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Phenomenology 2005

Volume 5, Issue Part 1, 2007

Selected Essays from North America Part 1

Richard Cohen
Pages 163-198

Levinas: Thinking Least about Death: Contra Heidegger

Philosophers have traditionally aimed to die in life. From Socrates who argued that death was nothing to Spinoza who claimed “to think of death least of all things,” the “life” of the mind was an escape from the death of the body. In a sharp break from this tradition, Martin Heidegger in the groundbreaking phenomenological-ontology of Being and Time (1927), and thereafter, made death—as a person’s anxious ”being-toward-death”— the basic revelatory structure, the very self-understanding of the human person. As such, it is for Heidegger the privileged access to being’s historical revelation of itself to itself. Emmanuel Levinas, in independent and, as this essay shows, deeper phenomenological studies, fundamentally criticizes and rejects Heidegger’s vision. This is because without turning back to an escape into the eternal he discovers in human mortality and suffering a completely different meaning: the moral primacy of caring for the mortality of the other person before my own mortality, up to the point of “dying for” the other person and, even beyond this personal extremity, to the point of caring for the justice of the world “beyond my own death.” These meanings—whose exigency transcends a purely phenomenological science yet remain bound to human sociality—re irreducibly ethical. As such, as imperatives of greater and higher bearing than the call to ontological thinking, they impose the demands of ethics as “first philosophy.”

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