Whitehead and Levinas

An essay of mine, “Self-enjoyment and Concern: On Whitehead and Levinas,” has just been published in the new volume Beyond Metaphysics?: Explorations in Alfred North Whitehead s Late Thought, edited by Roland Faber, Brian G. Henning, and Clinton Combs. Since the price of the volume is beyond ridiculous (US$101 list and at Amazon, or marked down to US$67.68 at Barnes and Noble), I am making my own essay available here (pdf).

There’s lots of good stuff in the volume aside from my essay, I wish it were all available at a more reasonable price.

I feel that my own essay is a bit underdeveloped; there is much more to be said about Levinas than the brief and cursory discussion I offer here; but, for what it’s worth, I stand by my basic argument.

11 thoughts on “Whitehead and Levinas”

  1. This is a fantastic piece, Steve – lucid and intense and informative all at once! My tendency is still to want to emphasize away the link between “I” and concern/enjoyment – to underscore the fact that, as you do quote, it is the occasion that has concern. This is not an error on your part – of course the occasion can be of an I… I suppose it is my current concern to want to bring out the non-human or more-than human aspect of Whitehead’s work and the singular ethics/aesthetics that position proposes. This is is also a key difference between Whitehead and Levinas (for Levinas, concern is always toward and for the human act).
    Great work!

  2. I enjoyed this article while listening to Akedat Yitzhak on Shabbat. The article colored the narrative and the midrashic commentary about how Abraham wanted to shed at least a drop of blood.
    Whitehead and Levinas intermingled in the shul that Shabbat morning.

    Abraham can be seen as caught between self fulfillment (direct connection with the Divine) and concern (for his real world future, for his son).
    I could read the dialogue initiated by Isaac as the “other Other” that forces us to weigh commitments..or the as the gnawing feeling of “concern”.

    The angel could come to tell us that the infinitely strong command by the Other trumps itself in the finite world by the demand for Justice. .Or, in light of the Midrash, Your desire for self enjoyment (union with the divine) is trumped by conern.

  3. Hi…sorry for not catching typos in my comment above.
    also i realize that the word “trumping” is not really proper.

    Would you say that

    that Levinas would see justice as sort of a “this worldy” compromise, doing our best to preserve social life..and perhaps this is why the angel and not G~d stops the slaughter…
    while Whitehead , would say that concern is part of self enjoyment- and not contradictory to it. Truly fulfilling the self is not to get “ecstatically” lost in it.

  4. Hey Steven, I am wondering, does the following passage in your essay in any way concede Object-Oriented thinking’s insistence of prioritizing objects (essence) over flow (continuity)?:

    “The ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism,” but out of the basic atomic constituents of reality “there is a creation of continuity” (35).

  5. On this issue, I think that Whitehead is in between OOO on one hand, and Bergson on the other. Yes, “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism,” but these ultimate “actual entities” are not substances but processes, that “die” once they have been accomplished. An object like a stone isn’t an actual entity, for Whitehead, but a “historic route of occasions” providing a thread of continuity, via inheritance, as they give way to one another

  6. Interesting. So if “actual entities” are occasional processes then is it just a matter of emphasis whether we want to talk more about the unique efficacy (potency or powers) of any particular occasion (object), or society of occasions, or are more interested in tracing out the causal lines, trajectories and relations between afffective processes? We can, i assume, talk about both without being ‘oriented’ towards over-privlaging either strain of thinking, non?

  7. HI Steve,
    We were as surprised by the volume price as anyone else. I made my piece available on my website as well. It is the only way it will ever get read, if at all.

    BTW, we are looking at moving the Series to a press that can reach a wider audience. However, the print business isn’t hospitable. Still, we will see. Thanks for your great contribution to the volume.

  8. Hi, Brian — thanks for the comment. I knew you and Roland and Clinton were not responsible for the price of the volume — academic publishing has to move to some new paradigm (as does publishing in general), and the current state of copyright law does not help.

  9. Great paper. One might consider looking at the work of another of Heidegger’s students, Hans Jonas, with respect to the question of responsibility in the context of process philosophy and understanding. One cannot but consider that both Levinas and Jonas lost close relatives in the Holocaust and were deeply affected personally by this formative event. For both of them, certainly for Levinas, the issue of responsibility for the Other, is prior to ontology. It is not an issue of being persuaded to care for the Other. It is not an issue of “concern.” It is an issue of deep disruption in the encounter with the Face. It is an imperative from which there is no escape. The Other “commands” us to respond. I am just beginning to study Whitehead, but it seems that he is not willing to place ethics before aesthetics in his thought. Which then makes responsibility conditional at some level and less disruptive.

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