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*Warning: Deep Content*

If you happened to attend a liberal arts college as an undergraduate, then you probably sat – suffered? – through a course called “Introduction to Philosophy.” And if you did indeed sit through an introduction to philosophy, then you likely also sat through a lecture or two on metaphysics.

Historically, the idea of metaphysics was about those things that are beyond the physical – meta-physical. It had to do with the way the world worked. Ancient Greek philosophers would name some kind of material and claim that this material was the substance that held everything together. Thales believed the world was made up of water. Heraclitus believed the world consisted of fire. Later, Plato said our world was a mere shadow of perfection – the world of the forms; and Plato’s student Aristotle believed we could understand those forms through careful interaction with our world. Fast forward even later, and you get philosophers like Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant turning to the mind as a way to describe how the world works. You may remember Descartes’ famous phrase: “I think, therefore I am.”

All of these ideas are a reflection of the philosophical discipline of metaphysics – an attempt to understand the world by having a kind of unifying theory that makes sense of everything. It’s a way to connect the dots.

As we roll around to the 19th and 20th centuries, philosophers turn more and more to descriptive strategies to make sense of the world. Instead of assuming that metaphysical truth is “up there” in some perfect world, philosophers followed Aristotle’s lead, accessing truth by attending to our experiences in the world “down here.” If we are going to be truly honest, these philosophers claimed, it makes more sense to describe metaphysical possibilities as they appear to us. It sounds cool to claim that there is a realm – somewhere out there – where ideals like beauty and goodness and truth are perfect. But if you hope to construct a philosophy that is recognizable to anyone, anywhere in this very diverse world that we actually live in, you can’t just go around making claims about a place nobody can see. (Side note: this gets at the difference between philosophy and theology, but that’s a topic for a different conversation.) You’ve got to base your claims on observations that are at least potentially recognizable to others. What is good? Let’s think about how good is experienced. What is beauty? Let’s think about things we call beautiful. What is a person? Let’s ponder our experience of personhood. …you get the idea.

Well, things get really cool in the twentieth century, when philosophers not only claimed that metaphysics should be explored through experience. Really responsible metaphysics considers the experience of others. It is empathic.

One philosopher was especially noteworthy in this regard. He was a Lithuanian-born, Jewish man who lived from 1906 to 1995. His name was Emmanuel Levinas.

Levinas was no stranger to suffering. His parents were murdered, and his wife and daughter were forced to escape imprisonment by hiding in a convent in the French city of Orleans. Levinas himself spoke out against Hitler and was captured and imprisoned at Fallingbosterl, a Prisoner of War camp in northwestern Germany. 

But in spite of such tragic circumstances, Levinas would have a lengthy and illustrious philosophical career. He taught for many years at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, and he became one of the most celebrated philosophers of the twentieth century.

Levinas’s contribution to metaphysics was to make it ethical. He wrote his philosophy at the height of the descriptive approach to metaphysics. Philosophers would make sense of the world by describing the experience – or experiences – of the world. They explained how phenomena appeared, and so their philosophy was called phenomenology. But whereas other phenomenologists did their metaphysics as a description of how we experience objects, Levinas did his metaphysics as a description of how we experience people.

At the risk of over-simplifying (and any actual philosophers who are reading this will say, “too late”), think about the difference between interacting with someone from the driver’s seat of your car and interacting with someone in a face-to-face scenario.

When I am driving down the crowded streets of Chicago in rush hour – late to my appointment, flustered, in a hurry – and an absent-minded driver pulls out in front of me going ten miles below the speed limit, a number of colorful words – words I would not repeat in front of my children – will come spewing out of my mouth.

But if I am in the grocery store, headed for the checkout line, and someone absentmindedly steps in front of me, it’s less likely I will be as colorful in my response. I’ll probably excuse them. Smile. And let them ‘cut’ in line. It may be my place in line, but I am not separated from the person in the sanctuary of my driver’s seat. I am looking right at the person, face-to-face, and this settles my animalistic impulses.

Here’s the point: there is something about the face – my seeing another person’s face and likewise knowing that my face is being seen – that changes the way I interact with others. (This has further ramifications in a post-pandemic world of face coverings, but we won’t go there for now.)

Levinas will say that this power of the face is subconscious, or precognitive. It is instinctual, developed over millennia of evolution, and it reflects a deep-seated awareness that I am connected to that other person on a fundamental level. The face of the other makes a claim on me – don’t hurt me. And whether I name that claim or not, I show that I can feel it, because the other person’s face makes me act differently. When I suppress that feeling, I am working against a sensitivity that is as old as the Ten Commandments – “Thou shalt not kill.”

So although metaphysics for Levinas does not presume to begin by naming some kind of universal truth, like “all people are good,” it does give way to universally recognizable experiences, like “don’t do harm.” And it demonstrates the very non-human nature of activities that inflict harm. When I allow my impulsive self to act first – whether that is behind the wheel of a car or in a face-to-face interaction – I am suppressing my humanity. I am out of touch with what is most fundamental to me. I am not human.

Levinas’s philosophy is instructive on many levels. For our purposes here, we can simply observe that it should serve as a reminder that the best fundraisers know how powerful personal, face-to-face interaction can be. Your donors need to be seen. They deserve to be seen. They deserve to be noticed as people. So you should listen to them and respect them. Give them your time and attention. When you do that, the donors will likewise see you – as a fundraiser, sure; but also as a representative of the organization that you both love and support. They will see in you a mission they believe in, and they will respond in kind.

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