Lévinas on the Other

Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-95) was an important religiously oriented philosopher within the existential-phenomenological tradition. He translated Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to French. His most famous work Totality and Infinity (French edition 1961) — dedicated to Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl — argues at top level that philosophy has often been dominated by a drive for a vision of totality, and that we should abandon this in favor of the “infinity” of our experience of the Other, which for Lévinas leads from an ethical concern to a sort of eschatology. He puts ethics before ontology, which I like, but still takes a more metaphysical approach than Marcel, for instance.

I appreciate his stress on concern for others, but have trouble applying the notion of infinity in this context. I’m more comfortable talking about the essential incompleteness of our experience as finite beings. Lévinas is right that reaching for totality is overreaching, but I think Plato and Aristotle — and also Kant, and even especially Hegel (so different from the common stereotype) — already clearly recognized this. In my view, ordinary open-ended interpretation already implicitly poses a potentially infinite (i.e., indefinitely extensible, and therefore always incomplete) task that we cut short in order to act, but we never in experience encounter an actual or completed infinite. Ethical encounter with others highlights the incompleteness (i.e., non-totality, in Lévinas’ terms) of our understanding.

This incompleteness — and the thickness and “overflowing” character of meant realities or informal “being” that is its complement — already seems to me sufficient to support an ethical, hospitable relation to the other. I want to say that an overflowing beyond objectifying schemas is characteristic not just of absolute transcendence and infinity, but of ordinary being and ordinary meaning. Routinely in everyday life, there is meaningful intelligibility and there is overflow, in the very same context. Even in the most ordinary moments, with sufficient openness we can find poetic reverie and ethical awe that takes us outside of ourselves.

Lévinas speaks of the “absolutely other” as “truth” in the sense of a religious transcendence, to which ethics is the “royal road” (p. 29). Transcendence, Lévinas says, should not be confused with ecstasy or magical communion. He has in mind a more sober kind of religion. He cites Marcel and Martin Buber on the irreducibility of the relationship to the Other to objective knowledge, and associates the driving of practice by theory with a failure to recognize this primacy of the other. With Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I think we should recognize that theoretical reason actually depends on a practical reason that renounces Mastery; that theoretical reason is more of a tool, whereas practical reason is more of an agency; and that practical reason begins with recognition of the other.

I like when he speaks of a “generosity nourished by the Desired” (p. 34). He goes on to talk about a metaphysical Desire for the absolutely Other, “non-adequate to the idea” (ibid). Less metaphysically, I see forms overflowing their boundaries without thereby ceasing to be forms, and locate meaning in a foundationless but relatively stable difference in a relation of reciprocal co-grounding with moral commitment and practical judgment.

He talks about the reduction of the Other to the Same, and seems to think most philosophy does that. I have a more optimistic or charitable view that I think is also more historiographically valid. Aristotle and Hegel especially (contrary to common stereotypes) are very careful to avoid claiming overly strong Identity, so it is really not fair to say they reduce the Other to the Same.

Directly contrary to my view, he says that “The calling into question of things in a dialectic is not a modifying of the perception of them; it coincides with their objectification” (p. 69; emphasis in original). Disappointingly, he seems to prefer an authoritative teacher whom he calls an absolute Stranger. “The absolutely foreign alone can instruct us” (p. 73). It’s starting to sound like Kierkegaard here. I feel that hyperbolic expressions like this begin to denigrate ordinary life, and ultimately lead to a sort of absolute inflation. Lévinas’ Other is supposed to be a source of gentleness rather than arbitrariness, but to me what is gentle — much as it may exceed any objectification — cannot be absolutely foreign. I prefer to emphasize goodness rather than power, and I want to say that goodness speaks to us, so it cannot be absolutely foreign. (See also Immanence, Transcendence.)