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Monday, 30 March 2015

Immigrating to philosophy

Rereading Derrida's Violence et Métaphysique I'm stuck in his opening remarks that are meant to introduce the crucially non-Greek (and therefore foreigner) thinking character of Levinas. Derrida stresses from the beginning this Greek character of philosophy. He goes: "il ne s'agit pas, on le sait, d'occidentalisme ou d'historicisme. Simplement les concepts foundadeurs de la philosophie sont d'abord grecs et il ne serait pas possible de philosopher ou de prononcer la philosophie hors de leur élément". And yet, this is only to show how Levinas works out an undertone that makes Greek thought incommensurable in his thinking, a genuine foreign substance. The foreign (Hebrew) undertone shows up in the discomfort with the maneuvers of Husserl and Heidegger - these Greeks, says Derrida - all the way to face Parmenides as a double stranger who has to undertake a second parricide so that the absolute solitude of what engages in being can be properly highlighted. To be sure, the episode of a non-Greek (also Hebrew) intrusion in philosophy could be perhaps exemplified by Rosenzweig - so present in Levinas thought - and his struggle to deal and distort Hegel's conceptual vocabulary. This is where Derrida appears in his best: making explicit the foreign accent doing philosophy. It is as if there could be a way to sense the gap between what is expressed in philosophy and the tonality of thought - a way to hear the accent of those engaged in philosophical thought. It is not that philosophy is polyglot - although it can be, but only to some extent, that is only if its languages are etymologically tied -, it is rather that it admits of multiple accents. It admits because it resists them. But accents change the lexicon - and change the syntax. In particular, they change what Derrida calls the very syntax of the question.

The foreigner often doesn't find the right word in the language - as such it reveals the foreign character of thought. Levinas, described by Derrida, thinks in terms of "neither this... nor that" (neither Husserl, nor Heidegger...). He doesn't feel philosophy makes justice to the ways his thought goes - philosophy traps them either through the web of theory or through the pitfalls of implicit unities. He provides what Derrida labels "a non-marxist critique of philosophy as ideology": philosophy is committed to a logos that endorses a drive towards totality. He provides the critique of a stranger coming to town - and willing to play the game, at least to show its blind-spots. The Levinas operation, observed from this translator-viewpoint and in metaphilosophical terms, appears as one of forcing the philosophy talk to be able to say what his thoughts urge.

It is interesting to consider other immigrations into philosophy. In particular, I'm involved in the discussion concerning Afican philosophy and I'm convinced that animism (or perspectivism) for one is genuine philosophy or rather a genuine way to speak philosophy. Here again, maybe it is not the question of different philosophy in themselves, but rather of different ways to come to it. We have to make these different thoughts speak philosophy to hear their accent. Once we do that, we realize that they feel another kind of discomfort thinking within the borders of philosophy - but also a new kind of hospitality unsuspected by Greek ears. Immigrating is not only a way to show how native are the natives, but also a way to spell out contrasts. Derrida's image of philosophy is not one of a congregation of nations, it is rather one an urban conglomerate full of newcomers.

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