The Absolute

Cohen, Rosenzweig, Levinas: Infinite Ethics
  • Martin C. Srajek
Part of the Contributions To Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 32)


We have used the name of God several times in the last chapter. And although we have, in a phenomenological way, established how that God relates to both the text and humanity, we have said little if anything about what this name signifies. In Levinas’ approach to devising a Jewish ethics around the concept of “espace vitale” the status of God is framed by an intense monotheism. This means that for Levinas God is both the only God and the God that dwells in absolute difference. Out of this monotheistic conception grow the epistemological principles that inform our understanding of God and this conception consequently also is at the basis of Levinas’ Jewish ethics. In what follows I will trace Levinas’ monotheism back to Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig. I will demonstrate the function that monotheism has in their systems and the return to Levinas to specify his conception of God and ethics.


Moral Action Ethical Action Negative Judgment Infinite Space Negative Theology 
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  1. 1.
    The term “metaphysical” needs some further explaining I have chosen it since universal applicability cannot be thought other than above the physical. I am aware of the risk of such terminology being reappropriated by onto-theology. But it seems to me that knowing that risk is sufficient protection. I am, furthermore, not quite alone with my choice of this term. Bernard Forthomme promises La métaphysique d’Emmanuel Lévinas in the subtitle of his book Une Philosophie de la Transcendance: La métaphysique d’Emmanuel Lévinas. He believes that “la métaphysique de Lévinas s‘élève radicalement contre l’écimage de la pensée contemporaine où domine, sans conteste, la dimension d’horizontalité: chez lui, la déhiscence verticale s‘avère préoriginelle ou pré-archique.” (p. 170) He understands this vertical dimension to be given as “le désir métaphysique de l’Autre” (Ibid). Forthomme insists that “chez Lévinas évidemment, la hauteur reçoit un statut métaphysique et celle ne peut en aucun cas être réduite à une expérience de la hauteur comme expérience de la verticale du corps lui-même.” (p. 175) Based on these observations about Levinas’ concept of the other and the face Forthomme announces a “métaphysique du visage” in Levinas’s work which “doit être absolument distinguée d’une réflexion philosophique sur la physiononmie ou l’expressivité humaine.”(p. 175) In other words, the face turns into a criterion of metaphysical character in a way that emphasizes absolute transcendence or, as Forthomme calls it, “transascendance.” On the back of the book Levinas himself comments on Forthomme’s efforts: “Ses pages sur le visage—sur la “métaphysique du visage,” sur la possibilité de la métaphysique qui ne serait pas une onto-théologie—qui ne serait pas ontologie, mais “au de-la de l’être”—sont vigoureuses et pénétrantes.”Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Robert Gibbs pointed out to me that the notion of grounding is problematic in Levinas vis-a-vis the latter’s attempts to shatter a philosophy that is based on the unity of substance and an understanding of the world as the result of the ontological difference, i.e. as derived from that substance. It seems to me, however, that one cannot ignore the strong grounding implications that inform Levinas’ work. Especially his descriptions of the subject in a state of a passivity, more passive than any passivity, indicate the proximity of an arché that can never be made present through questioning, i.e., that is unavailable to any process of objectification. Bernhard Casper seems to be saying the same when in his essay “Denken im Angesicht des Anderen: Zur Einführung in das Denken von Emmanuel Levinas,” in Verantwortung für den Anderen: Zum Werk von Emmanuel Levinas, p. 26 he asks: “Aber ist dies [”être autage pour autrui”] nicht in der tat die Grundsituation des Menschen in der Geschichte? Die Grundsituation, die freilich erst heute ganz offenbar wird? Ist unsere Grundsituation in die sich dann überhaupt erst alles andere einträgt und von der alles andere abhängt, nicht wirklich die, daß jeder von uns von dem anderen Menschen, den wir töten können und doch nicht töten können, ausgegangen ist?” And a little later (pp. 30-31) he acknowledges “daß [wir] mit aller geistigen Archäologie, mit allem Graben nach Gründen, der primordialen Situation des Uns-inder-Verantwortung-Findens nicht auf den Grund kommen [können]. Vielmehr finden wir uns als Menschen in der Verantwortung für den Anderen immer schon vor.” Casper is introducing here the crucial distinction between a grounding and an epistemologically accessible grounding. Levinas, in Casper’s reading, denies the possibility of the latter but certainly subscribes to the former. Still, Gibbs’ contention is necessary, since it marks the difficult path that Levinas is trying to find between a thinking of substance that would just reinforce hierarchy and a thinking of non-substance that does maintain responsibility.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    An interesting side-aspect of this issue is the question if Levinas’ rejection of totality also means a rejection of theory. On that question confer Wayne Floyd Jr., “To Welcome the Other: Totality and Theory in Levinas and Adorno,” and Alphonso Lingis, “The Origin of Infinity,” Research in Phenomenology, pp. 27-45. Both authors hold that Levinas is seeking to give a new face to theory in the sense of a methodology that does not totalize, i.e. understand the world as grounded in Being. Floyd argues that one cannot just substitute ethics for epistemology and instead suggests to reinvestigate the possibilities of a theory along the lines of Adorno’s Critical Theory, i.e., a theory that will continually question and undermine itself, in order to avoid the amalgamation effect which inheres in traditional theory.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For a closer analysis of the question of the origin of the infinite confer Alphonso Lingis, “The Origin of Infinity.” Lingis shows that there is a difference between “openess in being” and its being “thematized with the idea of infinity.” Thematized infinity virtually destroys openness and replaces it with a concept of pretentious epistemological access. Lingis emphasizes that it is precisely that kind of access that we do not have. He instead suggests that Husseri’s concept of the horizon stands for the openness into which all finite thinking eventually loses itself, into which it disappears. Lingis understands this horizon as an eternal future from which the present issues forth. There is thus a parallel to Levinas’ thinking here in the fact that the present is not something self-given, as for instance in Husserl, but given by an other. However, Levinas’ other is located in the past not in the future. Furthermore, Lingis emphasizes that in his model the present is possible through an “Es gibt” inherent in the future. He thus chooses to focus on a term first coined by Heidegger and explicitly rejected by Levinas. It must remain unanswered if Levinas might agree to a formulation of the “es gibt” that centers around the giving of the present by the other instead of expressing the inevitability of Being.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    René Descartes, Discourse on Method: An Other Writings, trsl. and introduced by Arthur Wollaston, pp. 117–134.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Descartes, Discourse, p. 127.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Emmanuel Levinas, “God and Philosophy,” trsl. by Richard A. Cohen and Alphonso Lingis, The Levinas Reader, “Dieu et la philosophie,” (henceforth referred to as ”God, p. French/English”), P. 106/187, note 5.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    God, p. 105/173.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Hegel, so quoted in Emmanuel Levinas, “Ideology and Idealism,” Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice, ed. by Marvin Fox, p. 129.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Obviously, not every Jewish philosopher or theologian understands monotheism in this radical way. I am, in particular, refering to Cohen, when I say monotheism, since it is Cohen with whom Levinas is in dialogue. However, monotheism has always been a question or problem within the realm of Jewish philosophy and it seems to me that it is in that sense that Cohen, Rosenzweig and Levinas are treating it. On the question of monotheism in Jewish Philosophy cf. Norbert Samuelson, “The Concept of Worship in Judaism,” paper given at the Academy for Jewish Philosophy. Samuelson shows that the form of monotheism that one can find in modern Jewish philosophy mainly derives from the thought of Moses Maimonides. It is, however, not necessarily representative of the concept of the deity in classical Jewish philosophy. Samuelson writes: “While Maimonides’ philosophical/theological judgements had an authority among subsequent generations of rabbinic thinkers equalled by no other rabbi, his radical version of negative theology was the single most unrepresentative [my italics] expression of how classical Jewish philosophers interpreted biblical statements about God” (p.4). However, for the lineage of Jewish philosophy that goes back to Maimonides (and Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Levinas belong to that lineage) the main paradigm for the relationship between humans and God was given as knowledge. Thus we can see that among Jewish Aristotelians prevailed a primacy of epistemology that also became formative in the area of modern Jewish philosophy. The difference between the two areas consists in the fact that whereas classical Judaism mainly sought to explain the relationship epistemologically, modern Judaism added the criterion of the ethical to it. In both cases it is God’s infinity that prevents humans from actually reaching God through either epistemology or ethics. In a conversation Edith Wyschogrod objected to the connection between Levinas and Maimonides, saying that “Maimonides’ Aristotelianism would be far more removed from Levinas” and that the latter has more of a Kantian agenda. This remark is crucial since it reflects an ambiguity in Maimonides’ thinking. On the one hand, Maimonides believes, in response to Jewish and Islamic mysticism, that only philosophy can guide human beings in truly understanding God. On the other hand, he is also the one who is acutely aware of the limits of reason that confront human beings if they try to understand God. It is the latter aspect, I believe, that makes it possible to emphasize the Kantian agenda in both Levinas and, retrospectively, also in Maimonides. His and probably also Levinas’ point is that reason is not sufficient, and that something else will have to happen for me to understand the other, and God.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Two relatively short essays that deal with the relationship between Levinas and Rosenzweig and Levinas and Cohen are Wayne Floyd, paper given at the AAR, and Edith Wyschogrod, “The Moral Self: Emmanuel Levinas and Hermann Cohen,” Daat:a Journal of Philosophy, pp. 35-58. Wyschogrod argues that Levinas is “in significant conversation with Cohen’s thinking” (p. 36) although in some cases he and Levinas also show significant differences. The latter, according to Wyschogrod, can be seen most clearly, if one examines Cohen’s ontology as well as his view on totality. Both concepts are, as is well known, critical for Levinas, since he charges them with bearing most of the violence of the philosophical tradition of the West. Wyschogrod notes that for Cohen it is precisely the inequities between different human beings, their social differences, that have to disappear in order for there to be a just society. Levinas, although certainly critical of socio-economic differences, would maintain that, in an epistemological sense, differences, viz. the difference between the other and me, are of tremendous import. This leads on to the second point. For Cohen the question is how one can gain an authentic self, an ‘I’. For Levinas, on the other hand, the question is how I can truly perceive the other. In other words, what is an interim stage on my way to an authentic self, in Cohen, is the final (and beginning stage) in Levinas. The ethical, for Levinas, is nothing that can be developed, but is something that precedes everything that appears (p. 53). Wyschogrod ends her essay by focusing on the concept of the infinite in Cohen and Levinas. She states that it is the infinite that provides both Cohen’s and Levinas’ philosophies with “the open-endedness of the moral realm which gives the self its meaning” (p. 58). The claim that involves the logic of the infinite will be further developed in this chapter.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Hermann Cohen, Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums, trsl. by Simon Kaplan, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, henceforth referred to as “Religion, p. German/English”) p. 122/105. “Die Vereinigung ist keinerlei sachliche Verbindung.” This is, in any case, a very obscure way of putting it. The choice of the term “Vereinigung” to shed light on the character of the correlative connection is, at best, half-hearted. “Vereinigung,” more than any other word, esp. more than the word “Verbindung,” expresses exactly the oneness (“Ver-ein-igung”) of the two correlatve terms. Cohen thus, by choosing this term, plunges right into the affirmation of an “All”, i.e., a unitary togetherness between world and God that seems odd given his utter precaution with the concept of the unique God at the outset of the Religion The term “Verbindung,” on the other hand, expresses a binding (”Ver-bind-ung;” “Band” (Germ.): string, rope) of two separate ends. It thus would indicate, if Cohen means what he first stipulates so cautiosuly about the unique God, the type of relationship between world and God so much more appropriately.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    God, p. 124/107.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Religion, p. 119/102; Cohen initially interprets the act of self-sanctification on the part of humans to be a defense against the power of sin. We will see later that he is less certain about this origin than it might seem to be the case in this passage.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Cohen develops this method as a critical response to any pantheistic concept of God and world.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Cohen assumes the Parmenidean conception of being as eternal, infinite and unchangeable. He equates God with Parmenides’ being and becoming with the world.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Religion, pp. 241–242/207Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    For the following discussion cf. Hermann Cohen, Logik der Reinen Erkenntnis “Die Urteile der Denkgesetze,” henceforth referred to as “Urteile”, pp. 79–120.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Cohen argues that proclaiming God’s oneness will not suffice to characterize God. Though this term would sufficiently separate God from the polytheistic notion of a multiplicity of Gods, it fails to account for the fact that polytheism also has a penchant for God’s representing nature. The Jewish God, Cohen argues, cannot be brought into touch with nature in that fashion. God has being in the sense layed out by Parmenides, i.e., that nothing else has being; he characterizes Being as eternal, unchangeable and infinite (”unendlich”). God and nature cannot mix or blend in with each other, yet, and that is the crucial point in Cohen, somehow the world is supposed to show the fullness of God. Hence the question is, how can the infinite show itself in the finite?Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Religion, p. 116/100. The literal translation of the term “Entwicklung” would really be “unwinding” or “unwraping.” This sense also is retained in the English term “development” if we remember that its Latin root-word, “velo”, actually means “to wrap.” The prefix “de-” thus expresses the negation of “to wrap.” The importance of the term “Entwicklung” comes less from its wraping derivative than it comes from the translation that uses the word “unwinding.” In this sense “Entwicklung” is very close to the Hegelian unfolding, suggesting a type of change that does not change the essence of what is changing.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    I am using the German “unendliche Aufgabe” instead of the English “infinite task” because the former does not only express the infinite and processual elements of this relationship but also the initial passivity on part of the humans expressed in the word “Aufgabe.” “Aufgabe,” literally translated, means “on-giving.” “Aufgabe” suggests that something is given on to me by an other. It thus suggests a non-reciprocal (passive-active) relationship which is crucial for the concept that Cohen tries to employ. Alphonso Lingis points out that also for Husserl “subjectivity becomes authentic, becomes authentically itself, attains the highest sort of life possible for it, in opening upon an infinite time, time of infinite tasks [my italics] (“The Origin of Infinity,” p. 42). This shows that at least potentially there is a Jewish-Neo-Kantian lineage that goes from Cohen through Husserl to Levinas. This would explain much of Levinas’ “Cohenianisms” and, simultaneously take into consideration that Levinas never studied Cohen extensively.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Religion, p. 73/64.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Z. Diesendruck, “Maimonides’ Theory of the Negation of Privation,” PAAJR, p. 142: “[If privations only were employed to describe the nature of God]… the concept would be free of corporeality, plurality and all the rest of the anthropomorphistic elements but it would also be empty of all that which gives meaning to it altogether.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Urteile, p. 92.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Cp. Urteile, p. 93: “Das Nichtsein ist nicht etwa ein Korrelativbegriff zum Sein; sondern das relative Nichts bezeichnet nur das Schwungbrett, mit dem der Sprung kraft der Kontinuität ausgeführt werden soll.”Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Urteile. This translation is odd because in English as well as in German we only know of “Sprungbrett” (”springboard”). That Cohen uses “Schwung” rather than ”Sprung” indicates his emphasis on the logical energy that derives form the relative nothing. The word “Schwung” in German has the connotations of élan, flexibility, elasticity, activity. One needs “Schwung” to do a “Sprung.”Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Religion, pp. 116–117/100.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Ibid, p. 125/108.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Avoda Zarah 20.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Religion, p. 126/108.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Ibid, p. 124/107.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    That is the reason why in Spinoza’s works it is the multitude who is really free, for it is their ignorance of God’s omnipresence (as posited by Spinoza) that gives them choice.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Franz Rosenzweig, Stern, pp. 426–427/(my translation).Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    In other words, the mathematical definition of transitivity (a=b and b=c then a=c) is not valid in this case. Rather, Rosenzweig formulates the relationship as a=b and c=b.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Hallo translates “Schauen” as “perception.” This is insightful, since it emphasizes the epistemological quality of the word. Yet it is also limiting, since it takes away the more visual qualities that the word “Schauen” can have.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Stern, p. 439/(my translation).Google Scholar
  37. 37.
  38. 38.
    God, p. 95/168.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Ibid, p. 96/169.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Ibid, p. 96/168.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    The term “without” will play a more important role in some of the following chapters on Derrida. Suffice it here to say that “without” is a unique term equipped to express the peculiar notion of an inside that neither is nor is not the outside and an outside that neither is nor is not the inside. In Levinas’ case the same term serves to express the equally peculiar relationship between the finite and the infinite.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    This is precisely Derrida’s criticism of Levinas in “Violence and Metaphysics,” trsl. by Alan Bass, Writing and Difference, pp. 79-154. Unfortunately most people have not had the patience to read slowly through that essay and consequently criticize Derrida, unfairly, for reinventing a kind of dialectic that would leave nothing but play between the good and the bad, i.e. reinforce a frivolous relativism. But Derrida’s critique of Levinas stands, I believe. It is the simple observation that Levinas’ terminology of allegedly absolute concepts (the other, war, peace, etc.) is, in this absolute form, in-comprehensible. Only if one understands them in their privative value, i.e. infinite as the non-finite, other as the non-same, etc. will it be possible for the intricate relationship that these concepts have with their opposites to come to light. The question of a real absolute is left untouched because it could not be said.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Levinas is only doing what Kierkegaard did in the Philosophical Fragments, trsl. by David F. Swenson, when he speaks of the passion of thinking: What is that unknown which gives no rest to thinking and lets it get heated up in trying to grasp it? Like Kierkegaard, Levinas also equates this unknown with the divine.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Ood, pp. 105-6/174.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Ibid, p. 109/176.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    This also explains Levinas’ use of the term “passivity” or the even more emphatic “more passive than all passivity.” Until thought is infected with the idea of the infinite through recognition of its own finiteness, it remains inactive, passive. Only after this contagious event can thought become active and reach out for the infinite.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Note how this whole description of the infinite “dipping” into thought to effect the recognition of the latter’s finiteness has a clear likeness to God’s handling of the inert materials in the creation story. Levinas is repeating the creation story in philosophical terms.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Possibly, Levinas intended a deliberate parallel to Cohen’s and Rosenzweig’s idea of describing the relationship between God and Humans by way of an asymptotic function.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    God, p. 109/176.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    with this question, however, Levinas seems to be beating a dead horse, since a solution is not possible. The existence of this middle ground—or whether he will fall off the rope or not—can not be proved or shown. The question is merely rhetorical since Levinas will, of course, assert the existence of such a middle-ground on which his whole project is based. For the sake of this project I will here follow his assumptions about such a middle ground.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    God, p. 113/178.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Again Levinas works with Husserlian terminology. The noesis/noema structure becomes that of desire and the desirable. The change which Levinas suggests is that from the outside the object of desire can be moved. In Husserl’s noesis this step has to be taken by the ego itself. What Levinas works out, in other words, is that the desire/desirability structure is part of the noesis/ noema structure. In fact one can say that the latter always determines the functioning and direction of the former. Only a being, entity, etc. which is external to this structure will be able to break it. From the inside such a move must be impossible, since it would always again run up against the priority of its own desires.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    God, p. 114/179.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
  55. 55.
    Levinas, Autrement, p. 226/179.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Ibid, p. 226/180.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Levinas, Autrement Ibid, pp. 228–229/181.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    God, p. 105/174.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Ibid, p. 106/174.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Ibid, p. 125/185.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    E. Levinas, Difficile Liberté. “Jewish Thought Today,” Difficult Freedom, trsl. by Sean Hand, p. 159. (Henceforth referred to as “Difficile.”)Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Religion, p.105/91.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
  64. 64.
    Cp. René Descartes, “Meditations,” in Discourse, pp. 101ff.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    God, p. 107/175.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin C. Srajek
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignIllinoisUSA

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