Self and Other in Lewis and Levinas

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So far as I can tell, virtually no has commented on the connections between C. S. Lewis and Emmanuel Levinas-one possible exception being Pope John Paul II, a great admirer of both writers (see Hooper xii; John Paul II 36). But the connections are profound and undeniable. I’ve found no evidence that Levinas read Lewis’s work, nor any that Lewis was acquainted directly with the thought of Levinas, though Levinas became an important figure in French philosophical circles following World War II. The affinity between Lewis and Levinas must be explained in some way other than direct influence. For one thing, both of them knew the philosophical tradition thoroughly. Lewis, in fact, took a degree in philosophy as well as in classics and English and began his teaching career at Oxford as a tutor in philosophy for most of a year before obtaining a position in English literature. One of Lewis’s early Christian works-The Pilgrim’s Regress-traces his journey through, as well as his critique of, several schools of philosophy, including the philosophical idealism that dominated during the early twentieth century. Though Lewis did not take a direct part in the main developments within professional philosophy in the later twentieth century, particularly the movement known as postmodernism, he certainly had at least a general sense of such developments and even had something of an affinity with Personalism, a movement within twentieth-century thought associated with such writers as Borden Parker Bowne, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Václav Havel, and a figure I’ve already mentioned, Pope John Paul II. As will become clear, Levinas has affinities with this movement as well (see Caygill 86-88), though he is more often called the leading proponent of postmodern ethical philosophy.

The connection between Lewis and Levinas I want to focus on is more specific than this general affinity I’ve referred to. Without in all probability knowing each other’s work, they nevertheless write in strikingly similar terms about what it means to be a “self” and how the self relates to others. The emphasis on “self” is perhaps not surprising, given that this concept had been a central concern of philosophy at least beginning with Descartes in the seventeenth century, with much earlier ponderings on the subject by Saint Augustine having had a continuing influence from late antiquity to the present. The “self” became an especially vital concern in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought as idealist philosophers came to identify the “self” with the “Absolute.” Reactions to this move came in various forms. Materialists and logical positivists sought to reduce the self to a merely temporary or even illusory phenomenon completely dependent on a more fundamental impersonal, material reality. Others reacted in a different direction: for instance, Kierkegaard, protesting against Hegelian philosophy (perhaps the most extreme expression of absolute idealism), maintained the fundamental reality of individual, personal existence, irreducible to an all-encompassing absolute Spirit or essence. Various forms of existentialism would pursue similar intuitions. Still later, with the advent of what we call postmodernism, some have sought to interpret “selfhood” as contingent or illusory not because material reality is more fundamental, but because nothing is fundamental-because the “self” along with everything else is only a function of social, psychological, or linguistic forces. The story of the varying fortunes of “the self”-from the ultimate reality to something like an illusion-has been brilliantly recounted in a book by Robert Solomon titled Continental Philosophy since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self.

The place of Emmanuel Levinas in this story, and in particular in the development of postmodern thought, is interesting. On the one hand, he accepts much of the postmodern critique of the philosophical tradition including its questioning of a certain view of the self-namely, the view identifying the self as an entity “who would be a substantial or mastering center of meaning, an idealist, self-sufficient cogito” (“Dialogue” 27). Yet he also rejects some versions of postmodernism as ironically retaining what is most problematic in that tradition, especially the tendency to “totalize”: to reduce all that manifests itself to a single reality or process that can be encompassed by the contemplating vision of the philosophical observer. Thus, Levinas objects not only to traditional monisms, such as Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, but also to Heidegger’s reduction of everything to impersonal Being (with a capital “B”), a process of continual manifestation and disappearance that swallows up all individual entities. Levinas even suggests that to reduce all of reality to a free play of differences, as his friend Jacques Derrida appears to do, amounts to much the same thing. Levinas proposes instead that existence arises from the irreducible relation between the Same and the Other. We can roughly identify “the Same” with “the self”-that is, with my experience, my consciousness, my existence. When Levinas writes of “the Other,” he means above all the personal other, the other person. He notes, in fact, that while I can eliminate or negate the otherness of most of what is outside of myself (by reducing it to my possession or an element of my thought), I cannot successfully do that with another person. “While the object is integrated into the identity of the Same,” he writes, “the Other [who is not merely an object] manifests [himself] by the absolute resistance of [his] defenceless eyes” (“Signature” 294). The Other “disturbs [my] being at home with [myself]. . . . Over him I have no power. He escapes my grasp by an essential dimension, even if I have him at my disposal. He is not wholly in my site” (Totality 39). The Other is infinite in the sense that I cannot put bounds on him, cannot bring him under my control or reduce him to a concept. The Other thus remains absolutely other.