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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Ontological difference and existential pluralism

Back to Brasília where is hot and dry, everyone craving for some drops of the ohne end e London rain. And back to lecturing.

Monday in my metaphysics lecture I was on about the relations between ontology and metaphysics. There is something related between the different ways of concocting uses for the words 'metaphysics' and 'ontology', I was going. I considered the use Heidegger and Lévinas make of the words. In order to introduce what Heidegger was trying to achieve, I went on to say something about the ontological difference. The classical question appeared: once we stop forgetting the being, what else is left to do? I then started talking about the many things Heidegger did based on the ontological difference but ended up diagnosing his position as a special example of existential monism (in the words of Souriau) - or mononteism, to use the word we made up in the class. There is something in common between everything that exists, existence has no more than one mode - adverbs are (maybe ontical but) not ontological. Instead, an existential pluralism would hold that existence has different modes, that the being has different modes, it is plural and not singular.
(Heidegger stresses that the being is not a universal, yet it is often taken to be singular - and it could be plural instead.)

This is how we can understand Lévinas misgivings with the ontological difference. It looks for the same among the others, it is an exercise in reduction of the same to the other, precisely what Lévinas labels 'ontology'. Even though for Heidegger the being is not something in common between every thing that exists (because it is not a something), it still responds to the scheme whereby there is a same underlying all others. By contrast, we could think of an existential pluralism in terms of no same underlying the different modes of existence. To exist is something different in each case, each thing exists as one thing and not as something else. There is an avoidance of the commonality throughout, not even in the open sphere of the ontological there would be an element that makes existence something in common.

The contrast between Heidegger and Lévinas has many faces. Today, talking to my friend Luciana Ferreira, who has been lured by this contrast for years (and wrote a beautiful book called "The 'other' in Heidegger is the 'same' in Lévinas?"), she remarked that she likes to think about the contrast as rather between any and other. For Heidegger, the being would be any being, no more than an opening. An any, in a sense, cannot be a same. In other words, existence is anything, not a mode (of existence) in particular. If Heidegger is an existential monist (a mononteist), he is a monist of the any, a special kind of monist. Still, we went on, there is a difference between the any and the other. Lévinas was not chiefly interested in pluralism, but rather in alterity. Maybe the any (anyism) is a good way out of the friction of existential pluralism and monism, but it contrasts with the other. The other invokes something else, a difference, that is not necessary there in the any. There is a dimension to the other that is not captured by the any, one has to say: you are another any. Maybe pluralism is alterity viewed from a third person perspective. If this is so, we can say that different things exist in different ways, in different ways of being any-way.

We can then find a spot to suspect, with Agamben, that there is something violent in saying that everything is equally open (or is equally any thing).

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