How do we call into question what the hand grasps? It could be a tool, it could be apeironcould the indefinite be a possession? Possession is called into question by the encounter with the Other, Levinas says (Totality, p. 163). We can think of this encounter as transcendence. Not only am I happy to see transcendence defined, I'm happy that Levinas discusses this transcendence with respect to language.
The relationship with the Other is not produced outside of the world, but puts in question the world possessed. The relationship with the Other, transcendence, consists in speaking the world to the Other. But language accomplishes the primordial putting in commonwhich refers to possession and presupposes economy. The universality a thing receives from the word that extracts it from the hic et nunc loses its mystery in the ethical perspective in which language is situated. The hic et nunc itself issues from possession, in which the thing is grasped, and language, which designates it to the other, is a primordial dispossession, a first donation. The generality of the word institutes a common world. The ethical event at the basis of generalization is the underlying intention of language. The relation with the Other does not only stimulate, provoke generalization, does not only supply it with the pretext and the occasion (this no one has ever contested), but is this generalization itself. Generalization is a universalizationbut universalization is not the entry of the sensible thing into a no man's land of the ideal, is not purely negative like a sterile renunciation, but is the offering of the world to the Other. Transcendence is not a vision of the Other, but a primordial donation.
(pp. 173-174, my bold)
The first donation is a question of the hands, in presenting the gift and receiving. Is this business of the hands merely a presupposition, a condition? Would we then say that the hands have been transcended in speech, in the encounter with the Other? If we accept a restricted sense of the hic et nunc as equivalent to the grasped, it does not indubitably follow that the hand well represents the hic et nunc, for hands also open. They relax. Well, what do we think about hands? How do we call them into question? We do things with hands. Levinas says that the hands are "the condition for all technique" (p. 167). He even provides us with a master technique, which is, surprisingly perhaps, not grasping but groping. He says groping is "the work of the hand par excellence, and the work adequate to the apeiron of the element [which] makes possible the whole originality of the final cause" (ibid.). Why isn't giving the work of the hand par excellence? Let's play with an idea of Merleau-Ponty's. We simultaneously grasp and communicate with other people who have hands that grasp and communicate, communicative hands. (Not everybody has hands, of course, but most people have hands that communicate various meanings, enough to give meaning to the phrase "communicative hands.") If communication is the work of the hands, and it occurs simultaneously with grasping, should we, following Levinas for a moment, regard communication as being transcended by giving? Are the two incommensurate in any given hic et nunc? Perhaps we need to grapple with multipurposivity of hands. Levinas' argument, however, is that we can't allow giving to be regarded as one activity among many. Apparently the idea would be that multifunctionality doesn't explain anything. Here we pick up again on the discussion of language.
Language does not exteriorize a representation preexisting in me: it puts in common a world hitherto mine. Language effectuates the entry of things into a new ether in which they receive a name and become concepts. It is a first action over and above labor, an action without action, even though speech involves the effort of labor, even though, as incarnate thought, it inserts us into the world with the risks and hazards of all action. At each instant it exceeds this labor by the generosity of the offer it forthwith makes of this very labor. The analyses of language that tend to present it as one meaningful action among others fail to recognize this offering of the world, this offering of contents which answers to the face of the Other or which questions him, and first opens the perpective of the meaningful.
The "vision" of the face is inseparable from this offering language is. To see the face is to speak of the world. Transcendence is not an optics, but the first ethical gesture.
(p. 174, Levinas' emphases, my bold)
The first ethical gesture is most probably performed with the hands. A gesture without gesture is improbable, and it would smack of mystification were I to impose upon you to seriously think such a thing. (Is that a wink?) The face is emphatically inseparable from the world of the hands, a twilight world as well as a world of days and nights. Has Levinas adequately anticipated these criticisms, for instance by saying that speech "as incarnate thought [. . .] inserts us into the world with the risks and hazards of all action"? Well, on the one hand action means labor, on the other it means any action whatsoever, including action that surpasses action. Furthermore, the latter kind of action, which is the ethical event of the encounter with the Other, is the basis for general meanings, and hence for the meaning of any action. I don't think I'm completely uncharitable, or ungrateful. I'd like to imagine the priority of an ethical event which puts the world into question, so I should be willing to allow my understanding of hands to be put into question, and, of course, my understanding of understanding. I'm groping here. How do I live in this world offered by my encounter with Levinas?