Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Trouble with Continental Philosophy #4: Levinas

My fourth example of Continental obscurity comes from a philosopher I mainly respect, Emmanuel Levinas. The following passage is from Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, tr. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985. It first appeared in French in 1982. It goes without saying that the numerals in brackets are my interpolation.

[1] The "invisible God" is not to be understood as God invisible to the senses, but as [2] God non-thematizable in thought and nonetheless as [3] non-indifferent to the thought which is not thematization, and [4] probably not even an intentionality.

Got that?

Ad 1. To be properly formulated, this first clause must contain a word like ‘merely’ right after ‘understood.’ God is obviously invisible to the senses, and a formulation that suggests that he is not is inept. This sort of mistake is often made. For example, if what you want to say is that religion is not merely matter a matter of doctrine (because it is a matter of practice as well), then don’t say: Religion is not a matter of doctrine. For if you say the latter, then you say something that is just plain stupid. I know that Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein seem to be saying precisely that in some places. Draw whatever conclusion you like.

Ad 2. We are being told that God is non-thematizable in thought. In plain English: God cannot be a theme or topic or object of thought. I am very sympathetic to this idea if what is intended is that God cannot be reduced to a mere object of thought whose being is exhausted by his objecthood. But since we are talking about God right now, there is some sense or other in which God is an object of thought. In some sense, we are thematizing God; we are thematizing him as a being whose being surpasses his thematicity.
You will note that I am now starting to write like a Continental philosopher. I know the idiom and can break into it when it suits me. I know their typical moves, althought they wouldn’t say ‘move’ inasmuch as that suggests something rigorous and logical like chess – and we can’t have that. The point, however, is that there is a problem here, and Levinas and Co. don’t do enough -- or much of anything -- to bring it into the open. The problem is to explain how we can think correctly of God as nonthematizable in thought if God has this property. Or at least that is one aspect of the problem.

Ad 3. We are being told that there is a non-thematizing or non-objectifying mode of thinking and that God is non-indifferent to this mode of thinking. But what does ‘non-indifferent’ mean? Does it mean not different, so that the non-objectifying thinking of God just is God? Or does it perhaps mean that God cares about this mode of thinking? Who knows? And that’s the problem. Levinas takes no pains to be clear about what he means.

Ad 4. Finally, we are informed that the non-objectifying mode of thinking is "probably not even an intentionality." ‘Intentionality’ is a philosopher’s term of art for the peculiar of-ness, aboutness, or directedness of (some) mental states to their objects. So what Levinas is saying is that the non-objectifying mode of thinking lacks aboutness. But then what is it? Something like a mute sensory state, a pain, for example? Clearly, there is some sense in which a non-objectifying mode of thinking about God is about God – and about nothing else. This sense needs clarification.

To sum up. I am not trying to ‘refute’ Levinas. I am not charging him with incoherence or self–contradiction. What I am objecting to is the lack of time and energy spent on clarification, and on setting forth clearly the problems and questions implied by his ideas. Brentano, Husserl, and the early Sartre were clear-headed thinkers. After that, the early standards go by the board.