Review by Clarence Joldersma, Calvin College
Eric Severson’s book explaining Levinas’s idea of time uncovers chronologically multiple notions layered in his changing conceptual landscape. While focused on an explication of Levinas’s complex and shifting idea of time, Severson’s rich discussion connects the thematic of time to many other notions of Levinas’s, including escape, hypostasis, presence, dwelling, transcendence, proximity, and infinity. The book can thus equally be read as an original reinterpretation of Levinas’s project by suggesting that the idea of time is the key to understanding him. Severson’s writing is generally clear and informative, focused on the book’s overall goal. However, his prose sometimes lapses into long passages of merely restating Levinas within his own problematics and terminology, rather than employing those descriptions for clear explanations and appraisals of Levinas’s thought. Some of this is necessary, but it can distract a reader who is following the threads of Levinas’s idea of time. Nevertheless, the book is an original contribution to both Levinas studies and to understanding the idea of time in the continental tradition. While any serious Levinas scholar will want to read this book, continental philosophers with an interest in time will wish to engage it as well.
The book, divided into eight chapters, follows the chronology of Levinas’s writing, which seems appropriate for a book on time. Early in the book, Severson connects Levinas’s conceptual development to his biographical settings and social contexts. However, he abandons this approach quite quickly, for most of the book engages a close reading of various texts to uncover conceptually the developments in Levinas’s ideas. As such, the book is more a genealogy of Levinas’s concept of time than a historical account. That said, Severson does connect Levinas’s developing idea of time to other philosophers, particularly Bergson, Husserl, and Heidegger, showing how Levinas’s concepts were profoundly shaped by his interactions with them.
There are many interesting themes and insights that emerge in the book. On Severson’s account, the early development of Levinas’s idea of time already shows a connection to ethics. In Levinas’s 1934 essay on Hitlerism as a philosophy, he argues that modern thought about time left real persons vulnerable to actual violence. This continues in Levinas’s critique of Heidegger in On Escape, published a year later. Severson shows that Levinas reacts to Heidegger’s idea of resolutely facing death, arguing that Heidegger’s idea of time remains problematically mired within being and thus retains a form of barbarism—including the crimes and violence this often justifies—that can too easily be aligned with political totalitarianism.
A second theme Severson explicates, developed by Levinas primarily in Existence and Existents and Time and the Other (both published in 1947), is the idea of time in relation to “the instant.” Building on Husserl’s notion of internal time consciousness and Heidegger’s deformalization of time, Levinas creatively rethinks time and temporality to develop his ideas of alterity and ethics. When life’s seeming unity and pleasantness is undermined by privation and misery, he claims, a deeper understanding of the relation between the self and world is revealed. It exposes that humans are actually entrained in the instant, with the weight of being pressing on the ego. For Levinas, the present instant needs rescuing, and time becomes the solution to the problem of being powerlessly imprisoned in the instant. Severson argues that in Existence and Existents, time for Levinas is something that transcends present instants, and this transcendence provides a reason for hope that the instant cannot give. Hope refuses to abdicate the future to extensions of the past, as embodied in the present instant. At this point for Levinas, time is that which redeems the subject from being entrained in the present, a gift of new birth coming from the outside, as that which redeems us from our self-captivity in the instant. Severson shows that Levinas connects this with the idea of alterity, doing so through a critique of the unity of being. Time comes to the ego’s rescue from a place of transcendence, rather than being the ego’s resolute relation to its own future. In Time and the Other, Levinas concretizes this by characterizing time as a relation with the other person. In the ego’s encounter with the other, the gulf between them is not spatial but temporal. The ego’s salvation from the present instant lies in the relation to the other. Time redeems the present instant through the mysterious temporal chasm that separates the self from the other. Time, a relation to the future, is a feature of the intersubjective relation between the self and the other.
In addition to examining ethics and the relation of time, transcendence, and the instant, Severson contents that, in the period leading up to and including Totality and Infinity (1961), Levinas all but abandons temporal terms because of his continuing argument with Heidegger. To place alterity out of Heidegger’s reach, Levinas—according to Severson—employs spatial metaphors to bring out how the face of the other can call into question the stability of Heidegger’s ontology. Severson argues that Levinas’s earlier ideas of time as rescuing the present instant are replaced by the idea of an intrusion into the horizon of the ontological by a spatially inflected infinite. In much of Totality and Infinity, discussions of time are often related to problematics of labor, anxiety, and enjoyment, including the Husserlian triad of the present, the remembered past, and the anticipated future. Severson shows that Levinas’s previous idea of the instant is now translated into the spatial notion of interiority and expanded into the idea of dwelling.
Rather than a real turn to the spatial, however, Severson argues that the temporal merely goes underground. He points out that towards the end of Totality and Infinity, Levinas reintroduces temporal metaphors to understand transcendence and the ethical relation to the other. But the supporting metaphors are new, including ideas such as opening time and the unforeseeable. In this Levinas reintroduces his previous idea of eschatological hope in new ways, which he continues to develop more clearly in the texts leading up to, and including, Otherwise than Being (1974). Severson argues that Levinas reconsiders eschatological hope partly in response to Derrida’s penetrating critique that Levinas’s extensive use of spatial metaphors dragged him back into the very ontology he was attempting to escape. In response, Levinas begins to develop time in terms of the idea of the trace, which is introduced as a temporal metaphor depicting relations to a past that never was present. He also begins to use the temporally inflected word diachrony to indicate the radical passivity of the ego lurking below its activity. Time as diachrony protects the experience of the other from assimilating into the ego’s present while interrupting the ego’s intentionality. In Otherwise than Being the idea of diachrony figures as a way to indicate transcendence, becoming the summons that addresses the ego from beyond the present through the other’s face. The time of the other is not merely disruptive, but ethical, having a right to command the ego. Severson argues that Levinas uses diachrony to anchor the idea of transcendence so that it cannot be domesticated ontologically. For Levinas, the ego is awakened to responsibility, something that comes from a time immemorial. The ego is moved by an anarchic past, one not recoverable into the present. Levinas uses time to name that which is more ancient than the (interior) present time of the self. This time more ancient cannot be recuperated into the self’s narrative. Severson argues that here Levinas is attempting to use time to depict a revocation of the ego-centered narrative.
Much of the book can be read as a careful argument that the idea of time is a key to understanding Levinas’s other concepts and themes. At the end of the book, however, Severson develops his own critique and expansion of Levinas’s claims, which includes the introduction of a new matrix for Levinas’s idea of diachrony, an elaboration on the relation in Levinas between God and philosophy, a consideration of Levinas as a philosopher of lamentation, and a somewhat speculative discussion about diachrony and restoration. Here Severson invokes a novel idea, not explicitly found in Levinas, that of “the fourth person”—a figure of hope that might deliver new bread into the hand of the ego who has offered his previous bread to the other. With this “marvel of grace and restoration,” Severson ends the book.