Reviews - What do customers think about Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Martinus Nijhoff Philosophy Texts)?
For Levinas-lovers Feb 18, 2008
Totality and Infinity is Levinas's first magnum opus, one of two. It is truly an amazing and magnificient piece of work. I had read later Levinas first and began reading this one initially as a sort of self-imposed mandatory prerequisite to read his second magnum opus Otherwise Than Being. Being used to later Levinas, it was an adjustment to read this earlier text. The language of both eras is highly dense and complex (and original), but the earlier language is more pedagogic and the structure more methodic. At times, I didn't think I would finish the book. I knew I loved Levinas, but in this book the phenomological analyses are so thorough and extensive, that I wondered if it was the same author at times or when I'd find the definitive Levinasian mark of ethics, of the face. However, I am very happy that I did finish this book. Virtually the first half of the book is about Separation - an ambivalence in which a being masters and enjoys but is also dependent on the resources of the world. Interiority does not commence as a cogito or reason, but as enjoyment (of the world). Every being, in their enjoyment of this life, is separated from a totality that would fully account for all of them. The vertigo of existence, of the "il y a" ("there is"), is subsided in the prolongation of labor and in the dwelling. However, the interior economy is still not in a "face to face." Only separated beings can enter into a face to face and share their resources with an Other. Finally, the last sections (beginning from section 3) of the book begin to look a lot like later Levinas, and he goes into extensive and radical analyses of the ultimate, irreducible relation of the face to face and its highly ethical situation. He ruminates on goodness, justice, language, plurality, and peace. He speaks of the end of philosophy, of its inadequacy to do justice to the uniqueness of a face. He deliberately and deservingly after many rigorous pages of working out an original and unforeseen thought invokes how this is a departure from and in opposition to most of Western philosophy. No one who reads and truly understands this book will remain unchanged. To read the first magnum opus of such an original mind, to join Levinas in his thought process by way of the apex of the first part of his career, is truly an unparalleled and beautiful experience, and one you will never forget nor cease to take with you.
Deeply rewarding Oct 3, 2007
There's no doubt, this is a difficult read (though much easier than Deleuze's Difference and Repetition). I would recommend to anyone tackling this great book that they skip the Introduction, saving it until the end. Levinas writes in a style that is best described as majestic, but not self-inflated. Elsewhere I have read others state that this is a book about morality. In fact, it is much more; it is a phenomenological description of the inner life in all its essential aspects. Morality is a consequence (or an outcome) of the inner life as it is portrayed.
Certain passages are simply breath-taking, poetic, and unforgettable. God is occasionally mentioned but only as a distant and remote observer. For example, Levinas' concept of Justice implies some kind of inscrutable Roycean Synoptic Insight which observes all the inward thoughts of men from an insurmountable distance and renders a final verdict so that the outward historicism of mankind never has the final word. The shadow of Martin Heidegger is present throughout, but Levinas attempts to discredit him for the most part, or it might be more accurate to say that Levinas' argument is that Heidegger is only partially correct in his observations, and that Levinas supplies the corrective revision.
The most difficult part of the book, and the part which has clearly generated the most controversy, is a section toward the end where Levinas speaks of fecundity and the father-son relation. If you take his words literally it is patently sexist language, which many critics have put down to the patriarchal tendencies of Levinas' Jewish faith. But Levinas states quite clearly that the biological father/son relation is only to be understood as an instance of the more general prototype. The father/son prototype relation can also be instantiated by the mentor-student. This whole topic of fecundity is definitely a speed-bump on the way to navigating this thought-provoking volume, but the book does not rise or fall based on this one difficult topic.
In summary, this is a richly rewarding book that is not impossible to read or understand. Skip the Introduction, and go straight to Chapter One. The book is beautifully written and carefully translated. I loved the time I spent with this book. It was spiritually rewarding, an unforgettable experience. I am planning to read it again one of these days. This book is almost sacred in my eyes!
Totality and Infinity--extremely hard, but also fulfilling Mar 20, 2006
I only read parts of Totality and Infinity, but I found Levinas extremely hard and rewarding. His insights in the book are helpful to everyday life, and they've changed my world view altogether. read it, but preferably with someone else who is reading it, too, or have someone else who has read it help you.
One of the Great Books Mar 16, 2006
To previous reviewers:
~ Levinas is trying to uncover the source of the idea of infinity ~
No, infinity by definition is boundless and cannot be encompassed or reduced. Levinas is not asking the Cartesian question nor concerned with securing the `existence' of the external world. The concept of infinity is unique in that its content always exceeds or overflows its concept. Ethical relation operates in just this manner: the relation to the other is not negative (ala Idealism) but rather a relation to an excess. This excess is no Hinterwelt, but rather goodness.
~ Then he proceeds to "show" that the face to face relation with the Other is the source for our capacity to have theoretical and practical knowledge. ~
Indeed. Though the term `source' is very problematic. Levinas shows theoretical and practical `knowledge' - science and law/politics - are fundamentally social. In this way, the ethical relation opens and conditions this `knowledge,' while always exceeding it. What if science claimed to discover that women were `inferior' to men? We would no doubt question the `truth' of this discovery. Why? Because such a claim seems to exceed the bounds of what scientific activity can produce. This example shows how ethics exceeds theoretical knowledge. The same goes for the `practical.' Why do we think that segregation is wrong or unjust? Why is excluding the `other' from basic political participation, and the responsibility and rights it entails, a problem? Political theory and practice, which in its way is a kind of `scientific ethics,' can also lead to problematic situations. How are we able to judge or discern or resist claims that seek to justify unethical attitudes and practices? The face-to-face is Levinas's attempt to grapple with this perennial problem.
~ Oh yeah, the Other is a man, because the feminine other is not Other enough for Levinas, and romantic love is bad. ~
The problem of the feminine in Levinas is a real issue. Yet only a reductive and amateurish reading would pose the problem in these blunt terms. "The Other is man" and not women, is false according to any close reading of Levinas's texts. It is true that Levinas implicitly treats gender with a patriarchal slant, yet it is also true that he complicates and problematizes the way gendered is valued. There is a running debate on this within feminist camps. The more thoughtful and rigorous feminists realize the complexity and nuanced structural problems within Levinas's thinking of the feminine. Even if we admit that there is an undeniable patriarchal aspect in Levinas's work, we must also admit that he subverts that same patriarchy from within his own work. Here we may possibly oppose Levinas to Levinas. (Check out Tine Chanter's essay in `Addressing Levinas'). Oh ya, `romantic love is bad'?? Go read `Phenomenology of Eros' more carefully.
~Essentially, what he does is fuse Husserl and Heidegger's theories, to an extent, and replaces the transcendental ego of Husserl with the face to face relation with the Other.~
This sounds like a bad regurgitation of certain of Levinas's critics. The more precise way to put it is this: Levinas plays Heidegger's anti-scientism against Husserl, and Husserl's anti-historicism and relativism against Heidegger. There is a certain sense where the other displaces Husserl's T-Ego, in terms of its structural function. Yet Levinas is not after absolute knowledge, and `replacing' the ego with alterity precisely disturbs and relativizes - in fact renders impossible - constitution.
~ Levinas is just intentionally writing obscurely, perhaps because he realizes how silly his whole enterprise is and how much modernism is contained within it (still trying to find the condition for experience itself, did someone say German Idealism?).~
This comment shows the extent of our reviewer's ignorance. 1st: Levinas's entire project is one the most rigorous and non-reductive challenges to the Idealist tradition from Fichte to Husserl. Levinas's project is precisely a critique of the modernist project to secure absolute foundations. He ever retained an allergy to G-Idealism and saw within its totalizing logic the seeds of Auschwitz. 2nd: The claim that Levinas intentionally wrote obscurely betrays intellectual laziness and a certain chauvinism. A simple survey of Levinas's contemporaries, French philosophy of the mid-20th century, shows that Levinas is writing within a specific intellectual culture and style. Continental philosophy in general tends to be more difficult for us Anglophones in that we are socialized into an instrumental and minimalist stylistic culture. One need only read Hegel, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, or Derrida to the see the extent in which Levinas is operating within a certain tradition and style of philosophy.
Finally, the following suggestion by the above reviewer can help us understand Levinas's basic point:
~ you would be better served by spending 3 hours contemplating and reasoning to your own working definition of the following words: --- "totality" --- "infinity" --- "other" Then spend 3 hours contemplating and reasoning to your own understanding of how the three are interrelated.~
As you sit `contemplating' your definitions, imagine you are right on the cusp of a new idea that will refute Levinas and bring you philosophic immortality. All of a sudden, a frantic bang on your door jars you. You open the door and there stands your neighbor with blood running down his face. He explains that while he was sitting watching water flow over rocks (while contemplating Aristotle); a tree branch fell on his head. You immediately begin to help your neighbor: bandages, ice, call the ambulance, and so forth. By the time the ordeal is over, you have forgotten the specifics of you idea and must start all over.
The supplicating demand of the other interrupts all self activity, rendering our clarity and certainty and sedentary contemplation secondary and relative. No matter how grand and all encompassing our ideas become, there always remains an exterior: an other who bangs on the door needing help; whom we feel obliged to help even if the don't agree with our ideas, even if they are stupid, confused, and so forth. This knock on the door is not another `meaning,' idea, world, or theory, not another term to be defined or explained. The knock on the door is the face of the other that needs and demands whether or not our theory or definition justifies it.
Totality and Infinity is, no doubt, one of the Great Books.
Your Time Nov 13, 2005
I have to confess I didn't get very far with this one. If you have to read this for a course, I'm very sorry.
I'm not an academic, but I do I read a lot of philosophy. I'll put a lot of energy into a complex text, but I prefer to invest it with works that will enlighten, not confuse.
On the clarity-precision scale, I would push Levinas right past "dense" or "challenging" and put it somewhere between "turgid" and "impenetrable." (His apologists decry the inability of human language to convey Levinas' sophisticated thoughts. Maybe so, but perhaps the apology says more about his thoughts than it does about human language.)
In any case, it will take you a long time to genuinely read this book. If you're looking for truth (as opposed to a passing grade in a required course), you would be better served by spending 3 hours contemplating and reasoning to your own working definition of the following words:
--- "totality" --- "infinity" --- "other"
Then spend 3 hours contemplating and reasoning to your own understanding of how the three are interrelated.
Then get a decent translation of Aristotle's Metaphysics. (I like the McKeon translation, but there are certainly newer, hipper ones.) Then read Aristotle instead of Levinas. If you find the idea of reading a Dead White Guy repugnant, spend the time watching water move over rocks. Either choice will provide you more wisdom than you could get from a lifetime studying An Essay on Exteriority.