Objects in-the-World: Time and Exteriority in Husserl and Levinas

“To affirm the priority of Being over existents is already to decide the essence of philosophy.”

Levinas, Totality and Infinity

“Does not Being in general become the Being of “a being” by an inversion, by that event which is the present (and which shall be the principle theme of this book)?”

Levinas, Existence and Existents


It is common enough to say that we encounter objects in the world. But what occurs in this encounter? For Husserl, the ability to encounter objects is at the root of all consciousness: it underlies the intentional structure of thought. The principle of intentionality states that every instance of consciousness is a consciousness of something — that consciousness is always directed towards an object. For Husserl, this object is constituted temporally and, yet, its objectivity exists in tension with its temporal constitution. This tension exists because while time is necessary for the encounter with an object, it cannot capture an object’s full objectivity. As we will show, this proves that objects are not only their immanence; they open up to an infinite process of clarification, modification, and potentially self-contradiction. Thus, while objects are immanently accessible in temporal constitution, their full objectivity exceeds that immanence. What ultimately justifies an object, for Husserl, is rather the certainty of its presence to the transcendental ego, and this means that the transcendental ego, in its intentionality, is always self-consciously “overcommitted”[1] to the immanence which it intends. As we will see, this tension of overcommitment constitutes the very objectivity of objects in Husserl’s account. It also indicates that all objects are united by a common temporal structure that itself is necessary for their objectivity. As a result of their common temporality, whenever they are present, objects are also co-present with all other objects, and indeed, with and within the entire temporal framework of consciousness of the present. Objects, in other words, can only be encountered in the world.

For Levinas, however, this understanding underestimates the objectivity of objects.[2] While remaining faithful to the principle that time is the substrate of the encounter with an object, Levinas argues that the Cartesian principle of apodictic certainty forces the ego beyond the tension that Husserl reveals at the root of objectivity. Rather, it reveals a new dimension of time that Husserl neglected, and which, for Levinas, constitutes the basis of the subject-object encounter: the instant. In the encounter of the instant, the normal rules of temporality break down. A relationality is forged — or, rather, spontaneously realized — between the subject and object, which is different from the cognition that occurs in the spontaneity of Husserl’s time constitution.[3] This relationality does not rely on the transcendental ego, but stems from a different substratum of the subject: the subject that is fundamentally other to itself, that is desiring or open to violence. What takes place in this time is not available to memory, understood as a re-presentation of the past. It must rather first be re-membered, retroactively constituted in the flow of the sequential time of the ego as the ego’s own past, in a process that is already, for Levinas, a forgetting. Indeed, for Levinas, there is no common temporal structure in which objects are encountered. Objects do not appear in a uniformly constituted present. Rather, objects are encountered as unique, exotic, and — literally — out of this world.

In short, Levinas’ critique of exteriority in Husserl circles around three issues: the situatedness of objects, the spontaneity of time constitution, and the self-sameness of the ego. In this paper, we will show that Levinas counters the understanding of objectivity posited by his mentor, by appropriating the Husserlian epoché and deploying it against the very constitution of immanent consciousness that Husserl found it to reveal. The epoché, for Levinas, is deployed in a process of infinite regress — which is only brought to a halt by the full encounter with exteriority. This encounter takes place at the expense of temporality and through the instant — a destruction of synchronous time that posits doubt at the heart of the subject, and yet, does not result in sheer negativity. Rather, it is through epoché that the object-encounter runs against the indubitable, enacted in diachrony. True to the Cartesian quest, the Levinasian manifestation of exteriority thus takes place at the ultimate level of the subject’s self-certainty, which is found not in a transcendental ego, but in the subject’s self-inequality. It is an encounter, therefore, whose revelation is the ultimate “first principle” of philosophy, on which, for Levinas, any ontology of the Being of beings must be built.

Ego, Time, and the World

Let us begin by considering the relation of two principles of Husserlian objectivity, that combine to situate objects firmly in the world: certainty and temporality. Following Descartes, Husserl makes the first move of philosophical study the epoché: the suspension of the ego’s participation with reality, in order to discover itself as the first certainty. To the self-certain ego, the external world is accepted as an immanent manifestation, marked as certain only as manifestation, and as external to the ego.[4] By means of the transcendental reduction, the ultimate grounds for the constitution of reality can subsequently be explored with apodictic certainty, as an extension of the ego’s own self-certainty.[5]

This reality is found to be the ego’s own external constitution of entities, which appears in the temporal structure of immanent time.[6] An object is more than its various appearances; the continued perception of the object in sensation is not understood as a disjointed collection of sensations but as a sustained interaction with a singular entity. It is clear, therefore, that objects of perception undergo identification across their immediate sensory manifestation to the ego. In this passive identification, or synthesis, of immediate sensory data, the multiplicity of appearances of the object — near, far, illuminated, shadowed, front, back — are understood to belong to an entity that is one and the same.[7] It is only as a result of identification that an object can appear at all, and the fundamental relation of intention-intended, or noesis-noema, can be constituted.

This process of identification occurs through a synthesis “combining consciousness with consciousness”[8] that takes place within and by means of the temporal flow of consciousness. As Husserl writes, the multiple aspects of a sensed-object “in their temporal flow, are not an incoherent sequence of subjective processes. Rather they flow away in the unity of a synthesis, such that in them “one and the same” is intended as appearing.”[9] Thus, it is because and by means of their temporal character that objects are constituted as objects. Husserl thus links the intentional structure of consciousness to the temporality of objects. It is only “the elucidation of the peculiarity we call synthesis” — i.e., the temporal constitution of objects — that “makes fruitful the exhibition of the cogito (the intentional subjective process) as consciousness-of — that is to say, Franz Brentano’s significant discovery that ‘intentionality’ is the fundamental characteristic of ‘psychic phenomena.’”[10]

But objects are not merely temporal themselves; they appear in a continuous flow of consciousness that is itself temporal, or a temporal flux. As Husserl writes in the Cartesian Meditations, within this temporal flux must be distinguished an objective temporality, in which objects appear, and an internal temporality that marks the activity of the ego that constitutes the appearing objects.[11] John Brough (1972) has given a thorough analysis of the relation between these two mechanics of time-constitution in Husserl, based on the writings published in Husserliana X. As Brough writes, the foundation of the temporal synthesis lies not in an immanent perception but in a spontaneous activity on the part of the ego.[12] The ego, in this activity, does not perceive temporally, but first experiences. It simultaneously “senses” the present, “retains” the immediately past sensation, and anticipates a “protention,” or future sensation. These three simultaneous activities of the ego together constitute the sensation of the “Now,” which cannot be further reduced.[13] Furthermore, that which is retained within the Now is understood to retain its own past retention and protention; this retained protention is identified as fulfilled in the Now by the present sensation. Thus, the sensation of the Now — or primary sensation (Urempfindung) — stitches the immediate sensation of the present as a whole — or an object in particular — with its past retentions and protentions, situating the Now, and so the sensed object, in an ongoing flux. As a result of the activity of inner time consciousness, the object of the primary sensation is then presented to the ego in a primary perception (Urimpression) of immanent temporality.

As Brough explicates, Husserl turned to the dimension of inner time to explain how the flow of immanent time, perceived in the manifest synthesis of objects, is brought about by the ego’s own activity. The inner time of absolute consciousness is the active source of objectivity, and, for Husserl, is necessary to understand how consciousness is modified with the apprehension of new objects. This activity of the ego is posited against what, from the perspective of immanent temporality alone, is an unduly concretized and given immanence. As Husserl writes, “One should not materialize (verdinglichen) the structure of consciousness, one should not falsify the modifications of consciousness.”[14] Thus, while acknowledging the inevitable immanence of objects through their temporal constitution, Husserl was careful to locate the perpetuation of objects in the ego’s continuous activity. Furthermore, it is by means of this activity that Husserl can explain the absence of the past and future vis-à-vis the present; If an object is presented in a synthesis of its primary perception with its primary memory and primary anticipation — the protention and retention of immanent time — in what sense are the perceptual components of memory and anticipation “absent” as opposed to the immediate present? The activity structures of the protention and retention of inner time consciousness are thus employed to account for the presence-in-absence of the past and future in the Now. The active relatedness to past and future are thus qualitatively different from that by which the present is sensed, despite the integration of all three dynamics in immanent perception: “For Husserl, retention and protension are not past or future with respect to the Now; they are on a level dimensionally different from the Now and are co-actual with the primal impression which intends, or experiences, the Now moment.”[15]

Husserl identifies two moments of intentionality that are ultimately co-constitutive. In vertical intentionality (Querintentionalitat), the primary complex of retention-sensation-protention is intended. However, this vertical intentionality ultimately includes the retention of the just elapsed, previous phase of consciousness, with a vertical intentionality of its own, capturing its retention, sensation, and protention. This retention of the past phase, or horizontal intentionality (Langsintentionalitat) is the basis of the retention that partially composes the vertical intentionality of the present. Thus, for Husserl, it is ultimately the case that horizontal intentionality enables vertical intentionality, while relying on a vertical intentionality of its own. The present Now is incomprehensible without its element of retention, and the latter is inseparable from the retained, vertically intended past. This interdependence constitutes not just the immanent temporality of any given object, but the very flux of consciousness: horizontal and vertical intentionality are “inseparably united, requiring one another like two sides of one and the same thing, and are interwoven into one solitary flow of consciousness.”[16]

As a result of the interdependence of horizontal and vertical intentionality, objects are encountered as temporal entities. However, the horizontal intentionality of objects naturally situates them as entities within the temporal flux of consciousness overall. Husserl elaborates on this theme in the Cartesian Meditations:

Synthesis… does not occur just in every particular conscious process [i.e., in the constitution of the noema of every noesis[17]], nor does it connect one conscious process with another only occasionally. On the contrary… the whole of conscious life is unified synthetically.[18]

In other words, because there is a common temporal form to all conscious activity, whose correlate is immanent consciousness, immanent consciousness is itself present as a unified whole, synthesized vertically and horizontally into a totalizing unity that includes all its temporal, noetic processes and their objects. This unity of consciousness as a whole is related to specific objects such that temporal objects can only appear as “prominences” within the flux of immanent consciousness — the immanent consciousness which makes up the substance of the world. Although the world is only composed of particular objects of consciousness, it is nonetheless the case that the objects that “generate” the world are themselves only ever present in-the-world. In Husserl’s words, the founding of the world on particular cogitationes

does not signify a building up in the temporal sequence of a genesis, since indeed any imaginable particular subjective process is only a prominence within a total consciousness always presupposed as unitary.[19]

In short, the temporal form of objects, identified not only in their individual temporal horizons but as existing within the unitary flux of consciousness as a whole, ultimately means that, for Husserl, objects, in their temporality, are only ever constituted in-the-world.

Self-Certainty, Temporality, and the Transcendence of Objects

It is important to note that the constituting activity of inner-time consciousness is not separable from the manifestation of cogitationes in immanent time. Nor is the transcendent, self-certain ego, separable from the world which it holds apart from itself in epoché. The ego cannot stop the flow of its intentions, and so, only encounters itself concretely together with the immanence of the world that it transcendentally constitutes.[20] This relation leads Husserl to acknowledge that it is only the transcendental ego taken with its cogitationes that is the “concrete ego” or monad.[21] In fact, the intimate connection between the ego and its objects and intentions reflects a reciprocal relationship between the ego’s self-certainty and its temporal world. Just as the ego constitutes the world, it also, Husserl writes, is “continuously constituting himself as existing.[22] There is, furthermore, no sense of ego except as self-certain ego: I “am continually given to myself, by experiential evidence as ‘I myself.’ This is true of the transcendental ego… moreover, with respect to any sense of the word ego.”[23]

But if the ego is that which constitutes itself as self-certain ego, then this points to the fact that there is a constituter before the constituted — a dimension of activity in which the ego is posited, that is not simply the activity of the ego. This calls into question characterizing the activity of internal time consciousness as the activity of the ego; its constant attribution to the ego is only the result of a process of identification. The temporal constitution of cogitationes — including spatial objects — is thus itself the means by which the ego constitutes itself as self-same, and so finds itself, as self-same, in self-certain givenness at any point in time, as the one who is constituting its own cogitationes. This means that the givenness of the ego as transcendental ego — the starting point of philosophy for both Husserl and Descartes — is ultimately, the result of a process of constitution.

For Husserl, however, this constituting process is both inevitable, and entirely unidirectional. The constituting activity of the ego exists only as an ego-constituting activity, as the autonomous, pre-egoic activity of a nascent ego, and so as geared entirely toward the temporal constitution of identified objects. The ego is not accessible to itself as a process, for as process it is not yet ego.[24] The constituting activity of internal time is therefore only accessible to the ego as the process by which it constitutes “itself for itself as existing[25] in abiding reality. Ultimately, therefore, Husserl can write that the ego “is not a process or a continuity of processes,”[26] but an enduring entity that, from its own perspective, encounters itself as abiding throughout immanent time.

Thus, there is a good reason that, at any given moment, the objects the ego has constituted for itself are available to it as evident productions of its transcendental activity: the ego, as ego, has constituted reality for itself in this way.[27] The field of the objects of consciousness is ultimately included in the field of the ego’s self-certainty in which it is fully comprehensible to itself as an ego: “Since the monadically concrete ego includes also the whole of actual and potential conscious life, it is clear that the problem of explicating the monadic ego phenomenologically… must include all constitutional problems without exception.”[28]

In consciousness, truth has the meaning of that which is constituted for the ego in its spontaneous, time-constituting activity. However, within this solipsistic encounter with objects, Husserl nonetheless retains a sense of objects’ exteriority and transcendence. Firstly, the identically identified object is understood not only to maintain its identity for the duration of a single cogitatione, but to be self-same across the range of all possible noetic processes.[29] The house that I imagine, and imagine as possibly imaginable in various hues and shades, according to the processes of imagination, is also understood to be amenable to perception, anticipation, and memory, with all the variations possible in these modes of consciousness. All of these noetic processes, and their corresponding noemata, share at their core a common object of intuition: the house, itself understood as existing in a temporal landscape in which all of these noetic processes occur. Thus, the house as encountered in perception, is understood to contain more than it immanently presents.[30] A field of possible consciousnesses is included in the objectivity of objects, theoretically predelineated and apprehendable a priori in every encounter with the object.[31]

The objectivity of objects, however, pushes still further against the subject that apprehends them. Objects can surprise us.[32] A trinket in a pawnshop is revealed as a priceless heirloom; a plant once thought harmless is found to contain poison. In these “shocks,” the objectivity of the object reaches furthest for exteriority; the intentional structure of the object held hitherto is contradicted by a new intentionality, which seems to cast doubt on the object’s self-sameness as previously understood. For Husserl, however, this reformulation of the object occurs again in a process of identification, in which the object never ceases to be present to the ego as an object of consciousness. Because, in anticipation, objects are already recognized as bearing within themselves the potential for self-contradiction, objects can be said to be truly transcendent, even on Husserl’s account; the mind, in intending its object also intends that which it cannot yet know. The object is posited in its transcendence; in its immediate apprehension, as the certain cogitatione of the self-certain ego, it is acknowledged by the ego itself as something to which the ego is “overcommitted.”[33]

Yet for Husserl, this apprehension of the transcendence of objects can never be more than a tension within the self-certainty of consciousness. Because the ego forms a unit with its cogitationes, and the ego as ego is self-certain, the openness of objects is itself intended as a quality of objecthood. Shock itself is reduced to intentionality.[34] No other option is conceivable, because the ego itself only exists as a temporalizing, synthesizing, identifying subject, that can only perceive objects that are apodictically certain-even if this means being certain in their uncertainty. And because objects can only appear, for Husserl, in a temporal form that is simultaneously the form of the world, and so as “prominences” within that world, the transcendence of objects is ultimately only a reflection of the transcendence of the world itself:

That the being of the world “transcends” consciousness in this fashion… and that it necessarily remains transcendent, in no wise alters the fact that it is conscious life alone, wherein everything transcendent becomes constituted, as something inseparable from consciousness, and which specifically, as world-consciousness, bears within itself inseparably the sense: world.[35]

Objects, therefore, retain an “infinite idea”[36]; they contain within themselves an un-anticipatable infinity of possible cogitationes. Yet, for Husserl, the temporal structure of consciousness demands that they nonetheless appear to the ego as entities certain in their current apparition, frozen in their current certainty and uncertainty — illuminated by the light of thought.

Certainty without Self-Sameness

As we have seen, Husserl’s account of internal time, as inextricably linked with the manifestation of immanent time and with ego formation, precludes any apprehension of objectivity outside of the structures of temporal consciousness. The apparently anonymous, ego constituting activity, engaged in the threefold sensation, retention, and protention, is meaningless, except as the underlying mechanics for the construction of a self-certain ego. Furthermore, this process is conceived as the unilateral activity of the constituted (and nascently constituting) ego; all pre-egoic activity is henceforth attributed to the self-certain ego as an act of sense-giving (Sinngebung). Another way to say this is that, despite the fact that genealogically time precedes the subject, phenomenologically it is produced by the subject. Time, therefore, cannot overwhelm the subject, nor present objects that are fundamentally incomprehensible. As Levinas puts it, for Husserl, “Time… does not exist prior to the mind, does not engage in its history in which it could be overwhelmed. Historical time is constituted. History is explained by thought.”[37] One’s past is purely and simply that which one has previously constituted and which one now re-calls. It exists, like all objects, as a temporalized entity. Reason, truth, and thought, are themselves, for Husserl, identical with the procedure of the ego’s comprehension of its cogitationes in apodictic certainty: “Truth, a way of existing, consists in situating [a] reality within the configuration of meaning it has for the subject which can account for it fully.”[38] To “situate” a reality, as truth, means uncovering the meaning of an noematic object within the temporal consciousness of the ego. With all of its infinity, it is to find the object of knowledge as both certain, and as existing as part of the world that the ego, as monad, has constituted. Any other perception of an “object,” for Husserl, is impossible; it is rather a manifestation of ego loss, of madness.[39]

It is here that Levinas disagrees. The tension revealed in the transcendence of immanent objects supposedly available in apodictic certainty points to an objectivity of objects that, Levinas claims, Husserl has not properly accounted for, and which his model of the ego forbids. In relegating objects to the realm of self-sameness, Husserl has underestimated the possibility of the subject to exist in self-certainty without self-sameness. Consequently, the anonymous activity of the ego’s constitution cannot, for Levinas, simply be retroactively assimilated into the ego’s own spontaneous activity. It rather becomes the foundation of a reason that transcends the truth of Husserl’s egoic consciousness. This reason is not a mysticism, nor a lack of thought, but is itself built on the pre-egoic activity of the ego — an activity that, taken seriously, has a certainty that cannot simply be relegated to the mechanics of egoic synthesis. [40] It is a type of thought that cannot be reduced to intuition, because it is still further reduced.[41] It is a thought that, as we will show, does not take place in a temporal, synchronous, time, and so is not simply recallable in memory, nor situated in space — a thought that, from the perspective of the transcendental ego, indeed appears as madness.

Beyond Intuition: Diachrony and Inspiration

To introduce his new conception of thought, Levinas returns to the Cartesian principle of doubt. The doubt that Husserl uses to bracket the world ends in accepting the world on a new basis of certainty, as the phenomenal production of the transcendental ego. Yet, as Husserl himself acknowledges, this re-founded world exists in a tension with possibility of future perceptions, which can prove the constituted present to be a façade. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas presses Husserl on this point:

In the cogito, the thinking subject which denies its evidences ends up at the evidence of this work of negation, although in fact at a different level from that at which it had denied. But it ends up at the affirmation of an evidence that is not a final… affirmation, for it can be cast in doubt in its turn. The truth of the second negation is, then, affirmed at a deeper level — but, once again, one not impervious to negation.[42]

For Husserl, this process of doubt stopped at the self-certainty of the ego, and the possibility of future negations was assimilated into the intuitional object. For Levinas however, the fragility of the present intuition proves that doubt cannot stop there. The process of doubt rather “enters into a work of infinite negation… sweeping along the subject incapable of stopping itself.”[43]

Where then does doubt stop? Does the rage for certainty demand a continuous act of object negation? No, says Levinas, because the subject ultimately encounters that which it cannot doubt — the encounter with an object. Rather than any manifestation to the ego in the form of a comprehensible intuition, the object itself is first that which cannot be doubted. Yet, it is encountered as such at the expense of the ego’s own representational system of self and the world: “It is not I, it is the other, that can say yes. From him comes affirmation; he is at the commencement of experience.”[44]

The indubitable encounter with an entity, not assimilable to any existing representational scheme of the ego, is for Levinas the initial act of thought, the only knowledge which is truly indubitable, and which falls outside of the structure of intuition. Thus, “the Cartesian cogito is not a reasoning in the ordinary sense of the term, nor an intuition.”[45] But what then is the form of this act of knowledge? From where does it get its certainty? The certainty of the object encounter cannot come from the self-certainty of the constituted ego.[46] The transcendental ego, as Husserl showed, was only itself constituted as self-certain by means of the act of temporally representing objects to itself as identical and apodictically present in transcendence. If we posit, with Levinas, a realm of objectivity in which objects are not yet assimilated into the temporal identities constituted by the ego-are not yet aspects of the world — then we need an account of the subject other than the transcendental ego. For the transcendental ego, in its temporality, can only encounter objects that it has already imbued with meaning, as existing in tension with that meaning. The encounter with the object that takes place as an encounter with the unknown, is an encounter that is not yet “reasonable” or “illuminated,” as all encounters with the transcendental ego must be. To reverse this process is to approach an object outside of the space, that for Husserl, is necessary to give objects their objectivity.[47]

What does it mean for a subject that is not a transcendental ego to encounter an object? It is not enough, as in Husserl’s epoché, to “draw back from the world” in order to return to “the world as its object.”[48] Rather, one must return to the time of the inner-time consciousness, a time before the world, in which neither the ego nor the world have yet been constituted, and yet one experiences objects.[49] This inner time activity is active in “the instant”: a moment in time that has been taken out of the flux of consciousness in order to be thematized[50] in its own right. Classically, Levinas says, “phenomenology takes” the instant “as something which cannot be decomposed,” [51] while his own work fundamentally depends on a thematization of the present.[52]

In Existence and Existents, Levinas sees art as a demonstration of that which occurs in the tension of an instant. Art is a truly objective encounter — an encounter marked by the object’s irreducible alterity. In its exoticism, art presents a way of encountering an object that, although presented through physical media that are present in the world, transports the subject outside of his world. This is not, however, an entry into a new world, but a suspension of all world[53]; instead of arriving at an object, “intention gets lost in sensation, and it is this wandering about in sensation… that produces the esthetic effect.”[54] Transported outside of the world — in an encounter where the world is held in negation — there is, nonetheless, an experience, that calls the very stability of the subject — normally thought of as the “sensor” of sensation — into question.[55] Yet, in this loss of subject in sensation, the object is finally revealed in Cartesian certainty. As Levinas writes:

Sensation and the esthetic effect thus produce things in themselves, but not as objects of a higher power; in sidestepping all objects, they open up a new element foreign to the distinction of “without” from a “within,” eluding even the category of a substantive.[56]

In the elusion of the “category of the substantive,” in the activity of “production” of things in themselves which eschew all spatial categories, Levinas outlines the encounter with the objectivity of objects that escapes even the most radical reduction. It is not a perception of a stable entity, not even, “one of a higher power,” but rather the experience of an inter-action where the subject’s own interiority is found engaged with the object.

This engagement occurs because, unlike Husserl, Levinas believes in a time before the temporality of the ego. He calls the time that is the dimension of this interaction “diachrony,” because, for Levinas, it does not merely serve the unidirectional production of the ego, as in Husserl’s account of internal time. It rather becomes the field of the subject’s openness to objects, an openness that rests on the fact that there is a time before the ego:

[S]ince an “immemorable time,” anarchically, in subjectivity the by-the-other is also the for-the-other. In suffering by the fault of the other dawns suffering for the fault of others, supporting.[57]

Unlike Husserlian temporality, which is retroactively constituted as the transcendental production of the ego — itself only constituted by means of this production — the time active in the instant remains “anarchic,” without the ego as its source. In this time, the sensation engendered by the object is not mastered by the ego, and directed outward toward the production of the world. It rather approaches the ego as master,[58] with a command the ego cannot deny and in which it is undone. The subject that remains discovers that the sensation which it undergoes by the other is an upsurge of the other within himself, which he knows with the intimacy of his own self-hood. He persists in self-certainty with the knowledge that he has become other to himself — is always, in fact, already other to himself and becoming still more other to himself, with the simplicity and constancy of breathing.

Like breathing, the transformation of self that is self-hood does not occur in a vacuum, but as an assimilation of the other to oneself, in such a way that the other penetrates the self, enlivens it, and leaves it both altered and the same. The self-transformation of the subject, which occurs in and is the basis for the true and self-certain objective encounter, is not merely something the subject contingently undergoes. It is rather the foundation of subjectivity itself,[59] in such a way that the self-identification of the subject becomes problematized. The self-certainty of the subject is thus not to be located in the self-sameness of transcendental reduction. “The recurrence of the subject,” Levinas writes:

is… neither a freedom of possession of self by self in reflection [as in Husserl and Descartes][60], nor the freedom of play… it is a matter of an exigency coming from the other, beyond what is available in my powers… All the suffering and cruelty of essence weighs on the point that supports… it.[61]

Levinas here alludes to the fact that the identification of the subject — and of objects, which to be objects at all must remain sensed as absent and active sources of sensation — is somehow “supported,” despite the otherness of ego to itself and the inadequacy of all manifestations to essence. This paper does not give an account of how this is so. We stop by noting that, for Levinas, the essence of neither subjects nor objects can be found in self-sameness, and that this nonetheless does not compromise either self-certainty or objecthood. Rather:

Before this anarchy, this beginninglessness, the assembling of being fails. Its essence is undone in signification [i.e., the act by which the object presents itself][62], in saying beyond being and its time, in the diachrony of transcendence.[63]

The italics here refer to the fact that it is only the “essence” and “time” of Husserlian ontology that is undone by the objective encounter; another essence, and another time, remains. In the time of diachrony — revealed in the transcendence of objects — the subject’s encounter with the object is experienced without reference to the world — whether conceived as Being or Husserlian flux — and yet, with the certainty of an ultimate reduction.

The irreducible knowledge of objectivity is, understandably, akin to madness. It posits a subject that has been invaded by an object, who is subjected to an experience which he does not master. From the point of view of the transcendental ego, this subject is sick, delirious, unable to account for his own experiences, failing to relate to objects as existing in the world or as the objects of his own intentionality. Levinas agrees to this characterization.[64] But, for Levinas, it is a madness that cannot be written out of subjectivity, but that points to the fact that sanity is only accomplished secondarily.[65] The very constitution of the ego rather requires, first, an act of remembering, as a result of which the ego’s sanity is “restored.”

Memory and Remembering

That which occurs in the dimension of diachrony cannot simply be remembered, if by “remembering” we mean recalling an event that has passed to present mind. This understanding of memory rests on the supposition of events that are spatialized in Husserlian time, that are already “memories,” waiting, as in a file, to be reviewed. They exist in the world that has been constituted by the transcendental ego, and as the objects of one of the ego’s noetic capabilities. The time of diachrony — the temporal plane of the objective encounter — is a time before the world, a time “immemorial,”[66] that cannot be brought back to consciousness because it never existed in consciousness. It rather this very act of synthesizing, of assimilating to consciousness, that is performed in re-membering, a retro-active assembly of parts into a body, as if what is past really happened in just that way.

The truth of memory — that it is a re-membering — means that, in reality, the past is still to come. There is, in Levinas’s words, a “chronological order distinct from the logical order,”[67] distinct from the reason that would survey the present as a constituted certainty, and would see in it an immanent potentiality for future memory (and in fact views the past, retroactively, in just this way). The truth of subjectivity is rather that the present is indubitably now and yet not yet — that the constitution of the past as the subject’s own past is locked inseparably with the subject’s self-transformation:

[B]y virtue of time, this being [i.e., the subject] is not yet — which does not make it the same as nothingness, but maintains it at a distance from itself. It is not all at once. Even its cause, older than itself, is still to come.[68]

The “cause” of consciousness — the ego taken as origin or arche of a temporal flux — cannot be anticipated in advance, and is itself subject to revision. How a subject’s real experiences — understood as Levinas employs the term when he says the other is “at the commencement of experience”[69] — will be incorporated into consciousness is not an immediate part of that experience, but occurs as something “posterior,” as the result of a later experience that will in turn determine the subject and its past. To read a little further with Levinas:

The cause of being is thought or known by its effect as though it were posterior to its effect. We speak lightly of the possibility of this “as though,” which is taken to indicate an illusion. But the illusion is not unfounded; it constitutes a positive event… the “improbable” phenomenon of memory or of thought must be taken as a revolution in being.[70]

The act of formulating one’s past experience into a subject’s own past — of ego assuming itself as arche — is itself an event of consciousness. The ego thus does not simply trail its past behind it like an ever growing file cabinet. The past as recallable is a past that has already been formulated, and the ego must first assume it as such.

It is thus only through memory that the subject first constitutes its past, which then appears retroactively, as if it were anterior. Memory is thus not a recall, but rather:

By memory, I ground myself after the event, retroactively: I assume today what in the absolute past of the origin had no subject to receive it and therefore the weight of a fatality. By memory I assume and put back in question. Memory realizes the impossibility: memory, after the event, assumes the passivity of the past and masters it.[71]

In the retroactive activity of “re”-membering, the past first gains its concreteness and is assimilated into a temporal flux. But the act of remembering is never simply accomplished once and for all; like the subject himself, the past is subject to the mysterious process of recurrence,[72] in which the subject as other to himself is nonetheless identified as the same. Every past posited is thus posited problematically, even as the ego “assumes the passivity of the past and masters it.” Ultimately, the activity of remembering is inseparable from the act by which the subject is constituted: the subject, in his self-constitution and self-transformation is a subject who is constantly re-re-membering, but never simply recalling. Thus Levinas writes: “Memory as the inversion of historical time is the essence of interiority.”[73] The ego, in other words, is ultimately not a transcendental ego opposed to temporalized entities, but an irreducibly historical ego, whose first act is to remember, and whose activity is a constant re-re-membrance.

Conclusion: Language Beyond Time

In his essay, “From Consciousness to Wakefulness,” Levinas gives the following statement regarding his account of subject-object relations: “But one can also say that meaningful thought has to be liberated from the norms of adequation.”[74] As we have seen, a knowledge of inspiration is a knowledge of non-adequation, built on a relationality to a subject that is other to himself. The paradox of giving an adequate account of object relations that themselves surpass adequation isn’t lost on Levinas. Rather than a methodological flaw, however, Levinas sees in this situation the necessity of the fact that we can only speak of objects in the world, while the truth of objects is outside the world. We find ourselves in an impossible position: that which we know with the greatest certainty — the apodictic object relation[75] — is precisely what we cannot say, cannot formulate into sentences, for to formulate in sentences is already to suppose a given object.

For Husserl, of course, there is no such problem. For Husserl, language, on the contrary, exists as an expression of cogitationes that are understood and understandable.[76] The ideal of language is a formulation that fully grasps the content spoken about, and Husserl judges the efficacy of speech by how well it grasps this content.[77] Indeed, Levinas notes, the very key to the intentional structure lies in Husserl’s view of language: “To understand the fact that a word signifies something is to grasp the very moment of intentionality.”[78] But if Levinas is to contest Husserl’s picture of the subject-object relation, if there is an objectivity of objects beyond their presence in the world, what then becomes of language? Must we resign ourselves to the fact that, in language, “Everything is shown by indeed betraying its meaning?”[79] Or is there a language in which the diachronous subject can speak of his encounter with an object without bringing that object to givenness, to the world?[80]

We can speak of a speech that acknowledges there is more to say — a speech in which language acknowledges that the transcendence of its object will demand further clarification, more sayings, as more and more is learned and experienced. Levinas considers this possibility:

Phenomenology would then have as its goal to return to reduced consciousness, to put into question over and over again the alleged sufficiency of the world given in the naïve self-evidence of man-in-the-world… after having discovered that, in the intuition directed upon the world… thought is never fulfilled by the presence of what it intends, but opens up to a process of infinite fulfilling.[81]

But this possibility is still to speak from the position of the transcendental ego; it is fully consistent with Husserl’s account of intentionality, which acknowledges the transcendence of objects, and reduces the shock of objectivity to something anticipated. As language, it does not yet describe the fully objective encounter, which remains not only unsaid in this formula, but absent without a trace.

The most that can be hoped for, according to Levinas, is to “reduce the betrayal”[82] of language, by acknowledging that employing language is always an abuse of language. It is not in the said that the object relation is to be found, but in the saying, the act of signification, the active relatedness that is never in the spoken word but rather animates the speaking. When speech employs itself self-consciously as such an “abuse,”[83] it can hope to remain faithful to its object, to be a speech in which the “infinite comes to pass.”[84] The language Levinas uses is precise; the infinite of the object-relation is never present in speech. Speech is always too late on it; it is always “past.” But the truth of the object relation can resound in the tension of a word that is already ironic, already humble, already a self-presentation for further speech[85] — not because the subject is “on guard” for the shock that will require him to speak a new word, but because it stands in relation to the object not as a reduced subject, but as a self-certain subject who is “not yet.”[86] Speech from this stance is the “glorification”[87] of the object relation, which cannot be spoken “about” — as if it were already spatialized, memorable, and illuminated by reason — but can only be enacted in a speech that struggles to remain faithful to the “trace of sincerity which the words themselves bear, and which they owe to saying as witness.”[88]

The words themselves, in other words, must call attention to their inadequacy to the object relation and to the necessary inadequacy of language to this relation.[89] It is this possibility of language, Levinas writes, that is the source of poetry. For poetry, according to Levinas, is never simply a revealing of what is present — not even a thinking towards Being — but is rather, a reaching beyond presence, beyond the world, in an expression of one’s active stance towards an individual object. It is based on what Levinas calls “the trope of lyricism: to love by telling one’s love to the beloved — long songs.”[90] Faithfulness to the objectivity of objects is thus the very “possibility of poetry, of art.”[91] For Levinas, such art is is enacted but never consummated, is always only a reflection of infinite Desire.

[1] Levinas 1940: 82.

[2] Levinas 1961: 94.

[3] Levinas 1961: 77–8.

[4] Husserl 1982: 26.

[5] Ibid.: 27–28.

[6] 41.

[7] 39.

[8] 39.

[9] 39.

[10] 41, my italics.

[11] 41.

[12] 1972:261. “The slice, or momentary phase of the flow is purged of all its contents. It really contains nothing but experiential consciousness. It simply is experiencing” (264).

[13] “Thus, every phase of the ultimate consciousness will be at once primal sensation, retention, and protention” (1972: 261–2).

[14] Husserl, quoted in Brough (1972:260, my italics). “Materialize” (vedinglichen) can also be translated as “reify,” a significant term in Levinas’ critique of ontology. See, e.g., Totality and Infinity (1961:238) and Otherwise than Being (1981: 110). See also a passage in Existence and Existents (2017:33) where all accounts of world-hood are considered necessarily “secular” and “bourgeois,” and so point to the mistake of “looking for the ontological adventure in the world.”

[15] 1972: 262. This is seemingly in contrast to Heidegger, who uses the presence of the past and future to prove the absence of the present in “nearness” (Nahkeit): “This nearing of nearness keeps open the approach coming from the future by withholding the present in the approach” (1972:15). In his contrasting formulation of the Now, Husserl seems to understand a primary relation of proximity to occur in sensation-despite the fact that this relation is only accessible in immanent, synthesized time.

[16] Ibid.: 266.

[17] My note.

[18] 1982: 42.

[19] 1982: 43. My italics.

[20] 1982: 65: “It is thus an essential property of the ego, constantly to have systems of intentionality…”

[21] Ibid.: 68: “The Ego can be concrete only in the flowing multiformity of his intentional life, along with the objects meant-and in some cases constituted as existing for him-in that life.”

[22] Ibid.: 66, italics in original.

[23] Ibid. 68.

[24] Levinas 1940: “One cannot see behind time a deeper subject who contemplates and joins together its diverse instants” (77). The identification of self in self-consciousness is thus not simply “the acknowledgement of the exercise of intellection”; it “is intellection… It is carried out in the consciousness of internal time” (72).

[25] Husserl 1982: 66.

[26] Ibid.: 67.

[27] Levinas 1940: “The subject is not absolute because it is indubitable; it is indubitable because it is only answerable to itself” (83).

[28] Husserl 1982: 68

[29] Ibid.: 42.

[30] Ibid.: 44. Husserl describes how every object has a horizon of intentional processes, both as alterations within a given noetic process, and as possibly realizable in variant noeses. “[P]erception has horizons made up of other possibilities of perception, as perceptions we could have… if we, for example, turned our eyes that way instead of this.” Moreover, “to every perception their belongs a horizon of the past, as a potentiality of awakenable recollections,” with the recollections themselves, as recollections, having the quality of “being potentially otherwise” in imagination.

[31] Ibid. 45.

[32]See Levinas 1940: 65: “We have access to a thing only in the aspects it presents to us… Nothing guarantees in principle that the thing’s subsequently realized aspects will not later contradict what has been realized up until then.”

[33] Levinas’ term. See “The Work of Edmund Husserl,” in Discovering Existence with Husserl, pg. 82.

[34] “Shock itself is a way of comprehending” (Levinas 1982: 68).

[35] Husserl 1982: 62.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Levinas 1940:78, my italics.

[38] Ibid.: 82, my italics.

[39] “To say that the subject is a monad is, in sum, to deny the existence of the irrational” (Levinas 1940: 82).

[40] See Levinas 1940: 75: “The analyses of the ‘ego’ and the constitution of inner time remain analyses of constitution, that is, analyses of the power of the subject over it, even over its past… Unless, that is, we were to understand Husserl to take the ego itself as the moment of an impersonal event, to which the notions of activity and passivity no longer apply. We can find in the notion of the Urimpression…indications leading in this direction.” Ultimately, however, as the Meditations make clear, Husserl retroactively and fully assimilates the “anonymous” activity of inner time to the conscious activity of the ego (see also Levinas 1940:77).

[41] Levinas 2017:63: “A method is called for such that thought is called to go beyond intuition. We can be more or less close to this limit. In certain awakenings of delirium, in certain paradoxes of madness, we can surprise this impersonal consciousness…”(my italics).

[42] Levinas 1961: 93.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid. Italics in original.

[45] Ibid.

[46] See also, Levinas 1961: “The evidence of the cogito — where knowledge and the known coincide without knowledge having had to be already in operation, where knowledge thus involves no commitment prior to its present commitment, is at each instant a beginning… cannot satisfy the critical exigency, for commencement of the cogito remains antecedent to it” (86).

[47] Levinas levels the same critique against Heidegger, who, like Husserl, believes beings cannot be understood except from Being, i.e., from the perspective of a totality to which the subject belongs. For Heidegger, the obverse of Being — the negation experienced in anxiety — is the nothing, which immediately calls for a return to Being; the idea that an existence other than Being could be enacted in the nothing is, for Heidegger, nonsensical. Thus, Levinas explains, “the primacy of ontology for Heidegger does not rest on the truism: ‘to know an existent it is necessary to have comprehended the Being of existents,’” but is already “to decide the essence of philosophy” (Levinas 1961: 45). For Levinas, this description of the object-encounter neglects that which is active in the nothing, in order to assimilate the object into an existing reality: “To broach an existent from Being is simultaneously to let it be and to comprehend it. Reason seizes upon an existent through the void and nothingness of existing — wholly light and phosphoresce. Approached from Being, from the luminous horizon where it has a silhouette, but has lost its face, an existent is the very appeal that is addressed to comprehension” (ibid., my italics). It is rather the “face” of the object that Levinas seeks to recover.

[48] 1961:85.

[49] See Levinas 1940:

[50] A paradoxical term in this context, as Levinas notes; see Otherwise Than Being (1981: 167).

[51] Levinas 2017: 2.

[52] Ibid.: 3.

[53] Ibid. 48.

[54] Ibid. 47.

[55] “In art, sensation features as a new element. Or better, it returns to the impersonality of elements” (ibid. 47, italics in original).

[56] Ibid. 48. Here, Levinas uses the word “object” to refer to transcendental objects in Husserl’s sense.

[57] Levinas 1981: 125.

[58] See Levinas 1961: 99. It’s worth noting that the arresting effects of objects, which Levinas calls enseignement in Totality and Infinity (51) seems to evoke and reverse Heidegger’s “assignments,” in which objects are “assigned” meaning based on their place in the constituted, meaningful world. In this respect, Heidegger’s “assignments” represent his modified version of the object relation of intentionality (see Being and Time: 105).

[59] “Persecution is not something added to the subjectivity of the subject and his vulnerability; it is the very movement of recurrence. The subjectivity as the other in the same, as an inspiration, is the putting into question of all affirmation for-oneself, all egoism born again in this very recurrence” (1981: 111).

[60] My note.

[61] Levinas 1981: 125.

[62] My note.

[63] Levinas 1981: 140.

[64] “Delirium here does not have an irrationalist significance; it is only a ‘divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom or convention.’ The fourth type of delirium is reason itself, rising to the ideas, thought in the highest sense… not the irrational, but the end of the solitary…the beginning of a true experience of the new and the noumenon — already Desire. ” (Levinas 1961: 49–50, quoting Plato in Phaedrus).

[65] There is a description in Moby Dick of a subject that has lost all sense of the world, and so has gone “mad.” In the chapter entitled “The Castaway,” Pip, a small slave boy, falls into the ocean during a chase and believes he is lost forever in the waves. As a result, he loses his mind. The narrator of the story, Ishmael, recounts that Pip was not really mad, but “rather, carried down to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped, primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser mere-man., Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps… Therefore, his shipmates called him mad” (1851: 462). If, as Husserl wrote, our sense of space, the world, is the “originary ark,” Pip found himself jettisoned from the ship.

[66] Ibid.: 125.

[67] Levinas 1961: 54.

[68] Levinas 1961:54

[69] Ibid.:93.

[70] Ibid.:54, italics in original.

[71] Ibid.: 56.

[72] See 1981: 125.

[73] 1961:56.

[74] 1974:158.

[75] Or as Levinas puts it here, “an awakening of the spirit beyond certainty and uncertainty, [which are themselves] modalities of the knowledge of being” (ibid., my insertion).

[76] For expressions are possible without communication, in the subject’s own mind, in his assessment of what its present to his ego. See Logical Investigations (2001:103).

[77] Husserl 1982:11: “But the expression as such has its own comparatively good or bad way of fitting what is meant or itself given; and therefore it has its own evidence or non-evidence, which also goes into the predicating.” See also LI, where speech expressions are considered “phenomenally one with the with the experiences made manifest in them in the consciousness of the man who manifests them” (2001: 105).

[78] Levinas 1940: 59.

[79] Levinas 1981:156.

[80] There is a poem by J.C. Squire that seems to express this impasse of language beautifully (“Starlight” in The Three Hills):

Last night I lay in an open field

And looked at the stars with lips sealed;

No noise moved in the windless air,

And I looked at the stars with a steady stare…

“Calm things,” I thought

“In your cavern blue, I will learn, and hold, and master you;

“I will yoke and scorn you as I can,

“For the pride in my heart is the pride of man.”

Poised before the putatively stable “things” that are the stars, the poet seeks, by shutting himself off from the world (“with lips sealed”) and by opposing himself to it, to purse his lips and pronounce the word that will name and master the world with full adequation. And yet he finds:

But through a sudden gate there stole

The Universe, and spread in my soul;

Quick went my breath and quick my heart,

And I looked at the stars with lips apart.

The poet, in the inadequacy of the said, finds speech impossible. He finds rather, his soul “invaded” by the Universe. He begins to breathe — and is speechless. This is not a strict hermeneutic, however. For Levinas, it is the object, not the ‘Universe,’ that invades the soul.

[81] Levinas 1974:158.

[82] Levinas 1981:156.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Levinas 1981: 147; see also 152.

[85] The “here I am!”; See Levinas 1981: 149.

[86] Levinas 1961: 54.

[87] Levinas’ term: “Saying is without noematic correlation in the pure obedience to glory that orders” (1981: 145).

[88] Levinas 1981: 152.

[89] “[T]he said dissimulates the saying in the correlation set up between the saying and the said. Saying always seeks to unsay that dissimulation, and this is its very veracity” (Ibid.).

[90] Levinas 1981: 199, f.n. 10.

[91] Ibid.


Brough, John, 1972, “The Emergence of an Absolute Consciousness in Husserl’s Early Writings on Time-Consciousness,” in Edmund Husserl: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers, edited by Rudolf Bernet, Donn Welton, and Gina Zavota, Volume 3, 2005, London: Routledge, pp. 247–272.

Heidegger, 1962, Martin, Being and Time, translated by Macquarrie and Robinson, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

— 1972, On Time and Being, translated by Joan Stambaug, New York: Harper and Row.

— 1978, “On the Essence of Truth,” in Heidegger: Basic Writings, translated by John Sallis, Oxford: Routledge, 59–82.

Husserl, Edmund, 1982, Cartesian Mediations, translated by Dorion Cairns, London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

— 2001, The Logical Investigations, Volume I, translated by J.N. Findlay and edited by Dermot Moran, London: Routledge.

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— 1934, “Phenomenology,” in Discovering Existence with Husserl, translated by Richard Cohen and Michael Smith, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998, pp. 39–46.

— 1940, “The Work of Edmund Husserl,” in Discovering Existence with Husserl, translated by Richard Cohen and Michael Smith, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998, pp. 47–87.

— 1961, Totality and Infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingus, Pittsburgh: Dusquesne University Press.

— 1981, Otherwise than Being, translated by Alphonso Lingus, Pittsburgh: Dusquesne University Press.

— 1974, “From Consciousness to Wakefulness,” in Discovering Existence with Husserl, translated by Richard Cohen and Michael Smith, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998, pp. 154–168.

— 2017, Existence and Existents, translated by Alphonso Lingus, Pittsburgh: Dusquesne University Press.

Melville, Herman, 1851, “The Castaway,” in Moby Dick or The Whale, New York: Harper and Bros. Publisher, 458–463.

Squire, J.C., 1913, “Starlight” in The Three Hills and Other Poems, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Occasional journalist; constantly curious; formerly @YUCommentator and @theharlembee; MA Phil University College Dublin

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