As for me, it seems at first sight that the truth is led towards me, because through witness ‘the absolute affirms itself here and now. In witness there is an immediacy of the absolute without which there would be nothing to interpret’ (P. Ricœur) (1); And again: ‘in the sincerity of witness, the exteriority of the Infinite becomes after a certain fashion “interiority”’ (E. Lévinas). (2) The whole of the existence of a human, in fact, raises the problem of its truth – but this immediacy and this interiority of the truth are only the appearance of the first moment. In expressing a primary relationship with the truth, there can be no doubt that the truth is carried in the heart of existence, specifically where there are the names and the faces, the communities of life. However, while this movement of the drawing near of truth to the personal life of each person is taking place, there also begins an opposite movement: at the very moment when it appears that the truth is led towards me, I am in fact dragged strongly outside of myself, towards the truth.
The movement by which the truth draws near to me corresponds in reality to the opposite and simultaneous movement by which I draw distant from myself and I draw near to the truth, and this involves decisive consequences for its mode of communication. If this movement were to halt only at the coming of the truth to men, without my going back towards it, then one might think that the truth were something available, a possession of the individual who understands it or receives a revelation about it. But such is not the case because the truth lives inside each individual like an abyss-like profundity that diverts one from the idea of possession and breaks through with its presence, generating each time a memory of transcendence – an unfathomable memory of truth itself which nobody gives to themselves on their own. The truth remains without remaining; it transcends without completely transcending. And this dual movement of the personal relationship with the truth is also what involves every man.
The relationship with the truth is a relationship of witness. If with truth there was a relationship of possession, then truth would be communicated through an exhibition marked by ostentation or even through imposition, independently of the way in which all of this was thought about. If, again, the relationship with the truth was entrusted exclusively to the game of rational demonstrations, then its communication would very much resemble a combat gymnasium of oral contests. But the truth generates a sacral sense of the ulterior in relation to each individual at the very moment when it seems to have come too close.
The communication of truth, therefore, follows the mode of witness, which restores presence to transcendence and restores transcendence to presence. Witness, however, does not have a marginal relationship with the truth, as though one was dealing with some communicative surplus to be added to other, perhaps more effective, strategies. The role of witness in the communication of truth is irreplaceable because only truth generates witness – something confirmed in a paradoxical way by the discussions and non-understandings connected with its value and reliability, above all when witness is spent in the approach of the ‘lie detector’ and its related tests. The idea that only the truth generates witness overturns the situation, given that it is difficult to go on seeing it as a daughter, moreover an illegitimate daughter, of knowledge. It also leads witness to the primary position in the communication of truth, that position which is contemporaneously saying and being. And perhaps witness even makes the overly rigid distinction between words and life irrelevant. Whatever the case, only truth generates witness.
The truth concerns me. It makes itself present in witness without remaining buried in the alternating successes and failures of daily life. It is transcendent without completely evaporating in the unrecognisable smokiness of light mental heights. It almost appears that one can use the same words of the inter-human for truth – words of nearness and a distance that are both already there, together, before being able to be chosen, and thus words of a practical unconditional, of something, that is to say, that does not depend completely on oneself. The truth thus takes on the figure of an otherness that very much concerns me from near at hand without identifying itself with me, and by which I am almost torn away from myself, and to such an extent that it becomes incumbent upon me to bear witness to it.
The relationship between witness and otherness, involving both its structure and its equivocations, is always dual – the otherness of truth which although it concerns me also transcends me is flanked by the otherness of the other person to whom is given witness of the transcendence to this truth, that is so near.
Since the relationship with the truth overturns understanding into being involved, our asking into being asked, no witness is ever directed towards itself: to bear witness does not mean saying ‘I’ but rather ‘here I am!. In the ‘here I am’ (3) of witness, in fact, there takes place something that is unthinkable in the horizon of nature which unknowingly ‘provides witness of itself’ because it is ‘unitary’ or coherent, (4) and which, after a certain fashion, on its own is ‘already witness (revelation) to a creation’ (5) by which ‘every blade of grass, every beetle, all beings’ become ‘witness to the divine mystery’. (6) Witness interrupts faithfulness to oneself by inaugurating responsibility towards truth and other people. It is not, therefore, a matter of personal coherence or qualities that attract attention to oneself – it is a matter, rather, of a breaking through, of an opening, of the novelty itself of responsibility. ‘Bearing witness to oneself’ distances us both from the truth and from witness to favour ideology and propaganda, in the noblest of cases. In less noble cases one is faced with a simple screen for the affirmation of oneself, and this is one of the pathologies of bearing witness.
Witness is not an affirmation of oneself as regards the truth that is borne witness to but involves me in the first person because it goes beyond me infinitely: through the voice of the witness, in fact, ‘in witness the glory itself of the Infinite is glorified’ (7) Nor can it be an affirmation of oneself as regards the person to whom witness is provided. Witness to truth, indeed, restores to the other his transcending of me both as the recipient of bearing witness and in virtue of his personal relationship with the truth: even with the other person, as takes place with the truth, there is no identification. Without the projection of the other in relation to me, this freedom which is his very secret, witness becomes useless as a mode of communication of the truth.
Witness, as witness to the truth, is never an affirmation of oneself. Affirmation in itself intimately contradicts, indeed, witness to the truth because it is translated into its own opposite. In confusing witness with affirmation of oneself, one generates a dual and parallel negation of transcendence and presence, which concern contemporaneously both the truth and the other to whom one provides witness. In this confusion the self suffocates both the truth and the other person to whom one must provide witness, making that witness vain.
Affirmation of self annuls witness not because witness does not contain from the outset a potency of affirmation, but because this affirmation does not concern oneself in front of the truth, given that the need and the duty to bear witness specifically exclude coinciding, and even less oneself in front of the other: witness is understood more as a kind of ‘perpetual attestation’. (8)
Affirming and Denying
To bear witness is to affirm. The affirmation contained in witness is not translated therefore into forms of negation, unless by a kind of intimate degradation, nor into those of a negation of the transcendence of truth that nonetheless is being proclaimed and made present through witness, nor, in addition, into those of a negation of transcending the other in his relationship with the truth.
For that matter, a sign of witness is not even the intentional negation of oneself, as though the fact that witness is not an affirmation of oneself suggested or authorised a will to self-destruction. Witness affirms a transcendence of the truth that does not demand a masochistic self-sacrifice because it lives in its presence here and now or in the personal relationship of witness to the truth. The negation of self is nothing else but the upside down and annihilating face of self-affirmation, and it is not in the least in the state of solidarity with the affirmation of truth.
Self-affirmation and self-negation in themselves both contain a destructive charge directed towards oneself, towards other people, and towards the truth, in an escalation that transforms witness first into ostentation, if not indeed into pious arrogance, and then into a nightmare and terror for oneself and for other people – whose first signals, however, should be looked for precisely in those thoughts and those practices of self-affirmation that inevitably flow into negation.
Witness undoubtedly moves within the order of affirmation and everything that emerges as a strategy intertwined with negation – of transcending the truth, of transcending the other, of the witness himself – changes witness into something else. Witness to the truth affirms in an existential and dialogic way: it expresses and restores trust and hope through the reassurance that in the depths of each person there is much more than the self.
Witness to truth is never witness to oneself: one provides witness to other people to something other than oneself, and also to the shared world as it is configured. With a difference, however, because witness is always positioned in front of the other; and this means that in witness responsibility for the truth and responsibility for the other are inseparable. Witness provided to the other, taking his otherness seriously, his diversity that is present, makes tangible the otherness of truth in relation to oneself. To commit oneself to truth, in this sense, is nothing other than commitment to, and with, the other. Witness is not, therefore, only a way of communicating the truth because it itself is threaded through from top to bottom with a modal requirement that almost discriminates the fact of being truly in front of bearing witness. In the face of the dual transcendence – and the dual presence – of truth and the other in his relationship with the truth: not in the form of a proselytising approach, not in the form of an induced belief, but in the decisive delicacy with which one provides witness to the other person to the vital and demanding quality of the relationship with the truth, which is of unexpected riches. In the negation of the other as the other there is a radical denial both of witness and of truth. To bear witness, in fact, is pro-life.
The relationship with the truth imposes the thought of the mode of witness to it: a dialogic form of communication that means neither uncertainty nor fear nor astuteness. Because of its modal character, witness to truth and witness for the other person march in parallel: closely connected internally, together they also make each other credible.
In analyses of witness one comes into contact with the question of the truthfulness of the witness, his transparency, of him making himself a pure echo. This is a difficult question to solve which involves one in an unfinished task of interpretation and which also runs the risk of some forms of ingenuousness if one looks, that is, for purity of transparency. This is because the filter of the witness as he is, with his abilities but also with his incapacities, with his examples of coherence and incoherence, cannot be avoided, unless one wants to make the testimony depend on the construction of the transparency and purity of the witness. If such a thing were ever possible, it would, however, be a tragedy for truth: one would remove its capacity for impact, its intrinsic beauty – the truth itself of truth – with the expression to the full of a profound distrust towards it. To look for such purity is contradictory and misleading, even dangerous: it once again moves the emphasis in a unilateral way from the truth to the witness; one is opened up to the temptation of a philosophy of effectiveness which is not that of truth itself; and, lastly, it seems to enable a provision of licences to witness as though it were limited to somebody and could not, instead, be a matter for everyone.
Witness to the truth does not make the witness transparent, but it does do this to the unbreakable link between responsibility for the truth and responsibility for the other person, which accredit each other (and once again deny each other).
In addition to expressing personal responsibility for the truth in an irreplaceable decision which brings it into existence here and now, witness attests that it is, right away, responsibility for the other who, in his own otherness, generates it: there can be no responsibility for the truth without responsibility for the other. To bear witness to the truth is always to bear witness to the other, only that the other to whom one gives witness is the spectator or the target of witness. Witness given ‘to the other’ is also witness ‘for’ the other, responsibility for the truth becomes immediately responsibility for the other.
Responsibility for the truth thus becomes visible and credible in responsibility for the other. In witness to the truth there thus lives multiple responsibility: for the truth, for the other, for the human which is shared (universal), understood as from the beginning of the relationship of witness. In witness to the truth, lastly, comes forth responsibility for the other and for what is shared, to which, however, only the presence of the other refers.
The challenge of witness is a commitment within responsibility for the truth and for the other, both of which are not conditional, not a matter for negotiation, and not relativistic. The mode of an operative trust – of a dialogue – whose form is oral and practical: the construction of the shared city as a place involving welcome for the truth and for the other.
(1) P. Ricœur, ‘L’hérméneutique du témoignage’, in La testimonianza, «Archivio di Filosofia», 1-2, 1972, p. 54.
(2) E. Lévinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence (Nijhoff, La Haye 1974), p. 187.
(3) E. Lévinas, Etica e Infinito, edited by F. Riva (Città Aperta Edizioni, Troina [En] 2008), p. 102.
(4) H. Jonas, Il principio responsabilità. Un’etica per la civiltà tecnologica, edited by P.P. Portinaro (Einaudi, Turin, 1993), p. 87.
(5) F. Rosenzweig, La stella della redenzione (Vita e Pensiero, Milan, 2005), libro II.
(6) F. Dostoevskij, I fratelli Karamazov, (Rusconi, Milan, 2003), p. 347.
(7) E. Lévinas, Etica e Infinito, op. cit., p. 102.
(8) Cf. G. Marcel, Essai de philosophie concrète (Gallimard, Paris, 1999), p. 190.