From the rug: A note on Levinas on time

Michael Morgan on Levinas:

Levinas actually says precisely this: ‘The future that death gives the future of the event, is not yet time.’ . . . ‘[T]he condition of time lies in the relationship between humans or in history.'”

This post is brought to you by my wish to give an idea of what is on my mind, or beyond my mind, in an inside place dark from the outside, flickered by gasfire, warmed by marmalady feline butterscotch bellies, soft by wool on cherry, and entertained by motheaten banter between Maeterlinck, Capi, and Levinas, trading heads, sixes, fours, twos, ones, and laughing quick and rolling, until tears come clearing out the bleary-eyed desire to settle into the flux of time, death, dreams, vision, simplifying the expression of love wishing to love, wishing to be loved, to belong, beloved.

We can make sense of these statements by contrasting Levinas’s view with two others, what I have earlier called objective and subjective time. These can be taken to be two ways in which we conceive of temporality or two ways in which we experience time. According to the objective view, time is measured change, and it is experienced in terms of the categories of past, present, and future that are imposed by our cognitive capacities and measured by objective means, –for example, astronomical events or clocks. According to the subjective view, time is the flow of our experiences, which are experienced by me from my I’s point of view as here and now, with a sense of flowing from what has been in view and what will be, as anticipated, expected, and projected. In this sense, the past is before what I now experience, and the future is after or what is yet-to-be. In one way, then, time is objective, and in another it is subjective. We might call the first ‘natural’ time, or time as science understands it and as we understand it–measured and in measurable units–in everyday life. The second is personal time, from each of our personal or first-person perspectives. Now, to be sure, Levinas does not deny that in our lives we experience temporality in both of these ways. He acknowledges the special significance of Bergson’s distinction between the two ways of understanding time and accepts it, to a degree. What he does not deny, however, is that the distinction captures everything that is important about our experience of time.

. . .

It is not enough to experience time in these ways, nor is it enough to live with the sense that time and history are going nowhere and have no purpose or that their only purpose is what each of us gives to them. In other words, Levinas’s concern with time is that it is meaningful in a way that we do not usually realize. Bald naturalism and subjective relativism or idealism do not tell the whole story about time. Our temporal experiences mean more than either the objective view or the subjective view suggests, and it is the ethical character or our social existence that gives them their meaning. Moreover, to turn our attention to the meaningfulness or significance of our existence as temporal is not to change the subject. For our experience of time, as flowing or as measurable and an object of calculation, is shaped as well by our sense of its being the modality in which our living occurs.” (166-67)

–Morgan, Michael L. “Time, History, and Messianism.” The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

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