Writing as a man: Levinas and the phenomenology of Eros

Radical Philosophy 87:6-17 (1998)
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In the philosophical works of Emmanuel Levinasʼs early career, it is in a phenomenology of Eros that he claims to have uncovered the site of what he calls ʻtranscendenceʼ. This is no small claim. According to the argument of the later Totality and Infinity (1961), the history of Western philosophy is to be thought as the history of the ʻphilosophy of the sameʼ. Within this polemical generalization almost the whole of Western philosophy is characterized as a totalizing discourse which aims to reduce everything to the categories of a thematizing consciousness. Conceptual structures are employed (or presupposed) in order to make diverse phenomena commensurable within a system, and according to Levinas this operation always constitutes a reduction of what is ʻotherʼ to the order of the ʻsameʼ. In agreement with a certain transcendentalism which is itself implicated in Levinasʼs critique, these structures of thought are then equated with consciousness itself; the thematizing project is one of mastery in which noemata will of necessity conform to noesis, in which the object is constituted for and by the subject. The experience of transcendence, so rare in this version of philosophyʼs history, is the experience of whatever is and truly remains other than me, recalcitrant to mastery through conceptualization and to the transcendental project of the subject to construe everything as originating from within itself. If, then, it is first of all in the erotic relation that the possibility of the experience of transcendence is said to arise, Eros can in no sense be dismissed as an unimportant or peripheral theme for Levinas, and a full investigation is warranted, especially given the current interest in Levinasʼs work, interest which is not limited to the discipline of philosophy. Furthermore, as the notion of Eros is closely associated, textually and conceptually, with what Levinas calls ʻthe feminineʼ, critical attention has been excited amongst feminist scholars of various persuasions, with claims – both positive and negative – being made for Levinasʼs significance as a resource for feminist philosophy and feminist politics. If assertions of a ʻLevinasianʼ feminism, no matter how qualified, tend to rest on the idea that Levinasʼs phenomenology of Eros, and analyses of ʻthe feminineʼ mark a break in or a new departure from a ʻmasculinistʼ tradition, this article seeks, in part, to argue to the contrary.

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Stella Sandford
Kingston University


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