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Darren Ambrose - Levinas, Hegel and the Scandal of Death

Darren Ambrose - Levinas, Hegel and the Scandal of Death

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Published by: Darren Ambrose on Jul 05, 2010
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Levinas, Hegel and the Scandal of DeathAbstractEmmanuel Levinas, in his 1976 lecture course on death, argues for theprofoundly disquieting force of death as being akin to the power of a purequestion. Throughout these lectures he makes a strong case for the insufficiencyof western philosophy’s thinking of the nothingness associated with death byelaborating a series of close readings of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Bergson,Heidegger, Bloch and Fink. In this paper I will concentrate on examining hisclose readings of Hegel’s
Phenomenology of Spirit
and the
Science of Logic
andpursue the consequences of his divergence from the Hegelian account ofnegativity and death. I will demonstrate how these late readings of Hegelprovide us with an important resource for properly understanding the nature ofLevinas’s anti-Hegelianism and for his articulation of an alterity otherwise thanbeing.
‘In the horror of the radical unknown to which death leads is evinced the limit of negativity.’ (TI:41)‘Death is not of the world. It is always a scandal and, in this sense, alwaystranscendent in regard to the world.’ (GDT:113)
Between November 1975 and May 1976 Emmanuel Levinas presented a lecturecourse at the Sorbonne under the title
La Mort et le Temps
Death and Time 
Theoverall theme of these twenty four lectures is the
of the essential
of death. For Levinas this is both in the sense of a question
the apparentnegativity of death and a consideration of this negativity 
a pure exemplar of 
These lectures were edited and annotated by Jacques Rolland, a student of Levinas’s, and thenpublished together with his 1975/6 lectures entitled ‘
Dieu et l’onto-théo-logie 
’ (
God and Ontotheology
) as
Dieu, la mort et le temps
(Paris: Grasset, 1993) in English as
God, Death and Time 
 per se 
. The negativity of death is thus treated within the lectures as acrucial instance of 
question. Levinas writes:‘Death is a departure, a decease, a negativity whose determination is unknown. Should we not think of death as a question of an indetermination such that we cannot say that it is posed, like a problem, on the basis of its givens? Death, as a departure without return, a question without givens, a pure interrogation mark.’ (GDT:14)
 Hence, one of the guiding themes of this lecture course is an understanding of thenegativity of death as a question that ‘disquiets in its restlessness rather than in theproblem it poses.’ (GDT:22) This disquietude, as with philosophical scepticism, is therisk of disruption that comes with the
question, a question that cannot bededuced from within the contours of ontology but which functions to bring themfundamentally into question. As such it is a question without response, it is a question‘from which every question borrows its interrogative mode.’ (GDT:37) It is a pointreiterated by Blanchot in
The Infinite Conversation
:‘We will never be done with the question, not because there still remains too much toquestion but because, in this detour from the depth that is proper – a movement thatdiverts us from both profundity and self – puts us in contact with that which has noend.’ (IC:93)One of Levinas’s major contentions within the lecture course is the apparent historicalinsufficiency with regard to the Western philosophical tradition’s thinking of thenothingness appropriate to death. Indeed, he claims that ‘In death…we arrive atsomething that European philosophy has not thought.’ (GDT:70) Throughout hislectures Levinas provides a series of brief but powerful insights into that essentialfailure within the thought of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Heidegger, Bloch andFink and their respective attempts to think a nothingness
to death. For Levinasthe authentic
associated with death is a type of 
that always
thought and which ultimately represents an
enigmatic questioning 
. Crucially for
Levinas also writes – ‘The question that the nothingness of death raises is a pure question mark. Itbelongs to a layer of the psyche that is deeper than consciousness.’ (GDT:113)2
Levinas, this disquietude is a form of negativity that differs radically from thespirituality of German Idealism, particularly Hegelianism, where the nothingness ornegativity of death is the condition of the life of the Spirit. As Jacques Rolland writesin an essay on Levinas’s lectures:‘It is a negativity to be grasped – or suffered – in the ineffectiveness that it induces, in what Blanchot would call its neutrality. A negativity…that Levinas does not avoid,and before which he does not turn away…but of which he only asks whethernothingness is sufficient to it.’ (DN:463)
 Levinas does not attempt to deny the essential
of death, but argues that itis the task of the philosopher to search for and analyse the quality proper to thisnothingness. Given the apparent failure of philosophy in this regard he argues that itremains a crucial task to think through the type of nothingness with which, for anentire philosophical tradition, death is confounded or reduced. As Jacques Rolland writes, ‘thinking about death must
cross over 
the nothingness or, as Hegel would say,must “look it in the face”’. (DN:467) By thinking through and crossing over thisnotion of nothingness Levinas is able to posit what he claims to be a type of nothingness
to death, and for him this remains an ethically 
notion which has consistently defied the efforts of the philosophical tradition to think it:‘In death, as pure nothingness, as foundationless – which we feel more dramatically, with the acuteness of that nothingness that is greater in death than in the idea of thenothingness of being (in the
there is
il y a
], which wounds less than disappearancedoes) – we arrive at something that European philosophy has not thought. Weunderstand corruption, transformation, dissolution. We understand that shapes orforms pass into and out of being, while something subsists. Death contrasts with allthat; it is inconceivable, refractory to thought, and yet unexceptionable andundeniable. It is not a phenomenon; hardly thematizable, unthinkable – the irrationalbegins there. Even in anxiety, even through anxiety, death remains unthought. To
See also J. Rolland’s postscript to these lectures ‘De l’autre homme – Le temps, la mort et le Dieu’,pp.263-279 translated as ‘On the Other Man: Time, Death and God’, (GDT:225-239). Furtherinsights into these lectures are contained in T. Chanter’s paper ‘Traumatic Response - Levinas’sLegacy’ in
Philosophy Today
, 1997 Supplement, pp.19-27 and J. Derrida’s
 Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas

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