Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Quick Defense of Spontaneity

Levinas is wrong about spontaneity but he is creatively wrong so it will be worth our time to read him carefully. Propadeutically, I have a sense that I am responsible for my existence, responsible for giving it meaning and ultimately determining what it is. Levinas challenges this sense. He asserts that we are created, which would imply to many that one cannot claim full responsibility for one's existence. However, Levinas has an unusual definition of the creature which should pre-empt a hasty repudiation of his position. He says, "The unity of spontaneous freedom, working on straight ahead, and critique, where freedom is capable of being called in question and thus preceding itself, is what is termed a creature" (Totality, p. 89). Perhaps the issue is one of simple nomenclature, though I reckon not. In the phrase "working on straight ahead" we find a clue to Levinas' misconstrual of spontaneity. He identifies spontaneity with the activity of the for-itself, implying that freedom does not fall within the purview of a complete existentiality but is instead reserved for a certain kind of being. (Again there are issues of nomenclature. Does saying "existential" imply a relation to human existence, or more generally and by extension of this meaning to sentient existence? In my usage it often does.) Levinas thus gives freedom a peculiar definition. He says that the "imperialism of the same is the essence of freedom" (p. 87), and he states that "freedom, the determination of the other by the same, is the very movement of representation and of its evidence" (p. 85). On these terms Levinas may be right in analytically separating spontaneous freedom from critique, if only to unite them in the creature, but they are questionable terms.

Against Levinas I maintain a skepticism about any primary curvature of being (p. 86). Being may be curved in any variety of ways, and humans in particular evince a multitude of curvatures. Spontaneity then is not primarily orthogonal to relations to other people or to any primary curvature of being. (I wonder if Levinas is entirely consistent in speaking of a primary curvature of being here?) This point is important when it comes to thinking about what it means to be put into question. Levinas says that "[t]he knowing whose essence is critique. . . leads to the Other. To welcome the Other is to put in question my freedom" (p. 85). Maybe there is some truth in this statement, yet I hesitate at this juncture to say that we are on the same page. What does it mean to be critical, and how does this being critical relate to spontaneity? Levinas equates the critical essence of knowing with "the movement of a being back to what precedes its condition" (p. 84). Hmm. The prerogative of knowing, Levinas says, lies in "being able to put itself in question, in penetrating beneath its own condition" (p. 85). I'm perplexed as to why there wouldn't be a condition beneath the condition. (What does philosophy have against the condition?) Perhaps the condition beneath the condition of knowledge is the question, in which case perhaps we put ourselves in question only because we can. Perhaps not. At any rate, I am inclined to balk at putting spontaneity at odds with critique. On the contrary, spontaneity may be essential to the performance of critique. Is criticism a transformative process? Does it lead to anything? Does it reach out to others–surely we can be spontaneous in reaching out? What about welcoming, then? Welcoming is quite different from reaching out to things, a neutral reaching out. The welcoming of gifts?

I welcome Levinas' critique of philosophy, if not as nicely as possible, then nice enough for discussion.

Philosophy itself is identified with the substitution of ideas for persons, the theme for the interlocutor, the interiority of the logical relation for the exteriority of interpellation. Existents are reduced to the neuter state of the idea, Being, the concept. It was to escape the arbitrariness of freedom, its disappearance into the Neuter, that we have approached the I as atheist and created–free, but capable of tracing back beneath its condition–before the Other, who does not deliver himself in the "thematization" or "conceptualization" of the Other. To wish to escape dissolution into the Neuter, to posit knowing as a welcoming of the Other, is not a pious attempt to maintain the spiritualism of a personal God, but is the condition for language, without which philosophical discourse itself is but an abortive act, a pretext for an unintermitting psychoanalysis or philology or sociology, in which the appearance of a discourse vanishes in the Whole. Speaking implies a possibility of breaking off and beginning.

(p. 88, my bold)

Responses: (a) I wouldn't want to say that spontaneity lacks conditions, even in a roundabout way; (b) Levinas draws a distinction between discourse and language; (c) the possibility of breaking off and beginning is the possibility of spontaneity. Whether we are talking about language in any ordinary sense or language in Levinas' metaphysical sense there is an implication of spontaneousness. Moreover, welcoming does not negate spontaneity but rather welcomes it.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 7:13 AM.


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