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Transcendence and paradoxical totalities

Levinas' endeavor in Totalité et Infini is to consider the first-person encounter with the absolute Other, not as a representation (or of fruition) but as an exercise of transcendence. His exercise in transcendence inaugurates a métaphysics where the ethical demand plays a crucial role. However, transcendence itself is not thematized and, as a consequence, does not compose a totality. Levinas aims to avoid totality for a plurality of reasons (to be examined …). As a consequence, there can be no maximally general account of how things are. In fact, Levinas rejects the possibility of a maximally general and consistent account of how things are such that transcendence is possible. There can be no consistent account of any other as the other is not a neutralized alter-ego – another me that turns me into something impersonal - but precisely what I am not. No consistent account is possible because a consistent account would turn the other into something immanent and void it of any transcendence. Consistency is a road towards turning the other into an object of ontological knowledge. Levinas understands that nothing but a negative account can be given of the other; no maximally general account of everything is therefore possible. There is no totality, no metaphysiks for reasons akin to those of Heidegger when attempting to move away from the totalizing Ge-Stell (in the Bremen lectures). In a sense, Levinas replies to Kant is that a transcendence is possible but no general (consistent) account of it can be provided. (In that sense, he remains in the era of the correlate and is perhaps a weak correlationist.)

Speculative realism – specially in the cases of Meillassoux's speculative move towards facticity and of Harman's speculative move from the experience of withdrawal to real objects – attempts to remedy this predicament by introducing speculation to enable one to move from the experience of transcendence to a general account of how things are such that transcendence is possible. This is perhaps the gist of the movement – an attempt to go beyond the limits of the study of transcendence provided by Levinas (and the limits of Heidegger's proposal of a turn (Kehre) away from metaphysiks in a sense that would also entail no totality).

Jon Cogburn has diagnosed that the metaphysical endeavor that results from these speculative efforts are paradoxical. He understands that to move beyond correlationism – and not only to forget it – is to take into consideration arguments such as those of Kant (and Berkeley, Fichte, Russell) according to which transcendending the correlation is impossible and, as a consequence, no totality cannot be reached. The issue is that if a totality includes transcendence, it will not transcend as totality will therefore be taken as being itself inside the correlation. No transcendence can reach a totality beyond the correlation because, according to these arguments, we cannot leave the correlation. Such is the predicament of Levinas: transcendence cannot be encompassed in a (consistent) totality.

Cogburn then introduces the idea of a paradoxico-metaphysics by saying that

“[…] the task of metaphysics is to give a maximally general account of what reality is like such that metaphysics is impossible. If the project sounds paradoxical, that is because it is. But if reality is paradoxical, such is our fate” Garcian Meditations, 8-9.

The paradox emerges from the two uses of the word metaphysics in the italicized sentence. One can in fact believe the word is being used in different meanings. In fact, we can try to rewrite the sentence as:

the task of metaphysiks is to give a maximally general account of what reality is like such that métaphysics is impossible.

However, this only shows how totality encompasses transcendence – and métaphysics cannot be irrelevant to metaphysiks. If transcendence is impossible, a maximally general account cannot be given once it would be at most an immanent maximally general account. In other words, it will be confined to the correlation and not maximal enough – not reaching totality. This is the paradox in totality. A paradoxico-metaphysics would respond to it by saying that it is only when totality is thought as devoid of paradox that we generate the stalemate. One way to do paradocico-metaphysics is to allow for totality itself to involve transcendence and, as a consequence, as being paradoxical. To posit an inconsistent totality is to enable transcendence neither to collapse in immanence (metaphysiks) or to entail no totality (métaphysics).


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