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

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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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