Naud van der Ven


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There is no beginning

(Preface to the book by Gosse A. Postma Touch as Life. Mutual care as an ethical relationship, published in September 2017 by Gea Nama Publishers)

It is striking, in discussions of the work of Emmanuel Levinas, how quickly and often they are about arranging an (hierarchical) order of priorities. Levinas presents concepts and phenomena such as: man who enjoys the world, the care of one person for the other, selfishness, shame for one’s own thinking, sensitivity to the suffering of others. And time and again, for one reason or another, it turns out to be of great importance what the ranking of those terms and phenomena is in relation to each other. That can be about the sequence in time, so in that case the question is: what comes first, what comes later? But it can also be about a conceptual order: which things do you have to presuppose before you can talk about other things at all? Or about foundations needed for what is being built on top. Or about what is in the foreground and what is in the background.

Levinas commentators don’t impose this theme from outside, for Levinas himself already speaks in all kinds of ways in sequential, or if you like: hierarchical terms in his works. For example, Levinas says in Éthique et Infini on p. 81: “But it must be understood that morality does not come as a second layer above an abstract reflection on the totality and its dangers; morality has a scope independent of and prior to reflection. The first, original philosophy is ethics”. And some pages further, speaking on subjectivity (p. 101) he says: “In this book I speak of responsibility as the essential, first, original, fundamental structure of subjectivity”.

By the way, the order can also be reversed with Levinas. For example, when he says in Totality and Infinity, in the words of commentator Cederberg, that “a life can only be for the other if it is first life in the sense of enjoyment”, so for the ego itself (Cederberg, 97).

In any case, speaking in terms of philosophia prima and philosophia secunda – whether ethics stands first and metaphysics/ontology second, or vice versa – is a practice of the Aristotelian tradition in Western philosophy. Levinas thus joins a tradition, and it is no wonder that sequencing plays an important role for many commentators, who are partly formed in that tradition.

Ruth Groenhout offers a clear example of this in her book Connected Lives. On p. 89 she says: “Clearly any account of the ethical life must generate both concern for the self and concern for others if it is to be adequate to our moral experience. Just as clearly, one or the other set of concerns will be theoretically prior”.

Now I don’t know exactly what ‘theoretically prior’ means, but I think it is about a conceptual order. Groenhout is very clear about whát precedes what: caring for the other is more fundamental than caring for the self. This is evident, for example, from Groenhout’s statement on p. 86: “the call to ethical responsibility is primordial” and the one on p. 82 about the encounter with the face of the other, as a result of which “we find ourselves in a responsive state (ie: for the other, NvdV) prior to any rational calculation of relationships (ie: for ourselves, NvdV)”.

We seem not to be able to escape some sort of order. Gosse Postma, in this and other books, cannot escape it either. It sounds light-footed enough, but his statement “Consciousness is an afterthought” arranges a sequence in time. First there is remembrance, in memory, namely of otherness, and only then does a person become aware of it. So here too there is a clear prioritization.

Neither can I myself avoid thinking about a possible sequence in time or in terms of the importance of other and self. Even if only for the discussion with Gosse. But actually I  want to get rid of it, because I find thinking in terms of sequence is not very helpful.

When Gosse says: “Consciousness is an afterthought”, then I say: I understand what you mean, but for most of the time it does not apply, at least not in the self-experience of human beings. During large parts of an average day, in which with an average consciousness we have breakfast, work, go shopping and get nice ideas, man experiences himself as his own origin, as the center of his world. He feels that this or that idea comes from himself, as does the planning of its implementation and the organization of the means for it. That is the de facto experienced reality of large parts of our days.

Paradoxically enough, this autonomous self-experience turns out to be most evident at those moments when suddenly something intrudes into our routine: a train that breaks down and you do not meet your schedule, or a child that falls ill and needs to be cared for. Then a new de facto experienced reality arises, in which you are at the mercy of something outside of you. If it is the trains, this heteronomously determined reality will not have to last long. After a new look at the actual train schedule, you may soon find yourself back in your own control room. If you are going to take care of the sick child, and the illness is serious, then that may determine your actions for a longer period of time. The de facto experience of reality is then that of a reality that is not determined by yourself, on the contrary: it is that of a heteronomously determined reality, which you do indeed go along with.

But sooner or later, if only for your mental health, you will again want to feel autonomous and be the master in your control room, once again as a de facto experienced reality. Just in order to not break down and to keep your world somewhat clear and manageable. After which the alternative, heteronomous experience of reality will inevitably intrude again into the newly found equilibrium, and so on and so on.

Seen in this way, there is a permanent alternation of experiences of reality – autonomous and heteronomous – , and it seems to me quite hard to assign a priority to one of these poles. One could say, a sequence is definitely there, because in the above I start with the control room feeling of autonomy. After all, that is which is interrupted by the external event, so that was first. But I could as well have started with the heteronomy experiences with which small children start their lives, and which as they get older are increasingly alternated with experiences of autonomy.

One can object that the first described experience of reality (the autonomous one) is an illusion. Because if autonomy is your horizon, how can someone else, such as your sick child, break into it? That control room feeling is too solipsistic and unrealistic to let that happen. So there must be something ‘deeper’, ‘more original’, ‘more fundamental’ in reality. Something inside you that lies waiting, ready for the unexpected and that the unexpected can take hold of, so that the Other can intrude into your agenda. The simple fact that the autism of the self cán be broken can, according to this objection, not but point to such a deeper reality.

In the words of Groenhout (p. 88): “If my basic existence is one of being for myself, there seems no way to make the leap to an absolutely binding moral obligation”. In other words, “without this basic orientation of being-for-the-other it is unclear how any ethical requirements could ever get a hold on us”.

There is something to be said in favor of that thought. If people choose this line of reasoning, it is with an appeal to comprehensibility. To speak with Levinas, when he talks about the experience of autonomy: “Reason speaking in the first person is not addressed to  the other, conducts a monologue” (1991, 72). Reason, precisely in its de facto experience of autonomy, is blind and autistic and illusory. It cannot be talked to. So there must be ‘something else’ that is ready to still realize the connection that cannot be made within that experience. This can – if it has to be lying await and prepared already – only something ‘deeper’ or in time anterior. Otherwise that connection cannot be understood.

Viewed in this way you can indeed arrive at a hierarchy, a before and a later. Levinas refers for that ‘earlier’ to what he calls ‘the Good’, which he associates with God, and thus implies vertical transcendence. Gosse refers for the earlier to the transcendence that arises from the prenatally built up tactile-sensory memory in the mother’s womb – a horizontal transcendence in other words.

But in both variants you are left with a problem, namely that of the de facto experience of autonomy. After all, with the above choice for a ‘before versus a later’, there is nothing left to do but call the feeling of autonomy a lesser, weaker reality. Or an outright illusion. And I shy away from that, because the ‘de facto grade’ – and by that I mean the reality level of the experience of that illusion – is simply too great. A large part of our actions – in politics, in organizations, in hospitals and so on – is inspired by this experience of autonomy and the accompanying controlling reason. That’s the way the human mind works during large parts of our days. Also according to Levinas, by the way, who not only wants to call this human trait illusory but also ‘genius-like’ (1991: 126).

Well, okay, strictly speaking one could call that experience of autonomy an illusion. But if that implies that as a result this experience in philosophy is systematically pushed to the second place, you would again have an intelligibility problem, comparable to the previously mentioned problem of comprehension. Because, if so, how on earth could it be explained that for a large part of the day exactly this control room perception of reality determines our social and organizational activities? Why, then, would well-meaning people with so much conviction establish partnerships in line with autistic rationality, and assail each other on such a large scale with contracts, protocols, codes of conduct and checklists? That illusion is a powerful reality, it must be.

If you want to take that seriously, is my thesis, then you should refrain from the temptation to call it an illusion, or if you really see that as an illusion, refrain from the tendency to assign it a lower level of reality. Seen from a pragmatic point of view, the sphere of the self and that of the other are equally strong, balanced, and of equal value.

It is true that on the part of rationality anchored in autonomy, there is just as much a tendency to create hierarchy. In the most extreme variant, as can be found, for example, with the American philosopher Ayn Rand, the only relevant reality is that of the individual, and there is no such thing as a society or heteronomy, let alone a transcendent dimension. In the less extreme and more common variant, society is based on the contract model: articulate, autonomous individuals decide to organize a society on the basis of well-understood self-interest. The order of priorities cannot be missed here: the self comes first, the others follow in second place as derivatives.

If the priority of heteronomy, as Levinas had in mind according to many commentators, is intended as a protest against the priority of the autonomous individual as visible in Rand, but also in society as a whole – then psychologically I do understand this countermovement. But if that countermovement simply reverses the hierarchy, and thus again saddles us with hierarchy, then that does not appeal to me.

By the way, I wouldn’t know what that priority of heteronomy could be based upon. But I think there is no need to search for suchlike exclusive primary foundations, because also with Levinas in hand, you don’t necessarily háve to end up there. I think Carl Cederberg (105) is not far wrong, when he remarks in response to Totality and Infinity: “It is as if there is a double foundation for his philosophy, that of the self-sufficient ego, and that of the other, providing a meaning for the subject’s freedom”.

Maybe there is no beginning? Long live anarchy!

Also see: Immune and Something small



Cederberg, C. (2010) Resaying the Human. Levinas beyond Humanism and Antihumanism. Huddinge: Södertörns högskola.

Groenhout, R. (2004) Connected Lives. Human nature and an ethics of care. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.

Levinas, E. (1991)[1963] Totality and Infinity. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Levinas , E. (2008)[1974] Otherwise than Being. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1982) Éthique et Infinie. Paris: Fayard.

Postma, G. A. Postma (2017) Tast als leven. Wederzijdse zorg als ethische betrekking. Winsum: Gea Nama Uitgevers.

Ven, N. van der (2011) The Shame of Reason in Organizational Change. A Levinassian Perspective. London: Springer.