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The Witness of The Ineffable


The Witness of The Ineffable


David Appelbaum

What is the relationship between death, silence and the witness? Philosopher David Appelbaum explores the ethical force of silence and our relationship to mortality, tracing the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in the thought of Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot.

A perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.
— E.M. Forster, A Passage to India

Twentieth century philosophy oversaw the formulation of a new problem of thought. Intimated in Soren Kierkegaard’s ethical treatment of silence, it awaited Martin Heidegger and his French epigones, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Maurice Blanchot, to render it clear. Prefigured by Stoic thinking, the problem bears on the triangle of silence, death, and attestation. If we follow its development and analysis, the nuances of each restatement open new perspectives on the relation of silence and the subject under obligation to keep it. In what follows I try to outline this unfolding in a more or less chronological manner, with an eye toward clarifying two further thoughts: the ethical dimension of what Kiekegaard called ‘truth is subjectivity,’ and the critical relation of silence to language.


The silent witness

Since Heidegger, silence as a theme has been linked explicitly with death, via the witness. True, the moral dimension of silence had been earlier announced by Kierkegaard, in a stunning analysis of the akedah, Abraham’s sacrifice. In the Genesis account, a silent and self-contained Abraham rides three days with Isaac, his son, and his servant Eliezer, in preparation for the ritual killing commanded by God. A radical withdrawal from speech (outer and interior) is broken only in the midst of final arrangements when the boy asks after the sacrificial animal. His father’s portentous reply is, ‘God will provide.’ The ultimate act is perpetually suspended (but not annulled) when Abraham is arrested in medias res by the appearance of a ram caught in the underbrush.

Heidegger provides an important revision of the ethical frame of the silence-death-attestation triangle. Whereas Kierkegaard (following the Biblical narrative) places the witness outside the event—we, the readers, are called to attest—for Heidegger, attestation lies within an immanent plane. Attestation, briefly, signifies the privilege of the witness who is on hand to the event under view. Heidegger notes that ‘Conscience speaks solely and constantly in the mode of silence’ while at the same time ‘the call comes from me and yet over me.’ [i] That silence testifies by speaking uncovers the enigmatic relation that an ethically charged silence bears to language in general. It differs from a classical (i.e., metaphysical or theological) conception that opposes language to silence. Picard exemplifies the tradition by saying that, ‘when a man is silent, he is like man awaiting the creation of language for the first time.’ [ii] The institution of language then is conceived in terms of a fall that defines the finitude of humanity. For Eckhart also, silence contains the transcendentals (unity, truth, goodness, beauty) that elucidate humankind’s relation to the absolute. This position attributes transcendent status to silence. Silence as full presence, as being, surpasses linguisticality in value; within the opposition, it is the higher (truer, preferred). Silence is golden.

Heidegger’s innovation lies, not in recovering moral worth in silence, but in remembering the hidden third, death.

Heidegger’s innovation lies, not in recovering moral worth in silence, but in remembering the hidden third, death. Attestation [Bezeugung], the silent regard of the witness, implacably registers the habitual forgetting of death. There the arrow of mortality never points to life as lived in the everyday. Oblivious, one follows a scripted story that replaces one’s own authentic existence and that, in denial, acclaims a kind of immortality (or at least non-mortality) of the subject. The missing term, the lack [Mangel], is a death of one’s own. It is a critical absence since ‘my own death’ individuates me and discloses the singularity of my life in light of the fact that no one can die in my place. It is the feeling, or attunement [Bestimmung] that summons one from behind a socially approved mask that serves to defer confrontation with the existential predicament of humankind. Without the testimony of death, one is in danger of mistaking oneself for an ‘immortal thing.’


The being of silence


I have highlighted the event of the witness, whose invisible presence influences the ground conditions of guarding silence. Simply, to will silence requires an attentiveness adequate to the work. Heidegger points out the source of intensity: the confrontation with one’s own death. Such a meeting dials up the luminosity so that an engagement with one’s self can occur; or alternatively, since the meeting is rare, one is called by feeling its lack. One, that is, feels anxiety. Before looking more deeply into the call, I want to consider what Levinas adds to the ferment already outlined.

It isn’t parenthetical to cite more radical ways of repositioning the classical equation of being and silence. Levinas is a good example since he reverses (commutes) the relation of language with being. The fall is then from language into being. Being becomes an originary precondition whose murmurous cacophony plays like a heavy-metal night of insomnia. Before the fall, the prelapsarian condition is discourse or conversation. Language is a invocation to relate to the absolute, God or infinity. The troubled restiveness of sheer being, which Levinas calls the il y a (the ‘there is’, a play on Heidegger’s German es gibt) constitutes a background threat to everyday (‘egological’) life. The danger compels a turn toward the other person through whose face the absolute Other radiates a plead on her behalf. The face to face relation restates an attestation whose function is partly to announce the dissymmetry between oneself and the wholly Other, and partly to ‘bear witness to glory.’ [iii] The other person’s always imminent death haunts all conversation and brings one to attend to how, at one’s own expense, to be available to the other’s needs—if necessary, to give the shirt off one’s back and the bread from one’s mouth.

The other person’s always imminent death haunts all conversation and brings one to attend to how, at one’s own expense, to be available to the other’s needs—if necessary, to give the shirt off one’s back and the bread from one’s mouth.

Levinas thus introduces language into the silence-death-attestation triangle. His elevation of language to a summons echoes Heidegger’s attribution of evocative force to conscience. For Levinas, however, the call is to an asymmetrical relation with the absolute. The repositioning necessarily affects how silence is to be kept. Silence for him becomes sincerity, ‘a speaking so as to say nothing.’ [iv] In its everyday mode, language as a system of signs follows avoidance patterns that make life enjoyable, consumable, by denying ‘unpleasant facts.’ By contrast, when sincerity speaks, one’s identity is challenged by the ‘extreme tension of language’ and by ‘the impossibility of being silent, the scandal of sincerity.’ [v] Language here ceases to be repetition, which is at the disposal of the ego, and turns toward difference, the creative utterance of uniqueness. Abraham’s response to God’s solicitation (‘Where are you?’) is given in fear and trembling by ‘Hineni’, ‘Here I am.’ Language breaks silence by giving voice in witness to the absolute relation and absolute responsibility. There is an important play on what language itself means. Signification that is the function of a sign system is secondary to voicing, to the living being’s vocal (and perhaps tacit) acknowledgement of obedience. In the vecu, attestation is borne by sincerity in the speaker, exposed to glorified light, from whose mouth the words are verbalized—often as a surprise to she who speaks.  

The displacement of the original Heideggerian position is less complete than it looks. When being for Levinas is no longer transcendent to language (Heidegger gives language an ingrained tilt down toward hearsay [Rede]), actual silence takes a negative value. Levinas associates keeping still with the ring of Gyges, an invention of Plato. In the Republic, Gyges inherits a ring that (like Bilbo or Frodo Baggins) renders him invisible. Doing what one likes in secret without other’s knowledge is a great power, the ego’s. It is to act and possess without facing consequences. That one is for oneself and oneself alone epitomizes a neglect of the other, ethically speaking. The elevation of language over being thus replaces silence as exposure of the self who speaks in face of another. The face, whose mortal silhouette recalls both God and death, awakens an intuition of an originary obligation. To put it in a Heideggerian frame, one is obliged at birth (or before) to signify through sincerity that one acknowledges the other’s place under the sun. In this regard, attestation is borne not by the sense of sight but aurally and vocally, the ‘saying which is said in the mouth of the very one that receives the witness.’ [vi] This is another parallel with Heidegger, who valorizes listening over seeing.


The silence of secrecy


I have been following an important shift in Levinas’s thought when applied to the problem of keeping silence. Because through language and not silence one can attest to the other and her needs, speaking itself assumes an ethical priority. Nor does silence any longer provide a transcendence, a transascendence, to being. From language to silence, one transdescends to being. Inasmuch as being, the il y a, is absent of life, it coincides with the placelessness of death.

Derrida’s thought brings a further turn of the screw by absolutizing the secrecy that Levinas deplores. Keeping silence and preserving the secret then march together. They are flip sides of each another. This is seen clearly in the akedah. Abraham receives a secret (and morally unthinkable) command from Elohim. Although there is no verification of  authenticity of message or sender, he unconditionally accepts its dictate. The trek to Mount Moriah passes without a word among the three travelers. At the same time, invisibly, Abraham guards an interior silence, stilling inner monologue that would weaken his resolve. Analysis, commentary, evaluation, the sedimented modes of reason, all discourse must be put aside to carry out the task. The very appearance of language is distraction and diversion, and therefore ethically proscribed.

The absolute nature of secrecy is mobilized by the hiddenness of the sender. The one, God, Jehovah, infinity, remains unseen, not present. As did Kierkegaard, Derrida takes his cue from Paul. Paul advises his congregation: ‘Wherefore my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but so much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.’ [vii] Like Freud’s discovery (in Totem and Taboo) that the (murdered and) absent father exerts influence more than the living one, God draws his power from invisibility and non-presence. He is in secret because neither his place nor his being can be revealed. He is the deus absconditus, one who is unapproachably singular—and necessarily hidden.

God draws his power from invisibility and non-presence. He is in secret because neither his place nor his being can be revealed.

Singularity is vouchsafed by withdrawing in absentia. Where the thing is chronically not present, language is inadequate to denote it. The attempt at reference fails because of the ontological (attributive) commitments of language:  to say is to posit existence. The unspeakable protects itself from linguistic intrusion by absolute concealment, and leaves a trace (of itself) as an ineffable gap in what can be said. ‘The God is in the silences.’ This fact leads Kierkegaard (and Derrida) to notice that the pronouncement of speech (outer, inner) is the ruin of singularity. The annunciation already destroys the advent. Speech is necessarily the play of generality. Meanings are class names. They apply by social convention to a plurality of members and can be attributed to each.

Ethics too is empowered by similar conventions. Limits on types of action are set and punishments for transgression established; justice demands that they apply the same for all participants, unless there is a difference-making difference. This is why Kierkegaard voices (rhetorical) confusion over the akedah, and can grasp Abraham’s act only by exclaiming a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical.’ Faith or a higher order ethics depends on a reduction (in a phenomenological sense) of the convention. It is a grand reversal; one ceases to see darkly through a mirror. What looks like murder from a moral point of view appears an exemplar for a singular action. The situation, however, remains aporetic. Assassination or obedience, responsibility or madness: one is forced, as Derrida says, to waver between two poles. Nor is the trembling expungeable. Highly relevant, it instead reveals the primordial and affective cause of silence, the mysterium tremendum. One is in front of the fearful mystery of human life and undergoes an organic and emotional reaction. In the involuntary shudder of the body, language is abandoned. There is silence because there is paralysis. Not only the organs of speech but also the categories of thought (together with the whole Kantian articulation machine) are frozen. Silence, in Kant’s terms, is a passive synthesis. Far from choosing to keep silence from an ethical resolve, Abraham is forced into it. He does not suspend a relation to the ethical, it is taken from him, and not by God. A superior force has cut off his relation to language and driven him back to the cacophonous wakefulness of sheer being, the il y a—the force of organic life. Kierkegaard’s reaction is emblazoned on his portray of the figure:  a mix of admiration and pity.

That the absolute relation is obscured by a force that robs one of language is paradoxical with respect to witnessing. Where the trembling one’s vision is blocked, the paralysis simultaneously induces a sense of being seen. This is an inversion of the ring of Gyges, a reversal of the ego’s triumph. As Derrida puts it, God, the wholly other, sees without being seen. This states a formula for the absolute witness who sees in and through silence. To witness absolutely has nothing to do with reporting, teaching, or conveying truth but posits obedience in the dissymmetrical relation between seer and seen. The witness (if one can speak of an entity) is the solus, the one without a second. The human response is in excess to the excess. Seeing exposes unto nakedness, stripping away concealments and protections. In nakedness, one bears the terror of the situation: sheer being, the confrontation with the il y a, and the cacophonous silence that allows no rest. The story about Pontius Pilate’s visit to the temple in Jerusalem is relevant. Pilate, a non-believer, wished to visit the room where the Hebrew Holy of holies was kept. He emerged, puzzled that he had seen nothing and felt nothing.

To bear the tremor of life is to carry the responsibility since in every case, the other’s command overrides any initiative of my own.

In breakdown or breakthrough, singled out by a gaze from an unseen source, the secret silence, silent secret, or secret of silence is not divulged. My secret is never secret to the absolute other. To bear the tremor of life is to carry the responsibility since in every case, the other’s command overrides any initiative of my own. It is to confirm the apotheosis. It is to be a knight of faith, in Kierkegaard’s terms. The position undoes a line of ethical thought that derives from Kant. As long as obedience is primarily to the other, a person is not autonomous but heteronymous. Lacan’s thought gives a good illustration. In the concept of objet a, Lacan focuses on one’s determination by the other. It is the void in the visual field—an otherness represented by an arbitrary something—that disrupts everyday perception with the terror of being seen. To experience being under surveillance is to awaken a primal repulsion toward existence. The empty place or blindspot (caelum punctum, as Barthes puts it) is systematically avoided by drawing the field seamlessly over the gap. That secrecy keeps menacing in proximity means that the limits of sense perception keep the outside out. Outside is no place to go, placeless, without form, linguistically barren: the il y a transported beyond being.


Death and silence


The shift from Levinas to Derrida is critical because of its analysis of the absolute relation and its asymmetry. For each, the asymmetrical logic severely limits a reciprocal movement from one to the other; while for Derrida, it is decisive in its statement of an invisible seer. Attestation is no longer the act of a subject but rather an act to which a subject is subjugated—a passive synthesis. One’s response to an excess that overwhelms the organism invokes a trembling obeisance. One could say, following Derrida, ‘Death—or God.’  

What has happened to the triangle of silence, death, witness? Abraham’s example establishes a new domain of death. Termination of organic life-processes ceases to be the only mortal pathway. Responding to the impossible, Abraham opens an alternative. Faith distinguishes a natural human being from one of fidelity and obedience. Through responsibility to the absolute, an absolute responsiveness, the appropriative impulses die. The ‘old man’ perishes so that the new man might live. The socially constructed ‘I’ is deconstructed in favor of the singular ‘I’.  (Derrida will say even proper nouns must be abandoned.) The duality hidden in everyday life is uncovered, and affirmation shifted to an inner life, hitherto neglected. Kierkegaard had spoken of rebirth. For Derrida the shift is more subtle and involves two things. There is first the movement of interiority. The witness who hides in silence dwells not on high but within subjectivity. The one who sees without being seen, the secret one, is in me and at the same time other than me. Here is the key point. Witnessing in secret determines the whole self, a structure of invisible interiority; the self bears an internal difference and differs from itself. Furthermore, relation to the other-in-the-one (to use Levinas’ expression) is absolute. As Derrida says, ‘God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior.’ [viii] The paradox in this statement is that the extent to which Abraham is able to render witness to what he keeps absolutely invisible, to that extent God exists. God’s existence depends on Abraham’s fulfilling his unspeakable responsibility. The ‘name of God is the history of secrecy.’ [ix]

The duality hidden in everyday life is uncovered, and affirmation shifted to an inner life, hitherto neglected.

The shift for Derrida, second, involves a seeming (French) tautology: tout autre est tout autre. In one sense it says nothing. In another, it reveals a salient property of singularity, that a singular remains other to each and every other that is or might be. The ethical consequences are direct. It follows that not only God but also every person is wholly other.  The same respect and responsibility due God in the absolute relation is therefore due everyone. Again the Kantian schema has to be abandoned. Moral law treats a person as a universal being. The dignity of a human being calls for nothing less than similar treatment for all others in similar circumstances. Kant speaks of the universalizability of action. The act must be ethically acceptable to those concerned. To conceive ethics as a higher order generality is to dismiss the uniqueness of human agency. By contrast, to recognize absolute singularity in each case is to embrace the economy of the silent witness—to blur the line between ethics and religion. It is to affirm the power to see without being seen as well as the aporias or antinomies spawned in its wake. These abound in the case of Abraham: murderer? faithful servant? liar? self-aggrandizer?


The silent menace


My thought has sketched a series of transformations of attestation in relation to silence. For Heidegger, the bitterly silent fruit of the witness sobered the subject before her task of self-instantiation. Levinas in turn inserted a reversal, whereby the subject’s task concerned the other rather than the self, and, relegating silence to a primordial groundlessness, gave speech the efficacy to accomplish it. By contrast, Derrida takes up the veil of silence, how it secrets the witness, giving attestation an asymmetrical power to influence the one who is seen.

Maurice Blanchot, perhaps more than any other, pursues the menace of the secret. The paradox lies in how the power of the secret look inclines to disempowerment. At the frontier that divides seeing from being seen, reversal and inversion are law. As the gaze is extended from an object toward the background, it becomes powerless and sees nothing. Instead, the empty field reveals another, asymmetrical gaze (as in Lacan) that annuls the first and assumes dominance. In its wake, resolve and decisiveness vanish. Orpheus (Blanchot’s figure for the infinite gaze) cannot sustain his averted look and must turn toward Eurydice who follows him. She is then forever lost from him. The look that sees without being seen opens the outside, and escapes, allowing nothing to be held, no holds at all. The silence turns into monotonous vibration that threatens meaningfulness itself. To look loses its secret purpose and, now pointless, is swallowed by the void. Seeing becomes a power to not see or a power to see again, making everything seen a repetition that yields nothing new.

The outside is meant as in exile from language, but an exile that perverts the secret silence and robs the witness of place and identity.

The outside is meant as in exile from language, but an exile that perverts the secret silence and robs the witness of place and identity. It is Heidegger’s das Nichts, the nothing, from whose recoil one’s ‘ownmost possibility of being’ derives, but in Blanchot’s thought, is an anonymous and interminable force that undoes being with dissolution. Its light settles on no thing and illumines obscurity. It is prior to affirmation and denial and deforms both. No determination, no structure, survives the disastrous penetration of its gaze. Yet everything is left seemingly intact. What becomes of the witness? It is reduced to ‘testifying to the absence of testimony.’ [x] The outside shows that the only attestation is that there is no attestation. Keeping silence, the arduous outfitting of the will to give meaning or to speak, is impossible. One is kept will-less on the verge of madness (Kierkegaard: an act of faith is an act of madness) in a condition where hiding cannot be distinguished from obscurity. To discern an absolute relation is no longer possible because vacuity permits only what Blanchot calls a ‘relation without relation.’

A witness that sees blindly into a glaring light, unable to discern a subject in the field of subjectivity, itself beset by a disquieting insomnia: what kind of witness can that be? Through the dangerous essence of the everyday (whose unease seizes the seer upon making some unforeseeable leap), one discovers that, precisely, one faces nothing. The corrosive power threatens to unhinge the world, dissolve names and forms, destroy creativity, and replace dying for living. Authenticity and a search for meaning are brought to ruin. As nihilism would have it, values, mundane or absolute, are nullified, any witness to God precluded. ‘Everyday man is the most atheist of men,’ Blanchot comments. [xi] Entering the quotidian, seeing too has become mundane and non-disclosive.

Is this not a reduction of the silent witness to less than zero—though an advance on its power of truthfulness ought not to be discounted. If bare being is an unending dispersal of unrelated energies that inconstantly vie for neither position nor supremacy, then seeing must report that condition, with all its messy singularities—as long as there is light and a gaze to register it. Reality still offers an impression of itself. That is, reality is not so opaque as to flatly deny perception. It does not withhold a perception of imperceptibility. The strength of this attestation (‘that there is no attestation’) should not be underestimated. As totemic death of the father empowers his paternal influence, so too the witness thus mortified is greater than ever. A witness to absence is not the same as an absent witness.  The latter registers ‘the beyond’ of language, pre-linguistic reality. It accesses, in some sense of the word, the inaccessible, that which lacks the condition for articulation or vocality. It would bear testimony, in some sense, to the time before created time, like a window that looks into a black hole.  Would this not be a God’s-eye view of virtuality, seeing unactualized emergences in a light before the command, lux fiat? A witness to imaginary worlds yet to be created whose co-determinants, silence and death, await the making of a future. To witness would record, without content (language, consciousness) the exterior and leave a trace that (like a thorn in one’s side) would forever nettle a composed version of reality, one made in good sense. It would subject it to storms of disbelief, indecisiveness, and wonder. The trace is apparently there for that, to wreak havoc on settled thought and to set it on the pathless path through the desert.

There, a silent force of truth, impossible to mistake in its call, undoes false apprehensions of a public persona and returns one to a real human existence, finitude and mortality.

This is not a theological reading of Blanchot’s notion of the outside but an underlining of the value of the witness in opening the real. Through double or triple inversion, Blanchot’s reading is not far removed from Heideggerian attestation. There, a silent force of truth, impossible to mistake in its call, undoes false apprehensions of a public persona and returns one to a real human existence, finitude and mortality. Its accomplishment coincides with good sense, the philosopher’s commitment to reason and the order of things. Blanchot’s witness does not. It withdraws, reserving a place for itself from which it is always missing, marking itself there, instituting a displacement that is without place, or giving itself to a supplement of place, a non-place that comes to substitute itself for place. Its seeing lies at a distance that cannot be crossed by mediation or community. It sustains the dissymmetry between the seer and the seen that Levinas notes but puts vision at a distance of infinity. One could say that such seeing is not optical and does not partake of the grand narrative of light and shadow that traditionally constitutes thought. Finally, the revamped witness obliquely speaks. Unlike language classically conceived, it does not affirm existence in declaration; it is non-attributive. Suspending the work of being (language’s work since Plato), this other language (a mad language) neither posits being nor denies it; its center of gravity lies elsewhere. It would ‘say being without saying it.’  (Blanchot)

Under that guise, ‘witness’ is a word that no longer suffices to convey what it indicates. As much simulacrum of attestation as bona fide testimony, it threatens truth most when it reassures us and poses the least danger when the threat is most manifest. As an origin of truth (a true origin), attestation is in fact the center of divergence, or perhaps divergence is the center of relation. Because of the absent foundation, baseline, or bedrock, it is important to subject the word to the harsh interrogation that finds it to be idle in meaning. This is not nothing. It extends the hint of another language within the language of testimony. It implies there is at the bottom of the crucible an attestation that liberates thought from being and lets thought be free.

[i] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. Joan Stambaugh.(Albany:State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 273, 275.
[ii] Max Picard, The World of Silence.(Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1988), p. 47.
[iii] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, tr. Alphonso Lingis.(Pittsburgh:Duquesne University Press, 1998), p. 145.
[iv]Ibid. p. 143.
[v] idem.
[vi] Ibid. p.151.
[vii] Phillippians 2:12; cited in Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death,tr. David Willis.(Chicago:Chicago University Press, 1995), p. 56.
[viii] Op. cit., p. 109.
[ix] idem.
[x] Maurice Blanchot, The Step not Beyond, tr. Lycette Nelson.(Albany:State University of New York Press, 1992), p. 76.
[xi] Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, tr. Susan Hanson.(Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 245.


David Appelbaum is Professor of Philosophy at SUNY New Paltz in New York. His research focuses on ethics and 20th century continental philosophy. He is the author of In His Voice: Maurice Blanchot and the Neuter (2016) and A Propos, Levinas (2012) in addition to several volumes of poetry.