Levinas on the Difference between Morality and Ethics – Lecture 7

August 29, 2016

Levinas-portraitFor Gaita the difference between ethics and morality is that the former is the relation to the other in their individuality, whereas the latter is conceptual. The psychiatrists, in the hospital he worked at, could speak of their patients in terms of rights and dignity, but their actions showed the opposite. Whereas the behaviour of the nun, in her love of them, showed Gaita what it meant to treat every human life as infinitely precious. It was actions that revealed this truth rather than words. Levinas makes the same fundamental distinction. He asks at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, ‘whether we are not duped by morality’ (1969, p. 21). This is not because he thinks that we live in a world without values, but like Gaita, there is relation to the other that transcends all values and norms. Ethics is the immediate response to the other human being who makes a demand on me without negotiation or legitimation on my part. Ethics is not decided by me thinking whether I have an obligation or not, but through my response to the suffering and vulnerability of others. The opposite to this, which can sometime be justified by a morality without ethics, is a violence against the other human being.

Gaita, as we have seen, comes from a wittgensteinian tradition, whereas Levinas’s background is phenomenology, so it would be worth looking at this first before we go onto explain Levinas’s ethics in any detail. Phenomenology, through the teaching and writings of Husserl, is return to the roots and beginnings of philosophy. He sees it as a recommencement and reminder of what philosophy is meant to be. Within the modern context, this is an argument against naturalism, which is the belief that science is the only discourse that can make sense of the world. Just as philosophy freed itself from the shackles of theology it then subordinated itself to science, but even science is dependent on the original presentation of the world, for if the world did not present itself to us how would we begin to explain it? This original presentation of the world through perception is the basis of any scientific explanation and is the task of philosophy to describe it. The fundamental basis of the presentation is intentionality. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. I never just see something before me, but always ‘something as something’, the tree as a tree, the car as a car and so on.

One way to think of the difference between ethics and morality is through the phenomenological presentation of the world. The question is, does the other appear to me differently from other objects in the world, and if the other does appear differently, then can this difference be explained ethically? When Levinas speaks of the presence of the other, he does so in terms of the face, but he does not mean by the face some kind of objective property that another person might have, like the colour of their hair or the shape of their eyes. No doubt we can relate to other people like that, and for the most part we do so. Others just belong to the rest of the furniture of the world and I hardly notice them. Yet in this way, Levinas would argue, I am not having an ethical relation to them at all. I am like the psychiatrists in Gaita’s example. I can speak about the patients using words like ‘rights’, ‘dignity’, and ‘respect’, but I don’t really ‘see’ them at all in their individuality and singularity.

Levinas speaks of this radical difference between the ethical relation to the other and the relation to others through categories and concepts as the impossibility of murder. This sounds strange and peculiar because we know that murder is not impossible. Levinas’s point is not that we do not kill and harm others, but that it is only possible because we already have robbed them of a human face. We remember Reznikoff’s poem in the previous lecture. The S.S. officer can brutally murder the mother and child because he does not see their faces. They are only things, ‘vermin’, obstacles that need to be eliminated. They are less worthy of sympathy than a stray dog.

In several interviews in the 1980s, Levinas refers to an incident in Vassily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, whose subject matter is German siege of Stalingrad and the Soviet defeat of the Nazi’s, as a way of explaining what he means by ethics (2001, pp. 80–1).[1] The book is about the terrible and horrific events of the 20th century, battles, massacres and genocide, but it is the little human events one remembers after reading it. One such event happens at the end of the book, when the battle of Stalingrad is over. German prisoners are being used to bury the dead who are found everywhere. There is crowd watching them. One prisoner is a German officer who is tormented by what he is doing. He seemed to be the only one who was affected, but for this reason attracted the scorn and anger of the little crowd. One corpse they picked up was a child. Someone in the crowd shouted out as though they recognised her, as though they were her mother. The crowd was on edge and was ready to visit the worst violence against the German officer. She picked up a brick and was ready to assault him, but as she strode to him she did something that was perfectly senseless in the situation. She felt for a piece of bread in her pocket and gave it to him, saying ‘There, have something to eat’ (Grossman, 2006, pp. 395–6). Levinas says of this incident and the rest of the book, ‘there are acts of stupid, senseless goodness. Grossman shows is this throughout the whole book.’ (2001, p. 89). Why describe such actions as ‘stupid’? They are not legitimised by any political, or moral system. Indeed, they are the very opposite of systems of morality and work in opposition to them. They are the direct response to the human being who stands before me beyond ideology, creed or dogma. The woman recognises the German officer as a human being and gives to him her last bread, even she can’t even explain or understand why she did so. You could see this scene against the one portrayed in Reznikoff’s poem. He did not see the mother or child as human beings because of a system of morals, however perverted and hostile to human life it was, whereas she saw the humanity and suffering in the German officer, despite dogma and ideology that would have made him an object of hatred and violence.

Levinas describes this ethical relation in detail in his book Totality and Infinity (1969). It is the relation of the self to the other outside of any conceptual or categorical system. Levinas describes it as a concrete event. Not the ‘I’ as it is thought, but lived. Not the ‘other’ as someone I think or theorise about, but other that stands before in their singular presence. The ethical relation, as Levinas describes it, is asymmetrical. He means by that, that the relation of the other to me is not the same as my relation to them. The ethical moment of this relation is when the other’s presence makes a demand upon me and calls into question my possession of the world. There is no reciprocal demand. Subjectivity, as concretely experienced, is egoism. I enjoy and possess my world, and in this enjoyment others are of no concern to me at all. Ethics is only possible because the other’s presence calls into question my self-centred happiness. The other interrupts my world and demands justice from me. I do so of them.

The way that Levinas describes this ethical relation of transcendence is through the primacy of speech. The theoretical relation to the world, including other people, is one of vision. I perceive and see things and then subsequently label them. The relation of ethics, where the other calls me into question, happens in the relation of speech. The other speaks to me and only then do they have a ‘face’ and I respond to them. The face, then, for Levinas is not physiognomy, but the presence of the other in the words they speak. In Grossman’s story, the woman sees the German officer and hates him. He represents for her all the terrible events of the war and the dreadful acts of the Nazis. She does not see him. He just represents for her the category ‘Nazi’ or ‘German’. It is only when she speaks to him, when she says to him ‘have something to eat’ does she respond to him as one human being facing another. He does not represent anything. He is only this suffering being in front of her that she responds to with kindness and generosity, however senseless it might be in that situation. Speech is the experience of the other as other.

If Levinas were to criticise Gaita, he would probably say two things. First of all, the way that he describes ethical relation is as though it came from the side of the self rather than the other. It is up to me whether I love the other or not and reveal them in the common humanity. It is the nun who reveals the humanity of the patients and only then is this revealed to Gaita as though at third hand. In some sense, therefore, the difference between ethics and morality is only a different kind of thought, how Gaita thinks about ethics once he understands the actions of the nun. For Levinas, on the contrary, ethics comes from the side of the other, who makes a demand upon me, and then I act. This is why the end of Grossman’s story is so different. The woman doesn’t not understand why she gave the German officer the bread and never does. ‘Lying on her bed, full of bitterness, she was to remember that winter morning outside the cellar and think: “I was a fool then, and I’s still a fool now.”’ (Grossman, 2006, p. 394). Secondly, perhaps because Gaita is describing the ethical relation from the outside, it is a relation of vision rather than speech. The nun is speaking and responding to each patient she meets as ‘infinitely precious’, but Gaita only looks. His remorse is subsequent to this event, but in some sense he still keeps at a distance from it.

If there is a difference between ethics and morality, this does not mean that for Levinas we are duped by morality. We are only fooled if we place morality or systems higher than the ethical moment. Our moralities, as we have seen throughout human history, can betray our humanity rather than elevate it, for what better way to justify violence, murder and death, than through a morality. In fact, it is probably impossible to commit just dreadful acts without a belief system to support them so that one does not have to experience the humanity of one’s victim. We are not deceived if our morality is constantly held in check by ethics , like a scepticism, as Levinas compares it, that constantly haunts the pretension of reason’s having the last word, (1991, pp. 165–71).

When we observe the political justification of violence and indifference (think of the casual way that we speak of refugees and immigrants, as though they were not human beings like us), we might think Levinas’s and Gaita’s ethics is sentimental. This is Badiou’s accusation against this kind of ethics (2001). Rather than solving or changing the state of the world in which we live, it lives of this suffering, since in my response to it I can assuage my conscience without having done anything at all. This ethics is just a ‘pious discourse’ but does nothing at all to change the world, or even worse feeds of the world that it fails to transform. The more victims there are the more I can feel good about myself for defeating evil in the world. If there were no victims what could I do. So just as much as ethics must call into question our politics, so too must our ethics be translated into discourse. It not sufficient to simply respond to the other. You have to have in mind the others too who aren’t present there.[2]

Works Cited

Badiou, A., 2001. Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil. Verso, London; New York.

Critchley, S., 2004. Five Problems in Levinas’s View of Politics and the Sketch of a Solution to Them. Political Theory 32, 172–185.

Grossman, V.(, 2006. Life and fate. Vintage, London.

Lévinas, E., 2001. Is it righteous to be?: interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Lévinas, E., 1991. Otherwise than being, or, Beyond essence. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht; Boston.

Levinas, E., 1969. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Morgan, M.L., 2011. The Cambridge introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York.


[1] For an excellent explanation of Grossman’s importance to Levinas, see (Morgan, 2011, pp. 16–29).

[2] For an important discussion of politics in Levinas, see (Critchley, 2004).

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The Justice of Truth – Lecture 3

January 27, 2013

Ethics is the condition of truth and not truth ethics. Western philosophy accepts as its starting point that the first relation to the world is one of knowledge and then attempts to reconstruct society on that basis. For Levinas, on the contrary, the first relation is social in the form of the ethical relation of the self to the other who calls into question by enjoyment and possession of the world through speech.

The fundamental question for Western philosophy is how can I know the world? How can I be certain that my experience of the world is valid and I am not betrayed by appearances. There are two directions in which one might go in order to answer this question. One might say that I agree with the world or the world agrees with me. In the former, reality is given, and I seek to understand it, whereas in the later, reality is constructed and I have to seek to understand myself. In both cases truth is a matter of agreement, of wresting agreement from the anarchy of my first experiences. From Plato onwards, we might say, the general tendency of, with certain notable exceptions, philosophy is to discover the truth of the world in the self. Not that truth is subjective in any simple sense, but that the truth of the world exists in a common reason that we all share, but which we can only discover individually through our own application of this reason. Philosophy is both the discovery of this reason, and the means to achieve it.

Levinas is not doubting the truth of this truth, but whether the ascent to it could have a begun without a social relation that makes it possible but which, at the same time, is not reducible to it. The search for objective truth forgets this relation because it forgets its beginning and thinks that it has founded, like Plato’s Republic, the true society on its own rational principles which have neither beginning nor end, and in which each individual is ideally treated as equal. Such an equality is the highest principle of political theory, which is freedom.

Perhaps this concept of freedom, however, conceals a violence it is unaware of (or perhaps sometimes all too aware, since someone’s freedom might be an other’s tyranny). For the freedom of equality abolishes the difference between myself and the other that Levinas argues is the very possibility of ethics and therefore peace. Yet Levinas’s argument is not only a negative one, as we have already hinted, where a freedom that is conceived as greater than the social relation to the other, has, if left to its own devices the danger of becoming violence and war, but also a positive argument that even this freedom cannot exist without the social relation that precedes it. The politics of freedom might be necessary, but if it is not invested by the ethical relation, then it can, as history has so often taught is, become the very tyranny that it abhors. What philosophy sees as an achievement won, the equality of all, Levinas worries might lead us to forget the inequality of the relation the other, without which this equality can lead to violence (we fight wars, for example, for the sake of this freedom).

Even when we ordinarily speak about truth we talk about justification. Such a claim is usually thought about in terms of objectivity. A justified claim or judgement is a legitimate one. But we could take this justification literally. What would a justified speech be ethically? To speak justly for Levinas is first of all to respond to the presence of the other. I justify myself in front of them. This does not just mean that knowledge of the world is shared. The social condition for knowledge is not inter-subjectivity, because inter-subjectivity treats the terms in the relation as equivalent. The I and the Other are not separate from one another but unified in a ‘We’. This presupposes that the only way to think of the social relation is as a totality.

The constraint of my freedom is not worked out in advance through calculation but is the shame I feel in front of the other. If the presence of the other did not first of all call into question my enjoyment and possession of the world, then no such embarrassment would be possible, and then I would not have to justify myself. Such a constraint is not a battle of wills. It is not that other forces me to submit to their will, for this would treat the other as though they were the same as myself, and then it would be impossible to distinguish peace from war. I am only aware of my injustice because of the other not because I have arrived at it through my own self-reflection on the limits of my freedom. Such an limit comes from without and not within. It is not a limit of my power, but a limit set to my power by the other who I respond to through the demand their presence makes on me. The other is already justified. It is I who have to justify myself to them. This fact that I have to justify myself in the face of the other, Levinas call conscience and it is the very impetus to moral action.

Conscience welcomes the Other. It is the revelation of a resistance to my powers that does not counter them as a greater force, but calls in question the naïve right of my powers, my glorious spontaneity as a living being. Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent. [TI 84]

We are not then, as Sartre would say, condemned to be free. Rather our freedom is ‘inverted’ in the face of the Other. I do not first of all assert my freedom and then find that it is limited by obstacles in my way (those obstacles being indifferently people and things). On the contrary, my freedom is compromised from the very beginning, or prior to the beginning if one thinks that reality begins with a self that is in charge of itself. I am already guilty before I have accepted this guilt, because its existence is not dependent on my choice. It already defines my existence (even if I refuse to acknowledge it). The original source of the freedom of the self, which is the freedom to take up one’s existence is not to be found in the relation of this self to itself, but in its relation to the other. The genesis of my freedom, therefore is in the other. Freedom again is always freedom justified and not the arbitrary will that finds after the fact that nothing goes its own way. This anteriority of the demand of the other over my apparent independence Levinas calls ‘creation’ [TI 85]. Creation is not originally a theological concept, the absurd idea that the world is created by a God from a pure act of will (such an image of God is no different from the very arbitrary will of the subject that is called into question by the presence of the other), but recognition that the self is a dependent being before it even asserts its independence and that this independence, which must be real otherwise there would be no separation, is paradoxically a dependent one.

If knowledge is critique, as Kant would assert, then it comes from the side of the other and not the self. Self-critique ends up in an infinite regression where the self-reflection of the self upon itself disappears in a hall of mirrors. Only the presence of the other can truly critique the limits of my knowledge and thus provide it with its own external foundations. It can provide such a limit because the other is not an object of my knowledge or comprehension. It is that against which knowledge itself breaks. But why wouldn’t such an limit be an appeal to irrationality and myth? We might accept that the other is the limit to knowledge but this is not the same as saying that it is the ultimate source or foundation of knowledge, unless we appear to be saying that reason has its origin in unreason which would be tantamount to giving up on the possibility of Western philosophy.

When Levinas says that Western philosophy perceives reality in one way and prioritises thematisation, I do not think he means by that that we should give up philosophy, thought, or reason. The limits of philosophy are not philosophy’s limits which, like Kant’s famous island are always surrounded by the fog of superstition and enthusiasm for the unknowable, but there are the limits to philosophy. Philosophy itself has its non-philosophical source in the relation to the presence of the other. This relation is not mystical or mythical, but one of speech. It is speech first of all that makes philosophy possible, but the concrete experience of conversation is not itself reducible to a philosophical theme.[1]

Here we must make a distinction between what is said in speech and the act of speaking itself. It is not in what the other says to me that I have to justify myself, for what is said is common to each of us. It is the very impersonal reason that philosophy seeks to justify itself without recourse to the other. Yet what is said is only possible because someone speaks. The sign always refers back to a signified, to an idea or a concept. Such a signified always belongs to a systems of ‘signifieds’ and thus forms a totality of meaning. The other in speech, however, is not first of all a sign, because if that is all they were then the other and the same would be equivalent. They would be signs that belong to the same totality. The transcendence of the other is not what they say or what is said about them, but the saying itself that attaches itself to the word that is spoken. This for Levinas is the primary meaning of discourse. The speaker is present in the words they speak. It is to this presence that I respond. It is in this presence, or revelation to distinguish it from Heidegger’s disclosure, that I am called into question and must justify my freedom. In speech, therefore, the speakers, as opposed to what is said, are not at the same level. I speak in response to the other. The priority of the appeal of the Other to me is the measure of my responsibility in the ethical sense. My subjectivity is first of all responsibility and this responsibility, as a social relation, is the very condition of knowledge. For if knowledge is what is said, the ideas and concepts we use in order to understand the world and to share it in common both theoretically and practically, then there is no knowledge without the speakers and this speech is already curved towards the other. I must speak because the other address me. The priority of the presence of the other in speech Levinas calls ‘teaching.’[2]

The opposite of such a presence would be the ‘evil genius’ of Descartes’ Meditations. Such a description, however, is not the authentic portrayal of the other, but how reality would appear without teaching. A silent world is one in which I can find no certainty because the appearance of things is ambiguous and equivocal. Nothing seems as it is and the world is one of fear and terror. If the other were not present in the words they speak, then truth would not be a possibility. The world is first of all offered to me in the sincerity of the other’s speech and then it is subsequently thematised and theorised. Without this sincerity, I would never be able to trust the world and would, like the famous cogito, be stranded between the world of dreams and reality.

The objectivity and usefulness of things comes from within language that is the relation to the other, language as a social relation first of all, and not a description of reality that comes second. The truth of statements, therefore, is dependent of the statement of truth, which is not something said, but the orientation of speech: the one responding to the other. This orientation is even prior to Heidegger’s reformulation of truth as disclosure in Being and Time, where the truth of propositions is dependent on a disclosure of the world to me. Speech has nothing at all to do with the visible. I do see the other and then respond to them. They do not make themselves manifest to me. I respond to them in the straightforwardness of their appeal to me. I am made responsible to them in this infinite demand which transcends any possible idea or concept that I might have of them, and even goes beyond their disclosure as being within the network of habits and decisions that make up my everyday world. I am not with others, if we mean by ‘with’ side by side with them. The other calls into question my enjoyment and possession of the world. They are not an extra item to be added alongside. The locus of truth is society and not being.

Work Cited

Cohen, J., 2005. Interrupting Auschwitz Art, Religion & Philosophy, New York; London: Continuum.

 


[1] This is the positive meaning of Plato for Levinas, beyond the metaphysics of the theory of forms. Philosophy begins in conversation and it is not possible without it.

[2] There is an important issue here that throughout Totality and Infinity, Levinas describes the ethical relation in terms of speech, where the other is present in the words they speak. One might argue, however, that such a description undermines the difference between the self and the other, since the self too must be present in the words that they speak. For the issues of speech and writing in Levinas’s work see Cohen’s, ‘Absolute Insomnia: Interrupting Religion, or Levinas’, in Interrupting Auschwitz: Art, Religion, Philosophy (2005, pp.71–106).


Eschatology and Peace – Lecture 1

January 13, 2013

Levinas opens Totality and Infinity with the remark that it is pretty important to know whether ‘we are not duped by morality’ [TI 21]. Why would we think there was a such possibility? The opposite of morality might be nihilism, but this is not really the object of Levinas’s question. His has more to do the current state of affairs. Do we not live in a permanent state of war? Isn’t peace itself merely a moment’s rest between wars? Do we not even fight wars for the sake of peace? Perhaps we ought not to be so naïve to think that there could be anything else than war and in war isn’t morality just, as Thrasymachus might say, the power of the stronger and the victor?

Even the history of philosophy seems to back this up. Is not philosophy itself from the very beginning in the thought of Heraclitus nothing but a meditation on this permanent state of war? The cosmos is nothing but the impersonal battle between the elements of which human destiny is but just a small part. We are all just parts of a system of which we are neither the author nor completely understand. Yet if there is no alternative to war is not existence itself at peril? For it is not only the enemy who is destroyed by war but also the friend. If there is any possibility of peace, real peace as opposed to the phony peace between wars, then there has to be another relation to the reality than war, but what could such a relation be?

Levinas calls this other peace messianic, but this is perhaps more problematic than an answer to our question, for we might be as suspicious of its religious overtones as we are of morality itself [TI 22]. He also describes this peace as eschatological. This word means, in the Christian tradition at least, the end of history when the Messiah is supposed to return. Yet I do not think that Levinas uses any of these words in a traditional religious sense.[1] Some philosophers might well as be as dismissive of this word, as they would have a morality that remains uncompromised by power, but its reference for Levinas is concrete experience that is universal. If there is a religious tradition of the eschatological then it first of all has its source in this experience rather than in any formal dogma. Moreover, for Levinas at least, eschatology has nothing at all to do with the familiar Christian idea of a revelation at the end of time when all is revealed, but a break with history within history itself.

What could possibly be such a break with or interruption of history? Surely history, in a rational sense, is seamless totality? What lies beyond history is the judgement of history itself. We should not confuse, however, this ‘beyond’, with some kind of mysterious transcendence, as though it were the gods or God Himself who were the judges or judge. Whatever Levinas will mean by ‘transcendence’ it will not be this. For we know that religion in this sense is just as much a part of war as the peace it hypocritically proclaims. Who judges history? Not me, for as such a judgement would always be complacent and self-serving. The judgement of history is the suffering of others, for even the victors cannot abolish that completely. The judgement of history is the judgement against me not for me. If I am oblivious to this suffering, then history continues as before, but it will eventually sweep me away in its wake too. The only experience that stops history is my response to the suffering of others who are more important than I myself. Levinas is not saying that I cannot ignore this suffering, for history is nothing else but this, but if it is possible to truly respond to it, then permanent war is not the only truth of reality and we are not duped by morality.

If we say that such an appeal is just a matter of faith and opinion, then we are claiming that philosophy’s view of reality is the only perspective that can be had. We might ask what kind of truth is this if it leads to the countless deaths of the innocent. Have we not the right to ask whether there is more to reality than this? If we cannot find any counter-evidence to the evidence of philosophy, then we have to accept this state of affairs. It is not a matter of throwing our arms up an bemoaning the harshness of reality. We need to ask ourselves whether we have any proof of an exception to it.

Such an alternative, Levinas argues, is the experience of the ‘face of the other’ in speech [TI 25]. Only if it is possible can there be a break with history and the reality of war. Yet, in turn, the possibility of such an experience, where I have a non-allergic relation to the other, requires that experience itself is re-thought. Is not any experience I have obviously my experience? But if it is my experience, then how can it truly be an experience of the other? Would not my experience already shape how I experienced the other, and thus prevent me from ever really experiencing them as other? It is a common place, we know, when anthropologists talk about other cultures, that we cannot really know them as they know themselves for we will always project our own values and beliefs on them. Is this not the same when we come to speak of the other? If the experience of the other that Levinas speaks of is the experience of the face, would I not always describe this face by the concepts that I already know, the colour of the skin, the shape of the eyes, the culture that it belongs to, for example?

If there is to be an experience of the other as other, then there must be another way to relate to my knowledge of the world, or there must be another experience of thought. This is what Levinas means by borrowing Descartes’ concept of the idea of infinity. He is not interested in it as part of the proof of God’s existence, but its logical form. For what is significant about this concept is that it suggests the possibility that the object of the idea is greater than the idea itself. In other words, that one might have an idea of God, but this idea could never contain what God Himself is. Or you might have an experience of the other, but the other still exceeds this experience. This excess of the other over the self Levinas calls ‘hospitality’ [TI 27]. Only if I were to assert that the meaning of experience could only have its source in the subject, could I claim that no true experience of the other were possible. But what if it were possible to experience the surplus of the other over any idea that I might have of them and this precisely was the meaning of the face? Is it not a prejudice of philosophy itself to suggest that thought can only think what is already part of thought? Cannot thought be open to what is beyond thought without at the same time falling into thoughtlessness?

This is precisely, Levinas will argue, what the method of phenomenology implies when it seeks to find in the known the horizon of the unknown. The only difference between traditional phenomenology and the phenomenology of Totality and Infinity, is that the former presupposes that this horizon is only more thought, whereas the latter that it is concrete experience. To discover such hidden horizons of thought is not an empty and lazy mysticism but, as we shall see, the very meaning of metaphysics. The problem with reason is that it is not rational enough, if we mean by critique the uncovering of the hidden assumptions of thought. It is not a matter of opposing irrationality to reason, for the irrationality is the very meaning of war and violence, but being more reasonable than reason by showing that its foundation is justice and ethics.

Metaphysics has always been taken to mean the search for what is other than reality. We can read this two ways: either as flight from reality, as Kant describes Plato in the opening of the Critique of Pure Reason, or has deepening of reality.[2] Such a deepening is the desire for the other, but we should not confuse this with a lack. When I lack something, I feel a need for it. My needs, however, already constitute my reality, they are not other than it. To truly desire something is to go beyond what I myself know and possess. It can only be the desire for what is ‘absolutely other’, which is not just another item or element that completes me. The relation of desire, therefore, is one of separation and distance, rather than union or oneness. If I were to reach what I desired then I would not long desire it. It is only because it is forever out of my reach that I desire it at all. Desire, unlike need, increases the more it desires, whereas need only looks for satisfaction.

Only if what is desired it out of reach, is desire infinite. The infinity of desire comes from the side of the other rather than me. Only because there is an experience of the other is there a difference between need and desire. Otherwise, I would only need others, as I need sustenance and they would become part of me as the food I eat. The difference between my desire for others and my needs, Levinas calls the ‘height’ of the other. This height is not a dimension like any other because the other is not out of reach like the cake on the table is out of reach of the child’s hand, but because no conception I have of the other could ever totally comprehend what the other is. Such is the invisibility of the other. They escape any possible viewpoint or context that I might already have of them. You are more than the colour of your skin, the shape of your eyes, or the culture that you belong.

In the distance between the desired and desire there is the break with totality, for they do not exist at the same level. To desire someone is not to cross the distance between your desire and the one desired but to maintain it. If you were to treat them equally, then you would destroy the difference between you. Both are separate from one another, but at the same time in relation to one another. The relation does not destroy the distance or the difference between them. This is not just a formal relation but a concrete experience. The other is not other than me because I have an idea that it is ‘not me’. Rather, it really is other than me. Separation is produced. This means alterity (the distance and separation of the other) is not the same as negativity. For what is negated belongs to the same system of meaning as the negator, since we are merely opposite sides of the same coin. Rather than negative, alterity is the superlative. The other, whom I desire, is more than me, rather than not me.

Metaphysics traditionally is not thought of as the desire for the other, but for knowledge. This knowledge both transcends the other and the self as the ultimate meaning of reality. Such an understanding of metaphysics, for Levinas, reaches its culmination in Heidegger, where this meaning is interpreted as the anonymity of Being that is the basis of every being, including human beings. Here all things are equivalent. Against this dogmatism, Levinas contrasts the possibility of a critique which is open to what is beyond ontology. Such a critique he names ‘ethics’ [TI 43]. Ethics is not opposed to philosophy, but is a different philosophy. There are perhaps two philosophies. The philosophy of power, ontology and war, and the philosophy of justice, ethics and peace.[3] To only compare and contrast them is this way, however, would be to treat them as though they were equivalent, as though one could make a choice between them. On the contrary, for Levinas, ontology is only possible because of ethics. Rather than ontology being first philosophy, as Aristotle asserted, it is ethics. There are, therefore, two key arguments of Totality and Infinity. One, that the concrete experience of the face in speech interrupts the system of concepts and ideas that underpin our history and politics, and secondly, that this system has its origin in this ethical relation. Ethics is not something added to human existence, once we have defined or interpreted it, but human existence is ethical through and through.

Works Cited

Kant, I., 2007. Critique of Pure Reason 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan.


[1] Or it might be better to say that what he means by the word ‘religion’ is not at all traditional. For religion does not mean a belief in God but a relation to the other. ‘We propose to call “religion” the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality’ [TI 40].

[2] ‘The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.  It was thus that Plato left the world of the senses, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of the understanding.’ (Kant 2007 A5/B9)

[3] Levinas is aware that at the margins of Western philosophy there is always evidence for such a different philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, he refers to the agent intellect in Aristotle and the description delirium in Plato, and of course the idea of infinity in Descartes [TI 49].