Monday, May 12, 2008
The New Humanist has a portrait of Levinas.
For Heidegger, the metaphysical quest for absolute knowledge of what lies beyond perceived surfaces reached its culmination with Hegel (1770-1831), and its “last gasp” with Nietzsche (1844-1900). Plato, and the entire philosophical tradition descending from him, had “sent Being away”, positing it as always existing elsewhere – for example, in the unknowable realm of the Forms, or in the Kantian “noumenal world”. In doing so, philosophy had neglected the “primordial” kind of Being, that largely concealed essence of our consciousness that is further revealed to us through thought, art, poetry and communion with nature. Heidegger offers us an example of how this “authentic” Being can occur to us in Being and Time: a workman is making a barrel, hammering away unthinkingly in his day-to-day “context of significance”. The hammer is initially no more than what the worker hammers with; however, the hammer suddenly breaks in his hand, and looking at the broken pieces, the barrel-maker is brought sharply out of his “everydayness”; what Heidegger calls its “intentional” quality is suddenly contrasted with the broken pieces. Just so, when you snap a plastic fork while eating, something strange happens – its previous “forkness” is thrown into relief, bringing to consciousness the odd fact that you were using it at all, and illuminating the “ontological difference” between beings and Being – between mere things and the uncanny fact that they are. The effect on Levinas’s thought was dramatic; everything would now have to be considered in the ontological light cast by Being and Time.
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