Egoism, Labour, and Possession: A reading of “Interiority and Economy,” Section II of Lévinas' Totality of Infinity

Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 45 (2):107-117 (2014)
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Lévinas is the philosopher of the absolutely Other, the thinker of the primacy of the ethical relation, the poet of the face. Against the formalism of Kantian subjectivity, the totality of the Hegelian system, the monism of Husserlian phenomenology and the instrumentalism of Heideggerian ontology, Lévinas develops a phenomenological account of the ethical relation grounded in the idea of infinity, an idea which is concretely produced in the experience with the absolutely other, particularly, in their face. The face of the other, irreducible to any ontological structure of being or any epistemological intentionality of representation, reaches out from on high across the abyss of the isolated ego, commanding respect all the while granting the possibility of murder. This experience overflows the subjective capacity of the separated ego, forcing it “beyond being.” This anarchic relation with the Other is the groundless condition of possibility for ethical life, that is, truly human life. The structure of the ethical relation can then be determined in hindsight as the ground of meaning for what it is to be an I at all. -/- This is a pretty uncontroversial reading of Lévinas' work, especially Totality and Infinity. And yet, there is one small problem. If this is what Lévinas is doing, then why does the largest section of Totality and Infinity – section II, “Interiority and Economy” – have nothing to do with ethics, the other, or the face at all? Why is it devoted to an arduous analysis of what he calls separation, egoism, economy, enjoyment, labour, and possession? In other words, why does Lévinas spend so much energy on writing about the egoist at the heart of his magnum opus, which is supposedly a text devoted to the Other? And furthermore, why is this section one of the least discussed in the secondary literature on Lévinas? -/- These questions motivate the present inquiry, which modestly seeks to understand what Lévinas is up to in this section. Once laying out the basic story, I will focus on the concepts of labour and possession, for I think these are the unrecognized pivots upon which the transition from ego to Other turns. I will also make some slight attempts to interpret Lévinas' direct or indirect comments on Plato, Kant, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. For although he distances himself from these giants, he stands on their shoulders as well.

Author's Profile

Jacob Blumenfeld
University of Oldenburg


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