Home > Philosophy > Levinas and the Wisdom of Love: The Question of Invisibility

Levinas and the Wisdom of Love: The Question of Invisibility

  • Author:  Corey Beals
  • ISBN 10: 1932792597
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press
  • Published: November 1, 2007
  • Pages: 180
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF
  • Price: $39.95

Directly challenging the prevailing interpretation, Corey Beals explores the ideas of twentieth-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of love, love’s relation to wisdom, and how love makes the Other visible to us. Distinguishing love from other types of wisdom, Beals argues that Levinas’s “wisdom of love” is a real possibility, one which grants priority to ethics over ontology.

It is widely acknowledged that Emmanuel Levinas’s central claim was the priority of the ethical relation over ontology. There is wide disagreement, however, as to what this means and as to whether it is possible, and if so, how it is possible. Some take Levinas to be saying that we must abandon philosophical wisdom, and others say that the type of wisdom that Levinas advocates is impossible. I will structure a discourse on these questions (and the host of questions that arise along the way) around a central saying of Levinas: “la philosophie: sagesse de l’amour au service de l’amour”1 (AE, 207) [philosophy is the wisdom of love at the service of love (OB, 162)].

In chapter 1, I will examine Levinas’s treatment of invisibility as a way to clarify the central questions that arise in relation to Levinas’s wisdom of love. The discussion of invisibility will give an overview of the varying interpretations of Levinas’s wisdom of love along with the various problems and objections facing each view. Looking at invisibility will set the scene for the subsequent analysis of Levinas’s “wisdom of love at the service of love.”

Then, in chapter 2, I will identify a vast number of terms related to the concepts in this phrase. I will address the terminology used by Levinas across his corpus and ask why he used the terms he did, and how that usage relates to his understanding of philosophy. After identifying this large set of terms related to wisdom and love, I will then ask how some of those terms are similar and how Levinas uses this nomenclature in a unique way. By providing groupings of terms with provisional definitions, I not only seek to bring some clarity to his difficult writing style, but I lay the groundwork for interpretive arguments made in later chapters.

In the next three chapters, I will focus on Levinas’s understanding of each of the key terms in that saying (chapter 3 is on ‘l’amour,’ chapter 4 is on ‘service,’ and chapter 5 is on ‘sagesse’) as a way of organizing my analysis of Levinas’s views on love, wisdom, and the priority relation of wisdom serving love. In chapter 3, I will focus on Levinas’s understanding of ‘love,’ with special attention given to the two types of love: desire (as a-satiable desire, or neighbor love) and need (as satiable desire, or self love). I will ask whether desire and need as Levinas uses the terms are irreducibly distinct, and if so, whether Levinas thought such a nonreductionist desire was possible. I will then ask if Levinas thought desire and need were compatible, and if so, in what way? I will press the question of how compatibilism of desire and need might be consistent with Levinas’s insistence upon the asymmetrical nature of desire, and argue for a nonreductionistic, asymmetrical compatibilism that is not just an impossible ideal, but a possible actuality.

In chapter 4, I will focus on Levinas’s understanding of the priority relationship Levinas uses when he says that philosophy is the wisdom of love at the service of love. I will examine the possibilities of chronological priority, logical priority, and finally, hierarchical priority. I will argue that he meant the latter but that the change in hierarchical priority he called for was not a mere reversal of hierarchy. I will introduce and defend a type of hierarchical priority that I call a ‘pacific inversion of priority.’ Such a view of priority, however, requires the important but often ignored distinction between authority and power.

In chapter 5, I will turn to Levinas’s understanding of wisdom. I will ask whether Levinas thought wisdom is possible and explain the conditions that Levinas saw as making wisdom not only possible but necessary. If wisdom is necessary, though, how is the wisdom of love Levinas highlights any different than other types of wisdom? The most important answer to that question is a question—Gyges’ question that asks, “Is it better to suffer or to inflict injustice?” Wisdom of love, I argue, yields a different answer to that question than wisdoms that trace their origin differently. Breaking Gyges’ secret and losing one’s invisibility is the heart of Levinas’s project, and rightly so, I argue. I turn to actual examples of wisdom answering Gyges’ question differently to demonstrate that not only is such a wisdom of love possible, but it is ordinary.

Finally, in chapter 6, the author will ask how the scale of wisdom is conducive to or undermining of a wisdom of love. Does the size of group or community in which we gather and associate have some important bearing on whether Gyges’ secret is protected or broken? I ask whether smaller scales of wisdom and justice might not be more conducive to wisdom of love than larger scales.

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