Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.2, 285-291
Published Online May 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 285
Objects, Elements, and Affirmation of the Ethical
Matthew Z. Donnelly
Boston College, Chestn ut Hill, USA
Received January 27th, 2013; revised February 28th, 2013; accepted March 14th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Matthew Z. Donnelly. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the theory of material objects often referred to as
mereological nihilism supports a fine-grained and analytically coherent reading of Emmanuel Levinas’s
concept of “elements” as articulated by Levinas primarily in Totality and Infinity. This reading, in turn,
allows for a second conclusion, namely the affirmation of the ethical as the possible ground of all other
Keywords: Levinas; Mereology; Ethical Phenomenology; Objectivity
The purpose of this paper is two-fold. I intend to demonstrate
that the theory of material objects often referred to as mereo-
logical nihilism—the denial of the proper objectivity of most
things colloquially thought of as objects (van Inwagen, 1990:
pp. 72-73)—supports a fine-grained and analytically coherent
reading of Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of “elements” as ar-
ticulated by Levinas primarily in Totality and Infinity. This
reading, in turn, allows for a second conclusion, namely the
affirmation of the ethical as the possible ground of all other
philosophy. I begin with a description of some basic concepts
of mereological nihilism, and include use of a limited number
of Levinasian terms in order to foreshadow and demonstrate
mereological nihilism’s coherence with aspects of Levinas’s
philosophy. The second section is an explicit treatment of
Levinas’s philosophy of elements as read from the perspective
of mereological nihilism. The first purpose—demonstrating
coherence between qualified mereological nihilism and Levi-
nas’s philosophy of elements—will be apparent throughout the
first two sections. The second purpose is achieved in the third
section, which describes the result of integrating mereological
nihilism with Levinas’s philosophy of elements, namely that
the first objective relationships are those between individual
people. This result, coupled with qualified acceptance of Levi-
nas’s broader philosophy, affirms the possibility of treating the
ethical as the ground of philosophy.
A note on terminology: throughout this paper, I intend the
terms proper object(s) to mean anything th at meet s t he pract ica l
and conceptual requirements of material objectivity, and gross
objects(s) to mean any object that can be considered a whole
object composed of parts. Both proper and gross objects are
also intended to be objects that are not merely arbitrarily con-
strued, gerrymandered, or contrived through linguistic or con-
ceptual manipulation. An example of such construed objects
would be an object taken as the set of 1) the Horsehead Nebula,
2) former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, and 3) the Stanley
Cup. Clearly such a set is not a proper object, yet some set-
theories of material objectivity might allow for it to be treated
as if it were. I intend to avoid such gerrymandering. Included in
the class of proper gross objects are, among many possibilities,
people, animals, and plants. The term simple object(s) is in-
tended to mean any elemental or fundamental particle, things
that are unitary whole objects but are not composed of con-
stituent parts. In all other cases, the terms thing and object
should be understood loosely, colloquially, and with an agnos-
tic attitude as to whether they indicate something that should
rightly be called a proper object. When possible, I will use the
term pseudo-object to indicate a thing with merely the appear-
ance of proper objectivity. Additionally, this paper begins with
the condition that the proper objectivity of all candidates for
objectivity in doubt.
Peter van Inwagen’s theory of material objects1 is the result
of investigations into the topic of parts and wholes. Specifically,
it is a response to the question “In what circumstances is a thing
a (proper) part of something?” (van Inwagen, 1990: p. 20). An
alternate, and perhaps more manageable formulation of this
question2, is to ask under what conditions “a plurality (or ag-
gregate, array, group, collection, or multiplicity) of objects” can
be counted as a whole thing (van Inwagen, 1990: p. 22). For the
purposes of investigating a human’s relationship with Levinas’s
elements, one must ask: Under what conditions do (Levinass)
elements become a proper object that can be enjoyed?
Van Inwagen restates his central question as “Less formally,
in what circumstances do things add up to or compose some-
thing? When does unity arise out of plurality?” (van Inwagen,
1Van Inwagen’s theory of material objects is by no means universally ac-
cepted. Kathrin Koslicki, for example, presents a viable, neo-Aristotelian
alternative to van Inwagen’s theory (Koslicki, 2008). Amie Thomasson
presents a theory of “ordinary objects” in opposition to mereological nihil-
ism (Thomasson, 2007). If one objects to van Inwagen’s theory, but wishes
to retain this paper’s central theses, a major rearticulation of this paper’s
demonstration will be necessary.
2Referred to as the Special Composition Question.
1990: p. 31) The most intuitive answer to this question, espe-
cially with an eye towards enjoyable objects derived from ele-
ments, is that parts, or lesser objects, in contact over time be-
come a proper object. This is the same four-dimensional theory
described by W. V. O. Quine in Philosophy of Logic (Quine
1970: p. 30). For example, logs arranged to provide shelter3 in a
certain manner are not commonly understood as instances of
elements arranged in a certain way, but are rather understood,
referred to, and enjoyed as shelter. Contact, however, fails to
provide sufficient ground for such gross objectification. Van
Inwagen uses the example of two people shaking hands to
demonstrate that the world is full of things in contact with one
another over time that are not gross objects (van Inwagen, 1990:
p. 36). People shaking hands and holding hands have the same
relation, namely contact over time, as logs stacked to form
shelter or logs fallen upon one another in a forest. “…the mere
fact that they come into contact cannot be a complete explana-
tion of the generation of a new thing that is their sum” (van
Inwagen, 1990: p. 37).
Exclusivity—that one thing is not a part of more than one
gross object—or what van Inwagen refers to as “uniqueness”
(van Inwagen, 1990: p. 42) does not make contact sufficient for
explaining gross objectivity. For example, a tomato may be in
contact with the rest of the potential object referred to as my
salad, and this salad is the tomato’s only salad, however, a
AAA battery might drop into my salad bowl and enter into the
same contact and exclusive relationship with my salad as the
tomato. For the sake of my stomach lining, I hope none would
say that the AAA battery is a proper part of my enjoyable salad.
Contact and exclusivity are the two most apparent candidates
for answers to questions of composition. Other possible an-
swers, such as fusion and cohesion, fail to provide necessary
and sufficient ground for the composition of gross objects for
the same reason that contact does (van Inwagen, 1990: p. 70)
Take, for example, the battery and salad. If the battery leaked
fluids, and through some quirk of chemistry fused with or stuck
to the salad, or if it was ripped open and its jagged edges fas-
tened onto my salad, I would still hesitate to say that the AAA
battery composed a proper part of the salad which I am about to
Though van Inwagen’s theory of material objects is far more
detailed than presented here, the preceding paragraphs should
give one a clear idea of what (supposed) things are not proper
objects, and why. The salad, sandals, and houses that a person
enjoys are not themselves proper gross objects because they
only achieve objectivity through refuted criteria such as contact,
fastening, or fusion. They are instances of smaller (potential)
things arranged, fastened, put into contact, fused, and otherwise
manipulated for teleological purpose. Similarly, accidents of
history create other things often thought of as proper objects. A
mountain, for example, is merely a heap of rock, sand, and dirt
arranged by the unintentional hand of geology. A great many of
the things that a person enjoys and lives from, though handled
and thought of as proper objects, are not proper gross objects. If
this is the case, are people and the Levinasian notion of the face
of the Other proper objects, or are we all merely accidents of
history and physical process, however beautiful, ugly, or ethi-
cally relevant we may be?
Perhaps such failures of objectivity are merely failures of
appropriate definitions. It is possible that we need to enrich our
understanding of the mundane notion of objectivity; however,
we should be careful not to enrich the definition to the point of
totality. If objectivity is understood as any group of “things,”
whatever they may be, taken as an object then any grouping,
however silly, may be taken as counting as a proper object. If
the pillows in a child’s pillow fort may be granted objectivity as
the object “pillow-fort,” so too may the set named “fliberdigi-
bit” which consists of my computer, the politician Al Gore, and
a particular coffee bean in Kenya. I grant that such linguistic
gymnastics are possible; however I strongly hesitate to say that
they are either useful or interesting. When all things may be
grouped together in any arbitrary fashion, objectivity itself
becomes arbitrary. This is a conclusion we ought to avoid.
It is also clear that the results of van Inwagen’s investigation
do not deny the existence of objects altogether. It is uncontro-
versial to assert that various fundamental particles such as
quarks, bosons, electrons etc.4 are objects. These are unques-
tionably proper objects because they are without troublesome
parts (van Inwagen, 1990: p. 165), and are empirically5 identi-
fiable. Furthermore, fundamental particles—simples—are nec-
essary for any theory of material objects that contains at least
some gross objects (van Inwagen, 1990: pp. 98-99). These fun-
damental particles are arranged by the processes of history and
the hands of man to form the things colloquially referred to as
Other things may indeed qualify as proper objects despite the
pessimism in the conclusion of the investigation into composi-
tion. Though contact and other, similar grounds of objective
composition are insufficient, other promising principles of com-
position remain unexamined. The most apparent is that princi-
ples of composition will involve or include causation (van In-
wagen, 1990: p. 81). Causation, by itself, is also intuitively
insufficient, as the previously discussed principles of contact
and fusion demonstrate. Merely because lettuce, tomatoes, and
a AAA battery are causally combined, intentionally or naturally,
in contact or fusion6 does not make a salad a gross proper ob-
ject. A specific kind of causal relationship is needed to allow
for proper coherent gross objectivity.
Aside from fundamental particles, the most intuitively proper
object is a particular human life. A human life, like a salad or
log shelter, is composed according to specific causality. Unlike
a mountain or heap of logs, however, a human life, in most
cases, causes and maintains its own existence as an object. Re-
turning to the question of composition, van Inwagen articulates
this kind of composition by stating that for every object y, “xs
compose y” “if and only if… the activity of the xs constitutes a
life (or there is only one of the xs)” (van Inwagen, 1990: pp. 82,
91). The gross objectivity of a (human) life depends on the
activity of the xs that compose the life. The implications of this
principle seem incredible. There is a significant difference,
primarily in size, between fundamental particles (cases where
there is only one “x”) and a fully formed human being. In other
words, for this principle to hold, a set of non-arbitrarily defined
fundamental particles must actively exist together and thereby
4If these prove to be divisible into parts, then they will not themselves be
simple objects, and the newly discovered particles will supplant them as
fundamental particles and therefore as the class of simple objects. It is for
article physicists to describe the most fundamental particles and therefore
the class of simple objects.
5Or theoretically empirically identifiable, in the case of certain fundamental
6Or another, si milar, candida te for objective composition.
3Otherwise known as a “building” or “house”.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
constitute a whole object qua life. Intuitively, one wants to say
that the parts of a human being are arms, legs, hair, skin etc.
and not quarks, gluons, electrons etc. yet an eyelash is merely a
collection of fundamental particles in cohesive contact over
time. Fundamental particles, it seems, are the only proper parts
of a human being qua proper gross object.
In addition to activity, the constitution of a life7 must be sta-
ble (van Inwagen, 1990: p. 84). For initial discussion, let us
count only what cannot be denied as a “life”. Boundary cases,
such as a fertilized egg cell or a human body without brainwave
function, can be set aside for the time being. Similarly, the
definition of “life” is by no means rigid, and descriptively fol-
lows from the things (lives) it applies to. Put differently, living
things existed before the notion of “alive” was articulated. The
requirement of stability over time is the driving force behind
the need for the enjoyable aspects of elements. A living object,
such as a human being, in the world is “needy” (Hirst, 2007).
By digestion, respiration, and other manner of “jealous” self-
preservation, a (human) life maintains its constitution (van In-
wagen, 1990: p. 121). Additionally, this stable, active constitu-
tion must be both individuated—it cannot be a proper part of
another gross object—and it must also be self-directed. (van
Inwagen, 1990: p. 87) Self direction and the accompanying
conscious intentionality—for human lives, at least—are what
give rise to the enjoyment of living from the elements. This
intentionality grounds sensible objectification (Drabinski, 2001:
p. 83) and pseudo-objectification, and therefore apperception of
the elemental (Drabinski, 2001: p. 110). Additionally, as van
Inwagen articulates, “The nature of the physical universe is
such that the mere existence of a living organism, the mere fact
that it is distinguishable from its environment, means that it is
in a state of jeopardy” (van Inwagen, 1990: p. 92). Yet “the
element suits me—I enjoy it” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity,
1969: p. 141). Where there are no active operations to maintain
a certain constitution, there is no life (van Inwagen, 1990: p.
157) and therefore no gross object.
Though Levinas rightly resists describing the human body as
something that should be treated as a thing (Levinas, Totality
and Infinity, 1969: p. 229), his concept of thing most likely
falls closer to the colloquial concept of object than it does to
any other expressible concept. If the previous description of
proper gross objectivity coheres with the mundane notion of
proper gross objectivity, it does not, therefore, necessarily con-
flict with the current concept of a human life as a proper object.
In denying the thingness of the human body, Levinas affirms
the importance of the human body acting “for itself.” As previ-
ously discussed, the activity of being for itself is precisely what
defines a human life as a proper gross object. In other words,
human life is homeodynamic and constitutes and conducts itself
in order to perpetuate is own continued existence as an object.
It constitutes and conducts itself, at least in most circumstances,
to remain alive. The human being is active in ways that
pseudo-objects are not, and has a complex constitution in ways
that simples do not. The presented description of a human life
qua proper object is not pernicious to Levinas’s concept of the
human body.
A human life’s being for itself is manifested in activity, both
internal—metabolism, for instance—and external—labor. A
stack of logs arranged into shelter is the product of two levels
of arrangement. The first level of arrangement is of various
fundamental particles arranged log-wise by the process of a
tree’s life8 and various other natural processes. The second
level of arrangement is by human activity (van Inwagen, 1990:
p. 127), arranging logs shelter-wise for the purpose of human
enjoyment. It is through this second level of arrangement and
manipulation of fundamental particles that lives, most notably
human lives, live in the world. By heaping numbers of funda-
mental particles conveniently arranged by physical and natural
processes into enjoyable (potential) objects, and subsequently
enjoying them, humans are able to maintain themselves as
“homeody namic storms of simples” (van Inwagen, 1990: p. 121)
This heaping and arranging is, to use more Levinasian terms,
“labor,” and it is the activity by which human beings maintain
themselves as proper objects in a threatening, almost “absurd”
world (Lingis, 2010: p. 71).
Elements, or the elemental, are described as a component of
Levinas’s analysis of human beings’ relations with things. Ac-
cording to Levinas, human beings live from enjoyment9 of ele-
ments. Enjoyment is the proper relationship to things (Sallis,
2010: p. 91), or as the previous section described, the proper
relation to pseudo-objects. We breathe air, walk on earth, eat
food, drink water, and create shelter. The environment of the
world “nourishes” and “supports” us (Lingis, 2010: pp. 67-68).
Levinas does not give a taxonomically extensive treatment of
elements in Totality and Infinity10, but he does describe ele-
ments in ways similar to the modern understanding of funda-
mental particles. Of the sea and wind as used by a ship’s navi-
gator, Levinas writes that “They retain the indetermination11 of
elements despite the precision of the laws that govern them,
which can be known and taught. The element has not forms
containing it; it is content without form” (Levinas, Totality and
Infinity, 1969: p. 131). Fundamental particles and compilations
of fundamental particles—elements—arranged12 sea and wind-
wise can also be described in this manner. A gust of wind or
ocean current, though treated as an object, is not a proper object.
The laws governing fundamental particles and the pseudo-ob-
jects they compose are, more or less, known or knowable, yet
their compilation and potential objectivity remains indetermi-
nate because they are not properly objectified.
When one enjoys potential objects derived from elements,
one enjoys elements in the guise of gross objects, even though
such gross objects are merely pseudo-objects. Levinas ex-
presses the necessary relationship between a person and ele-
ments by writing “The relation adequate to its essence discov-
ers it precisely as a medium: one is steeped in it; I am always
8Though the tree may be properly called a gross object, once the tree is
chopped down and is dead, it cannot be called a life. Therefore its status as a
proper object is in doubt.
9That enjoyment is the only relationhip between human beings and elements
is perhaps a contentious proposition. (Sallis, 2010: p. 94).
10As Alphonso Lingis aptly observes, Levinas provides a similar description
of materiality in Existence and Existents, albeit in different language.
(Lingis, 20 1 0: p. 76).
11Emphasis added.
12By some process, human or natural.
7For initial discussion, let us count onlywhat cannot be denied as a “life.”
Boundary cases, such as a fertilized egg cell or a human body without
brainwav e function, can be set asi de for the time being . Similarly, the defi-
nition of “life” is by no means rigid. Rather, it is the mundane, everyday
notion of life—the same characteristic we understand to be shared by dogs,
cats, humans, and ferns, to name four examples. Put differently, living
things existed before the notion of “alive” was articulated.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 287
within the element” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969: p.
131). Out of this medium, the human beings draw or take en-
joyable pseudo-objects, viewed, referred to, and understood as
if they were proper objects. One would be similarly correct in
stating that human beings are always within a mélange of fun-
damental particles and from the fundamental particles draws
practical pseudo-objects. Van Inwagen concedes the necessary
practical aspect of pseudo-objectification to language and con-
cepts; however, he does not grant that it leads to a “common
sense” understanding of objects. Rather, he denies that there are
such objects as “chairs” and “tables” (van Inwagen, 1990: pp.
102-104), and therefore denies the premises of the “com-
mon-sense” view of objectivity. Language would be unneces-
sarily cumbersome if one had to express such concepts as “sa-
lad” with the phrase “a collection of fundamental particles ar-
ranged salad-wise.” Just imagine what a waste of paper and
ink13 a household shopping list would be! Salads, shelter, and
breaths of air are the kinds of pseudo-objects one enjoys and
lives from. Yet these pseudo- objects are not, as demonstrated,
proper objects. Elements are not best understood14 as the set of
worldly objects that include food, shelter, and other pseudo-
objects that human beings enjoy. Indeed, one should not limit
the concept of the elements to a local set of objects ready-to-
hand for human enjoyment. There are not, for example, stacks
or warehouses—conceptual or physical—of breaths from which
human beings live. Rather there are virtually innumerable
molecules of oxygen, carbon-dioxide, and the like from which a
human being, in enjoying air, makes the type of pseudo-objects
named breaths.
Similarly, there are not shelters, or even logs from which one
can build shelter, but rather numbers of fundamental particles
arranged log-wise. From initial arrangements of fundamental
particles, human beings gather and rearrange the elements into
pseudo-objects. From primary, natural arrangements of ele-
ments, human being rearrange the stuff of the world into ob-
ject-like collections of elements. In order for human beings to
enjoy elements, they must (re)arrange the elements into ob-
ject-like collections. It is impossible to enjoy the elemental as
elemental rather than as objects, and it is impossible to enjoy a
collection of fundamental particles rather than pseudo-objects.
Human beings build or arrange something enjoyable out of the
“frontier” of the “nothingness which separates” (Levinas, To-
tality and Infinity, 1969: p. 142). The nothingness Levinas de-
scribes is not pure nothingness, the general opposite of being as
such, but rather a nothingness, and indefinable lack of proper
objectivity. Levinas’s “nothingness” could also be described as
that which remains when all things are hypothetically destroyed
or negated. (Sallis, 2010: p. 89) The material may not be anni-
hilated, but as potential-and-pseudo-objects, such things are
destroyed. As described, the elemental is indefinable, though
regular and predictable. This indefinability is precisely the fron-
tier out of which human beings must create15 enjoyability . Such
creation is the active maintenance of the human life. It is the
homeodynamism of the human storm of simples.
Labor—active maintenance of a life’s constitution—is able
to “ward off the threat” of a dangerous world (Levinas, Totality
and Infinity, 1969: p. 166). Human lives, at least, are conscious,
on multiple conceptual levels, of their finitude, and are aware of
their existence towards death (Heidegger, 1962). Sparing one se lf
from death, even if temporarily, leads to the experience of con-
scious satisfaction and enjoyment. Although this experience
does not necessarily relieve a life of the existential angst de-
scribed by Heidegger, even temporary relief from particular
danger, mortal or otherwise, is undoubtedly satisfying. This
experience of satisfying relief is relative and conditioned by
circumstance, and so conditioned, will remain limited to its
circumstance. Directing oneself toward a consciously experi-
enced need derived from requirements of a stable constitution
in a threatening world, and satisfying that need, are the material
bases for enjoyment.
If one views a human life as a “homeodynamic storm of sim-
ples,” the relationship between fundamental particles, simple
objects themselves, and the gross object of a human being is
clear. Modern biology has clearly demonstrated how human life
is dependent upon molecular and atomic-level interactions.
Atoms and molecules, certainly, are not proper objects. Though
not proper objects, atoms and molecules—arrangements of
simple objects—are the mediating mereological strata between
simple objects and the human being qua gross object. Addi-
tionally, there is no necessary proper objective intermediary
between fundamental particles and (human) lives. One might
object that individual cells are necessary proper objects. In the
case of single-celled organisms, this is true. However, in the
case of gross objects like human beings, there are atoms and
molecules—themselves collections of fundamental particles—
such as blood plasma, that are not cells but are necessary for the
maintenance of life. The biological processes that move cells
and other collections of fundamental particles about are neces-
sarily vague, or as Levinas describes such concepts, “ambigu-
ous” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969: p. 166) and the line
between an independent, whole, and unified life and collections
of simples at the cellular level might be difficult to define, if
only because the relationship between parts and whole gross
objects is vague16 (van Inwagen, 1990: pp. 154, 217). Even if
an independent life as part of another life could be identified, it
would violate the mereological principle of exclusivity—the
“smaller” life would itself be both a part and a whole. Accept-
ing such a theory of material objects clearly leads to the intrac-
table problem of a simultaneous great and small number of
objects in the world. Put another way, there would be both one
all-encompassing proper object known as the world, and also
innumerable other, smaller objects.
Despite the lack of proper objectivity in the pseudo-objects
enjoyed by human beings, an intuitive incredulity remains.
Though my salad may not be a proper object, I nonetheless
enjoy it as if it were an object. Levinas writes that “…objective
knowledge … is marked by the way the knowing being has
app ro a ch ed the real” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969: p. 64)
Elements are real. Therefore, in order for “the knowing being”
to approach and live from elements, there must be a measure, or
sense, of objectification, despite a lack of objectivity. Pseudo-
objectivity is granted by the knowing being’s pragmatic orien-
There is apparently an impasse between the lack of proper
objectivity in the things enjoyed by human beings and the sense
of objectivity that human beings necessarily experience when
13Or rather, a waste of fundamental particle s arranged paper-and-ink-wise.
14Although it might be most practical to understand them as objects rather
than collections drawn from the elemental.
15“Create” could als o b e understood as “
16Similarly, t he existen ce of an obj ect qua lif e is itself vague. (van I nwagen,
1990: p.241) The contentious contemporary debates about when a human
life begins are evidence of this difficulty.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
living from elements. The escape from this impasse lies in the
difference between a sense of objectification17 and proper ob-
jectification. I treat a salad as an object, though in even mun-
dane, colloquial terms the salad is really a collection of ob-
jects—pieces of lettuce, tomato, carrot etc. My sense of “salad
objectification” does not match the actual objectivity of the
salad. The same could be said of elemental objectification. I
may enjoy my shel ter as if it was a gross objec t, yet in moment s
of mereological clarity I realize that it is not a proper object.
In the case of pseudo-objects enjoyed by human beings, full
objectivity is never achieved. Yet the closer an object comes to
being enjoyed by a person, the more it seems and is treated as
an object. Lettuce in a field and logs in the forest become re-
vealed to a human being as something with the character of
“handiness” (Heidegger, 1962: pp. 62-67). Through spatial hu-
man discovery of things, things as spatially grounded are re-
vealed. (Heidegger, 1962: p. 97). In Levinas’s words, “In this
primordial grasp matter at the same time announces its ano-
nymity and renounces it. It announces it, for labor, the hold on
matter, is not a vision or thought in which matter already de-
termined would be defined by relation to infinity; within the
grasp matter precisely remains fundamentally indefinite and, in
the intellectual sense of the term, incomprehensible” (Levinas,
Totality and Infinity, 1969: p. 159) The pre-objective collection
of fundamental particles “remain at the disposal of the I—to
take or leave. Labor will henceforth draw things18 from the
elements and thus discover the world. This primordial grasp,
this enterprise of labor, which arouses things and transforms
nature…” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969: p. 157). These
things, of course, are merely pseudo-objects, objectified as
spatial (res extensia) pseudo-objects in the same way that they
are discovered to be in space, namely through human transcen-
dence and active engagement. Original spatiality is given by an
encounter with the Other (Levinas, Transcendence and Height,
1996: p. 17). In the case of elements, this active worldly and
spatial engagement is rooted in the conceptual and material
movement towards enjoyment. In order to enjoy a compilation
of simple objects, one actively and materially pseudo-objecti-
fies the compilation, perhaps, as Levinas wou ld have it, de rive d
from an original spatiality grounded in an encounter with the
Yet in the moment that a pseudo-object is enjoyed, its sense
of objectivity dissipates. In the moment that a breath of air is
breathed—the molecules19 integrating with the human homeo-
dynamic storm of simples—the breath of air ceases to be a
breath qua pseudo-object. The same is true of eating and di-
gesting salad. In the case of pseudo-objects whose constituent
fundamental particles never merge with the human being, such
as shelter, the dissipation of apparent objectivity is more diffi-
cult to describe. When such objects are enjoyed by a human
being, they lose potential self-identical objectivity. The poten-
tial for objectification is “historical.” As historical, it is “al-
ready passed by” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969: p. 65).
Even if criteria such as contact held, upon enjoyment by a per-
son, such objects as shelters become necessarily and qualita-
tively related to the person(s). When I enter a log shelter, the
shelter becomes my shelter. The shelter is essentially my shelter,
and is no longer a pseudo-object. The potential for objectivity is
passed over as history, replaced instead by its reference to the
knowing being that enjoys the shelter. It “…thus refers to the
project and labor of the knower...” (Levinas, Totality and Infin-
ity, 1969: p. 65). It is my pseudo-object, an extension of my
being in the world. Labor is a fundamental relation between
human being and the elemental (Levinas, Totality and Infinity.
1969: p. 131). John Locke puts these principles succinctly when
describing “my” human activity—“labour” as that which has
fixed my property in” things of nature (Locke, 1690: p. 20).
Levinas similarly places labor at the fore when dealing with
understanding objectivity. (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969:
p. 65). Labor, he writes, fixes “the element” against its “uncer-
tain future”20 in possession (Levinas, Totality and Infinity,
1969: p. 158). Though externally enjoyed pseudo-objects21 can-
not be called proper parts of anything, let alone of a human
being, because they are qualitatively and essentially related to a
person through relations derived from labor and qualitative
knowledge, they are more closely a part of the human than they
are a part or pseudo-part of anything else.
For pseudo-objects that merge with a person and those that
remain external, independent pseudo-objectivity dissipates upon
enjoyment. The pseudo-objectivity of enjoyable elements is
evanescent. There is a conceptual asymptote. Pseudo-objects
approach objectivity, but never achieve proper and independent
objectivity because they are either enjoyed and, in a condition-
ally particular way, incorporated into the gross objectivity of a
person, or are cast aside and relegated to the status of pre-ob-
jective collection of fundamental particles. Pseudo-objects are
either enjoyed or are dispersed into elements. This asymptote is
also the point at which particular instances of parthood and
objectivity become vague, although not troublingly so. The line
between elements, or fundamental particles, as parts, and a
whole gross object is vague (van Inwagen, 1990: p. 228). The
point at which a fundamental particle that was once arranged
salad or breath-wise, becomes a part of my body is vaguely
definable at best. Is it in the mucus membranes in my mouth
and throat? In my stomach or intestines? In my lungs? And in
such processes, where is the threshold between myself and the
world? By their very function, the membranes that allow me to
enjoy salads or breaths of air are porous and able to integrate, to
some extent, myself with the world external to myself. Simi-
larly, at what point do collections of fundamental particles ar-
ranged shelter-wise become my shelter? When I build the shel-
ter? When I enter the shelter the first time? When I decorate the
interior? Despite vagueness at the material border between the
elemental and a human being, an essential relationship of
pseudo-objectification and the material and conceptual move-
ment from element to person exists between human beings and
Perhaps, Levinas’s ethical phenomenology is incompatible
with the fundamentally scientific or mundane perspective
which holds fundamental particles as proper objects. While
speculation on Levinas’s opinion of the mereological status of
bosons is futile, it also seems that his phenomenological writ-
ings offer clues that hint at a potential compatibility with a
materialistic, scientific perspective typified by van Inwagen.
Levinas agrees with both the mundane and mereological de-
scription of a human being as a proper object, writing of the
Other that “He is a being (étant) and counts as such” (Levinas,
Is Ontology Fundamental? 1996). This should come as no sur-
20And indefinability.
21Objects that do not merge with a human homeodyn amic storm of simples.
19And their constituent fundamenta l particles (simple objects).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 289
prise, for if anything at all is an object, as “being”s, certainly
individual humans should be counted as such. Certainly there is
no unaided phenomenological objectification of fundamental
particles, but similarly, there is no fundamentally unaided phe-
nomenological objectification of quasi-objects such as bottles
and shoes. Whereas the objectification or similar understanding
of fundamental particles is aided by scientific and theoretical
constructs, such constructs are themselves the result of worldly
objectification grounded in undeniable proper objects, namely
other human beings. Bottles and shoes are similarly, in a Levi-
nasian context, grounded in the encounter with the Other. The
difference between a shoe and a boson is the level of mediation
by gross proper objects (other humans) and gross quasi-objects
(particle accelerators). The relationship between Levinas’s
phenomenology and modern science is the subject of a much
longer treatise. For now, let it suffice that there is at least a nod
to co herence.
Affirmation of the Ethical
Other human beings are proper gross objects. Levinas:
“What presents itself as independent of every subjective move-
ment is the interlocutor, whose way consists in starting from
himself, foreign and yet presenting himself to me.” (Levinas,
Totality and Infinity, 1969: p. 67) A human being (a human ob-
ject) is “…presented when we have welcomed an interlocutor”
(Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969: p. 69). The independence
presented by the Other, in addition to his presenting himself as
an active, jealous, self-maintaining constitution of material—
flesh, surface, movement, and ultimately simple parts—con-
firms the proper objectivity of the Other. Levinas writes “The
primordial sphere, which corresponds to what we call the same,
turns to the absolutely other only on call from the Other. Reve-
lation constitutes a veritable inversion objectifying cognition
(Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969: p. 67). The Other is the
initial “transcendent, unthematizable,” encounter (Richardson,
1995: p. 129). As such, the encounter with the Other is the ini-
tial encounter with transcendent, unthematizable, and proper
object, and more broadly, the initial encounter with proper
gross objectivity.
The relationship with the Other, and all of its ethical implica-
tions, is therefore the primordial relationship between a subject
and any gross object, and the relationship between the subject
and gross objectivity in general. As Levinas writes, “To recog-
nize the Other is therefore to come to him across the world of
possessed things22, but at the same time establish, by gift,
community and universality” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity,
1969: p. 76). The Other, as proper object, grounds objectifying
cognition in possession, community, and universality (Sealey,
2010: p. 366). Indeed, possession by the Other is prior to con-
sciousness of that which is possessed (Tallion, 1995: p. 116).
Without the Other, there are no possessions, no community,
and no universality, including the universal sense of objectivity
necessary to conceptually, linguistically, and practically handle
compilations of simples. Indeed, Levinas describes an encoun-
ter with the Other as revealing a certain “…silent language, an
understanding without words…” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity,
1969: p. 155).
One could easily take the notion of “universal being,” (Levi-
nas, Is Ontology Fundamental? 1996: p. 7) as the sum of all
things, all of which can be described as fundamental particles23.
If one wishes to articulate the extremely abstract notion of uni-
versal being, one quickly comes to a loss for words, for in lan-
guage and articulation in general there is a separation, delinea-
tion. To attempt express such a notion, whether as the slippery
notion of the sum of all that there is, or as universal being, lan-
guage fails. The ground of particularity, of proper objectivity
and the corresponding function of language24, must therefore
come with the encounter of the Other. Levinas writes that
“…the structure of the world resembles the order of lan-
guage…” (Levinas, Meaning and Sense, 1996: p. 38). The lan-
guage/world correspondence needs articulate objectification for
its structure. Regarding the Other Levinas writes, “I have spo-
ken to him, that is to say, I have neglected the universal being
he incarnates in order to remain with the particular being he is”
(Levinas, Is Ontology Fundamental? 1996: p. 7). The incarna-
tion of the Other is, in other words, a function of objectivity.
The Other is not a pseudo-object, but rather being in an uncon-
querable particular form. Negating the Other (as object) is total
neg a ti on of comprehension, (Levinas, Is Ont ology Funda mental?
1996: p. 9), comprehension that is surely grounded in some
form of objectivity. If the preceding analysis is correct, one
neglects the unobjectifiable, the elements, in order to ground
ones incarnate objectivity in encounter with the Other. Without
the Other, there is no proper objectivity, and no ground for a
linguistic or objective world.
If one takes the foundation of metaphysics to be principles of
objectivity and objective relationships, and takes these rela-
tionships to be expressible or cognizable in understanding and
language (Martin, Metaphysical Foundations: Mereology and
Metalogic, 1988: pp. 43, 341), the relationship between human
objects, or perhaps all living objects (Calarco, 2010), is the
foundation of metaphysics. Put another way, it is an under-
standing of enjoyment of the elements that allows one to move
towards what various commentators have expressed as a read-
ing of human being in the world as transcendent and ethically
constituted (Westphal, 1995: pp. 67-71).
Because living objects25 have inherent ethical value, and if
one takes metaphysics to be a holistic study of all “entities”
(Martin, Logical Semiotics and Mereology, 1992: p. 198) the
ethical is the ground of metaphysics, and indeed all other disci-
plines. Understanding of the world, as handled through logical
objectification (and pseudo-objectification) begins with the
understanding of objects as such. The first understanding of a
plurality of objects is the value-laden26, and therefore ethical,
relationship between living objects. All other forms of objectiv-
ity are derived from primitive ethical objective relationships. If
one treats the world as the sum of all objects, pseudo-objects,
and other things treated as objects, one might therefore affirm a
version of primitive ethics as the most fundamental human
relationship with and within the world. Though Levinas does
not treat the world as merely “the sum total of objects within
24If one takes language to correspond, at least on some level to objectivity—
a potentially difficult, a l beit intuitive notion of language.
25Whether the operative lives must be limited to human lives in order to be
treated a s the ground of ethics is a topic for another paper and othe r authors.
26I take it as self-evident that lives, at least human lives, are inherently valu-
able objects. If this is read as a contentious premise, I leave it to other au-
thors to defend the inherent value of (human) life.
22For Levinas’s purposes, these “things” do not need to be proper objects.
Psuedo-objects, and their corresponding sense of objectivity, without proper
objectivity, can be possesed by ot hers.
23After tran slation from Levinas’s phenomenological language i nto mundane
and scientific language.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 291
it,” he does affirm that “the world is what it is, a totality, be-
cause there is ‘someone’” in the world (Wyschogrod, 2000: p.
24). The “someone” is the Other. Some hold that Levinas “fails
to come to terms with the ethical significance of the world”
(Eubanks & Gauthier, 2011). This reading reverses Levinas’s
priority. For Levinas, the ethical is prior to the possibility of
world. The world does not have inherent ethical significance
without the Other. The world is constituted ethically; one en-
counters ethically relevant objects—the Other—prior to curi-
ously reckoning with the material world as material. The en-
counter with the Other is prior to the encounter with pseudo-
objects such as tables, and is certainly prior to the heavily me-
diated apprehension of fundamental particles. One exists ethi-
cally prior to existing scientifically. The ethical constitution of
one’s world is based on the primordial encounter of the Other
as proper and value-laden object. Indeed, the Other as separated
object is the ground of subjectivity for Levinas (Nuyen, 2001: p.
436). The ontological constitution of the world is secondary to
the ethical context of the encounter with the Other, in the con-
dition of human beings together (Levinas, Is Ontology Funda-
mental? 1996: p. 3). For those who hold subjectivity or objec-
tive understanding to be the starting points for investigations
into first philosophy, the affirmation of ethics as a candidate for
first philosophy is undeniably powerful.
Affirmation of the ethical as a candidate for first philosophy
is notable because it is born of a fundamentally metaphysical
analysis, rather than an analysis begun with the same initial
conditions as Levinas’s philosophy. This, in turn, speaks to the
power, importance, and scope of Levinas’s thought, and that
ethics’ candidacy for first philosophy must be reckoned with by
anyone wishing to serio u s ly examine human being in the world.
Thanks to Adrienne Bogacz for initial proofreading and help-
ful comments and Damian Cleary for helpful comments.
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