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Thursday, 24 August 2017

Levinas and immediacy

I'll write a bit about my class on the last sections of chapter 1 of Totalité et Infini (T&I) this morning. Specially about the section "e) Language et attention" in "Vérité et justice".

The issue of mediation. To be sure, when one claims that there is a mediation between A and B (call it C), one is still under the obligation of determining whether there is a mediation between A and C. This can lead to an infinite regress. Or to an arbitrary stop. Often one argues against the immediacy of our contact with the world but not against the immediacy of our contact with conceptual norms or a linguistic practices. Brandom once wrote that "we met the norms and they were us". That is, there is no mediation between us and the concepts - even when concepts are crucial to mediate our access to intuitions (and are what can provide content to them).

I take the issue of thematization (and not that of what is a theme) to be central in this sections of T&I. Levinas has Heidegger's zuhanden in mind when he insists that only through thematization - and not through what is ready-to-hand - we can reach truth (and reality). There is no such thing as a non-thematized connection with the world where things present themselves and withdraw of their own accord. His image of what is ready-to-hand is that of unconstrained and uninvested spontaneity - thoroughly morally unworthy and therefore thoroughly a product of my own unconstrained gesture of domination. It is through thematization that truth can emerge, and it is through it that my freedom is unmasked in an exercise of criticism (i.e. of diaphonia). Thematization, on its turn, requires the others. They have introduced themes (and content) into my mental life. In fact, they are present implicitly in my view of reality when it is a view, therefore something that has been thematized. Levinas says that the faces of whoever thought us about everything we access are implicitly present (never fully present as the Other is infinite) in our thinking about the world. The others are there, in my image of the world. I see my parents, colleagues and other companions implicitly in my view (in my thinking) about a book, a table or a landscape. Language covers the others - they leave traces on it. Just like for Sellars, without a language we wouldn't have anything to say. Language introduces the others and therefore thematization. The image is indeed very close to that of Wittgenstein on private language. The public language is where a constrained force is present so that content can emerge - without it, what is correct is what seems correct to me, and therefore there is nothing but an unconstrained exercise of spontaneity.

In other words, Levinas clearly is not buying into any form of empiricism where access to things are immediate. What is ready-to-hand is not accessible at all. Yet, just like with Wittgenstein, we still can ask whether my access to the Other is immediate. There's much to say about this. But there is a suspicion that there could be a problem with public language: how do I recognize the Other as an instance capable to thematize my world (and contest my spontaneity)? Is this recognition immediate?

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