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1. Critique of Ontology

2. Separation


3. Face-to-Face


4. Eros




5. The Saying and the Said


6. Responsibility


7. Substitution


8. Justice and Politics


Conclusion: The Future of Levinas Studies 83






The aim of this book is to familiarize students and general readers

with the major themes of Levinas's philosophical writings. As the
volumes in the Wadsworth Philosophers series are intended primarily
for classroom use, we have decided to focus on those texts by Levinas
that are most likely to be used in standard university courses: Totality
and Infinity ( 1961) and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence
(1974). In so doing, we have been forced to omit from careful
consideration Levinas's major pre-war publications, as well as his
Talmudic writings and essays on Judaism (see Bibliography). The
reader who works carefully through the present volume, however, will
be well positioned to work through those texts on his or her own.
We should mention that even with our restricted focus on Levinas's
two principal philosophical texts, it is impossible to do full justice to
the richness and scope of the ideas they contain in a volume as short as
this one.

In his short autobiography called "Signature" (1963), Levinas
described his life as "dominated by the presentiment and the memory of
the Nazi horror" (DF 291)-a regime that would result in the murder of
Levinas's birth family from Lithuania along with at least six million
other Jews. Practically everything Levinas wrote after the war was
written with the experience of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in
mind; hence the moving dedication at the beginning of his second
major philosophical work, Otherwise than Being:

To the memory of those who were closest among the six million
assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on
millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same
hatred of the other man, the same anti-Semitism.



For Levinas, an event of such magnitude as the Holocaust cannot

simply be dismissed as a historical contingency. It is an event that goes
to the very heart of philosophy- not only Levinas's philosophy, but
philosophy itself to the extent that after it one can no longer
philosophize in the same manner as before. In an interview, Levinas put
the point succinctly:

The plain fact of the matter is that the good are all too rarely
rewarded and the bad frequently go unpunished. Where was God in
Auschwitz? Why were the Nazis allowed to get away with murder?
And even if the Nazis were to get their just deserts in hell after they
died, to what end? In the words of Dostoyevsky, "what do I want a hell
for torturers for?" (BK 287). Levinas observes that Nietzsche's
pronouncement "God is dead" became an almost scientific fact in the
concentration camps (PL 162). What the Nazi atrocities and excessive
cruelty of the twentieth century have shown perhaps more than
anything else, according to Levinas, is that God is powerless to
intervene in history and keep his promises, so powerless in fact that
anyone who acts ethically with the hope of reward is bound to be
To conclude, however, that morality is impossible after an event
such as the Holocaust would be a grave error. Why? Because it would
be to renounce the very basis upon which one might wish to criticize
what the Nazis did . Indeed, it would be to give up the possibility of
opposing injustice everywhere: war, slavery, mass hatred, imperialism,
genocide, terrorism, totalitarianism, unemployment, and Third World
poverty and hunger. This is true even when it is morality itself that is
being criticized. Ethics survives the attack on ethics, according to
Levinas, because it is ethics that motivates the attack. Does not
Nietzsche criticize the holy saints for their excessive cruelty? Does not
Marx criticize bourgeois ideology for oppressing the working class?
And does not Freud criticize Victorian morality for turning us into
suffering neurotics?
Levinas ' s critical task, then, is to rethink the meaning of ethics after
the breakdown of moral, religious, and philosophical certainty. It is a
task to which he applied himself in earnest upon his return from
captivity after WWII, and which culminated in the publication of his
first major work on ethics, Totality and Infinity. We now turn to this
highly original, rich, and colorful work.

The essential problem is: Can we speak of an absolute

commandment after Auschwitz? Can we speak of morality
after the failure of morality? (PL 176)
By "failure of morality," Levinas clearly means the failure of
philosophical ethics founded on the idea o( .absolute duty or the
Categorical Imperative, such as we find in Kant:s ethics. But he is also
referring to the failure of traditional religious ethics. Such ethics has
always been able to console itself with the prospect of salvation and
reward, whereby the sacrifices it entails are seen as a type of
investment that comes back with a hefty interest, either in this world or
in the next. The Holocaust, according to Levinas, destroys the
conception of a "happy end" to our moral endeavors. It reveals the stark
truth behind what Kant called "the failure of philosophical attempts at
theodicy," by which is meant the various attempts that philosophers
have made to reconcile God's omnipotence and goodness with the fact
of evil on earth. Such attempts, according to Levinas, are totally
misguided. They rest on a "childish" conception of God, who
distributes rewards to those who are obedient and who punishes those
who are not.

For the purposes of this volume, we will use the term "morality" and
"ethics" interchangeably. It should be noted, however, that Levinas
does occasionally distinguish the two, as in an interview conducted in
1981 :

By morality I mean a series of rules relating to social behavior and

civic duty . .. ethics cannot itself legislate for society or produce
rules of conduct ... it is a form of vigilant passivity to the call of
the other. (FF 29)
In Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being this distinction is not
rigorously maintained.


Totality and Infinity

Critique of Ontology

According to Levinas, it is not just morality that is put into question
by Auschwitz, but the whole of Western philosophy beginning with the
Greeks. Levinas does not merely criticize philosophy for its failure to
prevent violence, but also for its complicity in violence insofar as it
privileges knowledge over ethics. Levinas reserves the word
"ontology" (literally, the study [logos] of Being [ontos]) for this general
tendency within philosophy to give priority to knowledge at the
expense of ethics. Early in Totality and Infinity, he writes:

Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a reduction

of the other to the same by the interposition of a middle and
neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being. (TI 43)
To understand what Levinas means by this statement, we are
required to give a brief account of the history of ontology, beginning
with Parmenides.

The Greeks
Parmenides of Elea (c. 515) is considered by many historians to be
the "father of philosophy." He was among the very first thinkers to
draw a distinction between appearance and reality, i.e., the way things
merely appear to our senses and the way they are in themselves. This
distinction would prove to be fundamental for subsequent philosophy.

Critique of Ontology

Critique of Ontology
Parmenides presented his ontology in a poem called "On Nature" in
which the goddess Justice (Dike) reveals to him the nature of truth
(aletheia) in contrast to the opinions (doxai) of mortals. It is she who
tells Parmenides that we are accustomed to inquire about the nature of
reality in two fundamentally different ways. Either we say of things
that they are ("what is") or we say of them that they are not ("what is
not"). In order to think at all, we must have something to think about.
Accordingly, we can only think about what is. Since "what is not"
literally cannot exist (it is literally "no-thing"), we cannot properly
think about it. The question now becomes: Is what exists static? Or
rather is it-as Heraclitus (c. 540) claimed-continuously changing?
The goddess in Parmenides' poem argues that change (or becoming) is
merely an appearance, and thus is not real. How can something both be
and not be at the same time? If we view reality t,~rough the natural light
of "reason" (logos), we will come to understand that Being is eternal,
indivisible, and unchanging. Parmenides also says: "Thought and Being
are the same" (Fr. 8) by which he means that everywhere Being is
"one," and thus forms a unity with everything else-including thought
In contrast to this Parmenidean conception of Being as "one"
("monism"), Levinas argues that the differences between things cannot
be subsumed under a more basic concept of unity but that existence is
multiple ("pluralism"). The plurality of what exists, for Levinas, is not
just an appearance, but rather part of the very nature of reality as such.
Such pluralism, he will go on to say, is particularly evident in my
relation to the other person- whom Levinas simply refers to as the
Other- inasmuch as he or she is radically different from me. Levinas's
thinking thus marks a decisive break with Parmenides and the
ontological tradition, a break that he himself characterizes as a
"parricide" (TO 43), adopting the expression of a character in Plato's
Sophist, to which we turn next.

The limitations of Parmenides' philosophy were not evident until
Plato (428-348) arrived on the philosophical scene. Plato accepted
much ofParmenides' ontology, including the claim that true knowledge
is discovered by the mind and not by the senses. He also agreed that
what we call true knowledge is eternal, indivisible, and unchanging.
However, he differed from Parmenides on two major points. First, he

attributed to the world of appearances the intermediate status of belief

(pistis) rather than that of sheer illusion. Second, in his dialogue the
Sophist, he distinguished between various senses of "not-Being," and
thus challenged Parmenidean monism in its original form. The dialogue
provides Levinas with the vocabulary of the "the same" and "the other"
used throughout Totality and Infinity, and is thus worth looking at in
more detail.
The central question of the Platonic dialogue is: How can a
statement that something is not the case (e.g., "A mammal is not a
fish") itself be true? Surely something that is non-existent cannot exist!
Such would be Parmenides' objection, though it turns out that the
objection is only partially valid.
In the dialogue, Plato has the character of the "Eleatic Stranger,"
who is a disciple of Parmenides, examine the objection and in the
process risk "becoming a sort of parricide" (Sophist 241d). What the
Stranger shows is that though "not-Being" cannot exist in absolute
terms, it can indeed have relative existence in the sense that something
can be other than something else (e.g., "A mammal is other than a
fish") . This may be contrasted with something that is said to be the
same as something else (e.g., "A dog is a mammal"). These two ways
of speaking correspond to the two "forms" or categories of Being that
Plato calls "same" and "other."
Despite the logical subtleties that Plato and the Eleatic Stranger
bring to the philosophical table, we are still lacking, according to
Levinas, a category that would be the opposite of Being (OB 3), and
thus designate the absolutely other as such. Inasmuch as otherness (or
"alterity") is still defined in purely relative terms in Plato's work, then
what is other is understood in terms of what it is not, and thus not
positively in terms of itself. To Levinas's mind, this means that we still
lack the proper philosophical tools necessary to think the otherness of
the Other. We have not yet left the climate of Parmenidean Being.
Indeed, over two millennia later, in the midst of the Enlightenment, we
would still appear to be living in its shadow.

The German thinker Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the foremost

Critique of Ontology

Critique of Ontology
thinker of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a new dawn in
European intellectual and cultural history, characterized by an
optimistic faith in reason and science as opposed to superstition and
religious dogma. Like his predecessors, Kant drew an important
distinction between appearance and reality. However, unlike
Parmenides and Plato, he altogether denied that we could have
knowledge of reality as such. Our perception is strictly limited to what
we know by way of our senses. All we are aware of is the way things
appear to us; we can never step outside ourselves and see things as they
exist independently of us. We do not have what Kant called
"intellectual intuition"--or what the Greeks called nous- by which we
may know "things in themselves."
Kant, however, did not think that the hum,(!n mind was merely a
passive receptacle of sensory experience. OPI the contrary, in the
Critique of Pure Reason (1781 ), he argued that the mind or
"understanding" contributes to the world of knowledge by giving form
and objectivity to what would otherwise be a chaotic, buzzing mass of
sensory experience. We have no choice but to experience objects as
located in space and time. This is because we impose the "forms" of
space and time on them. Similarly, we are not simply stimulated by
light but perceive objects in the light. This we do with the help of
twelve fundamental concepts (substance, causality, etc.) that Kant calls
the "categories." These categories are not learned from experience
(they are "a priori") but are applied to experience. The categories are a
sort of conceptual apparatus that allow us to make sense of the world
by ordering and classifying it. Insofar as Kant is only concerned with
specifying the conditions that need to be met before we can possibly
know anything at all, and since what is known is not completely
determined by the objective world, but is also constituted by the
application of the categories, his philosophy is called "transcendental
However, like every idealist philosopher, Kant is faced with the
problem of distinguishing between what is merely subjective
experience (e.g. , a dream) and what is properly objective in the sense of
belonging to the real world . Indeed, how do we know that there is an
objective world out there at all? Are we not simply aware of our own
thinking processes? Kant's answer to this supposed refutation of
idealism was to say that "our inner experience is possible only on the
assumption of outer experience" (Critique of Pure Reason A 226). He
argues that the mere fact that I am se lf-aware proves the existence of

objects in space outside of me. This is because in order to be aware of

the succession of inner experiences, I must have something permanent
to observe them against. This background can only be the permanence
of objects outside of me, for there is nothing permanent in thought,
which is always changing from one moment to the next.
While there may be no permanent thought insofar as we rapidly
move from one representation to another, in Kant's view there is a
permanent subject that does the thinking. Indeed, Kant considers this a
logical (or "transcendental") condition of having any experience
whatsoever. He writes, "it must be possible for the 'I think' to
accompany all my representations" (Critique B 131 ). If not, then
experience-which for Kant is by definition orderly and connected
(Critique A 111)--would be impossible. This is not to say that in order
for experience to be possible we must continually be thinking about
ourselves. Rather, the claim is that whatever my thoughts or feelings I
must be capable of recognizing (or "apperceiving") them as my
thoughts and my feelings. If that were not so, then my world would
become fragmented and schizophrenic. For experience to be possible, a
self-identical subject- the same- must be presupposed. Kant writes,

the "/" of apperception, and therefore the "]" in every act of

thought, is one, and cannot be resolved into a plurality of subjects.
(Critique B 407)
For Levinas, the notion of the "I think" demonstrates Kant's
affinity with Parmenidean monism understood as a reduction of the
plurality of perceptions to a unity. The other would not be an object of
knowledge at all unless the same (self) were able to synthesize
experience by bringing different sensory data under the unity of
apperception. This way of integrating what is at first outside (as other)
into the thinking, goals, and projects of the same constitutes the very
nature of freedom:

Such is the definition of freedom: to maintain oneself against the

other, despite every relation with the other to ensure the autarchy
[i.e., absolute rule] of an I. Thematization and conceptualization,
which moreover are inseparable, are not peace with the other but
suppression or possession of the other. .. . "/think" comes down to
"! can"-to an appropriation of what is, to an exploitation of
reality. (Tl 46)

Critique of Ontology

Critique of Ontology
Levinas is saying here that the knowledge and comprehension the "I
think" makes possible leads to the domination and exploitation of what
exists. By being placed under a concept, the Other falls within my
powers, and is thus exposed to violence and disrespect. We will return
to this important argument later on.
The violence associated with the "I think" is not restricted to Kant's
philosophy. It pertains to every philosophy that, as ontology, seeks to
comprehend the otherness of the Other by subsuming him or her under
a concept that is thought within me, and thus is in some sense the same
as me. This reaches its most extreme possibility in the idealism of

Like many German philosophers of the nineteenth century, Georg
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel ( 1770-1831) was heavily influenced by his
predecessor Kant. Hegel agreed with much of what Kant had to say
about truth and knowledge being constituted by the mind. However,
unlike Kant he rejected the view that things in themselves are
unknowable. Hegel took the more extreme view that everything that
exists must be mental and thus in principle knowable. In so doing, he
injected new life into Parmenidean monism, along with the claim that
being and thought are the same.
For Hegel, Kant's transcendental idealism is fundamentally flawed
insofar as it places the categories solely on the side of the human
subject, whereas they can equally be said to be on the side of the object.
In his best-known work, Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel offers
a unique reading of the history of philosophy as a progression toward
this fundamental truth wherein subject and object finally coincide.
Hegel dubs this coincidence or unity of subject and object "Absolute
Knowledge ."
His argument is basically this. The Kantian dichotomy between
appearances and things in themselves is shown to be an illusion once
we assume, as did Hegel, that the proper objects of philosophical
knowledge all fall within consciousness in general (which Hegel calls
"Spirit"). To be sure, Hegel is not saying that material objects are
figments of our imagination . He is saying that what appears in the first
instance to be independent of consciousness ("being-in-itself') turns
out to be part of consciousness ("being-for-itself'), and thus ultimately
knowable to the extent that consciousness is capable of coming to know

itself. The following illustration makes this clear.

According to Kant, I am not aware of the tree as such but only as it
appears to my senses. Suppose, however, that I do not make the tree the
focus of my attention but my knowledge of the tree. It would then
appear possible to know my object completely through self-reflection.
Hegel offers a historical narrative of the various stages of this coming
to know itself of consciousness, which include sense certainty,
consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, spirit, and religion.
Throughout this history, the knowing subject (the "I") repeatedly
comes to realize that what at first appeared to be radically other than
itself ("not-!") is in fact nothing other than itself. Levinas cites a
passage from Hegel's Phenomenology that nicely captures this "truth"
arrived at by the"!":

I distinguish myself from myself; and therein I am immediately

aware that this factor distinguished from me is not distinguished. I,
the selfsame being, thrust myself away from myself; but that which
is distinguished, which is set up as unlike me, is immediately in its
being distinguished no distinction for me. (Phenomenology of
Spirit 164; cited Tl 36-7)
What is important to grasp here is that the unity of the "I" is not
arrived at in isolation from the world, but by overcoming the
dichotomy between it and the world. The initial exteriority or otherness
of the world is integrated into a conceptual framework in which any
difference or contradiction between what exists and what is thought is
linally overcome and forms a single totality--the famous Hegelian
"system"- that is identical to reality or Being itself.
Hegel's thought is perhaps the most conspicuous example of the
tendency of ontology to privilege identity over difference by reducing
the other to the same. This tendency does not stop with Hegel, but is
continued by a later generation of German philosophers called
phenomenologists. The leader of this group was Husser!.

From 1928 to I 929 Levinas studied under Edmund Husser! (185911

Critique of Ontology

Critique of Ontology
1938), the father of phenomenology, whose work he translated and
subsequently introduced to France. Husserl, who was originally trained
in mathematics, and later in formal logic and psychology, aimed to
develop a philosophy characterized by the same kind of rigor as that
found in the mathematical sciences. In order to accomplish his aim,
Husser! went "back to the things themselves," that is, he attempted to
describe phenomena (i .e., objects of conscious thought) in their own
right, without presuppositions. Husser! called this method of dealing
with phenomena
in a rigorous, purely descriptive, and
presuppositionless manner, "phenomenology."
In our everyday dealings with the world, we tend to make various
assumptions about the world. We naively assume that the world exists
outside us and that the objects it contains exist independently of
consciousness. This so-called "natural attitude~') according to Husser!,
is the greatest obstacle in the way of achieving genuine scientific
results in philosophy. To overcome it, Husser! begins in a manner
reminiscent of Rene Descartes' method of radical doubt by suspending
belief in the existence of the external world. Such "bracketing" is what
Husser! calls the phenomenological or "transcendental reduction"
(epoche). For phenomenology to maintain its scientific rigor, it must
limit its'elf to reflecting on the way in which objects in the world are
given to consciousness. Consciousness has two components: act and
object. According to the doctrine of the "intentionality" of
consciousness (a term Husser! borrowed from the German philosopher
Franz Brentano [1838-1916]), every act of consciousness (e.g.,
perceiving, believing, desiring, etc.) aims at or "intends" some object of
consciousness (e.g., what is perceived, believed, desired, etc.). The
question naturally arises : Who (or what) is the intentional subject of
consciousness? Husser! calls it the "transcendental ego," a purely
idealist (i.e., constituting) subject that is in many respects similar to
Kant's "I think."
However, at this point an objection may be raised. After suspending
belief in the existence of the external world, has not the
phenomenologist fallen into the idealist trap of"solipsism" by reducing
everything- including other persons- to one's own ideas? Husser! was
well aware of this apparently "grave objection" to his thinking:

intending and intended in me, merely synthetic unities of possible

verification in me but, according to their sense, precisely others?
(CM 89)
Husserl's response was given in the fifth of his Cartesian
Meditations, an important book that Levinas himself co-translated into
f-rench in 1931. In this book, Husser! claimed that the other person is
not given to me in the same way that ordinary objects of perception are.
I do not have a direct perception or "intuition" of the other person as
such; all I am directly aware of is his or her body. Nevertheless, I do
not perceive the other person as a mere automaton. Rather, I perceive
him or her as another ego that is analogous or similar to me. Husser!
ca lls this special act of consciousness "analogical appresentation."
It is a matter of debate as to whether Husser! successfully escapes
Lhe charge of solipsism as stated. Certainly Levinas is among those
cnt1cs for whom Husserl 's Cartesian starting point presents
insurmountable problems. Levinas criticizes Husser! for reducing the
other person to another transcendental ego like me, thereby robbing the
Other of his or her uniqueness. "The Other as Other is not only an alter
ego: the Other is what I myself am not" (TO 83). Inasmuch as
transcendental phenomenology views the other person as essentially the
same as me (i.e., having another ego like mine), it misses the otherness
of the Other. This is in essence Levinas's critique of Husser!.
In some sense, Husser! placed himself in an impossible position. By
beginning with the traditional philosophical distinction between subject
(ego) and object (the world), Husser! was faced with the problem of
explaining how the solitary transcendental ego manages to get "outside
itself' in order to know the world as it really is. For many philosophers,
this problem was finally laid to rest by Husserl 's most brilliant student,
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), under whom Levinas also studied. It is
impossible to exaggerate the enormous influence Heidegger's thinking
had on Levinas, especially early on. Levinas perhaps learned more
from Heidegger than from any other philosopher prior to WWII .
However, Levinas would soon become more critical of Heidegger than
of anyone else, a fact that has a lot to do with Heidegger's political
involvement with the Nazi s during the war.

When I, the meditating I, reduce myself to my absolute

transcendental ego by phenomenological epoche do I not become
solus ipse? . . . What about other egos, who surely are not a mere


Critique of Ontology

Critique of Ontology

In his first major philosophical publication, Being and Time (1927),
Heidegger took phenomenology in a radically new direction . He argued
that the task of phenomenology is not to describe what is immediately
accessible, or present, to consciousness, but to grant us access to what
remains for the most part hidden from consciousness, which Heidegger
called the "Being" of beings (BT 35). As we have seen, Being in its
different forms ("the One," "reality," "thing-in-itself," etc.) has served
as the primary subject matter of philosophical inquiry. Heidegger's
focus on Being thus places him squarely within the philosophical
tradition that Levinas calls ontology.
Heidegger's "fundamental ontology," however, differs from the
traditional approaches inasmuch as it atterr\pts to unearth the very
foundations of philosophy as such. To understand the underlying
motivation behind Heidegger's project, it is important to recognize that
the intellectual climate of the time was thick with questions having to
do with the foundations of the sciences. For example, "biology," the
science of life, must have recourse to a philosophical distinction
between the "living" and "non-living" so as to establish the object of its
investigation. Philosophy is thus called upon to provide a certain
interpretation of the Being of beings, i.e., philosophy decides how the
world is to be "carved up" for subsequent scientific investigation. In
this sense, philosophy serves as a foundation and guide for all scientific
Since it is the task of philosophy to make truthful claims about
beings, it follows that philosophy should in turn be guided by an
understanding of the Being of those beings. However, according to
Heidegger, the question of the meaning of Being has been forgotten .
The goal of Being and Time is thus to "raise anew the question of the
meaning of Being" (BT 19). What is revolutionary about Heidegger's
inquiry is his insistence that our knowledge of Being is not primarily
theoretical. In other words, our understanding of the meaning of the
word "Being" is not a purely intellectual enterprise, but stems rather
from our everyday, practical dealings with the world. Heidegger
maintains that human existence-which he calls "Dasein" (in German,
literally meaning "being-there")-is always involved in an
understanding of its Being as well as the Being of other entities. Dasein
is thus different from everything else (e.g., stones, plants, and animals)
because Being is a question for it. Heidegger writes:

Dasein is an entity which does not just occur among other entities.
Rather it is ... distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that
Being is an issue for it. . . . Understanding of Being is itself a
defining characteristic ofDasein 's Being. (BT 32)
According to Heidegger, Dasein 's everyday way of being
presupposes what he calls a "pre-ontological" (BT 35) understanding of
Being, by which he means a non-scientific, non-theoretical, practical
concern with beings. Heidegger's argument amounts to the claim that
philosophical knowledge ultimately derives from our pre-philosophical
understanding of the world . Hence, if philosophy is to attain its goal of
knowledge, it needs to begin with an analysis of our everyday, practical
mode of existing, or what Heidegger calls "being-in-the-world."
For Levinas, Heidegger's focus on practical existence marks an
important break with the dominant "intellectualist" bias <?rerating in the
history of philosophy. Levinas, however, is quick to point out that
lleidegger's attempted departure from the ontological tradition
ultimately fails . Indeed, after WWII, Levinas began to work out a
powerful critique of Heidegger's writings. This critique comes to
fruition in Totality and Infinity, where Heidegger is accused of
repeating the classic ontological gesture of subordinating ethics to
ontology. Levinas writes:

To affirm the priority of Being over existents is to already decide

the essence of philosophy; it is to subordinate the relation with
someone, who is an existent (the ethical relation), to a relation to
the Being of existents, which, impersonal, permits the
apprehension, the domination of existents (a relationship of
knowing), subordinates justice to freedom. (TI 45)
According to Heidegger, the encounter with beings, including
human beings, implies the comprehension of Being in general. For
Levinas, this amounts to the primacy of Being over beings, and thus the
subord ination of the particular to the general. Insofar as the Other is
understood or grasped in terms of his or her Being, then the Other is
comprehended on the basis of what he or she has in common with other
beings. The Other is thereby divested of his or her individuality, and
becomes conceptually the same as others:

The relation with Being that is enacted as ontology consists in


Critique of Ontology

Critique of Ontology
neutralizing the existent in order to comprehend or grasp it. It is
hence not a relation with the other as such but the reduction of the
other to same. (TI 45)
Heideggerian ontology is thus what Levinas calls a "philosophy of
power." To know the Other is tantamount to predicting, manipulating,
controlling, even dominating the Other. Fundamental ontology remains
"under obedience to the anonymous, and leads inevitably to another
power, to imperialist domination, to tyranny" (TI 46-7).
Many commentators have strongly disagreed with this interpretation
of Heidegger's thought. They typically cite, for example, Heidegger's
discussion of "Being-with" in Being and Time (BT 26) as a rejoinder
to Levinas's criticisms. In these pages, Heidegger argues that being
with others is an inescapable fact of human e~istence. In stark contrast
to Husser!, who began his analysis of intersubjectivity from the
position of an isolated ego, and then was faced with the problem of
showing how the ego relates to other human beings, Heidegger argues
that Dasein is always already in relation with Others. From the outset,
others are encountered in the world in which I live.
However, not only are other Daseins encountered in the world,
according to Heidegger, they are encountered through the world as the
arena of meaning, language, customs, and history. Although clearly an
improvement over Husser!, Heidegger's account of intersubjectivity,
for Levinas, still remains steeped in comprehension and knowledge,
even if that knowledge is not one of traditional theory:

fully came to terms with his political error. Thus, while Levinas was
heavily indebted to Heidegger' s philosophy, he was also governed by
the strong "need to leave the climate of that philosophy, and by the
conviction that one cannot leave it for a philosophy that would be prelleideggerian" (EE 4).
This separation from pre-Heideggerian and Heideggerian
philosophy, indeed the separation not only from the totality of
philosophy but the totality in general is considered by Levinas to be the
pre-condition for ethics as such, as we will now see.

In Heidegger coexistence is, to be sure, taken as a relationship

with the Other irreducible to objective cognition; but in the final
analysis it also rests on the relationship with being in general, on
comprehension, on ontology. ... For Heidegger intersubjectivity is
a coexistence, a we prior to the I and the other, a neutral
intersubjectivity. (TI 67-8)
Levinas's criticism of Heidegger's ontology gains more force from
the fact that Heidegger himself was implicated in the Nazi regime that
led to the murder of countless Jewish and non-Jewish lives during
WWII. Inasmuch as Heidegger's thinking lacks an ethics in the
standard sense- and certainly lacked an ethics in Levinas's sense-it is
bereft of the very resources needed tq call such a regime into question.
Indeed, it is generally conceded that Heidegger, even in later life, never





In the previous chapter, we focused on l..evinas's characterization

of the ontological tradition as dominated by the ideal of unity, whether
it be understood in terms of Parmenidean monism or Heidegger's
notion of Being. In order to escape from this tradition and thereby
avoid the reduction of the Other to the categories of the Same, Levinas
describes the ethical relation not as unity, but as "separation" (TI 36).

The Same
Separation is not to be understood as merely spatial or physical
distance. It denotes difference. The difference between my neighbor
and me is not due to some specific difference (e.g., ethnicity,
nationality, gender, etc.), which presupposes some underlying
commonality (e.g., human being). The "absolute difference" (TI 194)
between us derives from the fact that no genus, universal concept, or
general category serves to unite us. You might say that all the Other
and I have in common is that we have nothing in common. Levinas

I, who have no concept in common with the Stranger, am, like him
without genus. (TI 39)
How, then, do the Other and the Same enter into relation with one
another without destroying their separation? Or, what amounts to the

same thing, how is ethics, understood as respect for the absolute

otherness of the Other, possible? Is not the Same defined precisely in
terms of its tendency to annul the difference between it and what
initially strikes it as other?
The will to knowledge and comprehension is not exhaustive of
Levinas's description of the Same. In section two of Totality and
Infinity, Levinas conducts an analysis of selthood from the perspective
of enjoyment, which he argues is totally different from the self of
knowledge. Without being able to examine in detail Levinas's highly
original analysis of enjoyment, some of the essential points may be
summarized as follows .

In contrast to Kant, who argued that the knowing I remains an
empty form accompanying my representations, Levinas maintains that
in enjoyment "the same determines the other while being determined
by it" (Tl 128). What does this mean? It means that the Same does not
simply constitute objects in the manner of a transcendental ego.
Levinas argues that prior to knowing objects, we first "live from" them
to the extent that "every object offers itself to enjoyment" (TI 132). To
live from something is to treat it as an object of enjoyment by
assimilating it to oneself. Levinas's favorite example is eating:

In satiety, the real that I sank my teeth into is assimilated, the

forces that were in the other become my forces, become me. (TI
Of course, not everything I enjoy is edible! Here it would be more
appropriate to say that the Same directly "lives" (Tl 135) (in the
transitive sense) the very qualities of what it enjoys. This is not to say
that that the Same is simply identifiable with what it enjoys ("the fine
cigarette lighter, the fine car" [TI 140]). The Same is also conditioned
by what it enjoys in the sense that enjoyment "constitutes me as the
Same and not as dependent on the other" (TI 116). Enjoyment makes
me independent and self-sufficient. True, things such as food, shelter,
clothing, exercise, are all necessary for my biological existence; I am
thus dependent on them . But at the same time, insofar as I am well
nourished, protected, warm, and healthy, I also gain my independence,



whereby I am free to enjoy the world.

At least this is so "if things are in their place" (TI 112). The case
where one eats out of starvation, and therefore remains dependent, is
precisely a sign of a "disorganized society" (TI 116). In the normal
course of events, one does not eat to live-one lives to eat. Hence
Levinas's paradoxical claim: "Man is happy to have needs" (TI 114).
Through this complex, and apparently contradictory, structure of
enjoyment- "independence through dependence" (TI 115)--Levinas
argues that the Same individuates itself, i.e., becomes a particular I.
This is what Levinas calls "ipseity" (from the Latin ipse, meaning

by mi sfortune itself ("the pain inherent in labor"), then by the worry of

misfortune ("the indetermination of the future") . The disquietude is
overcome through what Levinas calls "dwelling" (Tl 150). The
dwelling or the home protects me from the elements: the wind, the rain,
and the cold. It is a place of comfort where I can relax and enjoy the
fruits of my labor in relative security. Not only does it provide a refuge
from "rough winds," it also, as Karl Marx knew, provides a kind of
sanctuary that allows me to recover from the alienation of the
workplace. This is made possible by the presence within the home of
"the feminine ."
The feminine is the silent and discrete presence of my beloved, who
welcomes me in the home. She manages to smooth away the roughness
of the world . Hers is the face of gentleness and intimacy itself:

The personality of a person, the ipseity of the I, which is more than

the particularity of the atom and qf the individual, is the
particularity of the happiness ofenjoyment. (TI 115)
This separation of the I is "secret" in the sense that I can conceive
of myself as unique only "from within" (Tl 147). From the point of
view of a third party observer (see Chapters 3 and 8), I want happiness
like the rest. Levinas writes, "only in enjoyment does the I crystallize"
(Tl 144). The I of enjoyment is totally unique- like a snowflake.

The Feminine
However, the I is troubled by a fundamental insecurity that
threatens to undermine its separation and independence. In Totality and
Infinity, Levinas writes:

disquietude insinuates itself in enjoyment, menaced with the

indetermination of the future essential to sensibility, or due to the
pain inherent in labor. (Tl 145-6)

Gentleness is not only the conformity of nature with the needs of

the separated being, which from the first enjoys them and
constitutes itself as separate, as I, in that enjoyment, but is a
gentleness coming from an affection for that I. . . . The woman is
the condition for recollection, the interiority of the Home, and
inhabitation . . . This is a new and irreducible possibility, a
delightful lapse in being, the source ofgentleness itself (TI 155)
We will return to Levinas's notion of the feminine later (see
Chapter 4). Let us note here that many feminists- though by no means
all- have objected to Levinas's account, which they argue is sexist in
that it confines woman to her traditional role as homemaker. In defense
of Levinas, it may be said that he in no way is unthinkingly attributing
to women certain stereotypical "feminine" traits. Not only do these
traits have a positive connotation for Levinas (which they do not have
in the tradition), he also makes it clear that the welcome of the feminine
in the home does not imply the actual physical presence of a biological
woman. It could just as easily refer to a man or a partner of the same
sex. We read :

The empirical absence of the human being of "feminine sex" in a

dwelling nowise affects the dimension offemininity which remains
open there, as the very welcome of the dwelling. (TI 158)

As Kierkegaard pointed out, an enjoyable ("aesthetic") way of life

invariably depends on a condition that "either lies outside the
individual or is in the individual in such a way that it is not posited by
the individual himself' (EO 184). Happiness remains a stroke of luck
(TI 144); it is a chance that can be missed, and is thus menaced, if not

We might say that the feminine is a way of being- and not a

particular human being.




The Recollection
In the home, through the discrete welcome of the feminine, I am
given the opportunity to relax . The life of dwelling enables me to free
myself from the pressure of need in order consciously to "make use of
time" (TI 166). As such, it allows for a respite or what Levinas calls
"recollection . .. a suspension of the immediate reactions the world
solicits in view of a greater attention to oneself and one's possibilities"
(TI 154). This is similar to the emergence of self-consciousness in
Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, where, to be human, man must
overcome his animal needs. He must show himself prepared to sacrifice
his biological desires, and in the process transcend them
(Phenomenology 174). Similarly, in Levinas's Totality and Infinity,
the self is said to attain full self-consciousness only by rising above the
satisfaction of need .

But in order that I be able to free myselffrom the very possession

that the welcome of the Home establishes, in order that I be able to
see things in themselves, that is, represent them to myself, refuse
both enjoyment and possession, I must know how to give what I
possess. Only thus could I situate myself absolutely above my
engagement in the non-f. But for this I must encounter the
indiscrete face of the Other that calls me into question. (TI 170-71)
The encounter with the indiscrete face of the Other is what Levinas
calls the "face-to-face." This notion is the crux of Totality and Infinity
and is the theme of our next chapter.


We have seen how enjoyment is said to make possible the

separation between the I and the Other. However, we have yet to see
how a genuine ethical relation with the Other can occur amid a life of
enjoyment. Consider the following passage:

In enjoyment I am absolutely for myself Egoist without reference

to the Other, I am alone without solitude, innocently egoist and
alone. Not against Others, not "as for me ... "- but entirely deaf
to the Other, outside of all communication and all refusal to
communicate- without ears. like a hungry stomach. (TI 134)
We want to know how the Other manages to interrupt the complacency
of enjoyment.

Metaphysical Desire
Need and Desire
Although enjoyment is "necessary" (TI 148) for ethics, the ethical
relation is not itself one of enjoyment. Levinas argues that having
satisfied one's material needs, the self finds within itself a type of
longing that cannot be satisfied. Such is what Levinas calls "Desire"

Having recognized its needs as material needs, as capable of being

satisfied, the I can henceforth turn to what it does not lack. It




distinguishes the material from the spiritual, opens to Desire. (TI


"Third Meditation" when he uses the clarity and distinctness of the

cogito as support for the idea of infinity (God), and then proceeds to
use the idea of infinity as support for the cogito. What is typically
treated as a weakness or flaw in Descartes' argument, however, is
regarded by Levinas as its major strength. This is because it bears
witness to ethical separation. Levinas argues,

Desire is distinguished from "need" (e.g., the need for food)

precisely to the extent that it cannot in principle be satisfied.
Essentially insatiable, Levinas likens it to a desire that "nourishes itself,
one might say, with its hunger" (Tl 34). It is like the love Shakespeare
writes about in his Sonnet 73: "Consumed with that which it was
nourish'd by." (It is noteworthy that Levinas says, "It sometimes seems
to me that the whole of philosophy is only a meditation of
Shakespeare" [TO 72).)
But Desire is not love (see Chapter 4). Love is exemplified in the
erotic relation, and includes an ineluctable moment of need or
enjoyment. Desire, which is perpetually' unfulfilled, is literally
"metaphysical" (from Greek, meaning "beyond nature") in that it goes
beyond natural and animal inclinations. It is thus a "desire [that]
precisely understands the remoteness, the alterity, the exteriority of the
other" (TI 34).
The "understanding" spoken of here is that of theoretical judgment
or knowledge; it is "not an object-cognition" (TI 75). Levinas calls it
"an experience that is not commensurate with any a priori frameworka conceptless experience" (TJ I 0 I). Recall that Kant argued that
experience is always intelligible experience. In the Critique of Pure
Reason, he makes the famous remark: "Thoughts without content are
empty, intuitions without concepts are blind" (Critique ASl/875). This
goes some way toward explaining why Levinas describes metaphysical
Desire as "Desire for the invisible" (TI 33).

Descartes and the "Idea of Infinity"

Levinas does not always claim that there is no concept or idea
corresponding to Desire. For the most part he merely argues that there
is no "adequate idea." An adequate idea is an idea that coincides with
its ideatum, i.e., the object of the idea. Levinas uses the term "idea of
infinity" from Descartes' "Third Meditation" to draw attention to a
thought that the "I think . .. can in no way contain" (TI 48) or "thinks
more than it thinks" (TI 62). In order to appreciate the significance of
this idea for Levinas, it is worth taking a closer look at how it originally
functions in the work of Descartes.
It has long been maintained that Descartes argues in a circle in the


that there could be a chronological order distinct from the

"logical" order, that there could be several moments in the
progression, that there is a progression- here is separation. (TI
Although the idea of infinity is explicitly introduced only after the
cogito in Descartes' text, it is in fact already presupposed by the
procedure of doubt that led to the cogito. In Totality and Infinity,
Levinas quotes the following well-known passage from Descartes'
"Third Meditation":

my awareness of the infinite must ... be in some way prior to my

awareness of the finite, that is to say, my awareness of God must
be prior to that of myself For how could I know that I doubt and
desire, i.e., know that something is lacking in me and that I am not
wholly perfect, save by having in me the idea of a being more
perfect than myself by comparison with which I may recognize my
deficiencies? (quoted in the original Latin by Levinas [TI211])
The significance of this passage for Levinas is that it shows that in
order to have the idea of myself as imperfect (i.e., someone who
doubts) I must first have the idea of infinity (God) and the positive idea
of perfection. True, Descartes only makes this explicit after having
attained the certainty of the cog ito. The analysis has indeed become a
"reflection on reflection" (TI 2 I 0), whereby Descartes is engaged in
retracing his steps, and uncovering what made the initial certainty of
the cogito possible. According to Levinas, this tracing back by
philosophy reveals the hidden condition of truth and certainty,
presupposing the encounter with the Other.

It is necessary to have the idea of infinity, the idea of the perfect,

as Descartes would say, in order to know one's own imperfection.
The idea of the perfect is not an idea but desire; it is the welcoming


of the Other, the commencement of moral consciousness, which
calls in question my freedom. Thus this way of measuring oneself
against the perfection of infinity is not a theoretical consideration.

The Face
Meaning "kath auto"

(TI 84)

It should be noted that Levinas's reading of Descartes in Totality

and Infinity is highly atypical and selective. Descartes supplies Levinas
with a model of philosophy as "critique" understood "as a tracing back
to what precedes freedom" {TI 85), but nothing more. Levinas rejects
Cartesian "subject-object" dualism, the project of setting philosophy on
mathematical-like foundations, and the ontological argument for the
existence of God . All of these pertain to the very ontology that
Levinas ' s own philosophy criticizes.

Plato and the "Good beyond Being"

Descartes is not the only philo~opher within the Western
philosophical tradition in whom Levinas finds affinities with his own
thinking. Another philosopher whose work includes parallelisms with
his own is Plato. Speaking in Totality and Infinity of Plato's notion of
the "Good beyond Being" (Republic 509 b), Levinas writes:

The Place of the Good above every essence is the most profound
teaching, the definitive teaching, not of theology, but of
philosophy. (TI 103)
By the phrase "good beyond being," Plato is drawing our attention to
the fact that the Form of the Good is epistemologically and
ontologically prior to all the other Forms (eide) . This is perhaps easiest
to understand when we recognize that the Forms constitute the perfect
essences of things in the world of appearances. Every Form is good in
the sense of being a good model or perfect blueprint, and thus can be
said in some sense to depend on the Form of the Good- the highest
Form- for its existence.
For Levinas, as for Plato, the Form of the Good has a moral
significance. It is in terms of the Good that everything else- including
the Being of beings- is to be understood . This signals for Levinas an
exception in the history of philosophy, which has tended to give
priority to ontology and epistemology over ethics.


How then does the Same relate to the Other without destroying the
otherness of the Other. How is ethics possible?
It is unquestionably the face that provides our everyday and most
immediate access to each other. The ethical relation is enacted "face-toface." By the term "face" (visage), Levinas does not simply mean a
person ' s countenance. Indeed, for Levinas, the face is not strictly
speaking an "object" of vision at all. It cannot be represented in a work
of art, a painting or a sculpture, and is not a mask or persona that "I
wear." The face rather is personification in that it presents-rather than
represents- the Other in person. It is the very presence of that which
does not present itself to knowledge and understanding in the manner
of things.
According to Levinas, the human face is unique in that it expresses
the person whose face it is "kath auto" (TI 67 passim) ("of its own
uccord" or "by itself'). Levinas borrows this term from Book !':!. of
Aristotle's Metaphysics, where it is defined as

whatever factor of a thing 's being cannot be a factor of some other

being So, a man can be explained as an animal, a biped, but "by
himself' a man is a man. (1022a 30-35)
The face has meaning kath auto in the sense that it does not depend
on anything else- signs, language, culture- to have the meaning that it
The way in which the Other always escapes visual representation is
depicted in Rene Magritte's intriguing painting Not to be Reproduced.



It should be noted that according to Levinas discourse does not
require the use of actual words (see Chapter 5 below). He tells us that
" the whole body- a hand or a curve of the shoulder--can express as
lhc face" (Tl 262). "Expression" here is similar to what Plato in the
l'haedrus called "living and animate speech" (276 a8) that "knows how
10 defend itself' (276 e9; see Tl 66). Levinas likens it best to the
" language of the eyes" (TI 66):

The eyes break through the mask-the language of the eyes,

impossible to dissemble. The eye does not shine; it speaks. (TI 66)
In As You Like It, Shakespeare speaks of"eyes, that are the frail'st
und softest things I Who shut their coward gates on atomies" (3.5.1213). Levinas too draws attention to the vulnerability of the eyes, which
make murder (ethically) impossible. Speaking of "the total nudity of
lthej defenseless eyes," he writes, "there is here a relation not with a
very great resistance, but with something absolutely other: the
res istance of what has no resistance- the ethical resistance" (TI 199).


Rene Magritte, Not to be Reproduced ( 193 7)

The ethical relationship between the Same and the Other-the faceto-face- is primarily enacted as discourse (TI 39). Discourse here is
not to be understood as the straightforward passage of information from
one person to the next. It is first of all a matter of responding to the
Other. According to Levinas, we always speak in response to the Other,
whose face presents itself as a kind of order or command to be heard.
Levinas tells us that the "first word" of the face consists in the Biblical
injunction: "Thou shalt not kill" (Tl I 99). The meaning of the face is
straightway ethical .

The language of the face does not merely consist in the negative
prohibition against murder, but also in the positive command to give
with "full hands" (Tl 205). For Levinas the face is the face of
destitution and poverty. Indeed it is precisely through the Other's
r ondition of being the Biblical "stranger, the widow, the orphan" (Jer.
:3; see Tl 77) that he or she has power over me. Levinas writes, in
typical lyrical fashion:

This gaze that supplicates and demands, that can supplicate only
because it demands, deprived of everything because entitled to
everything, and which one recognizes in giving . .. this gaze is
precisely the epiphany of the face as a face. The nakedness ofthe
face is destituteness. To recognize the Other is to recognize a
hunger. To recognize the Other is to give. (TI 75)
The face-to-face, which
ro rnprehension , emerges as
" Responsibility" here is to be
n.l'ponsivity (i.e., responding)

cannot be reduced to a relation of

responsibility for the other person.
understood in two senses of the word :
to the Other and responsibility for the



Other. To respond with responsibility to the face of the Other means

concretely to take care of the Other's needs. Such is what Levinas calls

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 naive 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)

Asymmetry and Height

One of the most original aspects of Levinas' s ethics- and for some
critics the most disconcerting- is the claim that ethical responsibility
cannot be reversed. Ethics is not a kind of double-entry bookkeeping
which records each transaction as both a credit and a debit. According
to Levinas, I am responsible for the Other without the Other being
responsible for me in turn . It may indeed be the case that the Other has
obligations toward me, but I cannot know this for certain. The Other's
responsibility remains "his affair" (EI 98). 'Levinas thus describes the
ethical relation as one of "asymmetry" in which the Other approaches
me from a dimension of "height"- "the elementary fact of morality"
(Tl 297}--calling me to goodness:

Goodness consists in taking up a position such that the Other

counts more than myself (TI 247)
There are no arguments at this point. There are no arguments as to
why the Other should count more than I do. To give an argument would
automatically be to return ethics to the order of ontology, systems, and
categories. It would be to consider the Other and me on the same level.
To take care of the Other's needs without remuneration or reward is the
very meaning of ethical asymmetry. Levinas finds it encapsulated in
Dostoyevsky's words from the Brothers Karamazov:

Each of us is responsible before everyone for everyone, and I more

than the rest. (BK 339)

Here we meet with one of the central claims of Totality and

11!/fnity, namely that the ethical encounter with the Other begins in the
shame I feel when I recognize my freedom to be arbitrary and
murderous in its very exercise. 'The welcoming of the Other is ipso
litcto the consciousness of my own injustice- the shame that freedom
lue ls for itself' (TI 86). It is worth underlining that this shameful
"consciousness" does not derive from a decision to seek out and mull
over what might be called a lack of scruples.

Freedom is at the same time discovered in the consciousness of

shame and concealed in the shame itself Shame does not have the
structure ofconsciousness and clarity. (TI 84)
Levinas is concerned to show how the Other is capable of
" investing" my freedom by instilling it with what it was previously
lucking, namely, justification. Justification here does not amount to a
lhcoretical demonstration or proof of freedom (Kant himself had
l' lllphasized the futility of that endeavor). Rather, it has a specifically
moral meaning, which is why we read: 'To justify freedom is not to
prove it, but to render it just" (TI 83). Levinas calls this requirement for
I he I to justify its freedom in the face of the Other "apology" (TI 40).

luionomy and Heteronomy

What, then, are we to make of Levinas ' s claim that the "imperialism
same is the whole essence of freedom" (Tl 87)? How can
II ccdom, which is naturally violent or unjust, aspire to responsibility
111d become just?
It is Kant, of course, who drew the distinction between two types of
lrccdom: autonomy (from the Greek word auto-nomos, meaning "selflUling") and heteronomy (from hetero-nomos, meaning "other-ruling").
For Kant, all moral action as such is autonomous insofar as it consists
111 l(lllowing a rational universal law ("the Categorical Imperative") that

or lhe

Conscience and Apology

The Other who dominates me from a dimension of height is not
only a "master" (TI I 0 I) but also a "judge" (TI 240). To submit to
ethical judgment, whereby the natural egoism or spontaneity of the I is
called into question, is what is ordinarily called "conscience." Levinas




I find within myself. I thus give myself the law. Levinas borrows
Kant's distinction but reverses its meaning. For him morality is not
autonomy but heteronomy (see Tl 88). The latter however is quite
different from what Kant called " negative freedom" or "spontaneity."
Moral freedom as heteronomy for Levinas is not a license to
unrestrained liberty. It is rather the sober obedience to an obligation
from which I personally cannot escape and which comes from the

is the f. The personal character of apology is maintained in this

election by which the I is accomplished qua f. (TI 245)

The freedom of the I is neither the arbitrariness of an isolated

being nor the conformity of an isolated being with a rational and
universal law incumbent on all. My arbitrary freedom reads its
shame in the eyes that look at me. It /i apologetic, that is, refers
already from itself to the judgment of the Other which it solicits,
and which does not offend it as a limit. (TI 252)
It might be wondered whether an obligation that is not rationally
motivated should be called " freedom" at all. Indeed, after reading the
following quotation from the Jewish Talmudic Synhedrin Treatise
I 04b, one might have severe doubts:

To leave men without food is a fault that no circumstance

attenuates; the distinction between the voluntary and the
involuntary does not apply here. (Rabbi Yochanan quoted by
Levinas [TI 20 I])
Although the ethical relation is not freely, rationally, or selfconsciously motivated, it is not thereby to be thought of as coerced.
Levinas writes: "The will is free to assume this responsibility in
whatever sense it likes ; it is not free to refuse this responsibility itself'
(TI 218-9). In other words, I can choose to act responsibly though I
cannot choose to be responsible . The fact that the will has no choice but
to be responsible ("it is not free to refuse this responsibility itself') is
what is most crucial here, and is echoed later in Totality and Infinity as

To utter "/, " to affirm the irreducible singularity in which the

apology is pursued, means to possess a privileged place with
regard to responsibilities for which no one else can replace me
and from which no one can release me. To be unable to shirk: this

Levinas is here anticipating the major theme of Otherwise than

Being, namely, "substitution" and the associated concepts of "hostage,"
"persecution," and "obsession." We will return to these themes in
hapter 7.

The Third Party and Reason

The Third Party
It was noted above that the ethical relation is asymmetrical in that
lhe Other counts more than me. Levinas insists, however, that this
:lhical asymmetry is invisible to the third party observer (le tiers) who
stands outside the relation. Although I see the Other as higher than me
tiom the first personal point of view within the relation, from an
:xternal point of view there is no difference between us. The Other and
I are thus seen as interchangeable and the relationship between us
revers ible. The third party plays an important role in Levinas's work,
1ilpresenting both the totalizing standpoint of reason as well as the rest
of humanity, not physically present at the time of the encounter.
Th is might be taken to suggest that the third party has nothing to do
with ethics. But that is not true at all. According to Levinas, though the
th ird party sees the ethical relationship from the outside, he or she is
seen within it. In an important chapter in Totality and Infinity called
"The Other and the Others," we read :

The third party looks at me in the eyes of the Other- language is

justice. The epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity . .. the
third party, thus present at the encounter. ... The presence of the
face is a presence of the third party (that is, of the whole of
humanity which looks at us) . (TI 213)
In facing one, I face everyone. We will discuss what motivated
I .lvinas to include reference to third party in his discussion of ethics
Iuter when examining the role of justice in Otherwise than Being (see
( 'huptcr 8). In Totality and Infinity Levinas is not concerned with the
problem of justice to the same degree because he is in the process of



working out a conception of ethics that begins with my recognition of

the Other's suffering and thus superiority over me. This suffering is not
restricted to the person facing me, of course, but it is only in the faceto-face relation that I am able to be moved by it. In "Transcendence and
Height," appearing just one year later, in 1962, he wrote:

The State which realizes its essence in works slips toward tyranny
and thus attests my absence from my works, which across
conomic necessities return to me as alien. From work I am only
deduced and am already ill-understood, betrayed rather than
expressed. (TI 176)

There are cruelties which are terrible because they proceed from
the necessity of the reasonable order. There are, if you like, the
tears that a civil servant cannot see: the tears of the Other. (BP 23)

After their production works have a commercial or economic

dcsliny through which they receive a meaning that is wholly
Independent of the interpretation that was initially intended for them.
ll cnce forth they "take on the anonymity of merchandise, an anonymity
tnlo which , as wage earner, the worker himself may disappear" (TI
Again against Hegel, and closer to Marx, Levinas argues that work
docs not emancipate the worker. Work represents the person whose
work it is only in some quite formal capacity as producer, whereby he
or she becomes representable by any other, and thus open to
l'X ploilation.

The relations that operate at the level of the State- commerce,

bureaucracy, and war- are thus defective in that they cannot recognize,
let alone accommodate, the particular needs:ofthe face. As we will see,
politics misunderstands those needs, which it relegates to the realm of
correlative rights and obligations.

The State and Work

The judgment of the face prior to the apology is to be sharply
distinguished from all judgment having to do with the rational
application of a general category, concept, or precept to a particular
case. Levinas calls this rational judgment "politics," which he
associates with the violence of ontology and the universal order. We

Politics left to itself bears a tyranny within itself; it deforms the I

and the other ... for it judges them according to universal rules
and thus as in absentia. (TI 300)
The relation with the political totality, where the same and the
Other are judged in their absence, is called "work," which includes
"actions, gestures, manners, objects utilized and fabricated" (TI 175).
Essentially politics is concerned not with individual persons but with

This stands in sharp contrast to the view of Hegel, who argued that
work is the medium through which an individual "becomes conscious
of what he truly is" (PS 195), i.e., arrives at objective confirmation of
her or his existence. For Levinas, work is ultimately the basis not for
recognition but "misrecognition" (TI 227; 297):

In political life, left to itself humanity is understood from its

works- a humanity of interchangeable men, of reciprocal
relations. The substitution of men for one another, primal
disrespect, makes possible exploitation itself (TI 298)
Not only do "life and labor mask" (TI 178), they enslave. As a
wugc earner, I am subject to the will of others, who "can dispossess me
ol my work, take it or buy it, and thus direct my very behavior" (TI
7). Work, which should have liberated me, if only from material
lll'ccss ities, serves to dominate my freedom, leaving me open to
uppropriation and exploitation. Hegel's slave is a slave after all.

1\unl and the Categorical Imperative

For the German Enlightenment thinker Kant, the idea that rational
judgment "according to universal rules" could constitute a "tyranny"
would be unintelligible. It would make no sense because practical
judgment on the basis of a priori rules coincides with what Kant calls
moral judgment, where what I will is judged according to an a priori
1ulc known as the Categorical Imperative. In Groundwork of the
Ml'taphysic of Morals Kant offers a formulation of the Categorical
llupcrative as follows: "Act only on that maxim through which you can



at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (G 21).
The principles upon which actions are undertaken, which when valid
for a particular agent in particular circumstances are called "maxims,"
must, if moral, be chosen according to their suitability to function as
universally legislative. Practical judgment as the basis of universal law
is situated by Kant at the antipodes of "tyranny." It is freedom
(autonomy) itself.
Levinas, however, remains unconvinced; his conclusion the same:

of universal laws, the I enters under judgment by the fact of being

good. (TI 24 7)

the virile judgment of "pure reason " is cruel. (TI 243)

Essentially Levinas's criticism of Kant's ethics is twofold. Firstly,
it destroys the conditions for separation,. and secondly, it cannot
account for ethical asymmetry. "ldealisrrl," he writes, "reduces all
ethics to politics" (TI 216). That Levinas has Kant's so-called kingdom
of ends- "a systematic union of different rational beings under
common laws" (G 95)-specifically in mind here is made clear a few
lines later:

In the kingdom of ends, where persons are indeed defined as wills,

but where the will is defined as what permits itself to be affected by
the universal-where the will wishes to be reason, be it practical
reason- multiplicity rests in fact only on the hope ofhappiness. ...
In this world without multiplicity . . . each being is posited apart
from all the others, but the will of each, or ipseity, from the start
consists in willing the universal or rational, that is, in negating its
very particularity. (Tf 217)
In Levinas's view, the kingdom of ends is a suppression of
"multiplicity," a denial of separation that rests on enjoyment and
Levinas 's second chief objection to Kant's moral theory is that it
cannot accommodate ethical " height." In Kant's moral theory, otherscalled "persons"-are given respect only insofar as they have the same
capacity as I to follow purely rational laws. What Levinas calls the
ethical asymmetry between us is thus hidden or destroyed. In Totality
and Infinity we read :

The deepening of my responsibility in the judgment that is borne

upon me is not of the order of universalization: beyond the justice

Politics is not opposed to morality through commerce alone. Indeed,
it is important to bear in mind that the asymmetrical relation with the
other, according to Levinas, "can take on the aspect of the symmetrical
relation" (TI 225)-or commerce- to the extent that commerce is
necessary for ethics, which is "incapable of approaching the other with
empty hands" (TI 50). This opposition is most evident in the situation
of modern war as opposed to personal combat. In personal combat,
adversaries "refuse to belong to a totality" (TI 222); they "seek out one
unother" and thus do "not refuse relationship" (TI 223). In modern
military combat, by contrast, the totality is extended, national
boundaries become blurred, combatants do not manifest themselves in
their exteriority and consequently are encountered only through
logistics. Hence,

individuals are reduced to being bearers of forces that command

them unbeknown to themselves. The meaning of individuals
(invisib le outside of this totality) is derived from the totality. (TI 22)
As with commerce, individuals engaged in war play roles in which
they are no longer recognized nor are recognizable (TI 21). This is
attested by monuments to the "Unknown Soldier," a sorrowful
reminder of the anonymity of modern warfare.

Shakespeare's "Undiscovered Country"
Whether it be in the heat of battle or the dead of night, the death one
receives is absolutely unknowable. Shakespeare writes: "But that the
dread of something after death I the undiscovered country, from whose
bourn I No traveler returns I puzzles the will" (Hamlet 3.1.76-82).
Levinas presents the puzzle thus:

One does not know when death will come. What will come? With


what does death threaten me? With nothingness or with
recommencement? I do not know. In this impossibility of knowing
the after my death resides the essence of the last moment. I can
absolutely not apprehend the moment of death. . . . My death
comes from an instant upon which I can in no way exercise my
power. (Tl 234)
If this were all Levinas had to say about death then one might
wonder why he bothered to discuss it at all. But Levinas goes on to
draw several conclusions from the fact that death is absolutely
unknowable. The first is that "the unwonted hour of its coming
approaches as the hour of fate fixed by someone" (TI 235). Although I
know it is purely contingent when I will di~, I tend to think of that day
as predetermined by someone. Death is situated in a region ("bourn")
from which murder or execution comes. It is as though I am to die at an
appointed hour. I do not know in advance when that time is because
someone else has determined it for me . Hence Levinas writes:

~ It

is Oasein's " ownmost" possibility. By this, Heidegger means to

ny th11t death is the possibility of authentic existence. Death is a way of
lwtng that each Dasein must adopt for him- or herself, explaining why
I >uNuin a lways dies alone (BT 294).
Lev inas disagrees with every one of these Heideggerian claims. For
I l'Vinus, not only is death always future, not only does it deprive me of
poNs ibilities that exist independently of the relation to the Other, it
11111111Lains the relation to th e Other. This last point is clarified by
I .lvinas in the following passage:

'f"!Je solitude of death does not make the Other vanish, but remains
i11 a consciousness of hostility, and consequently still renders
possible an appeal to the Other, to his friendship and his
medication. The doctor is an a priori principle of human mortality.
Death approaches in the fear of someone, and hopes in someone . .
.. A social conjuncture is maintained in this menace. (TI 234)

Death threatens me from beyond. This unknown that frightens, the
silence of the infinite spaces that terrify [Pascal, Pensees], comes
from the other, and this alterity, precisely as absolute, strikes me in
an evil design or in a judgment ofjustice. (TI 234)
"Conscience," says the great procrastinator, Hamlet, "doth make
cowards of us all" (Hamlet 3 . I .91 ).

The Impossibility of Possibility

Indeed, Hamlet' s procrast ination , his inability to act, whether it be
killing himself or avenging hi s father's death, attests to the radical
passivity that comes from the consciousness of one 's own mortality.
Levinas describes thi s as "the impossibility of every possibility" (TI
235). Here Levinas is deliberately contrasting his own thought with that
of Heidegger, who in Being and Time describes death as the
"possibility of impossibility" (BT 307). For Heidegger, death (after
having been redefined as "dying" or "being-towards-death") is a unique
possibility of Dasein 's inasmuch as it can never be actualized as long as
Dasein lives. Not that Heidegger thereby states that death can never
happen . On the contrary, Heidegger asserts that death is not only
" possible at any moment" (BT 302), but that it is also unique inasmuch

Mortality does not simply include reference to the Other in the role
ol murderer or medic . In the time that remains between me and my
death, there will be time for me to be for the Other. " This is why death
n umot drain all meaning from life" (TI 236). It is not that the Other is
there, as Heidegger suggests, to "tranquilize" (BT 298) me about death
hy telling me that death will not happen at that moment. Levinas claims
that death is always future not in order to console the reader or remove
his or her anxiety. His point is a logical one. As Epicurus says, "so long
ns we ex ist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not
exist" (Letter to Menoeceus). For Levinas, the time that remains until
my death is enough time to do one last thing for the neighbor, who will
survive me, and thus do something that does not end with my life. In
this postponement of death , my life is given meaning that the
inevitab ility of my fast-approaching death cannot destroy.

The will . .. on the way to death but a death ever future, exposed to
death but not immediately, has time to be for the Other, and thus
The goodness whose meaning
recover meaning despite death.
death cannot efface, has its center outside itself (TI 236)
Lev inas goes on to add :

We shall have to show this in the course of bringing to light the
other chance that the will seizes upon in the time left it by its being
against death: the founding of institutions in which the will ensures
a meaningful, but impersonal world beyond death. (TI 236)
We will see in the next chapter how the will manages somehow to go
"beyond death." To finish this discussion, let us emphasize that for
Levinas death entails a social relation that restores meaning to life by
making it possible for me to do something/or the other in the time that
remains before death- a possibility that is thus not mine in any
straightforward sense, and which my death thus cannot annihilate.
In his discussion of an inauthentic way of dying, Heidegger in
Being and Time cites Tolstoy ' s novella 'Fhe Death of Ivan 1/ych as
literary attestation of the "phenomenon of the disruption and
breakdown of having ' someone die"' (BT 495 n. xii). To be sure, the
majority of what Tolstoy says in his short story would seem to confirm
what Heidegger says about the tendency of Dasein to " flee" in the face
of its death . But it also contains a remarkable ending that is less
Heideggerian and more Levinasian. The passage in question concerns
Ivan ' s final realization that he is indeed going to die, that his life was
not as it should have been, but there was still time to put it right:

"Yes, I am making them wretched, " he thought. "They are sorry,

but it will be better for them when I die. " He wished to say this but
had not the strength to utter it. "Besides, why speak? I must act,"
he thought. With a look at his wife he indicated his son and said:
"Take him away . .. sorry f or him . .. sorry for you too. ... " (KS


Not a ll peaceful relations with the Other are enacted face-to-face. In

thu final section of Totality and Infinity, entitled "Beyond the Face,"
I .cv inas examines the relation of love, a relation that is said to bring
tho ut an alteration in the very identity or "substance" of the I, giving
1 1sc to a future that is paradoxically both mine and not mine.

lt: ros, Friendship, and Familial Love

Jk tween Desire and Need
T he Greeks used four terms to designate various types of love as
lo llows:
I) Eros, the sexual or physical desire that exists between couples
(heterosexual and homosexual).
2) Stergos, the affection denoting the mutual love between family
3) Philos, the care and concern that friends have for each other.
4) Agape, love of the neighbor, involving a deliberate choice to do
good for another independently of self-interest.
In his discussion of love , Levinas is concerned with variants 1), 2),
md 3). He is chiefly concerned with 1), though at the beginning of the





adopting a "deliberately male point of view" (SS 16 n. l) Also, the very

descriptions Levinas gives of the feminine beloved are considered
insulting to women. ("The beloved, returned to the stage of infancy
without responsibility- this coquettish head, this youth, this pure life,
'a bit silly' -has quit her status as a person" [TI 263).) They appear to
belong to a patriarchal tradition that used the same characterizations to
deny women the vote, for example.
In defense of Levinas, it should be pointed out that he also describes
woman in extremely positive terms as "master superiorly intelligent, so
often dominating men in the masculine civilization she has entered" (TI
264). Indeed, at times Levinas seems to suggest that what he is calling
"femininity" and "masculinity" cannot be reduced to actual differences
between the sexes, but emerge rather as :'ways to be" for both the
sexes, rather like Heidegger's existentialia:

1111us il to describe the feminine beloved, whose way of being consists in

oscaping intelligibility while nevertheless giving herself over to erotic
nhu ndon and exhibitionist nudity. Levinas speaks of this ambiguous
wn y of being as one of "being not yet," as though the beloved were a
p11un ise of something that appears without appearing:

The essentially hidden throws itself toward the light, without

becoming signification. This unreality at the threshold of the real
does not offer itself as a possible to be grasped. . . "Being not
yet " is not this or that. . . . It ref ers to the modesty it has profaned
without overcoming. The secret appears without appearing. (TI
The lack of signification or meaning on the part of the beloved here
Mallarme once said (in true Symbolist style), "To name an
object is to destroy three quarters of the poem 's delight. This after all is
u1ude fro m the pleasure of gues sing little by little" (SB 8). A similar
daim can be made in regard to the feminine, who is "profaned" in
vo luptuousness but not "as a possible to be grasped." The way of the
1\lmi nine in the "night of the erotic" (Tl 258) consists in the fact that in
the process of immodestly giving herself, she precisely does not give
hurself- a contradiction in formal logic (Tl 260). The opposite of
pornography, it is as though there were always something more to see,
something more to come, another veil to lift. This is witnessed by the
IN crucial.

Allusions to the ontological differences between the masculine and

the f eminine would appear less archaic if, instead of dividing
humanity into two species (or two genders), they would signify that
the participation in the masculine and in the feminine were the
attribute of every human being. (EI 68)
Of course, this leaves unanswered the question why Levinas should
use the name "feminine" to refer to one group of attributes that is
supposedly shared by both sexes.

The Phenomenology of Eros

Levinas likens the beloved to the nymphs in Stephane Mallarme's
Symbolist poem Afternoon of a Faun ( 1865). The nymphs are seduced
(or imagined so) by a faun , half man and half beast, lying in the reedy
undergrowth of a lakeside bank on a hot, hazy, shimmering afternoon.

These nymphs I would perpetuate. I So clear I Their light

carnation, that it floats in the air I Heavy with tufted slumbers. I
Was it a dream I loved? (translation by Roger Fry)
The poem has a quality of unreality about it, which is why Levinas


The caress consists in seizing upon nothing, in soliciting what

ceaselessly escapes its form toward a future never future enough,
in soliciting what slips away as though it were not yet. It searches,
it fo rages. It is not an intentionality of disclosure but of search: a
movement unto the invisible. In a certain sense it expresses love,
but suffers from an inability to tell it. It is hungry for this very
expression, in an unremitting increase of hunger. (TI 257-8)
Notice that Levinas here places the accent on the future . The caress
moves into the future that is not yet. It does not anticipate what is to
come (or what it finds) but searches without knowing what it is that it is
looking for. This is why it "does not act, does not grasp possibles" (TI
259). On the contrary, its movement consists in going " beyond the
possible" (TI 281). Levinas claims that "we are here before a new


category" (TI 266). He calls its "fecundity," which is defined as the
power to engender a child.

Paternity and Maternity

Beyond the face and language, eros aims at a remote and nonanticipatable future. Levinas identifies this future as the time in which
my child lives, and characterizes the relation I have with my child as
"paternity" (Tl 267). We should mention that terms like "fecundity"
and " paternity," etc., are not to be understood in a straightforwardly
"empirical" or "biological sense" (TI 277). Levinas insists that while
"biology furnishes us the prototypes of all these relations . . . these
relations free themselves from their biological limitation" (TI 279).
They are tropes or metaphors that Levinas uses to speak of a class of
relations that are possible with any human being, not merely with one's
In Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes,

The son is not only my work, like a poem or an object, nor is he my

property. . .. I do not have my child; I am my child Paternity is a
relation with a stranger who while being Other . . . is me, a
relation of the I with a self which is yet not me. (Tl 277)
The idea that the father does not merely cause his son but in some
sense is his son, is substantially in him without being the same as him,
is one that Levinas claims is impossible to think in terms of formal
logic: "The structure of the subjectivity' s identity that is produced in
eros takes us outside the categories of classical logic" (TI 272). Not
that the thought is thus outside of all criticism. Levinas's perhaps
unquestioned use of masculine language ("paternity," "father," "son"),
along with his failure to mention the daughter certainly do little to allay
the suspicion that Levinas ' s account is gender biased. There is,
however, one important exception. Speaking of the relation of filiality
"with its essential reference to the protective existence of the parents,"
Levinas adds, "the notion of maternity must be introduced to account
for this recourse" (TI 278). Levinas will return to the idea of maternity
in Chapter 3 of Otherwise than Being, where it becomes a trope for the
ethical relation, which includes bearing the weight of responsibility for
the Other in an act of substitution (08 75). His use of the term in
Totality and Infinity already shows that what is at stake in filiality is



1111 ethics, albeit ethics under a new aspect- what Levinas calls the
"' ulinity of time" (TI 281). We will return to this in a moment.
One way to understand Levinas's startling claim that in paternity,
lhtl I both is and is not its son (or daughter) is to think of the Other as a
01 t of project in life. Everybody knows that good parents are
1nN ponsible parents. They feed and clothe their children, protect and
tlllllurc them, educate and cultivate them. They strive to teach their
1 hildrcn to become the best they can be- whether in math, music, art,
1tcnce, or sport. While there is often a temptation to exert too much
1outro l over the child by not allowing it to make its own choices in life,
lht good parent knows where to draw the line between negligence and
ht tng too controlling. The goal here is to teach the child to become
ludl.lpendent so that he or she will be in a position to make his or her
own choices in life. You might say that paradoxically the parent makes
It poss ible for the child to generate his or her own possibilities. Or, to
put it another way, the child depends on the parents to become
Ind ependent.
To the extent that the parents are successful and manage to teach
lhl.l child to become independent, then it can be said that the parents
Jl'H iize one of their possibilities. They make possible the possibilities of
tl ll.l ir child- possibilities that are both theirs (they made them possible)
nnd not theirs (they are possibilities of their child, who is an
iudependent being). Levinas expresses this most succinctly in an
Interview :
The fact of seeing the possibilities of the other as your own
possibilities, of being able to escape the closure of your own
identity and what is bestowed on you, toward something which is
not bestowed and which is nevertheless yours-this is paternity.
This future beyond my own being, this dimension constitutive of
time, takes on a concrete content in paternity. (EI 70)
How are the Other's possibilities my possibilities? How can there
be a type of parental relation which the Other outside ofbiology?

The Gift of Giving

The gift can sometimes go further than we can ever imagine. We
typically think of the gift as stopping with the recipient; we imagine the
Other as a sort of terminus . Once the Other has received the gift, the



possibility I embarked on has been actualized, and the act of giving is
finished. Levinas suggests, however, that the gift, and the desiring
possibility that sends it on its way, go beyond the Other. We read:

The Other is not a term; he does not stop the movement of Desire.
The other that Desire desires is again Desire; transcendence
transcends toward him who transcends- this is the true adventure
of paternity, of the transubstantiation which permits going beyond
the simple renewal of the possible in the inevitable senescence of
the subject. Transcendence, the for the Other, the goodness
correlative of the face, founds a more profound relation: the
goodness of goodness. Fecundity engendering fecundity
accomplishes goodness: above and beyond the sacrifice that
imposes a gift, the gift of the power of giving, the conception of the
child. (Tl 269)
The passage is not as difficult to grasp as it might at first appear.
Levinas is making the point that through the gift goodness (or Desire)
engenders more goodness (or Desire). How so? Imagine I helped a
friend to get back on his or her feet again after a bout of depression.
Imagine that during the depression, she was in so much psychological
pain that her relationships with Others became virtually impossible or
seriously impaired. In helping her find a way out the tunnel of despair,
did I not make it possible for her to be there for Others should they
require assistance in the future , a time when perhaps I am no longer
there? Even though I must die ("the inevitable senescence of the
subject"), the good deeds I do live on through Others. Perhaps this is
the meaning behind the "miracle" story of the feeding of the five
thousand in the Gospels. Perhaps the five loaves and two fish
symbolize the fecund power of giving that keeps on multiplying its

IVt''' the possibility of having a meaningful life despite the

1111 vHubility of my death . Earlier, we saw how according to Levinas the
illlll' I have life on this earth enables the will to seize the possibility to
IH' 11).\Uinst death by "the founding of institutions in which the will
rii ~ III CS a meaningful, but impersonal world beyond death." To the
n ltnt that this possibility is mine, then it makes sense to speak of my
ll vi11 g on in the lives of Others.
II must be emphasized that in no way is Levinas suggesting that self
I~ literally reborn or " reincarnated." Ethics is not the mythical
l'hilosophers' Stone that guarantees life everlasting. This is because the
tllhcr's future is in a very real sense discontinuous with my life. The
t IIIIer is newness and rupture. He or she introduces fresh springtides
luto ex istence, first by making it possible to have possibilities in
r ' "fence beyond death, and second by paradoxically changing the
nll'llning or the character of one's past. This latter possibility is what
I tvinas calls "pardon":

The paradox of pardon lies in its retroaction; from the point of

view of common time it represents an inversion of the natural
order of things, the reversibility of time. ... Pardon . . . permits the
subject who had committed himself in a past instant to be as
though that instant had not passed on, to be as though he had not
committed himself (Tl 283)

The idea that I can somehow survive my death through fecundity

and countless future generations leads Levinas to introduce a new
structure of time- what he calls "the Infinity of time." The Infinity of
time is the time in which the I exists without the finite limits of
mortality. It is a time of perpetual youth and recommencement in that it
liberates the self from the past and aging. In being-for-the-Other, I am

The Other- in a relationship called fecundity, my child as it wereliberates me from the consequences of my own past actions. It is not
that I literally did not do X or Y, but it is as though I did not do them.
I he Other permits me to disburden myself of any unfortunate choices
or mistakes in the past, turning them into a felix culpa (literally,
" fortunate fall"). In the measure that I am responsible for the Other in
the future, I am relieved of the weight of responsibility for the past.
What is the connection between this new understanding of time and
the "dream of a happy eternity" associated with Jewish Messianic
thinking? Levinas modestly acknowledges that "the problem exceeds
the bounds" (TI 285) of Totality and Infinity. He will never again return
to the topic directly- possibly because he felt that talk of a happy
outcome to our moral actions risked resuscitating the idea of a theodicy
that he definitively rejects, and which after the Holocaust looks more
dubious than ever. But Levinas is clear about this much: there is
something wearisome about life without the Other. It is as though the



The Infinity ofTime

sheer fact of being- which early on in his career he called the "there
is" ("if y a")-were in the words of the French poet, Charles
Baudelaire: "tedium, fruit of the mournful incuriosity that take on
proportions of immortality" ("Spleen"; quoted by Levinas [TI 307]).
With these words Levinas closes Totality and Infinity. One should
perhaps contrast them with the fina l line ofSartre's play No Exit: "Hell
is other people." For Levinas, on the contrary, hell is being alone.


Otherwise than Being
or Beyond Essence


The Saying and the Said

At the time Levinas presented Totality ~nd Infinity for his Doctorat
d' Etat in 1961, he was a relatively obscure philosophical figure in
French intellectual life. Although he was instrumental in introducing
Jean-Paul Sartre to phenomenology, he was known primarily as a
Husser( and Heidegger scholar but not as a thinker in his own right.
This was to change, however, with the publication of an essay by
Jacques Derrida entitled "Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the
Thought of Emmanuel Levinas" (originally published in 1964, and
republished with minor changes in 1967). This dense, seventy-page
essay was among the first publications on Levinas and almost singlehandedly secured Levinas ' s reputation as one of the most important
thinkers in twentieth-century Continental philosophy. It also enabled
Derrida to pay his debts to a thinker whose influence on his own work
has been profound. Today, it is almost impossible to write on Levinas
without considering the questions raised by Derrida concerning
Levinas's language. Nor indeed is it possible to write on Derrida's
fundamental concepts of the " trace," "other," and "differance," without
acknowledging the influence of Levinas.

Derrida's "Violence and Metaphysics"

The Saying and the Said

~ t l' IIS ibly

lies beyond ontology and the philosophical tradition. Derrida

wtil cs:

We are wondering about the meaning of a necessity: the necessity

of lodging oneself within traditional conceptuality in order to
destroy it. Why did this necessity . . . impose itself upon Levinas?
(WD 112)
l.cvinas's apparent failure to acknowledge his dependence on the
l1111guage and conceptuality of the philosophical tradition in his
ntt lmpted break with ontology leads Derrida to accuse him of
" hl'lmying his own intentions in his philosophical discourse" (WD
I ' I). Thus when Levinas writes, for example, in Totality and Infinity
lhut " Being is produced as multiple and as split into same and other;
tills is its ultimate structure . . .. We thus leave the philosophy of
l1u11ncnidean being" (TI 269), it is almost impossible not to get the
i111prcss ion that Levinas believes he has succeeded in leaving the
oulological tradition behind him. Derrida argues that Levinas has done
uothing of the sort. If we inquire after the being of the relation that
lll'l' Urs between the same and other, we find, according to Derrida, that
11 l' Unnot be "thought or said" (WD 127) without reference to them
hoth , thereby presupposing a certain unity. The argument is a classical
IIIIC, first formulated in Plato's Sophist, in which the terms "same" (to
111/to/tauto) and "other" (heteron) were said to be relative to one
111other. Sameness could be said of something only in relation to
IIIIIClhing other than it, whereby the same can be said to "participate in
It ~ opposite" (Sophist 255a). Similarly, the other is "just what it is
tluough compulsion of some other" (255d). Accordingly-and this is a
ll'l urrent theme of Derrida's long essay- like the Eleatic Stranger of
Pluto 's dialogue, whose attempts to name "any opposite of being"
( !Wa) constantly fell to the "inconceivable, inexpressible, unspeakable,
11111tional " (283c)-Levinas must inevitably fail in his attempts to bring
tlwt which is "beyond being" (TI 30) to thought and language without
ll' lcrcnce to the thought and language of being itself. Like the Stranger,
h1 must inevitably fail in his intention to break with Parmenides.

The Problem of Ontological Language

/,cvinas 's Response
Derrida's essay " Violence and Metaphysics" is primarily a
reflection on the methodological impasse Levinas encounters when
using ontological language and concepts to speak of ethics that

While Derrida was undoubtedly correct to call attention to the

tllnost insurmountable difficulties of breaking free from metaphysics,



The Saying and the Said

he perhaps failed to appreciate the extent to which Levinas was already
well aware of the double bind in which he was caught Indeed, Levinas
had already made it clear that although ontological language is
unavoidable, no necessary commitment is made thereby to the
traditional conceptuality underlying that language. This is because what
is said in a philosophical text can always be qualified, retracted, and
even contradicted if need be in order to make room for an altogether
different conceptuality. As early as the "Preface" to Totality and
Infinity Levinas writes:

It belongs to the very essence of language, which consists in

continually undoing its phrase by the foreword or the exegesis, in
unsaying the said, in attempting to restate without ceremonies
what has already been ill understood ln the inevitable ceremonial
in which the said delights. (TI 30)
Perhaps the most far-reaching example of what Levinas is here
calling "unsaying the said" is his retraction of certain ontologically
loaded terms in Totality and Infinity in favor of the completely new
ethical register of his second major work on ethics, Otherwise than
Being or Beyond Essence. In his autobiography "Signature," Levinas
explains that the departure from the language of Totality and Infinity
was deliberate:

The ontological language which Totality and Infinity still uses in

order to exclude the purely psychological significance of the
proposed analyses is hereafter avoided. And the analyses
themselves refer not /o the experience in which the subject always
thematizes what he equals, but to the transcendence in which he
answers for that which his intentions have not encompassed. (OF
In Otherwise than Being gone are terms like "presence,"
"interiority/exteriority," and "experience," and in their place we find
such non-philosophical terms as "obsession," "hostage," and
"persecution." Perhaps the most important characteristic of Otherwise
than Being is the de-emphasis of the face-to-face relation, so central to
Totality and Infinity, and the introduction of the distinction between
what Levinas calls "the saying" (le dire) and "the said (le dit).

The Saying and the Said



'f'he Saying and the Said

In Otherwise than Being, Levinas distinguishes between language
in its expressive or ethical function, called "saying," and language in its
theoretical or ontological function, the "said." According to Levinas,
lnnguage cannot be reduced to a merely instrumental function as a tool
lor transmitting information. Language also has an ethical dimension
that is irreducible to what is said. He refers to this ethical dimension as
1 pure saying or "sincerity":

No said equals the sincerity of the saying. ... Sincerity would then
be saying without the said, apparently a "saying so as to say
nothing, " a sign I make to another of this giving of signs, "as
simple as 'hello."' (08 143)
Must one not at least say something objective, say something about
lhc world-ontology- before saying only saying itself, before making
1 sign of welcome to the Other? Obviously, "saying" here is not
ll~stricted to verbal or written communication; it also includes the
possibility of material giving. Shortly before describing the sincerity of
tlhics as a "saying without a said," Levinas tells us that it is
"i nseparable from giving for it opens reserves" (08 143). Shortly after
describing sincerity as a simple "hello," he tells us that it "is not
tlx hausted in invocation, in the salutation that does not cost anything,
understood as a pure vocative" (08 144). The welcome must also be
1rcompanied by the giving of one 's possessions. Using language
tlcurly intended to shock us out of our bourgeois complacency, Levinas
duscribes ethical saying as a

gift painfully torn up . .. not a gift of the heart, but of the bread
from one's mouth, of one's own mouthful of bread. It is the
openness, not only of one's own pocketbook, but of the doors of
one 's home. a "sharing of your bread with the famished, " a
"welcoming of the wretched into your house" (Isaiah 58) (OB 74)
It might be thought- and this would be Derrida's objection- that
I .tvinas here has not paid enough attention to the order of ontology.

The Saying and the Said

The Saying and the Said

Must not bread first be produced before it can be made into a gift for
the Other? Does not ethical saying therefore presuppose the entire order
of civilization : from agricultural science to relations of commerce, from
farming to transportation, from the manufacture of yeast to packaging?
We will return to these questions in Chapter 8 when we address the
problem of justice and the third party in Levinas's work. Let us
mention here in passing that Levinas will indeed go on to grant
ontology an important role in ethics, and thus we should be cautious of
presenting the relation between the saying and the said as merely one of

what never presents itself as such to consciousness making it

impossible to say who or what it is a trace of. As the trace of a certain
"nonpresence" or "nonphenomenon," it signals the relation of
differance within the text of philosophy, thwarting its pretensions of
full intelligibility or "logocentrism."
Whereas Derrida is interested in developing the trace in very
general and abstract terms, Levinas is primarily concerned with
developing it in connection with the Other human being. For Levinas,
the trace is the way in which the Other appears, not as the appearing of
a phenomenon, but as a face. "The trace lights up as the face of a
neighbor" (08 12). It does so prior to freedom and understanding on
my part, as though "the neighbor strikes me before striking me, as
though I had heard before he spoke" (OB 88).
Levinas is fully aware here that he is contradicting himself. How
can the neighbor affect me before affecting me? How can I hear a
person before he or she has said anything? The point is that Levinas
does not seek to avoid contradiction; on the contrary, he embraces it for
it is only through such contradiction that the Other appears in
ontological language through in the "enigmatic" form of a trace in
which the Other is as it were present in absence.

The Trace
How is ethical saying heard if it is pre-linguistic and preontological? How is it possible for Levinas to talk about saying without
reducing it to consciousness and thematization? Levinas is acutely
aware of the apparent contradiction involved in making what ostensibly
cannot be thematized into the theme of his discussion. Whereas in
Totality and Infinity the face presents itself as a phenomenon of sorts,
in Otherwise than Being, Levinas is uncompromising in his insistence
that the "enigma" of ethics can never show itself as such. This does not
mean to say that the Other never appears at all. Levinas says that the
Other does indeed appear, albeit in the disguised and disruptive form of
a "trace."
The concept of the trace is perhaps Levinas's most successful and
sophisticated attempt to respond to the type of question posed by
Derrida in "Violence and Metaphysics." So successful in fact that
Derrida himself would take over the concept in his deconstruction of
the metaphysics presence. In his most famous work, OfGrammatology
( 1967), Derrida spoke of

the concept of the trace that is at the center of the latest work by
Emmanuel Levinas and his critique of ontology . . . which has
determined the meaning of being as presence and the meaning of
language as full continuity ofspeech. (OG 70)
The indications are such that Derrida came to see the trace as a way
of moderating the dependence on the ontological tradition. The trace is
not a sign in the conventional sense in that it does not refer to either a
concept or an extra-linguistic entity (e.g., a tree). Rather, it refers to

Another way in which the trace operates in Levinas's work is in
terms of what is called "diachrony" (literally, "across time"). Levinas
suggests that I and the Other are not related to each other in the same
time. Understood in classical phenomenological terms (Husserl's
"internal time consciousness"), time consists of a series of now
moments that are represented within consciousness by way of memory
(retention) or anticipation (protention). Levinas 's understanding of the
time of the Other is radically at odds with this picture. The Other
cannot be recalled or anticipated in that he or she is never presented (or
represented) to consciousness as such. The Other belongs to an "anarchic" (in the etymological sense) time that Levinas calls a "past that
was never present." In saying this, Levinas wishes to draw attention to
the fact that I find myself commanded by the Other and responsible for
him or her prior to consciousness:

the order in the for-the-other of obedience is an anarchic being

affected, which slips into me "like a thief" through the

The Saying and the Said

The Saying and the Said

outstretched nets of consciousness. . . . The order has never been

represented, for it has never been presented, not even in the past
coming in memory, to the point that it is I that only says, and after
the event, this unheard-of obligation. ... The unheard-of saying is
enigmatically in the anarchic response, in my responsibility for the
other. (OB 148-9)

ethical terms as responsibility for the human Other. It is to this notion

of responsibility that we now turn.

Levinas asserts that the trace is also the trace of God. This may
sound like a traditional claim to make inasmuch as it seeks to unite
ethics and religion, but it is a most unusual variant of Divine Command
Theory. This is because for Levinas ethics consists in following God's
commands paradoxically prior to my hearing t~e command. "I find the
order in my response itself' (OB 150). The command to respond to the
Other with responsibility presents itself only after the event ("as in a
prayer in which the worshipper asks that his prayer to be heard" [OB
I 0]). God thus appears to me in the form of a trace, which is the face of
the Other-simultaneously "a trace of itself' and "the trace of the
infinite" (OB 91 ). Levin as calls this way of relating to the Infinite by
way of the face "illeity" ("illeite," a neologism in French, literally
meaning "he-ness" in the sense of the unacquainted third person):

The infinite then cannot be tracked down like game by a hunter.

The trace left by the infinite is not the residue of a presence; its
very glow is ambiguous . . .. The infinite wipes out its traces not in
order to trick him who obeys, but because it transcends the present
in which it commands me, and because I cannot deduce it from this
command. . . . This detour at a face and this detour from this
detour in the enigma of a trace we have called illeity. (OB 12)
In Totality and Infinity, Levinas made a similar point, albeit in
much simpler fashion, when he wrote:

the dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face . .. .
our relation with {God] is an ethical behavior and not theology. . .
. There can be no "knowledge" of God separated from the
relationship with men. (TJ 78)
This clearly shows that Levinas is concerned to rethink religion in



that I am constantly "exposed" to the Other.

The immediacy of the sensible which is not reducible to the

gnoseological [knowing) role assumed by sensation is the
exposure to wounding and to enjoyment, an exposure to wounding
in enjoyment, which enables the wound to reach the subjectivity of
the subject complacent in itself and posting itselffor itself (OB 64)
What does "exposure to wounding in enjoyment" mean? In order
to understand the relation between sensibility and responsibility, we
need to answer this question.

One of the major differences between T(Jtality and Infinity and

Otherwise than Being concerns the role of sen'sibility in ethics. In the
earlier booK:, sensibility was presented as the condition for ethics
inasmuch as it made possible the separated I in enjoyment. In
Otherwise than Being, sensibility is the way in which the Other and I
connect prior to cognition. Levinas calls this " proximity."


Enjoyment and Suffering

In Totality and Infinity Levinas remarked that suffering is the
absence of happiness, and not the reverse (TI 115). In other words,
suffering presupposes a se lf whose natural tendency is to enjoy the
world. ("' but open my eyes and already enjoy the spectacle" [TI 130]).
Similarly, it is said in Otherwise than Being that suffering presupposes
enjoyment. Suffering is not one unpleasant sensation among others; it
is the very way in which the Other affects the I living a life of egoism.
Says Levinas:

In Totality and Infinity, Levin as spoke mostly of the ethical relation
as a relationship of separation and distance: "Metaphysics approaches
without touching" (TI I 09). However, it seems that Levinas eventually
became dissatisfied with such a description, which could be seen to
invite the misunderstanding that ethics is constituted by vision and
theory (from Greek, theorein, to look at, as in a "theater"). In his later
writings Levinas thus tends to speak of the ethical relation not as a
relation of separation and distance, but that of proximity and contact.
"Contact" here does not mean either the caress or the palpation (the
method of"feeling" with the hands used during physical examinations).
It signifies an immediate attachment to the Other wherein I am no
longer free to move away or sever ties, as though the Other were under
my skin. This is not meant to imply ethics consists of a fusion between
us. We remain different in our cores. The immediacy of proximity
suggests that I remain firmly within the relation, living it in such a way


sensibility has meaning only as a taking care of the other's need,

of his misfortunes and his faults, that is, as a giving. But giving has
meaning only as a tearing from oneself despite oneself and not
only without me. And to be torn from oneself despite oneself has
meaning only as a being torn from the complacency of enjoyment,
snatching the bread from one's mouth. Only a subject that eats can
be for the other, or can signify. Signification, !he-one-for-theother, has meaning only among creatures of flesh and blood (OB
Against the grain of the majority of the Western moral tradition,
Levinas argues that only a se lf who eats and enjoys what he or she eats
gives can truly give it to the Other. In giving to the Other ethically,
there is an obligation to give something of oneself, which means to give
one's enjoyment of what is given. Enjoyment is necessary for ethics not
o~ly inasmuch as it makes separation possible; it is the precondition for
gift-giving. The widow who sacrifices her last two pennies (Mark 12:



41-4) in abject poverty gives more than does the bourgeois who donates
ten measly dollars to the Salvation Army every Christmas.

"under," and jacere, "to throw") Levinas writes in Otherwise than

Being: "The self is a sub-jectum ; it is under the weight of the universe,
responsible for everything" (OB 116). Not that the self is subjected to
the Other in the manner of servitude. Hence, "if no one is good
voluntarily, no one is a slave of the Good" (OB II). According to
Levinas, subjectivity lies between the freedom-autonomy and "the
determinism-servitude alternative" (CP 134) to the extent that it is
always possible to abandon the responsibility that ultimately defines the
subject. In " Humanism and An-archy" ( 1968), he writes that there must

We mentioned earlier when examining Totality and Infinity that the
ethical relation is not enacted in full freedom . It is not autonomy as
Kant defined it. This becomes clearer the more we recognize that the
ethical relation is constituted via sensibility prior to consciousness.
According to Kant, sensibility is passive in that it is the faculty of
receiving sensory intuitions; understanding, on the other hand, is
spontaneous or active, and is the faculty of synthesizing these intuitions
by bringing them under concepts. Levinas similarly construes
sensibility as passive, albeit radically so inasmuch as the Other who
affects me cannot be brought under concepts via the transcendental
operation of the understanding. The relation between the Other and me
is thus said to be "a passivity more passive than all passivity" (OB 14).
This notion of radical passivity is not meant to suggest that the
Other fully determines my actions or completely controls me . The
ethical relation may not be contracted in full freedom , but it is not
thereby to be thought of as coercion . While Levinas indeed denies that
the ethical relation is one of altruism constituted by full freedom , he
goes to some length to make it clear that it is not thereby part of the
determinist order of nature or natural necessity. Levinas tells us that
" responsibility for others could never mean altruistic will, instinct of
' natural benevolence"' (OB 111-2). "It is against nature, nonvoluntary" (OB 197 n. 27). The responsible relation with the Other is
outside the traditional opposition between free will and determinism .
Here then Levinas parts company with Sartre, for whom all relations
with the Other are a free project of the I, including love: "To will to
love and to love are one since to love is to choose oneself as loving by
assuming consciousness of loving" (Being and Nothingness, 462;
italics added) . In sharp contrast to Sartre, Levinas states, "the Good is
not presented to freedom ; it has chosen me before I have chosen it"
(OB Ill).
It is this passivity that quickly emerges as the locus for personal
identity or subjectivity. Capitalizing on the etymological kinship
between "subjection" and "subjectivity" (from Latin, sub, meaning

the temptation of a facility to make a break [with ethics}. ... Thus

there is in the midst of the submission to the Good, the seduction of
irresponsibility. (CP 137)
This "facility" that makes it possible to break with ethics is
sensibility and enjoyment. "This temptation to separate oneself from
the Good is the very incarnation of a subject or his presence in being"
(CP 137). Only an embodied subject, a subject of sensibility and
enjoyment, can be subjected to responsibility. Only thus is it not "a
slave to the Good ." It is indeed because responsibility requires the
possibility of its own renege- the possibility of"irresponsibility"- that
sensibility and enjoyment is assigned such a central role in the
Levinasian ethical drama .



In Section 3 of Totality and Infinity, speaking of the infinite

responsibility for the Other that denotes "not its actual immensity, but a
responsibility increasing in the measure that is assumed" (Tl 244),
Levinas went on to say:

Perhaps the possibility of a point of the universe where such an

overflow of responsibility is produced ultimately defines the I. (TI
Does this not threaten to undo the earlier analysis of separation in
which the "personal" character of the I was said to result from "the
particularity of the happiness of enjoyment"? To see how Levinas came
to revise radically the analysis of egoist separation and personal
identity as it was presented in Totality and Infinity, we must turn to
Chapter 4 of Otherwise than Being, the work's "centerpiece" (OB xli),
entitled "Substitution ."

Principle and An-archy
The chapter "Substitution" opens with a quotation from the poem
"Praise of Distance" by Paul Celan.

I am you, when I am I. (quoted in the German by Levinas [08 99])


This line by Celan seems to suggest that the I attains its identity
only in relation to the Other- a "you" ("I am you"). This is not to say
that the identity of the I is completely destroyed. It is precisely this
paradoxical notion of self-identity- where the I exists only in relation
to the Other, but at the same time does not merge with the Other in a
relation of fusion- that Levinas wishes to describe and make sense of
in these pages.
Levinas tells us that the chief aim underlying his discussion of
substitution is to try to think "the Other-in-the-Same without thinking
the Other as an other Same" (OGW 80). He seeks to show how the self
attains its identity in a pre-reflective or non-cognitive relation with the
Other without that self-identity eliminating the radical difference
between the I and the Other. Although we saw above a similar thought
of relation when we surveyed the notions of sensibility and
responsibility, here these notions are presented in a far more severe and
challenging manner in order to underscore further the paradoxical
nature of subjectivity.
Levinas's main target of criticism in his discussion of substitution is
the modern epistemological and ontological tradition, stretching from
Kant and Hegel through Husser!. This tradition would have us
understand subjectivity as a consciousness capable of reducing every
encounter with alterity to thought. When a series of singular and
unrelated perceptions appear to consciousness, it is able to identify
them as its own through the use of language and concepts. Different
representations (and this would include both internal and external
perceptions) thus become transcendentally ideal phenomena. As such,
they can be re-presented to consciousness in such a way that they are
stripped of their otherness. In grasping beings across ideal structures
(e.g., the Kant ian a priori categories, the Hegelian "Concept"),
consciousness is thereby able to maintain itself in its identity and
remain fundamentally unaffected by the otherness of the beings it
encounters. It is this structure of identity that Levinas has in mind when
he refers to consciousness as "se lf-possession, sovereignty, arche"' (OB
99). The fundamental aim of consciousness is to achieve certainty
regarding beings. This aim predetermines the approach of
consciousness to everything it encounters, and ensures that it can never
be caught off guard. The drive toward certainty ensures that

anything unknown that can occur to [consciousness} is in advance

disclosed, open, manifest, is cast in the mould of the known, and

cannot be a complete surprise. (OB 99)
Levinas proposes an alternative to the account of subjectivity found
in the idealist tradition, one that does not reduce everything it
encounters to an operation of consciousness. As we have already seen
in our analysis of sensibility and proximity, the self is a "subj-ect"
precisely to the extent that it is subjected to the neediness of the Other.
It is in the radical passivity of proximity, in which the "I" is available to
the Other without taking the initiative, that the relationship with the
Other is formed outside of consciousness understood as arche (meaning
"principle," "beginning," or "origin"). It is, as Levinas likes to say,
literally an-archic. "Proximity is thus anarchically a relationship with a
singularity without the mediation of any principle, any ideality" (OB

responsibility, which has its ongms outside of consciousness, "take
place and have its time in consciousness?" (OB I 02)


At this point, we need to raise a question: If as Levinas suggests the

Other is radically foreign to all consciousness and order, how does the
Other come to make his or her presence felt in consciousness, save as a
temporary disruption? In other words, how can the radical passivity of

To begin to answer these questions, we must take up the issue of

what constitutes the "ipseity" (or "self-hood") that lies behind
consciousness. In Otherwise than Being, Levinas defines ipseity using
the term "recurrence." Recurrence has the sense of a return to self, but
one that is very different from the return that characterizes the identity
of self-consciousness in the idealist tradition. (See the discussion of
Kant's unity of apperception in Chapter I .)
In recurrence, the self achieves its identity not by its own devices,
as though it were capable of pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.
Rather it does so by being responsible for the Other. The self feels itself
"ill at ease in one's own skin" (OB I 08).
Levinas likens the skin here to the "Ness us tunic" (OB I 09) of
Greek mythology. When the centaur Nessus tried to rape Deianira,
Hercules killed him with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the
Hydra. Before dying, however, the centaur told Deianira to keep some
of his blood, which he said was a powerful love charm, and could be
used to win back Hercules should he fall in love with another. But the
blood was really a poison. Afraid that Hercules had fallen in love with
another, Deianira sent him a tunic smeared with the blood. Under the
heat of the sun, the poison started to burn him and to stick to his skin
until it was impossible to get rid of it. So great was the pain that
Hercules killed himself. Deianira too committed suicide when she
heard the news of the death of her beloved. From love-or guilt- the
self is restless in itself It seeks an exit from itself, from its own skin as
it were. For Levinas this illustrates the way the "for-itself' of
consciousness is converted into being-for-the-Other.
Much like the diachrony of the trace discussed above, the time of
recurrence belongs to an immemorial past, irrecuperable by memory.
This suggests that who I am- or who I am to become- is nothing I
have chosen. Here we see Levinas radically distancing himself from
Sartrean existentialism . Unlike Sartre, who claimed that the self is
chosen in full freedom , and indeed has no choice but to choose itself,
for Levinas "the oneself has not issued from its own initiative" (OB
105). If "I am I" only insofar as I am for the Other, and being for the
Other is not chosen, then I do not choose who I am.



The proximity that gives rise to responsibility, then, cannot be
thematized. It operates at a different level than does vision, and can be
inferred only indirectly by way of the responsibility that it makes
possible. Proximity is an im-mediate (i.e., non-mediated) relation with
a singular Other who does not give me time to reflect on what is going
on between us. According to Levinas, it amounts to an "obsession," an
unwonted (and "unwanted"- for the Other is not an object of need)
preoccupation that disrupts the normal, sovereign functioning of the
ego qua consciousness. In obsession , consciousness's machinery is
jammed, its projects are derailed, and its quest for certainty is
interrupted. Again it is anarchy:

Obsession traverses consciousness countercurrentwise, is

inscribed in consciousness as something foreign, a disequilibrium,
a delirium. It undoes thematization, and escapes any principle,
origin, will, or arche, which are put forth in every ray of
consciousness. This movement is, in the original sense of the term,
an-archical. (OB I 0 I)



It is for this reason that Levinas described the self as a "creature," a

being that is dependent on another for its existence but forever barred
from knowing who gave it its origin: 'The oneself is a creature, but an
orphan by birth or an atheist no doubt ignorant of its creator" (OB I 05).

being responsible for the Other to the point of sacrificing oneself for
the Other. Levinas calls this situation of extreme abnegation and
sacrifice, in which the self takes upon itself the hardship its spares the
Other, the condition of being a "hostage."

I owe my identity to the Other insofar as he or she makes me
responsible. Only I can answer for the Other, in which I become
irreplaceable. Responsibility is thus for Levinas the sole principium
individuationis ("a principle that uniquely identifies one individuai"Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy). Not ~hat I can ever escape
this responsibility for I can never fully escape myself. The Other
persecutes me, hunts me down, calls me back to my responsibilities,
which my natural egoism would rather ignore. Whereas the Sartrean
self attempts to evade the responsibility of choosing itself by choosing
to adopt the cloak of bad faith, responsibility for Levinas is the Nessus
tunic I cannot take off despite the pain it causes me.

In the exposure to wounds and outrages, in the feeling proper to

responsibility, the oneself is provoked as irreplaceable, as devoted
to other, without being able to resign. . .. It is thus one and unique,
in passivity from the start, having nothing at its disposal that
would enable it to not yield to the provocation. (OB I 05)
The self, then, is a subject not in the traditional philosophical sense
that it is the support of certain attributes, but rather in the sense that it is
subjected to the weight of everything, the compressed point of the
gravity of responsibility- the situation of Atlas bearing the weight of
the world on one's shoulders. Hence, Levinas writes, "I am I in the sole
measure that I am responsible, a non-interchangeable I" (EI 101).
I bear the weight of someone else's being, which thus becomes my
charge and my concern. From the start my identity is intertwined with
the Other' s demands. The self is thus not returned to itself in order to
pursue its own egoistic projects or concerns, but is ultimately returned
"to the hither side of its point of departure" (OB 114), which means to
say that its identity is ultimately created in recurrence through an
unavoidable responsibility for and commitment to the neighbor.
All this means to say that I am never more myself, never more me,
than when doing something for somebody else, for you. This entails


Innocence and Guilt

Responsibility without Culpability
In the role of hostage, the self is not only responsible for the Other
but also for the Other's responsibility. Here I am obliged to go all the
way to the point of substituting myself for the Other, finding myself
responsible not only for tak.ing care of his or her needs, but also for his
or her misdeeds:

Obsessed with responsibilities which did not arise in decisions

taken by a subject "contemplating freely, " consequently accused
in its innocence, subjectivity in itself is being thrown back on
oneself This means concretely: accused of what the others do or
suffer, or responsible for what they do or suffer. The uniqueness of
the self is the very fact of bearing the fault of another. (OB 112)
We shall consider in a moment the apparent paradox of being under
accusation despite one's innocence (from Latin in-nocere, literally
"without harm"). The idea that moral obligations are more fundamental
than rights and that I have an obligation to do something for the Other
even though he or she has no correlate (legal) right to demand it is not
new, of course, and can be found in Kant's idea of imperfect duties and
the utilitarian requirement to maximize happiness. But it is not Kant or
Mill who furnishes Levinas with the idea of an individual under
obligation prior to owing anything, but the Jewish Bible.

"Here I am"
At the beginning of Genesis 22:7 God tests Abraham by demanding
that he sacrifice his son, Isaac:

And it came to pass after these things that God did test Abraham:



and he said hineni. ( Gen 22: I)
In Hebrew, hineni means "behold me" (in the grammatical case
called the "accusative"), which Levinas translates into French as "me
void' (in English the standard translation is "here I am"). It is as
though Abraham knew himself to be under an obligation (or
accusation) without a why or a wherefore.
We should here issue a caveat that Levinas only applauds
Abraham's willingness to follow the Other's (God's) commands
unconditionally. Levinas does not agree with Kierkegaard who in Fear
and Trembling presents the story as a " teleological suspension of the
ethical." For Levinas the story of Abraham and Isaac does not show
that the ethical can be transcended by the religious imperative. On the
contrary, he argues that Abraham's failure to kill his son precisely
confirms the sanctity of ethics and the prohibition against murder.
According to Levinas, it is not God (or the angel) who intercedes on
Isaac's behalf, which is how the story is usually understood, but Isaac
himself. "Abraham's attentiveness to the voice that led him back to the
ethical order, forbidding him to perform a human sacrifice, is the
highest point in the drama" (PN 77).
Levinas admits that to hold a person accountable for faults he or she
did not commit is from philosophical point of view "simply demented"
(OB 113). But we should be clear that Levinas is not saying that
everybody is responsible without guilt. On the contrary, he makes a
point of stipulating that

in me alone innocence can be accused without absurdity. To

accuse the innocence of the other, to ask of the other more than he
owes, is criminal. (OB 195n 18)
This propos1t10n, of course, is a corollary of the view that the
ethical relation is asymmetrical to the point where I always owe the
Other more than I am entitled to demand from the Other.

philosophers is that the Other only has the right to demand what is his
or her legal due, and that anything he or she receives beyond that is
purely optional and a matter of private philanthropy on the part of the
benefactor. It has to be said time and again that Levinas is entirely
opposed to that way of conceiving ethics. For him, the self has no such
choice in the matter. Levinas further explains this point in his reply to
the classical questions raised in the name of egoism and moral
skepticism :

Why does the other concern me ? . . . Am I my brother 's keeper?

These questions have meaning only if one has already supposed
that the ego is concerned with itself, is only a concern for itself In
this hypothesis it indeed remains incomprehensible that the
absolute outside-ofme, the other, would concern me. But in the
"prehistory " of the ego posited for itself speaks a responsibility.
The self is through and through a hostage, older than the ego,
prior to principles. (OB 117)
Levinas does not attempt to answer the moral skeptic but undercut
the inquiry altogether by drawing attention to the presuppositions
behind it. Cain ' s reply to the question concerning the whereabouts of
Abel: " Am I my brother' s keeper?" (Gen . 4:9) is perfectly consistent
within the order of philosophy and human reason . What it lacks is an
ethical dimension , and this insofar as it requires a reason to be good.
(One might wonder whether it is at that point that Cain metaphorically
murders his brother.) In other words, it is a complacent response that
already takes for granted precisely what is ethically questionable. This
is the assumption that from the beginning the self is concerned only
with itself, and thus needs a reason to be moral. It is an assumption that
Levinas refuses to make .


It should be mentioned that substitution cannot simply be equated

with altruism (from the Latin alter, other) (OB Ill), which, like its
traditional opposite, egoism, is usually thought to operate at the level of
the will and freedom . An unargued assumption of many modem moral

Implicitly criticizing Hobbes's theory of original war, he states: "It

is, however, not certain that war was at the beginning, before the altars"
(OB 118). For Levinas, the possibility of ethical sacrifice is capable of
preceding murder and war. But notice that Levinas cautiously writes,
"It is, however not certain." Levinas does not totally refute Hobbes and
cannot do so without reinserting ethics within the order of reason and
argument. Indeed, there is even a sense in which Levinas would agree



Altruism and Egoism

with Hobbes that the self is naturally indifferent to the Other, whose
face is required to interrupt its natural egoism and tendency to put itself
first. Levinas does not deny the banality of egoism exists; he simply
contests the assumption that egoism is "earlier" than ethics. For
Levinas, ethics in the sense of the relationship of responsibility to the
Other is just as early as- if not earlier than-egoism.
Levinas sums up this and his whole discussion of substitution in the
following :

Responsibility for another . .. has not awaited freedom , in which a

commitment to another would have been made. I have not done
anything and I have always been under accusation- persecuted.
The ipseity, in the passivity without arc he ch~acteristic of identity,
is a hostage. The word I means here I am, answering for
everything and for everyone. Responsibility for the others has not
been a return to oneself .. . Recurrence becomes identity breaking
up the limits of identity, breaking up the principle of being in me. ..
. [I]t is the impossibility to come back from all things and concern
oneself only with oneself ... [R}esponsibi/ity in obsession is a
responsibility of the ego for what the ego has not wished, that is,
for the others. . . This passivity undergone in proximity by the
force of an alterity in me is the possibility of a recurrence to
oneself . . What can it be but a substitution of me for the others?
(08 114)
" Substitution" is indeed the bottom line ofLevinas ' s ethics. It is his
most sophisticated account of the relation between the I and the Other
irreducible to ontology. But it is not the last word in ethics for there is a
final problem to consider, one that is hinted at in the preceding passage
by the word "others"- plural. How do I decide in a relation of
substitution for which Others I am to assume responsibility? Clearly I
do not have unlimited economic resources at my disposal and must
therefore choose where I am to allocate them. How I am to make such a
choice? Such is what Levinas calls the problems of "justice" and is
treated at length in Chapter 5 of Otherwise than Being.


Justice and Politics

A significant shift in terminology between Totality and Infinity and

Otherwise than Being concerns the word "justice." In the earlier work
the word is used to refer to the face-to-face relation with the Other (TI
71 ), and is associated with the ethical asymmetry of the relation:
"Justice consists in recognizing in the Other my master" (TI 72). In the
later work, by contrast, "justice" is used specifically in reference to the
third party who stands empirically outside the face-to-face: "It is the
proximity of the third party that introduces, with the necessities of
justice, measure, thematization, appearing and justice" (08 196 n. 22).
Here, then, the word is given its more customary meaning of fairness
(see, for example, John Rawls, A Theory of Justice) , and is associated
with the judicial notion of equal citizens' rights: "Justice is . . . a copresence on an equal footing as before a court of justice" (OB 157).
What motivated this new conception of justice? And how is it
connected with ethics?

A Conflict of Duties
The Limit of Responsibility
In Chapter 5 of Otherwise than Being, in the section entitled "From
Saying to the Said, or the Wisdom of Desire," Levinas draws attention
to the "contradiction" (08 157) that arises in ethics when due
consideration is given to the third party, also present at the encounter:
"The third party introduces a contradiction in the saying whose
signification before the other until then went in one direction" (08

Justice and Politics

Justice and Politics

157). The contradiction can be understood as a conflict of duties

between those that are owed to the Other facing me and those owed to
the rest of humanity. Whose needs are the most urgent? In fulfilling my
obligations towards one person do I not in turn risk injuring another? In
giving money or whatever to the homeless person across the street, am
I not depriving the starving multitude in the Third World? What am I to
do? Levinas puts the problem in terms that are easily understood:

even when we convince ourselves that g1vmg elsewhere has more

utility, to do so would still constitute an injustice to the Other. This is
why Levinas makes a point in Otherwise than Being of saying that

If proximity ordered me only to the other alone, there would not

have been any problem, in even the most general sense of the term.
A question would not have been born, nor consciousness, nor selfconsciousness. The responsibility for the other is an immediacy
antecedent to questions, it is proximity. It is troubled and becomes
a problem when the third party enters.
The third party is other than the neighbor, but also another
neighbor, and also a neighbor of the other, and not simply his
fellow. What then are the other and the third party for one
another ? Which passes before the other in my responsibility? The
other stands in a relationship with the third party, for whom I
cannot entirely answer, even if I alone answer, before any
question, for my neighbor. The other and the third party, my
neighbors, contemporaries of one another, put distance between
me and the other and the third party. . . [The third party} is of
itself the limit of responsibility and the birth of the question: What
have I to do with justice? (08 157)
It might be thought that there is simple answer to the question of
justice. I am to choose that action that benefits the most people in
society. That is to say, I am to do that which promotes the greatest
happiness of the greatest number of people.
The inadequacy of such a utilitarian response, however, becomes
apparent when we consider that from a Levinasian point of view each
person is unique and cannot rightly be compared with others. Thus it
would be wrong not to give to the person facing me on the pretext that
that expenditure could be more profitably put to use elsewhere. It
would be wrong because then I would have compared his or her
situation with someone else ' s, and thus overlooked the specificity of
the face .
The problem is not only that we are unsure how to measure various
amounts of happiness (a perennial problem for utilitarianism), but that


In no way is justice a degradation of obsession, a degeneration of

the for-the-other, a diminution, a limitation of anarchic
responsibility . . a degeneration that would be produced in the
measure that for empirical reasons the initial duo would become a
trio . (08 159)
Justice cannot be used as a pretext or excuse for ignoring one's
responsibility to the Other, which is "antecedent to questions." But nor
can such responsibility in turn be considered a justification for shutting
one's ears to the rest of humanity. In a certain sense, when it is a
question of justice whatever I do I am in the wrong. lf I respect the
face, then I disrespect the rights or the third party. And vice versa.
Justice would appear inevitably to give rise to a bad conscience, not
merely because I cannot fulfill the demands which the Other places on
me to the full (which is also true), but because in the measure that I do
fulfill them l ignore my responsibility to the third party.
All this suggests, paradoxically, that there is something unethical
about ethics and something unjust about justice. Ethics risks ignoring
the third party, while justice requires me to limit the concern (at least
temporarily) l have for the Other.

Just Violence
The problem of justice is exacerbated- enormously so- when we
consider the situation in which the Other is the oppressor of the third
party. Most of us agree that society could not exist without some sort of
criminal justice system that imposes sanctions in the form of
punishments on those individuals who disobey the law and violate the
rights of others. Such punitive measures are sometimes given a
retributive rationale, or else they are justified in terms of restraint,
rehabilitation, or deterrence. But how is punishment justified from a
Levinasian point or view? How in the concern for justice is it possible
to justify punitive and repressive measures- violence of sorts- when


Justice and Politics

Justice and Politics

the face would appear express ly to forbid them . Does not Levinas
describe the face in terms of its resistance to violence?
Things would be relatively straightforward if the Other had si mpl y
forfeited his or her rights as a face through infringing on the rights of
the third party. That would be the traditional liberal response, but it is
not Levinas's. When asked in an interview whether an SS officer has a
face, and thus "a right to a defense and respect," Levinas replied: "a
very troubling question that ca lls. to my mind, for an affirmative
answer. An affirmative answer that is painful every time!" ("A quoi
pensent les philosophes?" Autrement I 02 [ 1988]: 59; personal

not justified in defending myself according to Levinas; I am justified

and I must defend myself But self-defense alone is not the ultimate
justification for using violence, which derives from the need for justice
in the name of fulfilling one ' s obligations to the third party. That is
why Levinas writes in Otherwise than Being that "there is also justice
for me" (OB 159), whereby I become "'like the others,' for which it is
important to concern oneself and to take care" (OB 161 ).

How then does Levinas justify punishing and repressing the face,
for example, that of a Nazi? Does not the sanctity and inviolability of
the human face make vio lence impossible to justify? In a short article
denouncing the death penalty entitl ed "An Eye for an Eye," Levinas
appeared to concede as much: "violence calls up violence, but we must
put a stop to this cha in reaction" (OF 147) . But if that is true, how is it
possible to serve justice, which sometimes requires us to do violence in
defense of the third party?
Levinas is not a pacifist. "Unquestionably," he writes, "violent
action against Evi l is necessary" (NT I 09). This is perhaps contrary to
what one might expect when first reading Levinas and the high ethical
premium he puts on the face , but totally understandable when we
realize that he lived through th e horrors of WWII, which resulted in the
murder of his birth fami ly by the Nazis. For Levinas, there can be no
question of refusing violence outright for the si mple reason that the
type of pacifism Jesus advanced in the Sermon on the Mount ("not to
resist one who is evi l" and "to turn the other cheek" [Matt. 5:39-40])
appears to have done litt le, if anything, to stem the tide of blood of the
last two-thousand years. " If I am vio lent," Levinas writes citing a
Jewish source. "it is because vio lence is needed to put an end to
violence" (NT 114).
But note that Levinas seeks to defend the use of violence only
insofar as it is abso lutely necessary for justice. It is the third party, and
my ob ligations to him or her, that justify using violence against the
Other. An important implication of this is that it makes it unethical to
defend oneself without reference to the third party. It is not that I am


It must not be thought that in rejecting the doctrine of non-violence,
Levinas is insensitive to the risks involved in using violence to combat
violence. According to Levinas, the biggest problem facing justice is
not that of seizing the evil-doer, but of making sure that the innocent do
not suffer in the process. In Otherwise than Being, we are told:

The true problem for us Westerners is not so much to refuse

violence as to question ourselves about a struggle against violence
that, without blanching in non-resistance to evil, could avoid the
institution of violence out of this very struggle. Does not war
against war perpetuate that which it is called to make disappear in
order to consecrate war and its virile virtues in good conscience?
(OB 177)
If we are to put a stop to violence, even as we prepare to use
violence, then we must be "patient" (OB 177). "In the just war waged
against war," Levinas writes, there is the need "to tremble or shudder at
every instant of because of this very justice" (OB 185). The weight of
the gun must weigh on our conscience before we use it against the
Other, and only then as last resort. To be prepared to kill without
considering the possibility that by killing one commits an injustice that
is worse than the injustice one is seeking to rectify is to risk becoming
indifferent to the pain felt by the Other. Lao-Tzu made the same point
two-and-a-half millennia earlier: " Weapons are tools of violence not of
the sage. He uses them only when there is no choice, and then calmly
and with tact, for he finds no beauty in them" (Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching,
Hex. 31).


Justice and Politics

We have seen how when faced with the problem of justice there is a
sense in which one is always in the wrong. If I carry out my duty to the
Other to the letter, then I am remiss in my duty to the third party. If, on
the other hand, I do my duty to the third party, I not only renege on my
responsibilities to the Other, but also risk making the innocent suffer. It
would theref ore seem that a certain violence is inevitable. The best I
can hope for is to attenuate the violence as much as possible. Such is
the role assigned to what Levinas calls "charity" following justice. In
an interview conducted in 1986, Levinas said :

Justice is awakened by charity, but the charitj; that is before justice

is also after [justice}. . . It is necessary that I rediscover the
unique, once I have judged the thing; each time anew, and each
time as a living individual and as a unique individual who can
find, in his very uniqueness, what a general consideration cannot
find. (IR 52)
Justice is traditionally "blind" in the sense of being impartial. The
accused who stands before the judge is not looked at in the face ; he or
she is judged according to universal laws and general principles that
are, or should be, applied to everyone in an unprejudiced and impartial
manner. This refusal to look the Other in the face is what Levinas calls
the " first violence" (IR 51). It is this violence that charity is called upon
to reduce by finding ways to link up once more with the face of the

in the State where laws function in their generality, where verdicts

are pronounced out of a concern f or universality, once justice is
said there is still, f or the person as unique and responsible one, the
possibility of or appeal to something that will reconsider the rigor
of this always rigorous justice. To soften this justice, to listen to the
p ersonal appeal, is each person 's role. It is in that sense that one
has to speak of a return to charity and mercy. (IR 68-9)
Levinas often cites as an example of charity the abolition of the
death penalty in France in 1981. The example is a good one as the
abolition is an obvious instance where the face and the commandment
"Thou shalt not kill" is respected. Nevertheless, it is the death penalty,

Justice and Politics

i.e., killing as a punitive measure, according to Levinas, that no longer
belongs to justice. For were killing prohibited under any circumstances,
even when it is deemed absolutely necessary for the protection of
innocent third parties, justice would appear to be negated altogether.
That would be unjust. Charity is a supplement to justice that can be
justified when the initial violence has been arrested and the third party
is no longer under threat. As Levinas stipulates, it follows justice.

Politics and the Just State

Closely associated with Levinas 's discussion of justice is his notion
of the ideal state. Levinas defines the ideal state as one that "holds
justice as the absolutely desirable end and hence as a perfection" (PL
177}. The closest approximation to this morally perfect state is a liberal
democracy that is presided over by "the consciousness that the justice
on which the State is founded is, at this moment, still an imperfect
justice" (IR 68). In other words, the most just of states is the state that
is most prepared to acknowledge its own injustices and correct them.
This requires a continual reexamination of existing governmental
policies, political and judicial procedures, laws, statutes, and
institutions, as well as the political will and means to revise and amend
them whenever they are shown to fall short of justice. The civil rights
movement in the United States during the Fifties and Sixties devoted to
securing legislation protecting the rights of minority groups who have
historically been deprived equal opportunities in public institutions
such as schools, government employment, or public accommodations is
perhaps a good example of this capacity of a democracy to call itself
into question and correct its mistakes.

The "Wisdom of Love "

The task of criticizing the laws of the state and the principles they
rest on, including public standards of morality, concepts of personhood,
and citizenship, is the task reserved for philosophy. " Philosophy
justifies and criticizes the laws of being and of the city" (OB 165). This
is not merely one area of philosophical inquiry among others (e.g.,
epistemology, logic, and aesthetics) . Rather, it changes the very
vocation of philosophy from the love of wisdom (i.e., the search for
truth) into something else, which Levinas calls the "wisdom of love":

Justice and Politics

Justice and Politics

The extraordinary commitment of the other in relation to the third

party calls for control, a search for justice. society and the State,
comparison and possession, thought and science, commerce and
philosophy, and outside of anarchy the search for a principle.
Philosophy is this measure brought to the infinity of being for the
other ofproximity, and is like the wisdom of love. (OB 161)

developed in Levinas's second major work on ethics. To be sure, in

Totality and Infinity, Levinas had similarly claimed that reason and
ontology were founded on the ethical relation. However, it was not the
third party that was said to make reason possible, but the Other as
teacher: "The other is not . . . for reason a scandal which launches it
into dialectical movement, but the first teaching, the condition for all
teaching" (TI 203). In the Otherwise than Being, by contrast, Levinas
seldom mentions the role of the Other as teacher, but puts the accent
instead on the problem of having to fulfill one's obligations to the
Other and the third party when those obligations conflict.
The point to underscore here is that Levinas in the later work
especially does mot construe the relationship between ethics and
ontology as one of opposition, as some commentators do, but rather as
a relationship of mutual dependence. Ethics requires ontology if there is
to be justice in the name of the third party; ontology is justified only
insofar as it is conducted in the spirit of ethics, without which it
becomes violent iru its very exercise.
This explains why Levinas writes in Otherwise than Being:

Philosophy serves justice not only by the founding of political and

judicial institutions, but also by limiting as much as possible the
violence that inevitably congeals around these anonymous institutions.
This requires a vigilant critique of various forms of rhetoric,
propaganda, and ideology that threaten to undermine the freedom of the
individual within the state.
Philosophy must also seek explicitly to critic-ize itself to the extent
that it is constrained to traffic in universal language and conceptuality.
This "endless critique" (OB 44) by philosophy of its own distortional
language, which can neither state without contradiction the unique
identity of the Other (not without using the logic of genre whereby the
Other becomes logically indiscernible from any other), nor rid itself
entirely of the ideological interests of the state, emerges as an incessant
"unsaying of the said" (OB 181). It is an incessant effort to say that
which can only be said otherwise than in terms of the language of
philosophy, which to the extent that philosophy is impelled to say it
regardless, remains always to be retracted, unsaid in its turn .
Ultimately philosophical critique, if truly radical, will include a
critical assessment of its own desirability in consideration of more
basic human needs. Can we afford academic philosophy at a time when
over half the world's population is undernourished? The question is
perhaps not very philosophical. But then it seeks to place the very
practice of philosophy into question .

Justice, society, the State and its institutions, exchanges and work
are comprehensible out of proximity. This means that nothing is
outside of the control of the responsibility of the one for the other.
It is important to recover all these forms beginning with proximity,
in which being, totality, the State, politics, techniques, work are at
every moment on the point of having their center of gravity in
themselves, and weighing on their own account. (OB 159)

In the measure that the presence of the third party gives rise to the
necessities of justice, understood as the weighing and comparison of
terms that are unique and incomparable, involving calculation,
conceptualization, and knowledge, the third party can be said to justify
ontology. "In the comparison of the incomparable there would be the
latent birth of representation, logos, consciousness, work, the neutral
notion: being" (OB 158). This is perhaps the most radical thesis

Philosophy is called upon to criticize the tendency for the modern

state to become a supraindividual entity that is more important than the
citizens who comJOose it. That is why philosophy is perhaps needed
more now than ever before in a country like the United States, where
bureaucratic machiinery and the anonymous forces of the market place,
industrial pollutiorn and the increased expenditure on the military are
starting to look as though they are getting out of control.
Indeed, we have seen what politics can do when left unchecked by
ethics. The experiience of totalitarianism in the twentieth century,
whether Hitlerism on the right or Stalinism on the left, has perhaps
shown more than anything else the tremendous toll that politics is
capable of taking: on human life when it ignores the face. The
integration of the individual into the machinery of the state, into



The Return of Ontology

Justice and Politics

systems of efficient and economic controls, is what philosophy is called
upon to criticize while finding ways to exercise its prerogative not to
serve Caesar or the dollar, thus aspiring to a universal reason and
objectivity. That is why it is so important to philosophize, and why
Levinas reminds us in the manner of a wakeup call:

The Future of
Levinas Studies

One must not sleep, one must philosophize. (OGW 15)

The reception of Levinas's work in English-speaking countries over

the past three decades has gone through two key phases. Initially,
scholars were concerned simp ly with elucidating the chief features of
Levinas's thought and explaining the meaning of his often complex
terminology and prose. In the 1980s and early 1990s, readers of
Levinas turned their attention to the complicated relations between
Levinas and other thinkers in the phenomenological and postphenomenological tradition, including Husser), Heidegger, Derrida,
Lyotard, and lrigaray. Both of these phases of scholarship have been
particularly useful for demonstrating the immensely sophisticated and
provocative nature of Levinas's ethical philosophy, and have also
helped to demonstrate Levinas's ongoing relevance for contemporary
theory and practice within philosophy and throughout the humanities
more generally.
Over the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in some
of the previously under-studied areas of Levinas's work, especially his
Talmudic scholarship and political writings. The first international
conference dedicated to the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas took
place at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, May, 2002. Of the
recent directions taken in Levinas studies, perhaps the most exciting is
that of the trend toward examining Levinas's thought within the context
of concrete social and political issues. Many scholars are interested in
applying Levinas's thought to some oftoday's most pressing social and
political issues as a means of arriving at novel insights or approaches to
longstanding problems. Others have used recent developments in social


1 :1

theory to push Levinas 's philosophy in directions he himself failed to
go, or to point out important limitations in his work.
To take but a few examples, the recent phenomena of globalization
and multiculturalism have provoked some authors to consider the role
that Levinas ' s writings on politics and justice might play in the
construction of a radical and global democracy. Levinas's
uncompromising stance on the ethical duty to help those who are
hungry and suffering, coupled with his acute insight into the logics of
racism and imperialism, promise to add an important and sometimes
much needed ethical dimension to existing debates on these topics.
Similarly, recent advances in medicine and technology have raised a
whole host of ethical issues for which Levinas 's thought might provide
insightful answers. How might Levinas ' s thought shed light on debates
over human cloning, genetic therapy, and abortion? Is the question
concerning technology purely ontological, as Heidegger argued, or
does it have an ethical meaning? Can Levinas's notion of the face-toface help explain the efficacy of psychotherapeutic practice and the
"talking cure"? Many authors have also begun to explore the
implications of Levinas's thinking for current trends in environmental
philosophy and politics. Although most critics agree that Levinas did
not give animals or the natural environment their due regard, there are
nevertheless several aspects of Levinas 's thinking that many critics
consider useful for the development of an environmental ethic. Along
these lines, some scholars have argued that Levinas ' s analyses of the
face of the Other should be extended to include the faces of non-human
animals, and others have suggested that his notions of singularity and
responsivity might be rethought so as to include a certain responsibility
and respect for all life forms.
It is the opinion of the authors of this volume that the best work on
Levinas is still to come. This is something Levinas would indeed
welcome, fond as he was of Nietzsche's dictum from Thus Spoke
Zarathustra, Part I ("On Love of the Neighbor"):

Let the future of the farthest be for you the cause ofyour today. (Z,
62; quoted CP 93)
Levinas 's star may not have arisen in his own lifetime to the
Empyrean heights of some of his French contemporaries, such as
Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, and Derrida, but it might take longer for it
to be extinguished from the philosophical firmament.


Alterity: "The absolutely other is the Other. He and I do not form a

number. The collectivity in which I say ' you ' or ' we' is not the plural
of 'I.' 1, you- these are not individuals of a common concept. Neither
possession nor number nor the unity of concepts link me to the
Stranger, the Stranger who disturbs the being at home with oneself. But
Stranger also means the free one. Over him I have no power. He
escapes my grasp by an essential dimension, even if I have him at my
disposal. He is not wholly in my sight. But I, who have no concept in
common with the Stranger, am, like him, without genus. We are the
same and the other" (TI 39).
Asymmetry: " Moral experience, so commonplace, indicates a
metaphysical asymmetry: the radical impossibility of seeing oneself
from the outside and of speaking in the same sense of oneself and of
the others, and consequently the impossibility of totalization" {TI 53).
Atheism : "Atheism conditions a veritable relationship with a true God
kath auto [in itself]" {TI 77).
Desire: "A desire without satisfaction which, precisely, understands
[entend] the remoteness, the alterity, the exteriority of the other" {TI
Ethics: "We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the
presence of the Other ethics" (Tl 43).
Face: "The face has turned to me- and this is its very nudity. It is by
itself and not by reference to a system .... The relation with the face is
not an object-cognition. The transcendence of the face is at the same
time its absence from the world into which it enters, the exiling of a
being, his condition of being a stranger, destitute or proletarian . .. . The
gaze that supplicates and demands, that can supplicate only because it
demands, deprived of everything because entitled to everything, and
which one recognizes in giving- this gaze is precisely the epiphany of
the face as a face . The nakedness of the face is destituteness. To
recognize the Other is to give. But it is to give to the master, to the lord,
to him one approaches as ' You ' [' Vous ' ] in a dimension of height" (Tl



Face-to-face: "A relation whose terms do not form a totality can hence
be produced within the economy of being only as proceeding from the I
to the other, as a face to face" (TI 39).
Feminine: "Feminine alterity is situated on another plane than
language and nowise represents a truncated, stammering, still
elementary language. On the contrary, the discretion of this presence
includes all the possibilities of the transcendent relationship with the
Other. . . . This is a new and irreducible possibility, a delightful lapse in
being, and the source of gentleness itself' (TI 155).
Good : "Goodness consists in taking up a position such that the Other
counts more than myself' (TI 247).
Hatred: "The one who hates seeks to be the cause of a suffering to
which the despised being must bear witness .. . . Whence the insatiable
character of hatred; it is satisfied precisely when it is not satisfied, since
the Other satisfies it only by becoming an object, but can never become
object enough, since at the same time as his fall, his lucidity and
. witness are demanded. In this lies the logical absurdity of hatred" (TI
History: "History is worked over by the ruptures in history, in which a
judgment is borne upon it. When a man truly approaches the other he is
uprooted from history" (TI 52).
Hostage: "Strictly speaking, the other is the end; I am a hostage, a
responsibility and a substitution supporting the whole world in the
passivity of assignation, even in an accusing persecution, which is
undeclinable" (08 128).
Illeity: "The infinite who orders me is neither a cause acting straight
on, nor a theme, already dominated, if only retrospectively, by freedom.
This detour at a face and this detour from this detour in the enigma of a
trace we have called 'illeity.' llleity lies outside the "thou" and the
thematization of objects. A neologism formed with if (he) or ille, it
indicates a way of concerning me without entering into conjunction
with me" (08 12).
Language: "Absolute difference, inconceivable in terms of formal
logic, is established only as language . .. . Words are said, be it only in
the silence kept, whose weight acknowledges the evasion of the Other.
The knowledge that absorbs the Other is forthwith situated within the
discourse I address to him. Speaking rather than 'letting be,' solicits the
Other. Speech cuts across vision" (TI 195).
Logic: "The relationship between me and the Other does not have the

structure formal logic finds in all relations" (Tl 180).

Ontology: " Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a
reduction of the other to the same by the interposition of a middle and
neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being" (TI 43).
Persecution: "In maternity what signifies is a responsibility for others,
to the point of substitution for the others and suffering both from the
effect of persecution and the persecuting itself in which the persecutor
sinks. Maternity, which is bearing par excellence, bears even
responsibility for the persecuting by the persecutor" (08 75).
Philosophy: "Philosophy has in its highest, exceptional, hours stated
the beyond or being and the one distinct from being, but mainly
remained at home in saying being, that is, inwardness to being, the
being at home with oneself, of which European history itself has been
the conquest and jealous defense. And we would not here have
ventured to recall the beyond essence if this history of the West did not
bear in its margins, the trace of events carrying another signification,
and if the victims ofthe triumphs which entitle the eras of history could
be separate from its meaning" (08 178).
Politics: " It is not without importance to know if the egalitarian and
just State in which man is fulfilled (and which is to be set up, and
especially to be maintained) proceeds from a war of all against all, or
from the irreducible responsibility of the one for the all" (08 160).
Reason : " Reason in the sense of an impersonal legality does not permit
us to account from discourse, for it absorbs the plurality of
interlocutors. Reason, being one, cannot speak to another reason" (TI
Responsibility: " Responsibility for the other, in its antecedence to my
freedom , its antecedence to the present and to representation, is a
passivity more passive than all passivity, an exposure to the other
without thi s exposure being assumed, an exposure without holding
back, exposure of exposedness, expression, saying. The exposure is the
frankness , sincerity, veracity of saying. Not the saying dissimulating
itself and protecting itself in the said, just giving out words in the face
of the other, but saying uncovering itself, that is, denuding itself of its
skin, sensibility on the surface of the skin, at the edge of its nerves,
offering itself even in suffering- and thus wholly sign, signifying
itself' (08 15).
Said : "The word that bears on the Other as a theme seems to contain
the Other. But already it is said to the Other who, as interlocutor, has
quit the theme that encompassed him, and upsurges inevitably behind




the said" (TI 195).
Saying: "This 'saying to the Other'- this relationship with the Other as
interlocutor, this relation with an existent- precedes all ontology; it is
the ultimate relation in being" (TI 48).
Self: "Perhaps the possibility of a point of the universe where such an
overflow of responsibility is produced ultimately defines the I" (TI
Sensibility: "Only a subject that eats can be for-the-other, or can
signify. Signification, the one-for-the-other, has meaning only among
beings of flesh and blood . ... The immediacy of the sensible is the
immediacy of enjoyment and its frustration . It is the gift painfully tom
up, and in the tearing up, immediately a spoiling of this very
enjoyment. It is not a gift of the heart, but of the bread from one's
mouth, of one 's own mouthful of bread. It is the ppenness, not only of
one's pocketbook, but the doors of one's home, a 'sharing of your
bread with the famished,' a ' welcoming of the wretched into your
house' (Isaiah 58). The immediacy of sensibility is the for-the-other of
one's own materiality; it is the immediacy or the proximity of the other.
The proximity of the other is the immediate opening up for the other of
the immediacy of enjoyment, the immediacy of taste, materialization of
matter, altered by the immediacy of contact" (OB 74).
Subject: "The self is a sub-jectum ; it is under the weight of the
universe, responsible for everything. The unity of the universe is not
what my gaze embraces in its unity of apperception, but what is
incumbent on me from all sides, regards me in two senses of the term,
is my affair. In this sense, the idea that I am sought out in the
interstellar spaces is not a fiction of science-fiction, but expresses my
passivity as a self' (OB 116).
Substitution : "It is because in the approach there is inscribed or written
the trace of infinity, the trace of a departure, but [also] the trace of what
is inordinate, [of what] does not enter into the present, and inverts the
arche into anarchy, that there is forsakenness of the other, obsession by
him, responsibility and a self. The non-interchangeable par excellence,
the I, the unique one, substitutes itself for others" (OB 117).
The Third Party: "If proximity ordered me to the other alone, there
would not have been any problem, in even the most general sense of
the term. A question would not have been born, nor consciousness, nor
self-consciousness. The responsibility for the other is an immediacy
antecedent to questions, it is proximity. It is troubled and becomes a
problem when a third party enters" (OB 157).

Trace: "Responsibility for the other, this way of answering without a

prior commitment, is human fraternity itself, and it is prior to freedom.
The face of the other in proximity, which is more than representation, is
an unrepresentable trace, the way ofthe infinite" (OB 116).
Violence: "Violence can only aim at the face" (TI 225).




Emmanuel Levinas. Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with

Emmanuel Levinas. Ed. Jill Robbins. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 200 I.


Leo Tolstoy. The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Short Stories.

Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: Dover, 1993 .


Emmanuel Levinas. Nine Talmudic Readings . Trans. Annette

Aronowicz. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1990.


Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The Brothers Karamzov. Trans. D.

Magarshack. London: Penguin Books, 1958.


Emmanuel Levinas. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.

Trans. Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, I981.


Martin Heidegger. Being and Time. Tran~. John Macquarrie

and Edward Robinson . Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.


Jacques Derrida. OfGrammatology. Trans. Gayatri

Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University
Press, I 976.


Emmanuel Levinas. Basic Philosophical Writings . Eds.

Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert
Bernasconi. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1996.


Emmanuel Levinas. Of God Who Comes to Mind. Trans.

Bettina Sergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.


Emmanuel Levinas. Difficult Freedom . Trans. Sean Hand.

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.


Robert Bernasconi and David Wood, eds. The Provocation of

Levinas: Rethinking the Other. London: Routledge, 1988.


Edmund Husser!, Cartesian Meditations. Trans. Dorion

Cairns. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991.


Emmanuel Levinas. Proper Names. Trans. Michael B. Smith.

Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1996.


Emmanuel Levinas. Collected Philosophical Papers. Trans.

Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.


Francine-Claire Legrand . Symbolism in Belgium . Trans.

Alistair Kennedy. Brussel : Laconti, 1972.


Emmanuel Levinas. Existence and Existents. Trans. Alphonso

Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2001.


Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley.

New York: Knopf, 1976.


Emmanuel Levinas. Ethics and Infinity. Trans. Richard A.

Cohen. Pittsburgh : Duquesne University Press, 1985.


Emmanuel Levinas. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso

Lingis. Pittsburgh : Duquesne University Press, 1969.


Seren Kierkegaard. Either/Or, Vol. II. Trans. Walter Lowrie.

New York: Anchor Books, 1972.


Emmanuel Levinas. Tim e and the Other. Trans. Richard A.

Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987.

Immanuel Kant. Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals.

Trans. H. J. Paton. London: Hutchinson, 1948.


Jacques Derrida. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.





Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter

Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1978.

Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas. Ed. Jill

Robbins. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Selected English Translations of Levinas's Works

New Talmudic Readings. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh:

Duquesne University Press, 1999.

Alterity and Transcendence. Trans. Michael B. Smith. New York:

Columbia University Press, 1999.

Nine Talmudic Readings. Trans. Annette Aronowicz. Bloomington:

Indiana University Press, 1990.

Beyond the Verse. Trans. Gary D. Mole. Bloomington: Indiana

University Press, 1994.

Of God Who Comes to Mind. Trans. Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford

University Press, 1998.

Collected Philosophical Papers. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. The Hague:

Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

On Escape. Trans. Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press,


Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Trans. Sean Hand. Baltimore:

John Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. The

Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981.

Discovering Existence with Husser/. Trans. Richard A. Cohen and

Michael B. Smith. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Outside the Subject. Trans. Michael B. Smith. Stanford: Stanford

University Press, 1993.

Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings. Eds. Adrian

Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1996.

Proper Names . Trans. Michael B. Smith. Stanford: Stanford University

Press, 1996.

Entre Nous : On Thinking of The Other. Trans. Michael B. Smith and

Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Ethics and Infinity. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne
University Press, 1985.
Existence and Existents. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne
University Press, 200 I.

The Levinas Reader. Ed. by Sean Hand. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
The Theory of Intuition in Husser/'s Phenomenology. Trans. Andre
Orianne. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
Time and the Other. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne
University Press, 1987.
Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne
University Press, 1969.

Humanism of the Other. Trans. Nidra Poller. Urbana-Champaign:

University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Selected Books and Anthologies

In the Time of Nations. Trans. Michael B. Smith. Bloomington: Indiana

University Press, 1994.

Bernasconi, Robert and Simon Critchley, eds. Re-reading Levinas.



Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Bernasconi, Robert and David Wood, eds. The Provocation of Levinas:
Rethinking the Other. London : Routledge, 1988.
Chanter, Tina, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Emmanuel Levinas.
University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 200 I .
Cohen, Richard A. Exegesis and Philosophy: Interpretation After
Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Cohen, Richard A., ed. Face to Face with Levina:s. Albany: SUNY,
Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Critchley, Simon and Robert Bernasconi, eds. The Cambridge
Companion to Levinas. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press,
Derrida, Jacques. Adieu: To Emmanuel Levinas. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1999.
Katz, Claire, ed. Critical Assessments: Emmanuel Levinas, 4 vols.
London: Routledge, 2004.
Llewelyn, John . Emmanuel Levinas: Th~ Genealogy of Ethics. London:
Routledge, 1995.
Peperzak, Adriaan T. To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy
of Emmanuel Levinas. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press,
1993 .
Peperzak, Adriaan T., ed. Ethics as FirsJ Philosophy: The Significance
of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature, and Religion. New
York: Routledge, 1995.
Wyschogrod, Edith. Emmanuel Levims: The Problem of Ethical
Metaphysics. The Hague: Nijhoff, 197-t.