Pradžia / Teatras

From being to ethics

Spausdiname vieno žymiausių lietuvių filosofų, profesoriaus emerito Algio Mickūno straipsnį anglų kalba.

Algis Mickūnas
2012 m. Vasario 16 d., 14:11
Skaityta: 521 k.
Tvanas. Stasės Balčytienės nuotr.
Tvanas. Stasės Balčytienės nuotr.


To understand Levinas, it is essential to delimit the horizons of his early interest in Russian literature and specifically its depictions of the human condition. Russian writers and essayists paved a radical way for a critique of all sorts of societies and demanded their justification. Living in Eastern Europe Levinas could not escape the power and attraction of the passions for justice and ethical justification of human life expressed in this literature.  But to develop his discoveries of this “ethical passion,” he had to become sophisticated in the latest philosophical thinking, and the latter was being led by  Husserl and Heidegger. Levinas himself claims that he thought to have gone to visit Husserl and ended up with Heidegger. Although his dissertation of 1930 focused on Husserl’s concept of intuition, Heidegger for him was more appealing since he was not tied to an “idealistic subject.” The wish to distance from the subject was a trend that included numerous French intellectuals. After Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism such intellectuals joyfully accepted the view that “subject” is the basic obstacle in the quest for Being. They even turned away from Marxism as humanism and thus a mere variant of the subject. Any political action is meaningless, since everything is destined by Being, structure, history or language. Traditional reason is rejected as the most persistent enemy of thinking and freedom as a hindrance to sense the presence of Being.

Nonetheless, Levinas did not find in Heidegger an answer to his basic question: how to understand fundamental philosophy as ethics. Despite his rejection of the entire Western philosophical tradition, he had to return to its original claim, expressed by Plato that the good is beyond the limits of Being. To understand this position he had to account for an ethical relationship to otherness. At the outset, we need to delimit the major steps in the thought of Levinas. First, (in De l’evasion; De l’existence a l’existant; Le temps et l’autre; 1947) the existent is always related to Being wherein emerges consciousness and originary temporality. Yet Being is regarded as endless, meaningless and monotonic series, il y a, and appears as horror. Only due to the existant’s relationship with the other that sense and good first appear. To embody the good the existent must accept ever new demands of Being. Thus, originary temporality does not have continuity – it contains gaps. This opens Levinas’ critique of ontology. Second (in Totalite et Infini; Essai sur l’exteriorite; 1961) according to Levinas ontology understood Being as totality. No ontologies attained to pure transcendence, leading to the requirement of an infinite being of the other which would break both the logical and ontological limits. This position must be understood as radical exteriority. Philosophy whose center is complete exteriority and pure transcendence is metaphysics. Thus at this stage in Levinas’ thought metaphysics replaces ontology. Third (in Autrementqu’etre ou audela de l’essence; 1971) comprises an effort to think the other in relationship to Being. Thus the first phase of understanding of Being as meaningless il y a is transformed into meaningful transcendence by way of the other. Here Being assumes an ethical interpretation wherein ethics acquires the status of first philosophy.

Totality is given as war. Levinas does not speak merely of military war, but about everyone’s existence as having sense in a total organization within which one has one’s position and action. This is an organizational mode that totalizes everyone and everything, whether it is politics, commerce, religion, military or nationalism. Within this state of war ethics has no meaning. The sole good is a functional duty to the organization that does not include ethical good. In brief, the functional good counts as long as the subject is valuable to the fabric of totality: one is a valued member of the party, ideology, nation, criminal gang, religious organization, and many others. In totality one cannot escape the judgment of the value one has or may attain by being a “good member” of any group. One gains benefits and even praise and recognition, because one is valuable. The ethical good opens up when the framework of totality appears to be inadequate. Who transgresses the idea of totality – an infinite idea of totality – finds himself in a state of ideation which is more than an idea. The latter can be an object of intention, while the former is inaccessible to any intention in its phenomenological sense. In the state of ideation there appears a search for an indefinable other from whom any intention is completely separated. Here the other and separation lead to eschatological thinking accessible neither to ontology nor totality. We notice immediately the difference between aims that extend human needs and utilities (besoin) and metaphysical desire (desir) aimed at the other as transcendence. Metaphysical demand is not born of natural wish by a mortal being to transgress his/her inadequacies, since metaphysical desire is not satisfyable - it is not oriented toward satisfaction. In other words, metaphysical desire does not seek to abolish the distance separating the seeker from the sought, because the very separation belongs to the essence of metaphysical desire. No expectation of experience, no surmising about existence, no search of future horizon can suggest to the seeker about the state of the sought. And yet only such seeking constitutes for the seeker a positive and noble status. The height of nobility (hauteur) opens up only through metaphysical desire. And this desire, this passion to disclose the other as ethical ground, was inherited by Levinas from Russian literature. Thus it is best to turn toward the “ultimate” quest of this literature.


The struggle in Russian literature was and is between the immediately lived, but not thematized awareness of the “worth of the other,” expressed in sacral and secular modes of writing, and the world of traditional and Westernizing values. To understand this tension it is necessary to make a phenomenological distinction between constitution and construction. Constitutive awareness discloses a demand that either can or cannot be fulfilled in a given life world.  The latter is a signitive interconnection of all events and objectivities, including a self interpretation of the subject as being in this life world.  It is given as self evident and taken for granted that all events and objectivities in it are realities in their own right. Our economic, scientific and technical achievements are there for us because they are valuable. What is crucial is the recognition of “value” as an invariant in this type of life world and a separation of  value from fact.  Facts, for modern Western ontology, have no value. Hence, values are constructed and imposed by us on facts. 

The great Russian literatures faced this Westernization and “modernization” and hence were written between two life worlds: one that was maintained as an established tradition, the other as a construct of Scientific and Political Enlightenments of the West. The former, the feudal-aristocratic was deemed to be decadent, corrupt by some and by others as spiritually superior although in need of revisions, specifically its serfdom. The West, while partially unknown and alien, was regarded as the bearer of ideas that would transform Russia and bring it into its proper place as a European nation.  In this sense, the appearance in Russia of Western Enlightenment brought in various systems, from Romanticism to Materialism, but the ground of such systems is what has to be understood in order to disclose Russian challenge to Enlightenment and its own tradition. The Russian writers comprise a point of crisis between two worlds, such that the crisis transcends both and is a critique from a transcendental position.

For Russian writers the essence of the life world of enlightenment is centered on a process of valuation. Everything in the universe assumes a value to the extent that it serves human interests. The world, constructed by enlightenment, is full of values: labor theory of value (accepted and expounded by Radishchev), values for sale, values produced and to be produced, religious values, value of life and even calculated death. Persons are judged as to their value in the totality of these settings.  Indeed, the basic mode of awareness is valuative selectivity.  It has been argued that all these values are human and hence the primacy is placed on modern subject as the source of values and as a primary focus of fulfillment of needs... This would hold if the human were a distinct and decisive category, wherein all other categories and processes were subservient to it. But this is not the case, since social values, from economy through politics make the human equivalent to the rest of values. Russian literature follows this trend as scientific modernization, expressed in writings of persons such as Turgenev, Chernichevski, Pisarov and others, where “objective” value constructs abound in the form of the new society. Lenin, of course, built an entire world on technical values and thus betrayed the genuine Russian revolution. But some writers, such as Herzen, and the anarchists such as Nechaev and Bakunin, have recognized the final ground of enlightenment: everything is a “temporal possibility” allowing the destruction of all constructed values and replacing them by an unlimited possible valuations beyond any social system. In principle, it is possible for us to be all that we will as valuable in time. This is enlightenment’s alpha and omega: empty temporal possibility and its temporal fulfillment by all that we value as our mode of finite being. Values are calculations of possible results realized solely as material. Thus Herzen and friends, and indeed Lenin, suspected that values signify instrumental interconnections – the totality seen by Levinas - but are not ends in themselves.

Realizing the vast sweep of scientific reification of all spheres of life, including, according to Khomyakov, Hegelian idealism, Russia is in a position to offer spiritual values.  While the latter may stem from theological understanding, they are primarily found, according to Tolstoy and Kireyevsky, in the primacy of community of faithful whose tacit and intuitive awareness subtends the Western rationalistic abstractions. It is this constant reappearance of the background tacit awareness that escapes value construction and demands – without becoming thematic – an evaluation of all values, whether they are rationalistic or materialistic. There appears a lived awareness that traces a given, although not directly articulated presence, expressed in terms of Russian superiority in morality and spirituality and offered as a salvation for the decadent,  materialist West.  Tacitly lived, this “unintended presence” is central to the Russian crisis and offers a non-positional awareness illuminating and questioning the legitimation of two possible life worlds – Russian aristocratic tradition, and the sweep of enlightenment.

In Russian literature this “unintended presence” was seen as human intrinsic worth appearing as dignity, honor, truthfulness, self and other respect is absolute. We should not despair while using the term absolute; after all, in all awareness there are such terms comprising a pregiven arche whose denial is its unavoidable inclusion. Any attempt to negate an arche is to include it in the very negation and hence to comprise its absolute affirmation.  Confronted with the inadequacy of feudalism and aristocratic rule and the emergent iron age, Russian writers, beginning with figures such as Turgieniev and Chernichievski, moving through Kineyevsky, Belinsky, Herzen, Bakunin, Lavrov,  Mikhailovsky Tolstoy and Dostoievski, Berdyaev, Shestov, Lossky, all the way to Gogol,  had no choice but to place themselves between the two life worlds – the old and the new and thus to locate their writing as a point of crisis. The awareness of crises constitutes a unique reflective moment that, at the same time, allows a suspension of one’s participation in a given life world.

This must be made clear: our awareness is always world oriented and our orientations, or intentional directions find, in their life world if not total, at least partial perceptual affirmation. This is an epistemic aspect which takes for granted the division of our life world into categories and the way they are concretized or given perceptual fulfillment. This is the “totality” of Levinas’ explication and it is rooted in the primacy of the quest for Being. But the fulfillment of our taken for granted intentions and the categories to which they correlate, including the numerous value gradations  – the epistemic understanding – leave out the legitimating question given in live awareness that something is not fulfilled, something that no totality of values can account for: human intrinsic self worth.  What is more interesting is that Russian writers do not demand some privileged treatment for themselves, but always find the inadequacies of the two life worlds with respect to the self worth of the other, whether she is a peasant, a worker or an aristocrat.  While living between two life worlds, Russian writers suspend both and were compelled to explicate the ground on which they could accept either one as capable of fulfilling the demands of intrinsic self worth. If honor, honesty, dignity and respect cannot be fulfilled in my activities with respect to others, then the legitimacy of this life world is placed in absolute question,  revealing at the same time the absolute self worth of the other. At this juncture  Russian literature recognizes that the world of values, constructed by Enlightenment and the world of decadent aristocracy require evaluation as to their adequacy for human worth – for its own sake.


In Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons a question is raised as to the legitimation of the traditional Russian life world in terms of the value of the world of enlightenment, and this very question places the questioner in a crisis situation. While we may think that this provides a comparison for choice, in lived awareness there appears tacit presence that connects to a question:  which life world would provide actual fulfillment of intrinsic worth.    In the most degraded figures and the most elevated rebels there appears an intimation of self worth. Dostoyevsky gives back the key to paradise because the ruler of paradise values equally an innocent child and a decadent master.  For the master, a favorite dog is more valuable than a child, and in the life world of feudal lords this is an acceptable standard.  Dostoyevsky’s rejection is an affirmation of human worth for its own sake. He will accept eternal damnation but will not accept a life world in which violations of children are permitted. He raises an absolute question:  is life worth living in a world where such a degradation of human worth is a standard, sanctioned and accepted by divine authority. The same quest appears clearly in Brothers Karamazov where the hell raising Dimitri recognizes self worth and acts honorably by first recognizing the dignity and honor of the other, the captain. After all, the latter is impoverished, has no social value, and thus this recognition is “for its own sake.” Only this recognition compels the captain’s son to allow his father to forgive Dimitri’s insults. Here we already find the presence of the face of the other of early Levinas that, in its powerlessness, demands recognition of its dignity and worth.

The question of legitimating of a life world may appear in a quiet and solitary figure, such as the one depicted by Gogol in The Great Coat. The main character is sketched to comprise a search for self worth in face of a most bleak life world.  It has been argued that this figure is driven by psychological desire for self importance or by a search for the appearance of a higher social status. Such desires may well be part of a personal morphology and a social situation, but they do not provide an adequate understanding of what Levinas calls the metaphysical desire as primary involved in all other drives or desires. Subtending and covered over both by psychologically and socially constructed phenomena there appears an almost quixotic quest to reach something psychologically and socially  unreachable and yet totally present in this person’s lived awareness: I have dignity, self and other respect, and honor.  Such an awareness is not within the realm of prevalent social values or psychological feelings, since his social value will in no wise change with the acquisition of the Great Coat. He will remain in his meager occupation, still hungry and without candle light at night, without any hope for a better tomorrow. In brief, he will not get any value out of his struggling and striving apart from the recognition of his and others intrinsic worth for its own sake. Across Russian literature there is a presence pervading awareness that is akin to Kant’s thing in itself that possesses no purpose and no value, but is to be respected unconditionally. While enlightenment opened up an entire level of constructs called values, announcing that the thing in itself is unknowable, Russian literature is intent in showing that any question of legitimation of a given life world discloses a  presence of self worth as an ethical thing in itself in distinction to the quest for Being .

This is accepted both by the “rationalistic” Westernizers, from Belinsky through Herzen, wherein the human is irreducible to scientific explanations, and the writers who emphasize Russian spirituality.  Both reject the materialistic-rationalistic West as decadent, purposeless and even nihilistic despite its technical sophistication and extol the Russian man as a model of salvation. This model is distinguished from Western and Asiatic types by its striving, despite the Russian cultural veneer, to exhibit dignity, honor, and truthfulness in action. Thus, Mikhailovsky makes a distinction between types and levels of civilization. West may have a higher level of material civilization but Russia is a superior type due to its intuitive understanding of the personal dignity. Even Herzen and Bakunin, while living as exiles, extolled the superiority of the Russian type of awareness of this dignity.  Indeed, all the social degradations imposed by serfdom as a traditional value gradation merely cover over Russian recognition of the absolute worth of a person. We cannot degrade a creature who, in its life world, does not recognize a need to justify its deeds, to make a choice between two life worlds; in short, to call a dog – dog, is neither a  degradation nor a negation of intrinsic worth.  Only another person can be degraded on the basis of recognition of her intrinsic worth.  This is to say, degradation, reduction,  insult, are possible only when we recognize hers and our own intrinsic worth, honor, and dignity.  The outcasts, the exiles to Siberia who have lost all social value, still strive to exhibit dignity, honor, respect and thus reveal the final human position for its own sake that cannot be abolished even when threatened by death. This is the Russian positive negativity: Even at the pain of death I shall say no to a life world that does not allow human self worth to be fulfilled.  Here the constitution of self worth is beyond life and death. 

The Russian writers have something in common with Socrates because he and they were not professional philosophers but persons who demanded the recognition not only of their own, but of everyone’s unconditional self worth. And just as Socrates, all of them (with an exception of Tolstoy who, nevertheless, was excommunicated) placed self worth above their own safety, wealth, security, social position and were exiled, imprisoned, persecuted, and censored. They placed self worth above their life and dared to say no to their own and that of enlightenment’s life worlds. In this sense the claims that various Russian writers, inclusive of Chernichevsky, Turgeniev, and even Dostoyevsky were nihilists are wrong. Nihilism rejects the world of values and meaning without offering anything positive in their place. Not so with the Russian writers whose awareness of human self worth as an ethical good is the only viable position from which life worlds can be illuminated in essence and disclosed as to what kind of activity cannot be fulfilled.  No doubt, they toyed with democracy and equality of all persons, but they also realized from their experience in the West that democracy was in crisis. West in general has abolished the public domain, where autonomous citizens could rationally debate public issues, by reducing it to the clashing sum of private interests and power confrontations. The rationality of Western man, as Dostoyevsky noted, is a façade under which there lurk all sorts of irrational drives, such as greed, envy, aggression and incivility. Hence, the notion of freedom and above all self worth can no longer be offered by the West. 


The point has been reached where a question of awareness of self worth can be answered.  First aspect of this awareness is the possibility to extricate oneself from a specific life world. Second,  the resultant disattachment, from this immersion, is the awareness of self worth demanding the possibility of world orientation that would answer the question of absolute legitimation of fulfilling in practice and action what the awareness always tacitly maintained as self worth.  Third, it is to be noted that such awareness transgresses any specific life world, since any life world may offer partial-perceptual or signitive fulfillment of intrinsic self worth.  Under any other circumstance, intrinsic worth would be an intentionality of a given life world, interpreted, for example as value, equivalent to other values, and hence a self understood part of such a world. In this context, the persons who were mentioned, whether Turgenev or Gogol, or even Socrates,  articulate  phenomena that disclose intrinsic worth and demand of us to recognize our degraded state.  As already stated, the recognition of other’s intrinsic worth is equivalent to the recognition of our own and conversely. For Levinas this is the challenge of the other who demands of us to answer with truth, honor and dignity. After all, even “professional” philosopher such as Berdyaev parted both with Marxists who completely disregarded concrete persons, and with Kant because beyond duty there is worth and dignity of persons. For Berdyaev Marxist ethics were different for each social-historical period without providing a criterion by which to judge their worth. Resultantly, there must be an absolute standard.

What is more important is that the question of legitimation of a life world leads to an awareness of singular commitment, to a question of ethical existence and not knowledge. To understand this shift toward requirements of active existence we need to specify the transformation from epistemic understanding that depends on second and third grammatical persons, to person’s  other and self understanding and the recognition that the latter is not a narrowing down of the epistemic categorical field but has a very different logic.  For example, if categorical language has truth in perceptual fulfillment of a proposition,  existential proposition has truth as an honorable act of not lying.  Categorical language is designed to open some general characteristics, while existential is singular and unique, and even non repeatable. This kind of requirement is what led Levinas to posit the other as being beyond any categories.  Thus Tolstoy’s testament of peace, of no participation in state’s activities that are demeaning of anyone impacted Gandhi to challenge without violence an entire life world of an empire.  It questions the claim of this life world to be the only legitimate reality. This claim to sole reality appears only when the self worth becomes a foreground, enacted by a singular being in quest for an authentic fulfillment of self worth in a life world that at one stroke is made inactive, placed out of play.  It is equally important to note that since the disclosure of self worth revealed it to be solely as activity and not accessible through categorical intuition, then honor, dignity, nobility, truthfulness and justice appear only as ethical enactment and hence have validity to the extent of their enactment for their own sake. 

From what has been said, it is obvious how Levinas came to an early conclusion concerning the priority of the ethical over the ontological. The latter, pervaded by valuations, cannot yield the thing in itself, while the former, depicted in Russian literatures transcends, in its presence, all involvement in any life world and comprises intentionally inaccessible challenge to all ontological value without any power at its disposal. For Levinas therefore, the other is not an object of any intention of the self, is not a limit of the self, since the other for the self is absolutely separate. As was noted, the presence of the other in prisons, in Siberian exile to the guards or functionaries, was not a challenge of power, but of powerless dignity, honor, respect, what Levinas called hauteur in contrast to besoin. In a world of values and power, one does not know how to respond to such a totally other, whose presence, ala Levinas, is “infinition”. The only recourse that the ontological powers have in the presence of this “face” is the denial in oneself of this “height of the other” and a requirement for its destruction.  This “valuless” presence is the ethical “thing in itself” and hence demands a priority over the quest for Being. It seems that phenomenologically speaking we have reached an insight that allows Levinas to offer   an equivalence between the self and  the absolute other. The other and self, as radically transcendent and absolutely different are equivalent in that difference. After all, the claim that in face of the other I am interrogated, that his face requires that I justify myself, speak in my own name and answer for myself, also demands a reversal wherein the other in face of me would have to regard me as the other, as totally alien and infinite. In Russian literature there is a constant appearance of the value laden self in the totality of Being who, in face of the other, is demanded to admit to his own transcendence and hence act honorably and accept his dignity and self respect. In this sense a presence of the other as an “ethical thing in itself” implies the presence of the self as equally an ethical thing in itself in its treatment of others and self.

The face (visage) is already found in various texts, including Dostoievsky’s, where the face of the impoverished and socially valuless captain, speaks powerlessly to Dimitri in dignity, honor, and respect, rejects all monitary value, and as “the other” demands recognition of his and of Dimitri’s self worth. The face  is removed from and transgresses all powers and values. The removal does not allow the reduction of the other to an object or an implement and comprises a resistance to my wants. The face of the other abolishes my powers. Among all objects it transcends the world and thus it cannot be fully determined. Infinity that shines from the face of the other comprises resistance not because of its power, but due to its disarmament and powerlessness. Such a disarmed resistance is an appearance of ethics in Russian literature. Just as for Russian writers, for Levinas the face is not an expression of some interior state but a direct presence of the other prior to theoretical or moralistic interventions. Precisely the disarmed powerlessness, the poverty that comprise the dignity, the height and the imperatives of the other also comprises a first transcendent step for the self to recognize the priority of ethics over Being.