Underneath the stifling sameness of life in Coketown, England, where Charles Dickens sets his novel Hard Times (1854), the narrator affirms the “unfathomable mystery” and dignity of human beings in this magnificent passage:
So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hated, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomably mystery in the meanest of them, for ever. – Supposing we were to reverse our arithmetic for material objects, and to govern these awful unknown quantities by other means!
Even Mr Gradgrind – a calculator of all things under the sun – finds that he cannot quantify the special otherness of Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a circus entertainer:
He really liked Sissy too well to have a contempt for her; otherwise he held her calculating powers in such very slight estimation that he must have fallen upon that conclusion. Somehow or other, he had become possessed by an idea that there was something in this girl which could hardly be set forth in a tabular form. Her capacity of definition might be easily stated at a very low figure, her mathematical knowledge at nothing; yet he was not sure that if he had been required, for example to tick her off into columns in parliamentary return, he would have quite known how to divide her.
If Mr Gradgrind had met the 20th century Continental philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, he might understand why humans defy tabular form. Séan Hand, who edited The Levinas Reader, describes his major contribution:
Totality and Infinity is the book which most explicitly criticizes the totalizing vision of previous philosophical systems in the West. In it Levinas rejects the synthesizing of phenomena in favor of a thought that is open to the face of the other. The term ‘face’ here denotes the way in which the presentation of the other to me exceeds all idea of the other in me. The proximity of this face-to-face relation cannot be subsumed into a totality; rather, it concretely produces a relation to the commandment and judgment of infinity. The face thus signifies the philosophical priority of the existent over Being. My presence before the face is therefore an epiphany. It creates an asymmetrical indebtedness on my part towards the Other’s moral summons which is based not on a prior knowledge or Jemeinigkeit, but on the primacy of the other’s right to exist, and on the edict: ‘You shall not kill.’ This commandment undermines the conatus essendi that bases itself on an appeal to nature. Ethics arises from the presence of infinity within the human situation, which from the beginning summons and puts me into question in a manner that recalls Descartes’ remark in his third Meditation that ‘in some way I have in me the notion of the infinite earlier than the finite.’ Consequently to be oneself is to be for the other.
Levinas summarizes this fundamental point in an article entitled “Beyond Intentionality”:
The sense of the human is not to be measured by presence, not even by self-presence. The meaning of proximity exceeds the limits of ontology, of the human essence, and of the world. It signifies by way of transcendence and the relationship-to-God-in-me which is the putting of myself into question. The face signifies in the fact of summoning, of summoning me – in its nudity or its destitution, in everything that is precarious in questioning, in all the hazards of mortality – to the unresolved alternative between Being and Nothing, a questioning which, ipso facto, summons me.
The Infinite in its absolute difference withholds itself from presence in me; the Infinite does not come to meet me in a contemporaneousness like that in which noesis and noema meet simultaneously together, nor in the way in which the interlocutors responding to one another may meet. The Infinite is not indifferent to me. It is in calling me to other men that transcendence concerns me. In this unique intrigue of transcendence, the non-absence of the Infinite is neither presence, nor re-presentation. Instead, the idea of the Infinite is to be found in my responsibility for the Other.
- conatus essendi: the struggle of living
- Jemeinigkeit: always-being-my-own-being
- noesis: in Husserl, the subjective aspect of or the act in an intentional experience –distinguished from noema
- noema: in Husserl, the objective aspect of or the content within an intentional experience – distinguished from noesis