Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How does newness help us change?

Kascha, in your previous post (or two posts ago now, I guess), you were discussing the possibility of something novel happening to us. I think that is a very interesting problem, and really forms the heart of Levinas' philosophical project (which grows out of his reading of Husserl; for an interesting, and I think quite compelling, example of this argument, see John E. Drabinski's Sensibility and Singularity). For Levinas, of course, everything comes down to an encounter with the Other, an encounter that comes, not from myself, but from the Other. But he extends this also into the realm of perception, and our bestowal of sense on the world in general: this can occur only because something in the world bestows sense to us. The biggest such factor is the Other person, who gives us our very sense of ourself (for Levinas, this occurs in responsibility, which is always mine, and hence makes me me). But he seems to also say that it comes from the world, via Husserl's notion of primal impression, or of sensibility and materiality more generally. These are not solely the work of a constituting subject, but are also the result of a constituting world. This is because the horizons which guide our constitution of sense are not just the internal horizons (i.e., of retention, expectation, etc.), but also the external horizons of the world. And in this world we encounter many things, including other people.

This means that, in addition to fulfilling our expectational horizons (or perhaps prior to doing so), every moment of perception is also an encounter with the radically new. In fact, what is retained is not equivalent with what we encounter in the primal impression, but is essentially less than that; something has fallen away and is missing, namely the encounter with the genuine alterity of the world impressing itself upon me. In retention (though I think the point is made better in memory), I might keep everything about the encounter--except the uniqueness of that which is encountered.

This seems to speak to the problem of novelty and newness, but I'm not sure how helpful it is in our discussion of changing habits. It would seem to be necessary, if we are to change our habits, that we encounter something radically new, that is to say, different from our old habits. But if we are always encountering the new (even in the familiar, it seems), then what makes some instances of newness affect changes in us and not others? Levinas' project seems to be about the conditions of the subject, but how does his explanation of those conditions help us change our habits, that is to say, help us become, if you will, more ethical (or at least have a new recipe for cookies)? Is there anything helpful here?