Whitehead/Levinas

(Excerpt from a work in progress)

Levinas’ Totality and Infinity contains an extended analysis of enjoyment, or of what Levinas calls “living from…” Levinas equates enjoyment with a primordial sensibility, and with an openness to the world. He describes it as a process of nourishment: “the transmutation of the other into the same… an energy that is other… becomes, in enjoyment, my own energy, my strength, me.” Despite the vast differences in vocabulary and rhetoric, this analysis has much in common with Whitehead’s description of self-enjoyment arising out of a process of appropriation, which transforms “the many data” encountered in the world “into a unity of existence.” Both thinkers insist that our experience is in the first instance physical, corporeal, and embodied. They both emphasize the satisfaction that comes with the sheer fact of being alive. “Life loved is the very enjoyment of life, contentment… The primordial positivity of enjoyment, perfectly innocent, is opposed to nothing, and in this sense suffices to itself from the first.” And Levinas and Whitehead both find, in this experience of sufficiency and satisfaction, a pre-cognitive, pre-reflexive mode of subjectivity: an “I” that does not take the form of the Cartesian cogito.

But everything changes once Levinas moves on to the encounter with radical exteriority, with the Other, or with the Face. The appearance of the Other “introduces a dimension of transcendence, and leads us to a relation totally different from experience in the sensible sense of the term.” The face of the Other, confronting me, “puts the I in question”; for it absolutely “resists possession, resists my grasp.” It is an otherness that I cannot transmute into more of myself, more of the same. It “speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation incommensurate with a power exercised, be it enjoyment or knowledge.” In this way, the encounter with the Other makes an ethical demand upon me, one that marks me even if I refuse it. This encounter is a kind of primordial trauma; it suspends and overwhelms the innocence of “living from…”, the economy of sensibility, enjoyment, and satisfaction. The naive self-presence of primordial sensibility is dissolved, and replaced with a new sort of subjectivity: one that is always already obligated to the Other, to an “idea of infinity”‘ that necessarily “exceeds my powers.”

The call of the Other in Levinas’ philosophy is its own authority; once I have heard this call, I cannot escape it or ignore it. Even to reject it is still to acknowledge it, in a backhanded sort of way. This is why, for Levinas, ethics precedes ontology, and absolutely overrides aesthetics. I am always already responsible to, and guilty before, the Other — even when I deny, or have no cognizance of, being in such state. There is no counterpart or equivalent in Whitehead’s thought for such an overwhelming, unidirectional transcendence. For Levinas, something like What Whitehead calls “concern in the Quaker sense” — the situation in which something weighs upon my spirit, so that I cannot ignore it or walk away from it — is irreducible. It unequivocally trumps self-enjoyment. The imperious demands of ethical transcendence interrupt, exceed, and cancel the simple pleasures of aesthetic immanence. The passage from enjoyment to concern and responsibility is an irreversible one; and for this reason, it cannot be described, or aestheticized, as Whitehead would urge us to do, in the form of a patterned contrast.

Is it possible to resist such a movement of transcendence? What’s at stake here is not refutation and argument, but a basic orientation of thought. Everything in Whitehead cries out against the unilateral thrust of Levinas’ vision. Levinas conceives a single grand transition: something that does not happen in time, so much as it determines and instantiates a new sort of time. The apotheosis of the Other ruptures linear, homogeneous clockwork time, and installs instead an “infinite” or “messianic” time: a “discontinuous” time of “death and resurrection.” For Levinas, in striking contrast to Bergson, “there is no continuity in being.” Continuity is false, because it has been ruptured once and for all. The epiphany of the face points to a radical anteriority: an instance that precedes, and that can never be contained within, the extended present time of lived duration.

Now, Whitehead also rejects Bergsonian continuity; but he does so in a very different way: “there is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming.” That is to say, continuity (or Bergsonian duration) is never given in advance; but it is nevertheless something to be constructed. “In the present cosmic epoch, there is a creation of continuity,” approximated through a series of discrete, punctual “becomings” and “transitions.” This means that transformation is not unique, but common; it is not an epiphany, but an everyday occurrence, something that happens again and again. “There is no nature apart from transition,” because transition is everywhere and everywhen. For Whitehead, death and resurrection are banal occurrences; and concern is not an epochal encounter, but an everyday experience. Everything is subject to the rule of “perpetual perishing”: “no thinker thinks twice; and, to put the matter more generally, no subject experiences twice.” If this is so, then there can be no single, specially privileged moment of transition, no radical alterity such as Levinas demands. Time is irreversible, and irreparable; but there is no traumatic moment in which my sensibility is breached, and my primordial enjoyment definitively interrupted.

Whitehead therefore rejects any grand narrative of a passage from self-enjoyment to concern, or from the aesthetic to the ethical. Just as every actual occasion has both a physical pole and a mental (or conceptual) pole, so too every actual occasion evinces both self-enjoyment and concern. Indeed, this is precisely why these terms form a patterned aesthetic contrast, and not an irremediable ethical opposition. Whitehead refuses to choose between concern and self-enjoyment, just as he refuses to “pick and choose”‘ between “the red glow of the sunset” and “the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.” If Whitehead is on the side of aesthetics as opposed to ethics, and on the side of immanence as opposed to transcendence, this is not because he would reject either ethics or transcendence. Rather, he finds an immanent place for transcendence, and an aesthetic place for ethics. He insists that every occasion is already, by its very nature, a “conjunction of transcendence and immanence.” Indeed, “every actual entity, in virtue of its novelty, transcends its universe, God included.” But this transcendence is itself an immanent, actual fact. Similarly, Whitehead never mounts a Nietzschean attack on conventional morals. Instead, he insists that “everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” Ethics is therefore affirmed, but not granted primacy. Ethics is not the ground or basis of value, but its consequence. It is only out of the actual process of valuation, as performed by every actual occasion, that “the conception of morals arises” in the first place.

From a Whiteheadian point of view, then, Levinas’ subordination of immanence to transcendence, and of self-enjoyment to concern, is one-sided and reductive — just as a philosophy of pure immanence and positivity would also be one-sided and reductive. (We might see Whitehead’s criticism of Spinoza as tending in this direction; and imagine, along similar lines, a Whiteheadian criticism of Deleuze). Levinas’ claim for the priority of ethics is one more example of the “overstatement” that Whitehead sees as the “chief error”‘ of so much Western philosophy: “the aim at generalization is sound, but the estimate of success is exaggerated.” Concern is important, but it cannot be separated from self-enjoyment, much less elevated above it. For it is only insofar as “each occasion”‘ is “engaged in its own immediate self-realization,” that it can thereby also be “concerned with the universe.”

5 Responses to “Whitehead/Levinas”

  1. Ken says:

    – Rather, he finds an immanent place for transcendence, and an aesthetic place for ethics. He insists that every occasion is already, by its very nature, a “conjunction of transcendence and immanence.”–

    Is there a Whiteheadian term for this “conjunction of transcendence and immanence”?

  2. Ken, there isn’t really a single term, aside from that the process of “concrescence” (the coming-together of an actual occasion) necessarily involves both. There are lots of pairs of terms besides immanence/transcendence, e.g. physical pole/mental pole, public/private, etc.

  3. Carl Sachs says:

    I think it would be even harder to arrange a dialogue between Levinas and Whitehead if one takes into account how Levinas’ views change by the time he writes Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. There, so far as I understand the argument, there isn’t even any primordial or original subjectivity (“self-enjoyment” in T&I). Rather, even subjectivity is itself a response to the call of the other. So intersubjectivity has a transcendental priority over subjectivity (and over objectivity); it is the necessary condition for the possibility of subjectivity, i.e. regarding oneself as a subject. All this is quite far from Whitehead, no?

    The real difficulty, I think, stems from the way that Levinas understands “totality” in something like a Hegelian sense — as an all-encompassing erasure of original alterity. (Hegelians of course will insist that alterity is preserved within communal being, etc.) And Levinas’ picture of Hegel is actually more Spinozist — although he complains about the tradition as a whole, “from Iona to Jena”, I tend to think that his Parmenides and his Hegel are both crypto-Spinozists.

    It might be argued, however, that if one begins with a Whiteheadian ontology, then the reaction against ontology represented by Levinas is not necessary. For if one’s ‘picture’ of ontology is Hegelian, then something like Levinas’ criticism may have a point. But if one begins with a quite different ontology, then they will not.

    In your writings on Whitehead, he sounds as if he were strongly influenced by Leibniz. How much has this been picked up on by Whitehead scholars, or by Whitehead himself?

  4. Thanks for these comments, Carl.

    And for what it’s worth, yes, a lot has been written about Whitehead’s relation to Leibniz.

  5. Pia Ednie-Brown says:

    Thank you Steven, it’s the outline I needed atm. Very helpful.

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