ON ESCAPING THE SEEMINGLY INESCAPABLE: REFLECTIONS ON BEING IN LEVINAS
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Like his one-time teacher, Heidegger, Levinas makes a distinction between Being (Sein) and beings (Seiendes), but prefers to speak of ‘existence’ and the ‘existent’. Again, like Heidegger, Levinas understands existence in its verbal sense as the self-unfolding act of Being that is attested to in the manifestation of particular beings. Unlike his teacher, however, existence signals for him the unbearable heaviness of Being, as if being a Jew as opposed to being a German in Europe in the years preceding WWII cast a different light on the human existential condition, through which alone we have access to Being. Levinas’s particular conceptualisation of existence, forged at a particular world historical juncture, forms the basis for his particular ‘metaphysical’ account of the conditions of possibility of ethical action. Although Levinas’s early essays present us with an extensive mediation on the nature of existence, only a few commentators offer it more than a mere cursory sketch. My aim in this essay is therefore to throw some light on Levinas’s conceptualisation of Being from its root in Plato’s understanding of essence as ‘ousia’, its indebtedness to Heidegger’s ontological difference, and its ultimate departure from the latter’s understanding of Sein as generosity and Lichtung. As we shall see, existence for Levinas is a two-sided coin that encapsulates the empowering verbal sense of Being as dynamism and the overpowering stultifying sense of irremissible contract in which is inscribed the exigency of an impossible escape. It is this very conceptualisation that informs Levinas’s lifelong trans-ontological quest for a path otherwise and beyond Being.
460 – 471
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