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About Emmanuel Levinas
Lois Shawver

Levinas was born in 1906 in Lithuania, however, after going through the 1917 Russian revolution he left for France. From there he he traveled back and forth to Germany to pursue his studies with Husserl and Heidegger. Levinas died in 1995.
He was made famous by Sartre who said that he had phenomenology by reading
Levinas.
Levinas was particularly struck by Heidegger's early phenomenology of Being and Time
(that he summarized in his paraphrase Martin Heidegger and Ontology).

Like Heidegger, Levinas emphasizes the importance of time for human understanding. He says that "time" is the profound relationship that humans have with God. It involves an understanding and appreciation of the limited time of our lives.

But central to Levinas ontology is his analysis of man's relation to the Other. It is the foundation of our developing subjectivity. He explains that the ethical requirement that we are responsible to or for the Other unsettles our
subjectivity. So, whereas Heidegger thought of death in terms of "my death", for Levinas death is always the Other's. Our consciousness is determined by the way in which we are haunted by the Other's death and the possibility of that death.

Ӣҳɲμhttp://home.att.net/~alterity/Layers/lev.html
http://www.u.arizona.edu/~danika/levinas.html
http://home.pacbell.net/atterton/levinas/

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Introducing Levinas to Undergraduate Philosophers
Anthony F. Beavers

The question of the source of the moral "ought" is no small question, nor is it
unimportant. Our own philosophical tradition has dealt with the question in several
ways producing a variety of answers. Some of these include locating the "ought" in
the structure of reason (Kant), in the human being's desire for pleasure
(Utilitarianism), or in the will of God (Aquinas). The reason why the question is so
important is because different conceptions of the source of the moral ought
ultimately give rise to different conceptions of what is right and wrong; they also
affect the way we answer the biggest of all ethical questions, why be good.

Levinas begins his answer to this question precisely with the origin of the moral
ought, which unfolds on the level of the individual. For him, ethics is, first and
foremost, born on the concrete level of person to person contact. He does not find
the moral "ought" inscribed within the laws of the cosmos, in reason, or in any
universal desire for pleasure. Instead, each individual case of moral conflict
produces the moral "ought" itself.

Today I wish to do nothing more than present an exposition of the source of
the "ought" in Levinas. [1] It will be difficult to present an argument here,
because the moral "ought" for Levinas has already occurred before reason comes on
the scene. To present a rational argument for what occurs before reason is
impossible; to do so would be to take reason into a domain where reason cannot go, in this case, to the point of contact between one person and another. Thus, Levinas can only have for us an evocative appeal. The goal of presenting ethics in this fashion is not to discover the truth of ethics, but to make an appeal for ethical transformation. Levinas invites us to listen, not only to what he has to say, but, more importantly, to the voice of the Other, who sanctions all of our moral obligation.


To get this lecture off the ground, I will derive Levinas' moral "ought" by starting with an assumption: ethics occurs always in relation to other persons. When asked how to define ethics, I am assuming that our answer will include an important reference to other people. This is not necessarily to say that there can be no ethics without at least two people -- though this is the case for Levinas. It is to say that ethics is an important issue for us because it governs the way in which we relate with one another. This assumption is not unfounded: indeed, St. Thomas tells us that "harm should not be given to an other". Kant's Categorical Imperative indicates that the moral agent should "treat humanity, whether in his/her own person or the person of another, not only as a means but also as an end in itself." And Mill's "principle of utility" implies others when he notes that ethics is rooted in the notion of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If ethics is concerned with the other, then it would appear that in order to fill out a complete account of
ethics, the means by which two people come in contact with each other will be
vitally important. Here, then is the root of Levinas' concern: to establish the
source of contact between persons or the source of interpersonal meaning, and in finding this meaning, Levinas finds the ethical.

To a non-philosopher, the source of contact between persons seems to be a
superficial question. The answer is, at first, easy. The other person is met in
experience everyday, on the street, in the classroom, in the workplace, etc. To a
philosopher, however, the question is not so easy: we in the tradition recognize the
difficulties inherent in interpersonal contact. Does the other person have a mind?
Is the other a creation of my imagination, as Descartes asks looking out of his
study at the automata that pass by dressed in coats and hats? In light of these
questions, though, we can never truly deny the existence of the other in the context
of the street, the classroom, or the workplace, even if we can deny such contact in
a theoretical context. It is on the level of life, then, as opposed to that of
theory, that Levinas has his appeal.

Levinas comes directly out of the tradition established by Descartes, Kant and
Husserl. "Every idea is a work of the mind," writes Descartes in his Meditations.
[2] Ideas are created, invented by a mind, not discovered. This leaves Descartes
with a problem: "How can [ideas] that have their origin in the mind nevertheless
give us knowledge of independently real substances." [3] He answers this question
through proofs for God's existence and divine veracity. But as the tradition
progresses, Kant notes that God cannot be used within philosophy to the extent that
Descartes would like. Thus, Descartes is left alone in his world with only his
ideas: there is no contact with an other who is not an other in one of his ideas.
Husserl takes this to its logical consequences in the fifth of his Cartesian
Meditations and notes that the other is "there," present to me, but only in the
sense that the other has for me. He writes, "Consciousness makes present a 'there
too', which nevertheless is not itself there and can never become an 'itself-
there'." [4] The other of Husserl's Cartesian Meditations is not an extra-mental
other, that is, one who exists independently of me; rather, the other is only the
meaning that I constitute for the other. In other words, the meaning of being an
other comes down to my interpretation of the other, an interpretation which is the
working of my own mind quite apart from what or whether the other may be.

If we can accept this notion that ideas are inventions of the mind, that ideas are,
when it comes down to it, only interpretations of something, and if ethics, in fact,
is taken to refer to real other persons who exist apart from my interpretations,
then we are up against a problem: there is no way in which ideas, on the current
model, refer to independently existing other persons, and as such, ideas cannot be
used to found an ethics. There can be no pure practical reason until after contact
with the other is established.

Given this view towards ideas, then, anytime I take the person in my idea to be the
real person, I have closed off contact with the real person; I have cut off the
connection with the other that is necessary if ethics is to refer to real other
people. This is a central violence to the other that denies the other his/her own
autonomy. Levinas calls this violence "totalization" and it occurs whenever I limit
the other to a set of rational categories, be they racial, sexual, or otherwise.
Indeed, it occurs whenever I already know what the other is about before the other
has spoken. Totalization is a denial of the other's difference, the denial of the
otherness of the other. That is, it is the inscription of the other in the same. If
ethics presupposes the real other person, then such totalization will, in itself, be
unethical.

If reducing the other to my sphere of ideas cuts off contact with the other, then we
are presupposing that contact with the other has already been established. And if
contact with the other cannot be established through ideas, then we must look
elsewhere. Thus, Levinas looks not to reason, but to sensibility, to find the real
other person.

Sensibility, for Levinas, goes back to a point before thought originates, before the
ordering of a world into a system or totality. [5] Sensibility is passive, not
active as thought is, and it is characterized primarily by enjoyment. Life as it is
lived, (rather than understood), is lived as the satisfaction of being "filled" with
sensations, the satisfaction of feeding on the environment.

Departing from Heidegger who maintains that we live from things through their
function as tools and implements, Levinas maintains that we live from these things
as nourishments. I eat my bread; in the activity of eating it becomes a part of my
body. I bathe in the music of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata"; in the activity of
bathing. I "digest" the music. It becomes me. This "living from" is a matter of
consumption, a matter of taking what is other and making it become a part of me.
Levinas writes:

Nourishment, as a means of invigoration, is the transmutation of the other into the
same, which is the essence of enjoyment; an energy that is other, recognized as
other, recognized ... as sustaining the very act that is directed upon it becomes,
in enjoyment, my own energy, my strength, me. [6]
This taking on of what nourishes me conveys a separation between me and what has yet
to nourish me. "Enjoyment is made," writes Levinas, "of the memory of its thirst; it
is a quenching." [7] Enjoyment then includes the memory of once not having been
satisfied with what now satisfies me. Thus, enjoyment also involves stepping back
from my environment; "living from ... delineates independence itself, the
independence of enjoyment and happiness ..." [8] Before enjoyment, there is me and
the other thing that has yet to nourish me, even if the otherness of what will
nourish me becomes apparent only in enjoyment, in the "memory" of its thirst. I can
represent the bread, but this will not feed me. I must eat it. But then in eating my
bread, the memory of hunger, evinces a separation between the bread and me. Thus, in
enjoyment, the self emerges already as the subject of its need.

If Levinas is correct, then, the human being starts first as happy, satisfied with
the plenum of sensations. He/she enjoys them. This enjoyment as independence is the
initial formation of the I. But, this self, the self of enjoyment, constitutes an
egoism. It is happy, but selfish. The self of enjoyment journeys into the world to
make everything other part of itself, and it succeeds very well at this task. Cohen
summarizes all of this nicely:

[Sensation] is called "happiness" because at this level of sensibility the subject
is entirely self-satisfied, self-complacement [sic], content, sufficient. Instead of
[rational] synthesis, there are vibrations; instead of unifications, there are
excitations; rather than an ecstatic self, there are margins of intensities,
scattered stupidities, involutions without centers -- egoism and solitude without
substantial unity; a sensational happiness ... This event does not happen to
subjectivity, this eventfulness, this flux, is subjectivity. [9]
Thus, Levinas finds on the level of sensibility a subjectivity that is more
primordial than rational subjectivity. [10] It is not limited by the sphere of one's
own ideas, but by the egoist self that goes out to enjoy the world. What is
important here is that, unlike the sphere of ideas, sensibility reaches further out
into the domain of the extra-mental. [11]

Having established subjectivity on the level of sensibility provides Levinas with a
place "where" the other can be met, not in the cabinet of consciousness, but on the
street, in the classroom, or in the workplace, where the egoism of enjoyment has the
possibility of becoming "filled" with sensations. Furthermore, establishing
subjectivity on the level of sensibility leads Levinas to a point where he can
establish that the human subject is, first and foremost, passive. Sensations come to
me from the outside only to be swallowed up on the inside. But, unlike the contents
of ideas, sensations are discovered, given. They are not invented.

The ethical moment, the moment in which the moral "ought" shows itself, is found,
for Levinas, on the level of sensibility when the egoist self comes across something
that it wants to enjoy, something that it wants to make a part of itself, but
cannot. That which the self wants to enjoy but cannot is the other person. The
reason that it cannot enjoy the other person is not rooted in some deficiency of
sensibility, but in the other person who pushes back, as it were, who does not allow
him/herself to be consumed in the egoism of my enjoyment. The other resists
consumption. The presence of the other, on this level, is not, properly speaking,
known. The other person is encountered as a felt weight against me.

Thus, for Levinas, the other has some power over me. Indeed, the other is a
transcendence that comes from beyond the categories of my thought, from beyond the
world, from the other side of Being. Because of the other-worldliness of the
epiphany of the other in the face-to-face, the face speaks thus: "I am not yours to
be enjoyed: I am absolutely other," or to put the claim in Levinas' terms, "thou
shalt not kill."

John Burke describes the initial approach of the other person in terms of
astonishment or surprise. In so doing, he also notes the essential element of
radical passivity that arises from contact with the other person. He writes, "My
astonishment seems less an activity of mine, a willful projection of a function of
my interests, than the deepest mode of passivity." [12] Vulnerability arises from
such a surprise, a being caught off guard by the epiphany of the other person. My
solitude is invaded by the other person who comes from nowhere. [13]

This element of "catching off-guard" is important here, because it indicates more
about the presence of the other than the mere perception of the other. This catching
off-guard makes me aware of the presence of the other as an other who is due my
concern, not because I choose to give it to the other, but because it is demanded of
me. I want to consume the other, but cannot. [14] Several steps are involved in
elucidating this moment. In this discussion, I will present two of them: proximity
and substitution. These two notions will lead us to an understanding of ethical
responsibility in Levinas, though it must be understood that responsibility is not
derived from these steps; it is, rather, bound up with them.

The face of the other, that element of the other that is the ground of interpersonal
contact, indicates an immediacy with the other person that Levinas
calls "proximity." [15] Proximity is felt as immediate contact. Levinas writes:

... the proximity of the Other is not simply close to me in space, or close like a
parent, but he approaches me essentially insofar as I feel myself -- insofar as I
am -- responsible for him. It is a structure that in nowise resembles the
intentional relation which in knowledge attaches us to the object -- to no matter
what object, be it a human object. Proximity does not revert to this intentionality;
in particular it does not revert to the fact that the other is known to me. [16]
The proximity of the other demands a response; thus, Levinas claims that proximity
is responsibility, or the ability to respond. [17] Proximity must then be thought of
as a weight upon me that comes from the outside. But unlike Sartre who finds an
antagonism in this entry of the other from the outside, Levinas finds the
possibility of ethics, or the ground upon which ethics first shows itself. Not only
does the possibility of ethics show itself here, the self now takes on a different
characteristic. A new subjectivity is born that indicates that my self, as a
subject, is a primary projection towards the other as a move of responsibility to
the other. The very meaning of being a social subject is to be for-the-other.

Levinas writes, "Subjectivity is being a hostage." [18] In other words, subjectivity
arises from confrontation with the other person where the other is dominant, never
reducible to the domain of the same. Subjectivity means, in this context, subjection
to the other.

The self is a sub-jectum: it is under the weight of the universe ... the unity of
the universe is not what my gaze embraces in its unity of apperception, but what is
incumbent upon me from all sides, regards me, is my affair. [19]
The self is subjected to the other who comes from on high to intrude upon my
solitude and interrupt my egoist enjoyment. The self, feeling the exterior in the
guise of the other pass through its world, is already obligated to respond to the
transcendent other who holds the self hostage. In turn, this means that "the latent
birth of the subject occurs in obligation where no commitment was made." [20] I do
not agree to live ethically with the other at first, I am ordered to do so. The
meaning of my being a self is found in opposition to the other, as an essential
ability to respond to the other. I am, above all things, a social self indentured a
priori, made to stand in the place of the other.

This standing in the place of the other provides Levinas with one of his most
powerful concepts, "substitution." Substitution arises directly from the self as
held hostage by the other. It is the means by which my being responds to the other
before I know that it does. Indeed, substitution is a sign of how other-directed the
human being actually is. In comporting myself towards the other person in
substitution, my identity becomes concrete. "In substitution my being that belongs
to me and not to another is undone, and it is through substitution that I am
not 'another,' but me." [21]

If Levinas is correct here, the meaning of being a social subject is primarily to be
for the other person. Again, substitution is indicative of a sacrifice of self -- it
cannot be merely the idea of being in the place of the other person, for ideas have
yet to come on the scene. As Lingis suggests:

One is held to bear the burden of others: the substitution is a passive effect,
which one does not succeed in converting into an active initiative or into one's own
virtue. [22]
While it is true that Levinas is vague on the essence of substitution, the
suggestion seems to be that in being persecuted by an other person, I am made to
consider the person as an other. However, since such consideration cannot be made on
the conceptual level, this consideration becomes manifest in a comportment of the
self to the other person. Consideration for the other means being-considerate-for-
the-other. Substitution then is recognizing myself in the place of the other, not
with the force of a conceptual recognition, but in the sense of finding myself in
the place of the other as a hostage for the other. Substitution is the conversion of
my being as a subjection by the other into a subjection for the other.

To get a sense of how powerful Levinas' notion of substitution is, let me depart
from the vocabulary of his language for a moment and cast the discussion into
concrete terms. Suppose for a moment that you are walking down the street and the
person in front of you pushes a garbage can into the street. You might pick up the
garbage can, you might not -- but, certainly you will not feel like an injustice has
been done to the garbage can. Now suppose that in the same situation, the person in
front of you pushes another person into the street. Suppose further that this
person, while lying on the ground looks up at you. Do you "feel" the need to
respond? Levinas says that at this moment, the ethical command has been waged. You
are obligated to respond. If the desire to respond does not, at first, present
itself as a command, and you respond because you want to respond, then you have just
been witness to the depth that substitution has taken in your own being. The desire
to respond is already a responsiveness to the command of the other.

Some ethicists find that if we respond to the person because we feel a personal need
to do so, then we are really satisfying our own desire, and, as such, our action
does not have true moral worth. Levinas' point is more profound on this score. He
notes that there is a metaphysical explanation for why we have this desire to
respond. The explanation is rooted, once again, in substitution. First of all, the
person has a transcendence that the garbage can does not have, and secondly, we
have, in fact, already substituted ourselves for the other. [23] Within Levinas'
framework, the desire to help the other emerges because I am held hostage by the
other to the core of my being, and, in substitution, I am made to stand for the
other, before freedom and reason comes on the scene.

This brings us, at last, to Levinas' notion of ethical "responsibility." This notion
of responsibility, much in line with our concept of responsiveness, means that in
being a subject I am already in the grip of the Other. It also entails that all
thought enters on the scene after the epiphany of the other in the face-to-face.
This is to say that the other person precedes my ethical subjectivity, and that
ethics precedes any conceptual science. Inasmuch as responsibility is foundational
for all interpersonal relationships, it is in responsibility that we are going to
find a means to pass from an encounter with the real other person into ethics.
Levinas writes:

In [Otherwise than Being] I speak of responsibility as the essential, primary and
fundamental mode of subjectivity. For I describe subjectivity in ethical terms.
Ethics, here, does not supplement a preceding existential base [as Heidegger would
have it]; the very node of the subjective is knotted in ethics understood as
responsibility. [24]
Furthermore, "the tie with the Other is knotted only as responsibility" [25] as
well. Thus, responsibility is the link between the subject and the other person, or,
in more general terms, the source of the moral "ought" and the appearance of the
other person as person and not as thing are one and the same. There is no authentic
sociality apart from ethics, and there is no ethics apart from sociality. To say
that responsibility is foundational for ethics and interpersonal relations is to say
then not only that responsibility is what relates one subject to another, but it is
to go on to say that the meaning of the otherness of the other person is given in
responsibility, and not in my interpretation of the other person. The very meaning
of being an other person is "the one to whom I am responsible." Thus, the contact
with the real other person that I spoke of at the beginning of this lecture as
something presupposed by the very meaning of ethics turns out to be, in Levinas'
account, the source of the moral "ought."

Anthony F. Beavers
The University of Evansville


1. The process presented in this lecture follows the lines established in Totality
and Infinity. Between the writing of this text and the later text, Otherwise than
Being or Beyond Essence, Levinas changed his mind on the ordering of the process.
See Lingis' introduction to Otherwise than Being for more information on this point.

2. The Philosophical Works of Descartes, eds. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T.
Ross, vol. II, Meditations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 162.

3. Robert Paul Wolff, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity: A Commentary on the
Transcendental Analytic of the "Critique of Pure Reason" (Gloucester, Mass: Peter
Smith, 1973), 32.

4. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Pure Phenomenology,
translated by Dorion Cairns (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1960), 50, 139.

5. The "world" for Levinas is always the world constituted in subjectivity. It
should not, therefore, be taken as extra-mental.

6. Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by Alphonso
Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 111.

7. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 113.

8. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 110.

9. Richard Cohen, "Emmanuel Levinas: Happiness is a Sensational Time," Philosophy
Today 25 (1981): 201. This excellent article shows Levinas' debt to Husserl's
phenomenology and his departure from it.

10. There are at least three different types of subjectivity in Levinas: 1) rational subjectivity -- the self of representation that occurs in the "I think"; 2) subjectivity of being -- the self of enjoyment and need; and 3) ethical
subjectivity -- the social self that arises from transcendent interpersonal contact.

11. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 109. "If cognition in the form of the
objectifying act does not seem to us to be at the level of the metaphysical
relation, this is not because the exteriority contemplated as an object, the theme,
would withdraw from the subject as fast as the abstractions proceed; on the
contrary, it does not withdraw far enough."

12. John Patrick Burke, "The Ethical Significance of the Face," ACPA Proceedings 56 (1982): 198.

13. See Burke, "The Ethical Significance of the Face," 198. The reason that the
other "comes from nowhere" is seen in the fact that the "world" for Levinas is
constituted by my reason and exists "for me." The Other comes from beyond the world,
hence, from a domain that is not able to be located by me.

14. Levinas makes a distinction between desire and need. Need differs from desire to
the extent that a need can be satisfied while a desire cannot. Thus, desire has a
metaphysical significance. Put concretely, I desire the other person, but since the
other cannot be reduced to the domain of the same, my desire for the other can never
be fulfilled.

15. See Andrew Tallon, "Intentionality, Intersubjectivity, and the Between: Buber
and Levinas on Affectivity and the Dialogical Principle," Thought 53 (1978):
304. "The radical passivity of Levinas's self ... emerges only with the advent of
the other, with the face of the other drawing near me; This nearness (proximit) is,
of course, not an intentionality by me or him alone, not a mental "state" or
activity, but meaning between us."

16. Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo,
translated by Richard Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), 97. This
elegant little book goes a long way in making Levinas' thought approachable to the
uninitiated.

17. See Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, translated by
Alphonso Lingis (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1981), 139: "Proximity,
difference which is non-indifference, is responsibility."

18. Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 127.

19. Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 127.

20. Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 140.

21. Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 127.

22. Alphonso Lingis in the translator's introduction to Otherwise than Being, xxxi.
This introduction consists of a concise exposition of Levinas' thought in this work.

23. I wish to thank Carl Weisner for helping me to develop this point.

24. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 95.

25. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 97.