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International Conference "Levinas in Jerusalem. Philosophical Interpretations and Religious Perspectives" (The Hebrew University, May 20-23, 2002).


Hic et nunc: Place and Subjectivity in Emmanuel Levinas' First Works


Joëlle Hansel


The Hebrew University of Jerusalem



Hic and nunc: here and now, without delay and in this very place - or of action which comes to mind and imposes itself with all its haste upon the mind. By giving this title to the last section of Difficult Freedom, Levinas adhered to the line of the philosophers he was closest to: Descartes and action which does not wait while theory equivocates; Jankelevitch and the decision - the `mortal leap' (salto mortale)- on which depends that which is more precious than life itself, and constitutes human dignity. He was aligning himself with all those for whom philosophical thought, instead of floating in the clouds, is always located in a place; namely, concrete existence and ethics. By using the term `here and now', Levinas was highlighting the special relationship linking subject to place. Being placed, located, situated, existing in a `here', and not just anywhere: the `here-ness' or the fact of existing in a specific place and not an undifferentiated space is related to the very humanity of man.


In his later works, Levinas views space within the framework of his ethical metaphysics. Resisting the temptations and mirages of utopia, Levinas defines space as the `here-below' where I am responsible for the other. This is the lesson to be learned from an article in Difficult Freedom, "Place and Utopia"[1] where attachment to a place is the sine qua non condition for ethical action.


Written in 1950, this article is already suggestive of Levinas' philosophical doctrine as he would present it some ten years later in Totality and Infinity. The humanity of man - the theme that haunts his pre-philosophical experiences of his childhood - appears here in the guise of responsibility for the other. In this context, the relationship to place is conceived of in terms of the relationship to the other.


The perspective adopted by Levinas in his first writings is very different. In the texts that date from the middle 1930s to the immediate post-war period - from De l'Evasion to Existence and Existants - there is no mention as yet of a subject in the service of the other. On the contrary: attempting to escape from the untenable situation where the I is `riveted' to Being, Levinas sought those conditions which would make the emergence of subjectivity possible. Hence the obligation, for the reader familiar with later works, to perform a veritable gaze shift: not towards the other, but towards the self. This also involves a concept of subjectivity that is confined to idealism and solipsism: far from being initially for the other, the self is first of all and above all for itself, solitary, and to a certain extent, free and its own master.


Present in the works of the 1930s, and in particular in De l'Evasion, this theme still dominates Existence and Existants, which was published in 1947. In Levinasian terms, before covering the distance separating the existant - the lone subject - from the other, one must first go from existence to the existant.[2]  In these early writings, where the imperative is to `exit from Being', the topic of relationships with the other remains secondary. As one option out of many, the affirmation of subjectivity little by little emerged as the royal road. From then on, being human is first of all being oneself and for oneself, imprinting on existence a personal mark, and affirming oneself as an existant, positioning oneself as subject.


My talk on place and `here' deals with this solitary self and this view of the humanity of man. On the basis of a reading of Levinas' early writings - De l'Evasion, Existence and Existants, and other less well-known works-, I will discuss the following issues: What role does the relationship to place - the fact of being placed, situated, localized—play in the emergence of subjectivity? In what way is the `here' and not only the `now' a privileged mode of presence to oneself? Why - and using terms I will explain later on- before being de-posed by the other, is the subject first of all a being who poses himself and even re-poses?


The theme of `place' and `here' is central to Existence and Existants. In the preface, Levinas explains that his `study is a preparatory one'. As such, it `examines a certain number of broader research topics concerning the problem of Good, time, and the relationship with the other as a movement toward the Good." In one way, Existence and Existants serves as a propedeutic to Levinas' future work, to what is now generally called his `ethical metaphysics'. The structure of the work itself testifies to this, in that there is a movement that leads from the `there is' - or existence - to the existant, and from the existant to the other. Thus, Existence and Existants can be seen as the beginning of the era of otherness and ethics which would reach its high point with the publication of Totality and Infinity, then Otherwise than Being or beyond Essence. However, there is a second perspective possible. A little later in the preface Levinas adds that he has brought together in his book, " a set of studies which, although begun before the war, were continued and for the most part written in captivity." Thus Existence and Existants can also be seen as the continuation of writings that predate it.


This is the point of view I will take, viewing Existence and Existants as the endpoint of a path begun in De l'Evasion, as well as several other texts which appeared ten or so years earlier.


At the end of De l'Evasion, Levinas mentions a `new path' which would make it possible to `go beyond Being' and hence to succeed where Western philosophy had failed. Nevertheless, the reader who had followed his arguments on the `brutal fact' of Being to which one is `riveted' remains unsatisfied: Levinas does not provide the clues to solve the mystery, and does not say what this `new path' consists of. Far from being an escape, which would consist of going somewhere, the evasion Levinas calls for does not lead to any specific place. The prime feature is evasion itself, the exit from Being.

As regards this point, Existence and Existants provides a response to questions that remained unanswered in De l'Evasion: the `new path' which exits radically from Being turns into the path which first leads to myself before leading to the other. This is how the event that Levinas terms `hypostasis' takes place, which heralds the emergence of an existant outside of anonymous existing.


The position of an existant or a subject within Being is hence the key issue to which Levinas devotes the greater part of Existence and Existants. This subject is not pure spirit but an existant, and which, as such, is `here' in a specific defined place. Localization is not only subjective but constitutes, as Levinas writes, `the subjectivation of the subject'.[3] The importance ascribed by Levinas to this localization of subjectivity can be better grasped in the light of the issue which is dealt with in two of his first writings: De l'Evasion, which I already mentioned, and a much less well- known text, a review which Levinas wrote in 1934 of a book by Louis Lavelle, entitled La Presence totale.


Idealism or ontology? This was the alternative facing Levinas as well as many of his contemporaries in the 1930s. This alternative resulted in clashes with Cassirer and Heidegger in 1929 during the famous encounter at Davos, that Levinas and other young students parodied. On the one hand, the old world and western philosophical tradition, on the other, the new world and the idea of Being. Beyond these categories in the history of philosophy, the problem Levinas was grappling with was the following: how is it possible to give priority to Being without at the same time renouncing subjectivity? Or to reverse things, how is it possible to claim rights for subjectivity without acknowledging the fact of existence that precedes all thought? Or further, how is it possible "to abandon the climate of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger" - an ontology without a subject - without "falling back into a pre-Heideggerian philosophy"[4]- in an idealism forgetful of the fact that there is being?


This problem constitutes an aporia, if we follow the reasoning in De l'Evasion. Confronted with what Levinas calls "ontologism', idealism, or - what comes down to the same thing - Western philosophy- has not succeeded in `bypassing being'. On the contrary: the failure of the idealist revolt against the thought of Being is due to its own, perhaps unwitting involvement in ontologism. By viewing the I as sufficient to itself, idealism defined the I along in terms of a self-affirmatory being, without reference to anything else. "Of the being which is", as Levinas stresses.


Because of their astonishing convergence, idealism and ontologism both emerge as impracticable. To escape from this dead-end, a new path must be hewed by elaborating an ontology that leaves room for a subject which is conceived of, nevertheless, as an existant.


This possibility is precisely what Levinas believes is hinted at in La Presence totale, by Louis Lavelle. Levinas' review appears in an article published in Recherches philosophiques in 1934. It is quite possible that this book and its author, who was very influential at the time, mean nothing to most of you. There is nothing to be ashamed of since Lavelle has not been mandatory reading for French academics and intellectuals for years. I personally admit that I really discovered this thinker when I read Levinas' article - and after a long hunt for a copy of the book.


In his review of La Presence totale, Levinas takes classic idealism and Heideggerian ontology to task. Whereas idealism has maneuvered to ignore the `weight', the `gravity' and the `volume' of existence, ontology leaves man to despair, by conceiving him as a sort of `finished being, bounded absolutely, in other words isolated, left to his own doings, but powerless to escape from his own isolation.'


Given the errors of these two schools of thought, the originality of Lavelle's philosophy consists, as Levinas himself says, "in a new conception of the relationships between man and being, both contrary to idealism which posits thought before being, and modern German philosophy which locks man into a finite being." To better understand these ideas, it is worth taking a brief look at Louis Lavelle's book. In La Presence totale, Lavelle starts by dealing with the prime experience of the total presence of Being, or in his own words "a primal experience which is involved in all others, and which gives each of them its gravity and depth." An experience by which we are `on an equal footing with the total Being.' This is the main idea of Lavelle's book, as Levinas reads it: what is present in a total and absolute manner, is clearly Being itself, and not things. This said, there is no question of an anonymous presence, or the simple fact of existing - the fact that there is a Being, an existence without an existant, without a subject. On the contrary, Being is always related to an I. As Levinas writes, "the subject" -and not Being in general- "is". Better still,  the primal experience described by Lavelle is that of the total presence of Being to a conscience which, through its "participation" to it, constitutes itself as a person and as freedom.


 On the basis of these considerations, Levinas contrasts the `renaissance of ontology' championed by `modern German philosophers' to a way of thinking about Being which, while seeing man as an existant and not pure spirit, does not exclude the subject or conscience. Reading this review more than sixty years later, one can only be struck to what extent Heidegger's "fundamental ontology" eclipsed - and Levinas doubtless played a part in it - other ways of conceptualizing the relationship of man to Being, or in other words: this `French ontology' (this "ontologie à la française") which flourished in the 1930s under Louis Lavelle, Gabriel Marcel, Etienne Gilson and doubtless many others who today have been forgotten. An ontology which, while using a language and a style that today may appear old fashioned, defended a certain idea of the individual who, existing before being a thinking being, nonetheless remains, fundamentally, a subject.


Despite his praise of Lavelle's work, Levinas cannot be seen as one of the "French ontologists' for at least two reasons. First of all, while rejecting the Heideggerian concept of temporality, he refuses to follow Lavelle's reasoning completely. As he points out "victory over time is an exit out of time", towards the non-temporal present, the image of eternity. While expressing the need for evasion, Levinas never viewed the exit from Being as an exit out of time.


Secondly, in contrast to Lavelle, the initial relationship with Being was never defined by Levinas as an enriching experience which would be formative for the human being and from which he would derive his dignity. On this point, Levinas' mentions of the `brutal fact of Being' or the `There is' provide a rebuke to both Lavelle and Heidegger.[5]


After this examination of Levinas' writings in the 1930s, I will now turn to Existence and Existants. Although the topic of evasion had been abandoned by this time, the exit from Being remained crucial for Levinasian thought. I have already referred to the solution which Existence and Existants proposed for the unresolved question of De l'Evasion: hypostasis enables a `position in Being', in the anonymous existence or in the `there is', of an existant.


To the extent that the subject is an existant and not a pure spirit, place is the condition which renders the exit from Being, and the coming of subjectivity possible. This is what emerges from passages in which Levinas develops the following argument: existing does not first of all signify being-in-the-world, but rather being posed, localized, situated somewhere; hence, `here' cannot be reduced to the Heideggerian "Da" of the Dasein which already implies the world.


By explicitly opposing `idealism which has accustomed us to locate thought outside of space', Levinas wishes to stress a crucial point: `thought is essentially, and not as the result of a fall or a degradation- here'.  This is why "thought, which spreads instantaneously into the world, retains the possibility of collecting itself into the here, from which it never detached itself."[6]


This reversal is interesting, in particular if we compare Levinas' statements with what Hegel said about `here' in the Phenomenology of Mind. Although these two thinkers both elevated this ordinary term to the rank of philosophical category, they had very different views of it. For Hegel, `here' belongs to the level of `sense certainty' which is only a first and highly elementary level in the Odysses of the spirit. It is an elementary phase which in any case must be subsumed, while only preserving its most universal features.


In contrast, while assigning `here' the attributes of origin, Levinas in no way views it as a primitive state, but rather as the `base' or `condition' without which conscience cannot arise. As ethereal as it may be, thought is never detached from the `here'; our bodies testify to the localization of thought. Thus, as Levinas notes with a touch of humor: conscience is precisely the fact that the impersonal and uninterrupted affirmation of `eternal truths' can become simply a thought, that is, "can […] begin or end in a head."  In other words, instead of floating freely in the airs, as it has often been accused of doing, thought is located somewhere, in a head, and even in a body.


Far from being foreign to the I, body and place thus play a prime role in the exercise of thought. Apparently this is far removed from Descartes and the crucial dualism between soul and body, the res cogitans ("thinking thing") and the res extensa ("extended thing"). Levinas himself underscores the distance separating him from Descartes by rigorously differentiating place from geometric space: place is not a coordinate or a fixed point in a predefined space, but rather this primal event which constitutes the position or the localization of a conscience, of a subject. In contradistinction to the undifferentiated nocturnal space in which Levinas sees the figure of the `there is' - a space where nothing can be identified any longer and which is only reduced to a "swarming of points"[7]- the possibility of being localized, of being `somewhere' makes possible the emergence of an existant. It also gives to the event of localization the attribute of birth, of point of departure and origin.


This said, Levinas valued Descartes' work and he referred to it often. Well before the idea of the Infinite in the I, this affinity is expressed in Existence and Existants by a reinterpretation of the Cartesian cogito. In his review of Louis Lavelle's book, Levinas raises the question of the "real meaning of the exceptional situation revealed by the Cartesian cogito." In Existence and Existants he looks at the familiar theme of cogito in a new light. For Levinas, the well-known Cartesian formula " I am a thinking thing" means specifically that `thought is substance' and that it is something that is posited. By drawing from the notion of substance the idea of "stance", or position, Levinas once again highlights the fact that far from being a mere accident due to its union with the body, localization is formative of conscience.


It would be contrary to Levinas' spirit to stay on the theoretical level without dealing with the concrete situation in which this position in Being, this localization, is experienced. Here we can fully appreciate the distance separating Levinas from idealism or the Western philosophical tradition that gave birth to subjectivity. In Levinas' view, sleep - and not the waking state - is that special state where the sleeping subject is posited, localized and hence removed from the anonymous vigilance of insomnia, the figure of the `there is'. Thus, the exit from anonymous existence or the `there is' does not give immediate access to being or the lucidity of conscience. It requires the transition through sleep where paradoxically, the work of the subject's being consists of a hesitation to be, or even a sort of suspension of being which Levinas terms "epochè'.


This approach characterizes Levinasian thought, which while adopting - at least until Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, -- the language and method of ontology, was afflicted early on with an incurable allergy to Being. An allergy which Jonas "the hero of impossible escapes" may also have suffered from, who as Levinas points out, "observing in the midst of the raging elements the failure of his flight and the fatality of his mission, climbs down into the hold of the ship and goes to sleep."


Praise of sleep appears in one of the most beautiful passages of Existence and Existants, which I would like to quote:



"Sleep reestablishes a relationship with a place qua base. In lying down, in curling up in a corner to sleep, we abandon ourselves to a place; qua base it becomes our refuge. Then all our work of being consists in resting. Sleep is like entering into contact with the protective forces of a place; to seek sleep is to gropingly seek that contact. When one wakes up one finds oneself shut up in one's immobility like an egg in its shell. This surrender to a base which also offers refuge constitutes sleep, in which a being, without being destroyed, is suspended."[8]


Before being de-posed by the other, before being ex-posed to the silent call of his face, the subject is hence a being who poses himself, and may even re-pose himself.


[1] First published in Evidences, in 1950.

[2] See  Difficult Freedom," Signature", "from existence to the existant, and from the existant to the other".



[5]  See the numerous instances where Levinas differentiates the `there is' from `es gibt', in particular in the preface to the second edition of De l'Existence à l'existant.

[6] English translation page 68

[7] EE 59.

[8] EE 119