooses this willed death at the hands of his own moral enemy: not merely the Nazi oppressor, but that part of his own conscience that, in another mind (perhaps mine, or yours), would prefer to take the easier option and choose whatever recourse preserves his life. The Western philosophical locus classicus for this kind of uncompromising moral attitude is Socrates’ acceptance of the penalty of death in the Apology, even though there Socrates initially appeals to the court for lighter sentencing before the verdict is irrevocably brought against him. Once it is, however, Socrates emphasises that he can see no acceptable moral choice between the honour of willing his own execution, and the dishonour of dissimulating his true moral feelings by resorting to the emotive manipulation of the jury. And this is because pursuing the latter course would itself be an instance of doing wrong. He says that “the difficulty is not so much to escape death; the real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong, which is far more fleet of foot” (Apology 38A-39D). Jägerstätter’s choice is similarly extreme, and perhaps to us incomprehensible. For much of Malick’s film, it is not clear whether Jägerstätter is merely confused, mentally clouded in a way Socrates is not, or in some sense morally Quixotic, carrying through a wager without a clear sense of a reason why. Who in their right mind could make the choice he makes?

Before considering his reasons, what in fact is Jägerstätter being punished for? This is where the radical simplicity of his moral wager could not be clearer—or more confounding. Jägerstätter has, as a conscript, refused to swear allegiance to the Führer. He has earlier signalled this intransigence: in the mountain village, after his initial training but before his explicit refusal, he has failed to perform the acts that in casual social contexts signify conformity to the new norm of submission to an occupying power (the Hitler salute, the donating of funds to the war effort). He refuses this submission because, as he makes clear to the local Catholic clergy (in fact, the bishop of Linz) with whom he has shared his doubts, he does not believe Hitler’s war is just. He therefore believes it is wrong, not merely misguided, to invade sovereign nations and attack their people, killing innocents and destroying the kind of seemingly idyllic lifeworlds Malick has so rhapsodically drawn in the Radegund mountains. Jägerstätter perceives these acts as intrinsically and not just adventitiously wrong, so that to tacitly support them is thus to do wrong himself.

Jägerstätter is able to morally place himself in the position of the Reich’s supposed enemies, who are no enemies to him but rather people he imagines are much like himself and his family in desiring to be left in peace, however different they might be in other ways. Jägerstätter’s implied argument with the priest or bishop (who cautiously empathises but otherwise treads the party line), hinges not merely on a religious intuition that is affronted by the demand to repudiate his Christian formation not to harm his neighbour. It is also a morally defensible claim that what the Nazi forces are doing is wrong, that he therefore cannot swear allegiance to the wrongdoer Hitler, and that his conviction of the rightness of his refusal to submit, considering its consequences, is imperative enough to him to override every other good and loved thing in his life. In this he is much like Socrates. That is, Jägerstätter is willing to trade everything he has and knows, for the singular sake of not betraying his conviction—that is indeed his and apparently no-one else’s, for no others in his milieu are willing to share it with him publicly, which is what makes all the difference.

Everyone around him is either confounded or confronted by his obdurate will to remain true to this sense of what is right (again, much as Socrates’ associates are). In the filmic telling, Jägerstätter does not necessarily universalise his conscientious objection to all coercive war; there might be other occasions where a will to kill the enemy is for him justified—such as for those engaged in defending themselves against the German depredations, in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Jägerstätter’s objection might not be absolute, but conditional on his own political context. But given that context, there is for him only one right position to hold, and this can only be expressed in his public resistance.

His wife (apparently in fact more religiously devotional than was Jägerstätter himself) sympathises, struggles but ultimately sustains and supports him in his single-minded stance. Her struggle is much more with her fellow villagers, who predictably ostracise her and their children because of Jägerstätter’s failure to conform. She doggedly perseveres, the children naturally unaware of the extent of their alienation. No-one really knows where all this disquiet will tend: could Jägerstätter be in some way pardoned, or let off with a lighter punishment? The often drunk and histrionic village headman, or mayor, who ostensibly holds some public moral authority and is charged with protecting the status quo, is an enthusiastic believer in the Fatherland and in speaking down to Jägerstätter takes on much of the racialized dogma and xenophobia Jägerstätter appears to have both resisted and judged as immoral, simply by his own force of character.

But here is where the moral status of Jägerstätter’s condemnation could not be more confounding. Surely, an objection could hold (and a number of personages do, including his own legal representative when it comes time to face the tribunal formalising his conviction), there is no practical point to his grandstanding. What does it achieve when, locked away with other political and social undesirables, no-one either witnesses or especially cares about his resistance? Even his own people are confused about it far more than they are minimally sympathetic (apart of course from his wife and perhaps his much-suffering mother). When the war will continue in any case, and his death make no difference to its prosecution, surely the welfare of his wife and family should be the more morally significant concern? On this view, Jägerstätter is simply throwing his life and others’ happiness away to no good purpose: his choice, on this reading, is not wrong so much as gratuitous and even stupid. Repeated scenes show Jägerstätter offered the opportunity to sign a single concessionary document that will effectively absolve him of wrong-doing, or certainly attenuate it. If he really disagreed with the war, he could go underground and join the clandestine resistance, as Hitler’s would-be assassins did. And, as noted, nor is Jägerstätter overtly painted as a pacifist, as someone who objects to lethal violence per se. So what drives him to this unremitting degree? To throw his own life on the great Nazi pyre of wilful, senseless destruction?

We have seen that Jägerstätter has given reasons that in their stark simplicity are impossible to mistake: because he does not believe the war is right, he cannot sincerely claim fidelity to its agents (personified in the person of Hitler). Does the crux of his claim lie then in its sincerity? Couldn’t he insincerely claim fealty, but then work to undermine the power it subserves? Of course he could, but then for Jägerstätter that would miss the moral point. If he claims allegiance he would be required to serve Nazi efforts in one form or another. A Nazi officer challenges him with the observation that, even in Berlin’s Tegel prison, where he waits tortuously for his trial, he polishes SS officer’s boots and fills the sandbags that will be used on whatever front to bolster Nazi defences. On this logic he already undermines his own resistance. What difference could there be in his merely signing his submission and doing the same thing (perhaps released and made to work as an orderly or driver), and not signing and still being forced to submit to the coercion of his Nazi tormentors?

Jägerstätter might justifiably think that because he is imprisoned and forced to do this work, his refusal of fidelity is the only means he has left to not merely express, but enact, his resistance: to continue to actually resist. So he is compelled not to sign, irrespective of the conditions in which he is coerced to act. But, again, what really justifies his will to resist if it otherwise makes no difference to the larger moral event of the war in which it is subsumed? If Jägerstätter really cared for others, and not only for principle, wouldn’t he take his chance of getting out of prison alive, to fight on the side of the right to which he appeals, as so many others did, and for which they too died—but in the very act of making a difference to the outcome of the war in a way Jägerstätter himself chooses not to.

Jägerstätter’s concern, as suggested, appears to have a cognitive basis: like Socrates, he refuses to do what he knows to be wrong. At this point a moral realist—someone who holds that there are mind-independent moral facts that it makes a difference ethically to know and understand as such—might be tempted to claim that what undergirds Jägerstätter’s decision is just the existence of these facts. Unlike others, he has because of their existence grasped the unadorned and absolute rightness of his judgement, and will see it through without compromise. He is, in this sense, a true Kantian deontologist without knowing it, especially inasmuch as his realisation has the force of reason rather than irrational belief. After all, Jägerstätter sees nothing so important to his life than to recognise this, and in this recognition all else falls away, including that very life. As Kant claimed, such a truth and its apprehension transcends the phenomenal world of affect, sentiment and partial preference, and partakes of noumenal reality as those things all fail to.

Viewed in this light, Jägerstätter’s will to what seems an otherwise pointless demise appears abstract and possibly mistaken. At least so it seems from a utilitarian, and secular, ethical perspective. After all, he is not an urbane intellectual, a political sophisticate, an ethicist. But he is a believer in God. Framed as it is within the lens of religious belief, and the faith that tests and tempers that belief in real-life ways, Jägerstätter’s conviction is configured ambiguously. Malick’s film, too, emphasises this religious, as well as existential, dimension of trust in a greater power, transcendental as well as moral, otherworldly and this-worldly, that lies somewhere between a theistic design behind these worst of human tribulations and an ultimate meaning, however elusive, to which the human animal can appeal as sanctioning his faith in what is true, good and right.

Franz’s wife Franzi perhaps personifies the former in a more traditional theistic sense (though she is not, significantly, forced to put her own life on the line as he is), while Franz himself, in his evident torment and possible doubt, seems to embody the great unanswered questions of all religious and moral questioning: what does all this suffering and strife mean, and is what I do, or don’t do, ultimately of any meaning within it? When Jägerstätter is finally sentenced to death (the judge appears just as doubtful of the rightness of his own role in this deterministic machine as the bishop has been), and the endgame of his resistance is played out to its last, mute appeal, there is a palpable sense in which we, the audience, have been witness to a terrible exercise in futility and little more. Jägerstätter buys his conviction at such a great cost, but what does the conviction amount to beyond his solipsistic fidelity to it? (One other prisoner says he is charged with treason, but he seems to be a sole case.) A principled man lives by his principle, and is executed for it as an inconvenience: end of dismal tale.

Should we care, not so much about his principle, but his intransigence in holding it? Consider again the nature of his objection. Jägerstätter says that he is willing to die for the sake of resisting wrong-doing, and the war is wrong. Is he wrong about its wrongness? If we consider the degree of unjustified slaughter the Nazis unleased in Europe and much of the world, his conviction is hard to fault, and this remains true even considering that at the time of his resistance and execution he would have had no means of knowing its full extent, most obviously, in the Holocaust. So Jägerstätter seems doubly historically justified in his resistance. That his death made no concrete difference, that it brought no benefit, to the sufferers of that violence again suggests that Jägerstätter is protesting its wrongness not on utilitarian grounds, but deontological ones: that he refused, in obeying his moral conscience, not only to do wrong but more significantly to tacitly affirm its prosecution by a failure to protest against it. We have seen that his protest makes no transactional difference to the wrong itself. But it does retroactively act by pointing to the fact that, by the failure of a collective resistance (or one that if large enough might have made a real difference) something as evil as the Holocaust was enabled to occur. That was wrongness enough, and Jägerstätter’s public resistance, long after the event, is substantially vindicated on those grounds alone.

Here empirical history confirms the deontologically necessary intuition to never compromise moral duty, and so makes it right in this contingent sense as well. But this doesn’t get at the heart of what Jägerstätter finally means by the wrongness and rightness he is willing to die for. In true Kantian fashion he seems to insist on the idea that it is intrinsically wrong to repudiate one’s own conscience, not merely because of these various contingent effects (which after all he cannot foresee when he makes his decision), but because to do so is also to wrong the self, and indeed the most important part of the self, the part that in being more morally significant than any other of the self’s goods or preferences, overrides them all and thereby sustains the integrity not merely of that moral self but the very notion of the normative as such. With Kant, Jägerstätter is not merely saying that it is good to resist evil, to the best of one’s capacity. He is saying it is unoptional if we want to sustain morality—on whatever metaphysical construal—tout court.

This seems to get closest to the crux of what Jägerstätter wants to impress, however hopelessly, upon the lifeworld into which he has been thrown. His martyrdom, in its moral as opposed to its soteriological Christian register, suggests that in order to keep the good alive, it is necessary to be willing to give one’s life even to an idea of the right irrespective of its other effects. Those who fail to will this sacrifice are tacitly doing bad, or enabling its hegemony, inasmuch as they resist overt, explicit refusal. In this sense, Jägerstätter’s sacrifice is properly existential in that by doing by not-doing, in refusing to do anything he knows is wrong, he succeeds in doing moral work of the highest order. And while not utilitarian in motive, the effects of a purely deontological will to refusal can achieve remarkable historical shifts. If, counterfactually, Jägerstätter with everyone else in the Austria—or France, Czechoslovakia or Poland—of his time had been casually willing to not obstruct Nazi totalitarianism, the moral climate that conduces to a totalised control would have allowed any given value- or truth-claim to become socially normative, and its effects permissible. In our own time, the acts of a Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai, or Snowden, Manning and Assange, in refusing the failure to resist, might well prove in time to have a similar moral valence.

Jägerstätter did not require the metaphysical sanction that, intellectually, might suppose his resistance to be justified by a metaphysical guarantee of its rightness. The notion of such a guarantee is precisely what a moral anti-realist would reject as philosophically gratuitous. But it is important not to confuse this philosophical reservation with the thing that Jägerstätter incontrovertibly did need in order to see through his singular conviction to its end. He needed the personal faith—in himself, his own intuition of truth—to know that there are non-negotiable moral truths from which other moral claims derive, which must be safe-guarded and honoured, if need be, to the death. In this sense, his sacrifice is singular, but it is not senseless in the way it might have seemed. Its rarity and extremity of expression are what make it difficult to rationalise, but considered in these moral terms it can be conceived as eminently, quite literally, sense-making.

Because of this, it is possible that the religious form in which Jägerstätter’s life and conviction was conceptually and existentially structured, obscures its properly ethical basis. The religious dimension provides the cultural context in which his act of moral faith can be traditionally construed, while a Kantian context appears to provide it with an intellectual basis. But I would suggest that Jägerstätter’s Catholic faith in a beneficent God is implicitly serving his more compelling intuition that his sense of rightness is the one thing he finally has in his own (rather than God’s) power and possession, in an otherwise deterministic situation, to not merely represent but to embody as such, to incarnate in his very body.

His success in doing so does not make his act (of non-action) normative. Very few will be called to that degree of faith in extremis. For this reason also it is hard to conceive of his sacrifice as a Kantian categorical imperative when it is not universalizable, despite its deontological cast. And if Jägerstätter does right by holding to the right, it is not God who guarantees it, but Jägerstätter himself, in his own human faith in what he knows to be true, even if no-one else (especially when no-one else) will accompany him there. That he was, decades later in 2007, canonised as a saint by Pope Benedict is, admirably, the means for the Catholic institution to recognise his greatness. But his moral greatness itself, in all its dire torment, came from the mortal man alone. It’s a greatness that doesn’t need transcendental sanction of either religious or metaphysical kinds. Rather, its greatness lies in the immanent making of moral meaning, failing which it can all too imperceptibly slip away.


(January, 2020)

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The first Buddhist precept prohibits the intentional, even sanctioned, taking of life. However, capital punishment remains legal, and even increasingly applied, in some culturally Buddhist polities and beyond them. The classical Buddhist norm of unconditional compassion as a counterforce to such punishment thus appears insufficient to oppose it. This paper engages classical Buddhist and Western argument for and against capital punishment, locating a Buddhist refutation of deterrent and Kantian retributivist grounds for it not only in Nāgārjunian appeals to compassion, but also the metaphysical and moral constitution of the agent of lethal crime, and thereby the object of its moral consequences.

In the Journal of Buddhist Ethics Vol. 26 (March, 2019):


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Capital punishment is practiced in many nation-states,
secular and religious alike. It is also historically a feature
of some Buddhist polities, even though it defies the first
Buddhist precept (pāṇatipātā) prohibiting lethal harm.
This essay considers a neo-Kantian theorization of capital
punishment (Sorell) and examines the reasons underwriting
its claims (with their roots in Bentham and Mill) with
respect to the prevention of and retribution for crime.
The contextualization of this argument with Buddhist metaphysical
and epistemological concerns around the
normativization of value, demonstrates that such a retributivist
conception of capital punishment constitutively
undermines its own rational and normative discourse.
With this conclusion the paper upholds and justifies the
first Buddhist precept prohibiting lethal action in the case
of capital punishment.

Published July, 2017, in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 24 (2017):


Click to access Kovan-Capital-Punishment-final-July-2017.pdf

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“The face resists possession, resists my powers. In its epiphany, in expression, the sensible, still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp” (Totality and Infinity, p. 124)

I see things, use them, manipulate them, take hold of them to suit my own ends. There is that relation. When the face of an Other—my sister, lover, a ‘stranger’—appears, and I see her, and realize the horizons of unknowability behind the light of her eyes, there is another, very different relation. In the quote above, Levinas is pointing to the experience of what happens to that kind of relation (with those things and objects) when it is illumined, perhaps, or brought into the presence of that new relation with the profound alterity of the Other. Is there a contradiction in something that “still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp”? Is it a simultaneous movement, and hence of the nature of paradox (and Levinas allows them, in other contexts, eg. the Infinite in the finite, Levinas 1985: 92), or is it a movement of transition? The resistance and ‘turning-into’ at issue in the passage from Totality and Infinity (hereafter T&I) above, are the necessary themes of that conjunction, or friction, between the totalizing project of the Same, and the transcendent one of the Face-to-Face. It is what happens in the friction that we are concerned to elucidate, in that space wherein the sensible and ethical worlds mingle in proximity.

I.     The sensible (world and its objects)

Within the territory of the Same, sensibility, and that which is sensible, is that experience of the world grounded in a self-sufficient enjoyment of given objects, elements, materials, nourishments. It “does not belong to the order of thought but to that of sentiment…the affectivity wherein the egoism of the I pulsates. One does not know, one lives sensible qualities …” (135, my italics.) Levinas stresses an ‘unquestionedness’ in the sensible; there is an absence of doubt, search, questioning, com-prehension, resistance, to the I who sets about enjoying the sensible world. The sensible and enjoyment are intimately bound, the former “the mode” (ibid.) of the latter. The result, for the I, is: contentment (135-136). It is a joy of the sensately biological, ‘pigs in mud’ perhaps, “essentially naïve” (ibid.), Levinas reminds us. (Naïve to what order of experience, we will discover later.)

An important proviso here is that in which sensibility counters thought: “the objects of the world, which for thought lie in the void, for sensibility…spread forth on a horizon which entirely hides that void” (135). Can we read a duality in this? At the least sensibility seems to preclude the representational conditions of thought (and not “rational thought” alone, ibid.). This distinction (here also supported by reference to Descartes and Kant) will be important in a later understanding of the Face, in whose epiphany not only possession but also thought/representation is transcended. One may wonder here how the I-who-enjoys, engrossed in this enjoyment, yet experiences a complete suspension of the moment of representation to which his status as human agent will otherwise tend him. As I bring food to my mouth, I still perceive and represent it as such: it’s not just inchoate stuff alone, though it is that too.

The question is: does sensibility mean that it remain ‘stuff’ only? Levinas maintains: “The sensibility is…to be described not as a moment of representation, but as the instance of enjoyment” (136). Sensibility is the quality that is present to experience prior to knowing it; it is “not of the order of experience” (137) and my enjoyment of sensible objects is not grounded in an understanding of them—however limited or extensive it could be—but “it is they that ground me” (ibid.) insofar as I am present to the enjoyment of them. Levinas is asserting a primal relation, using the exemplary metaphor of the earth itself as ground upon whose steadfastness, or givenness, we do not question. I simply “stand in the world which precedes me as an absolute of an unrepresentable antiquity” (ibid.). Sensibility is a primordial given, before thought, beyond reason and prior to the elaborations of labour. Its consummation, once I am ‘standing’, “immanent in the world” (138), occurs through the act of possession

II.      Possession (by my powers of grasping)

Levinas has already described the sensible and “its order of enjoyment” (137) as naïve; that is, there is by definition in it an ignorance of something beyond its “self-sufficient” (138) bounds; it is “the very narrowness of life” (ibid.). In what sense? To begin with, possession is grounded in the body and its “sense-datum” (136). “Vision opens upon perspective…and describes a traversable distance, invites the hand to movement and to contact…The forms of objects call for the hand and the grasp” (191). But what is of prior importance is from where sensible objects derive, such that they may, or may not, be grasped. Levinas describes the element, and the objects of sensibility, as coming from “nowhere” (141), and that despite its consummation “Enjoyment, as interiorisation, runs up against the very strangeness of the earth” (142).

The dimension of “nothingness” (ibid.) from which the element, as ground and birth of other things, comes forth (eg. the heat of the sun, fruit on a tree, an ocean wave—they are givens of nature), is nonetheless unassimilable by the purely enjoying self, and hence the ‘separation from-‘ that obtains in the interiorized self in enjoyment: “the element we enjoy issues in the nothingness which separates” (ibid.). These elemental things are present but “without my being able to possess the source” (141). We will see, on the other hand, that “what we will describe under the name of face” (142) presents itself precisely as a personal existent, in the way a sensible object can not. Levinas makes this clear in that “the separation accomplished as enjoyment, that is, as interiority, becomes a consciousness of objects” (139) which is again exactly what the Face will be unable to become.

III.     The face and its epiphany

Where objects and elements and “things have a form, are seen in the light” (140), “the face has no form added to it, but does not present itself as the formless, as matter that lacks and calls for form…the face signifies itself” (ibid.) This is significant in that it implies the face is its own representation, stripped of the conditions of being or even not being that obtain in the world of objects. The face as matter is object, but the face as ethical exigency defies and transcends itself as matter. (It might be simplistic to read an analogy of the human condition in the face, even if it presents the same dilemma: religion insists we are not merely material organisms, we are also the souls that defy that kind of existence.)

In a later text (1985: 85) Levinas questions whether there can be a phenomenology of the face, since the former describes what appears, and the face is, as we will see, more than its appearance. In the same way looking at the face can’t be interpreted phenomenologically, as “the look is knowledge, perception” (ibid.). He suggests, alternately, that “access to the face is straightaway ethical” (ibid.). which thereby grounds its being in something that doesn’t obtain in the sensible world. It is “meaning all by itself” (op. cit. 86).

Levinas is saying that the face, in and of itself, defies entirely the tendency of the Same, of assimilation, of the objectifying enjoyment of the sensible, at the same time that it is “a moral summons” (T&I, 196). The discovery of the Face is something absolutely other, it “alone introduces a dimension of transcendence, and leads us to a relation totally different from experience in the sensible sense of the term, relative and egoist” (193). This dimension is “the idea of infinity…concretely produced in the form of a relation with the face…What is produced here is not a reasoning, but the epiphany that occurs as a face” (196). Because the idea of infinity “exceeds my powers” Levinas nominates it as “experience par excellence” (ibid.), significant here because the face alone is the domain of its accessibility.

We have seen how, in the sensible world, possession and enjoyment presuppose the separation of self and object. And in the interiorized psychism, which is the fruit of the separation of the Same, the act of possession is primary. Within this “order” there is congruence within the self-seeking I: for food, shelter, pleasure, comfort, contentment, joy. That is, the self does not question its own desires or actions.

In the encounter with the face this dynamic of the Same is seen as wholly subjected to scandal. The same separation is impossible and the position of the I radically challenged in terms of the boundaries of the sensible to which it has become habituated. Possession, of the very nature of the Same, is impossible in the novel relation with the Other: “The face is present in its refusal to be contained…it cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed. It is neither seen nor touched—for in visual or tactile sensation the identity of the I envelops the alterity of the object, which becomes precisely a content” (194). If there is resistance in the Other to possession, it is also a challenge to the breach of separation implicit in the interiorized-I. Perhaps what could be described as the virtue of separation is that “egoism, enjoyment, sensibility, and the whole dimension of interiority—the articulations of separation—are necessary for the idea of infinity, the relation with the Other which opens forth from the separated and finite being” (148, my italics).

The contrast, then, between acts of possession, and the relation with the face, is not oppositional at all; Levinas is more sensitively describing states which generate, give birth, to another. The rupture of being essayed here, that resistance lying between interiority and the attraction to the infinite, is not insurmountable. It is an ingenuous resistance, born only out of innocence, not opposition. The offering of the face, its expression—“it has a positive structure: ethical” (107)—challenges the exercise of my powers-to-possess at its root, initiates the openness of ‘something else’, like a question mark—“?” The reconciling bridge, perhaps, to a new relation, is born out of that very quality of the face that is sensible.

The Other is thus not alien, while it is still sensible. The “permanent openness” (198) of the face continues to ensure its availability to sensibility. (It cannot be ‘closed off’ in some way, given life, except perhaps in coma, or deep sleep, though these can’t be willed by the interior-I). While this compromised sensibility in the face eludes possession (I can’t ‘take hold’ of it in the form of successful appropriation I can of truly sensible things), it I still vulnerable to annihilation. Murder may bluntly destroy that sensibility of the face in its dimension as sensible matter, without being able to similarly destroy that “non-neutralisable” (ibid.) quality of the infinite that is given in the face. Even in sensibly appropriating things for my own usage, I was still only making myself guardian of their independence, which they couldn’t contest. The face, however, “not of this world” (ibid.), can never be denied its independence through any means. It is immune to appropriation. (Perhaps only the extents of love map the limits of proximity to possible appropriation.)

Yet, as rendered in the sensible matter of the face, this assertion of infinity may seemingly be silenced in material annihilation. The resistance of the face, however, is of a qualitatively different power: that of transcendence. It is not ‘real’, but ethical. Transcendence is its own recommendation; though it may “paralyse” (199) powers of possession by virtue of its infinite capacity to resist, it is exactly not matching that power with an equal type. Its resistance is ethical, and so beyond resistance. Interiority, in sensibility, must enter into this different relation. It can attempt negation, and kill, without ever knowing by its own conditions what has been killed beyond this flesh. It will, can, never know. To rise to experience is to enter into ethical relation. In this relation, sensibility is indeed overwhelmed, cannot be grasped. It is instead imbued with the grace in the epiphany of the Other: not only, as here, the first exigency of philosophy, but prior to everything, to being even, that by which man knows him and herself as man.


Levinas, Emmanuel – (1985) Ethics and Infinity trans. R. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

  • (1969) Totality and Infinity trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.


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In considering Levinas’ ‘idea of infinity’, there is a sense in which it lies both at the very beginning, wholly prior to, the ‘revelation’ (Levinas, 1969:28) of being (with the Other), and also at the very end of his description of that same, re-visioned, ‘ontology’. For Levinas doesn’t begin with Being as such, as the project of phenomenology does before him, but uncovers the ethical relation that allows and epiphanously ‘culminates’ in the idea of infinity. “Metaphysics precedes ontology” (p.42). This is his radical project, in an opposition reaching as retrospectively far as Socrates (p.43), and within the metaphysical ground Levinas prepares, the idea of infinity is central. It is in this novel soil of being that Levinas discovers-plants the possibility for infinity, and so to know the one is to imagine the other: the reciprocal relation between being and the infinite is where any search for understanding the latter must begin.

It is at the very beginning of Totality and Infinity (hereafter T&I), in the Preface (and particularly chapters 3, 4 &5 of the first Section) that Levinas shows us the spread of this metaphysical garden, provides a philosophical context in which to position his own utterance. Where he largely takes exception to the limitations he sees in the Aristotelian, Socratic, Kantian, phenomenological projects preceding his own, out of this opposition he also finds some kinship in, notably, the Platonic affirmation of a “delirium that comes from God” (Levinas: 49), that is, the experience of a thought that comes from beyond, away-from the interiorised self-possession of he “who has his own head to himself” (Levinas quoting Plato, p.49), disturbs the economical thought of the Same, the constraining operation of possession of the other being founded in an ontology of intentionality, appropriation, power. The significant words in this Platonic reference – delirium, enthusiasm – are already preparing for the possibility of “noumenal” experience (p.50), or what he will call Desire. The appearance of the noumen here, in a philosophical study, is extraordinary, and bears directly on Levinas’ formulation of infinity, perhaps even philosophically equates with it, and will bear consideration as a kind of atavistic ancestor to Levinas’ metaphysics.

The other philosophical-historical precedent Levinas identifies as potential generator of his own account of the Infinite, comes from Descarte’s idea of Infinity defined as a thought which overflows my thinking of it (pps.49, 197). What does ‘overflow’ mean? It is a moment, a capacity that could be characterised as a going-beyond the self-cognizant generation of thought, partaking of both a groundedness in my adequation of the thought, with a being-taken, a seduction to the presence of a supra-subjective generation: the delirium of Plato, the transcendent principle in Descartes. (In T&I Levinas will only skirt around the word God which in his later work becomes more explicit).

For Levinas this idea (of infinity) initiates an openness to the Infinite, an escape from the domination of the Same (Robbins 1991:102), through the breach in totality that is the primordial relation to the Other. Within this movement of Levinas’ metaphysics a kind of circular, reciprocal cohesion finds emergence: so that the possibility for infinity, the relation with the Other, the encounter with the infinite alterity of the Face, all seem mutually interdependent eternals rather than linearly determined causes, a progression of conditions. Levinas’ Infinite is the backdrop against/within which the ethical relation can take place, where neither exist without the consummation of both, a both-and paradigm in his metaphysics which distinguishes it still further from the assumptions (of “most of…Western philosophy”, Levinas: 43) of ontology and Being as the proper subjects of first philosophy.

What is this counter-(pre-) ontological movement, Levinas’ primordial metaphysics in exact terms?

Levinas initiates his discourse with a placement of the existent (the self, the being, the subject) within an environment of ‘totality’, an historical-philosophical-social construct that has come to circumferentially house the existent in a closed system. Totality is the vision of the existent determined and bounded by the very thought of the existent itself. (Socratic maieutics sought knowledge as that which is brought-out of the self, not visited upon it by an outer, transcendent source). Levinas from the very beginning questions the conceptual nature of totality as a Western intellectual obstinacy or ontological view that reaches its culmination in Husserlian and Heideggerian ontology. But for Levinas something else is needed, that has in actuality always existed but not been given sufficient voice, that creates a space within this closed, eternally self-referential ‘vision outwards’.

Traditionally the eschatological project of theology provides this, man’s urge toward the divine, but Levinas wants to find in it a genuine philosophical identity, one that emphasises the transcendence in eschatology rather than its umbilical connection with ‘the known’. He makes this clear in a few very important words: “[Eschatology’s] real import lies elsewhere. It does not introduce a teleological system into the totality…[it] institutes a relation beyond history, and not with being beyond the past and present…” (p.22) This space, truly free, open, unbounded, undescribed (at risk of philosophical corruption one could conceptually liken it to the unnameable expanse of the Tao: the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao), can’t be defined by the existent (as Descartes attempts to do), is not subjective, is not relative to a thought of it: is absolute, beyond, utterly other. The infinite is not merely an idea – it overflows the thought-of the way the sky permeates but is separate from the ocean of circumstance – but always profoundly central, present in the idea of infinity itself: “The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity…” (p.26).

The idea of infinity is then paradoxically ‘produced’ in a separated existent that nevertheless possesses that which it can’t possess in terms of its ‘owness’. Subjectivity contains the grace which exceeds all its potential containment qua subjectivity. In this metaphysic Levinas professes a clear belief in a transcendent function in man. Infinity finds its expression exactly in and of the relation with the Other; all that strangeness that defies adequation finds its ground in the idea of infinity, (as does the possibility of knowing, as intentionality, as well.)

We have seen how the genesis of this idea derives from a discussion of eschatology, as the conceptual-religious mode that points a way toward philosophical beyond-ness, a “primordial” capacity that unlike eschatology, does not arise within the totality of self-reflexion, but exists outside of it, beyond its bounds, and thence genuinely infinite. Levinas’ hermeneutic of traditional eschatology existing as “a relationship with a surplus always exterior to the totality” (p.22) by extension becomes a philosophical account that exists by virtue of its transcendence with regard to totality. Transcendence can here be seen as a vehicle of movement that opens out into the beyond-ness of infinity. Via the flight-path of transcendence, currents of exchange exist between totality and infinity, such that the experience of the former is graced with traces of the liberating function of the latter.

Later in Section 1 Levinas spells out the transcendence-infinity relation in more detail. He makes the nature of this relation plain in the words: “The rigorously developed concept of this transcendence is expressed by the term infinity” (pps.24-25). That is, the terms are mutually corresponding, and if so, what is the ‘rigorously developed concept of…transcendence’? Drawing on the Cartesian idea of the infinite as that relation between the thought-of and the Infinite itself – like the mouthful of sea-water that tastes like yet can never contain the whole ocean – Levinas details the metaphysic moving between transcendence and infinity. The ideatum of infinity, as the original of the idea, surpasses that same idea. The very space between ideatum and idea, the distance that lies between the two, is the substance of the ideatum of infinity. Infinity is in the nature of a transcendent being as transcendent. “The transcendent is the sole ideatum of which there can be only an idea in us; it is infinitely removed from its idea, that is, exterior, because it is infinite” (p.49). The transcendent and the infinite are congruent, insofar as the former as verb is a movement toward the latter as metaphysical space.

It is here that Levinas finds that this presence in thought of an idea whose ideatum overflows the capacity of thought is given expression in Platonic delirium. Delirium can be seen as one guise of the breach wherein infinity enters into totality. By way of this analogy Levinas extends the metaphysic of infinity: it has become the “noumenon” (p.50) already referred to to. Despite the nearness achieved by the idea of infinity, the fundamental infinite distance of the Other from the existent has to be described, or the infinite made concrete: infinity finds presence in the finitude of being as Desire: “a Desire perfectly disinterested – goodness” (p.50). Between the pure urging of Desire and the meeting with the Other, the self necessarily exists as separated even if still surrounded by the potential, transfiguring capacity of infinity: “To have the idea of Infinity it is necessary to exist as separated.” (p.79) Levinas wants to repeatedly emphasise the resistance to a totalising project that infinity posits, that the very “idea of infinity is transcendence itself” (p.80). Totality dies before infinity, and the only agent of that death is the Other: “It is not the insuffiency of the I that prevents totalisation, but the Infinity of the Other” (p.80). So infinity lives within the Other, is brought to presence in the encounter with the Face, finds its true consummation there. Behind the eyes of the Other stretches the horizon of unknowable, yet Enjoyable, otherness that finds itself immersed into the quality of infinity. Does Levinas tell us how infinity, thus engendered by the Other, feels? Herein would seem to lie the concretisation of the idea Levinas has cryptically moved towards in T&I. His words imply a surrender of the interiorised existent, a reception of the generosity of the Other, and a giving-towards the Other by the self. Infinity lies in giving. Levinas introduces the notion of responsibility, a simultaneous act of giving and generosity between the sentient beings of the encounter. Infinity is thus permeated and primordially stitched into the fabric of the ethical relation, as much a foundation as a part of that coming together. By reaching to the experience of the encounter with the Other, through the urge-towards of Desire, Levinas recasts the idea of infinity in a still further evolved form: “It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity” (p.51).

Infinity, from its metaphysical genesis in the presence of the Other making a ‘desirous’ breach in the totality, has in this statement come to a full flowering. The guise of infinity has like water filling vessels taken on the function of whatever relation it has been seen to fulfil: between ideatum and idea, as act of transcendence between the Infinite and being, as motion of congruence in Desire toward the revelation of the Other, in all these movements of the metaphysical prior to the assertion of ontology. The idea of infinity has acted as the kind of l’eau vital that, falling from a beyond, nourishes the garden that “non-encompassable within a totality” (p.23), nevertheless flourishes in primordial embrace of it.

(May, 1998)


Levinas, E. trans. Lingis, A. (1969) Totality and Infinity Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Robbins, J. (1991) Prodigal Son/ Elder Brother University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.


Copyright © M. Kovan 2014


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