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Mary Jennings

Discuss How Levinas's Concept of the Other Relates to his Concept of Justice in Totality and Infinity

Levinas might well object to the use of the word 'concept' in relation to any description of the Other. Concepts, which posit specific relations between objects, providing a particular model or picture of those relationships, are 'totalising' in his view. Totalities, as defined in the world of Levinas, aim to give "an all inclusive, panoramic view of things, including the other, in a neutral, impersonal way like the... Heideggerian Being" as John Wild puts it in his introduction to Totality and Infinity.[1] The Other, which refers to the humankind, is related to Infinity which "overflows the thought that things it. Its very infinition is produced precisely in this overflowing".[2] Infinity and the Other are not in the realm of thought which can be known objectively therefore. How can the Other be known then in Levinas's view?

One way is through the concept of justice, he claims. Justice, Levinas says, is about the relation with the Other. In discussing this relation, which is "outside the dichotomies valid for things, "the a priori and the a posteriori", outside the "ineradicable conviction of every philosophy that objective knowledge is the ultimate relation of transcendence... justice, the preeminent transcendence and the condition for knowing is [not] a noesis correlation of a noema (as Husserl might have it)"[3]. We do not constitute the Other, put it under categories or comprehend its Being, as philosophers such as Husserl, Kant or Heidegger might suggest. This would be to treat it as 'the same', rather than as 'other'. Rather, in Levinas, we have the concept of justice, which is one of relationship, as the condition for knowing the Other.

From this position of 'justice as the condition for knowing the Other' Levinas makes a complex argument relating justice to truth and relating these to objective knowledge, which is related to subjectivity, freedom and Desire, thence to Discourse and the welcome therein to 'the face' of the Other, until we come to the point where the welcome of the face of the Other is justice. Following the snakes and ladders of these relationships in Totality and Infinity and discussing some of their implications for how we behave in relation to other people in accordance with this concept of justice is the concern of the remainder of this paper.

What then is the relation between truth, objective knowledge and justice? Truth is related to 'intelligibility: "to know is not simply to record, but always to comprehend."[4] It is to justify — a fact, for instance — making it 'irrevocable' and potentially therefore an obstacle to my spontaneity or freedom — "knowing becomes knowing of a fact only if it is at the same time critical, if it puts itself into question."[5] Therefore objective thought is linked to critique or 'failure' — a kind of 'moral unworthiness' and this, in turn, is linked to limitations on the spontaneity of my freedom. My freedom is imposed on in this way. This is how Levinas describes the necessities of objective thought in European thought. Furthermore, anything that is considered to limit freedom is considered a 'scandal' as it calls into question the "central place the I occupies in the world" [6], the place where I dwell and where 'I can'. Political thought rests then on 'the undiscussed value of spontaneity' and its problem is to reconcile my freedom with the freedom of others which, it is implied, it can only do by proposing 'totalising' systems.

But, he goes on, "the consciousness of moral unworthiness... does not imply the sublimation of the I in the universal."[7] It is the I who can be ashamed of my unworthiness that can desire the Other without losing the I. When I am conscious of my imperfection, when my freedom is called into question by the Other, then I am measuring myself against the idea of the perfection of Infinity (which we somehow have as Descartes intimated in his Third Meditation). Desire is a measure of the infinity of the infinite — a "measure through the very impossibility of measure"[8]

How then does the desire for the Other call my freedom into question? It is through 'the face' — " the way the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me"[9]. The face of the Other is not a representation, or an adequate idea or a disclosure of Being; it "expresses itself" in discourse or conversation which "at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it". It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I... to have the idea of infinity. To receive is to be taught — the Other is wholly other — not something that I have an idea of that is awakened by my encounter with him, not something that comes from myself but from beyond me and therefore a 'non-allergic' which implies — ethical — relation. It is not something I constitute through intentionality into 'the same' — as I can do with other objects such as the bread I eat or the home I live in. The face of the Other is 'eruptive', it disturbs the 'happiness' and 'enjoyment' of the I 'at home with itself' where 'I can'. But in welcoming the Other, I do not lose or lessen my own identity; the Other is not the 'they' of Heidegger who take me away from my own authenticity, nor the reciprocal 'I-Thou' relationship of Buber, but the desire for infinity which is also the desire for the Good; there is a moral dimension to all of this therefore. The face is that which demands a response as, ultimately, it is call from infinity, from a dimension of Height.

As Moran points out[10], "Levinas uses the term 'face' to refer to the real concrete presence of another person... but in his writing the term blossoms into a metaphor for all those aspects of human personhood and culture which escape objectification", making it difficult to discern what Levinas actually means by the term, other than it is a 'demand and not a question'- when we are addressed by the Other then speech emerges, Levinas say: "the essence of language is the relation with the other".[11] He continues, "the act of designating modifies my relation of enjoyment and possession with things, places the things in the perspective of the Other... it permits me to render the things offerable... "[12] The basic mode of this relation is apology — the I is called by the Other from its egoism of enjoyment towards the Other. According to Wright, in analyzing the structure of dialogue, Levinas is attempting to undercover its formal, ethical structure: she says "I may use a word to thematise the other and this may momentarily appear to contain him, but in his presence... I become aware that 'his presence is not reabsorbed in his status as a theme.'[13] I cannot make of him 'the same'; he is more than 'an adequate idea'; he is beyond any meaning I can ascribe to him. Wright points that this "opens up a dimension in the I's existence, a relationship with something that remains absolute with the relation, remains exterior" [14]. The Other reveals himself to me and challenges me; when I respond in welcome to this challenge in the face-to-face encounter, this is an ethical response. Because he challenges me, I may wish to destroy, even murder him, but because his call is from Infinity (and therefore from the Good), I am responsible for him and cannot ethically commit murder. In this sense my powers are "paralysed" by the Other.

This relationship of obligation, expressed in the discourse between the I and the Other is the real basis of objectivity and rationality Levinas claims: in my wish to offer things to the Other, I designate them, endowing them with a rational signification; language is not a matter of a process of symbolization occurring within an isolated subject; language is the way I share the world with the Other. ('my language is our language' as Wittgenstein might say). If this is so, Wright, in summarising Levinas's argument about language and reason, brings us back to the question of justice: "If it is the face-to-face that founds language, and the face that establishes signification in being, we must conclude that language is not simply the servant of reason, but reason itself. Levinas therefore rejects the notion of reason as an 'impersonal legacy', arguing that this notion fails to recognize the plurality of interlocutors in discourse."[15] Levinas himself states, "Language is [also] justice."[16] The face is the face of the destitute and the poor which not only address me, but also exhorts me, through the 'third party' of the whole of humanity who is also present at our encounters to 'sermon, exhortation, the prophetic word'; later he says that " the face summons me to my obligations and judges me" and whose "inviolable exteriority the face states in uttering the 'you shall not commit murder': the essence of discourse is ethical."[17]

There is more than a touch of what Moran calls 'metaphorical exuberance' about the way Levinas piles on idea upon idea without following through on how all these idea cohere: there are big leaps in such assertions as 'language is justice' despite the attempts at tracing a consistent line of argument as Wright suggests has been done. In attempting to follow Levinas's exposition of the relationship between the large notions of truth, freedom, subjectivity, objectivity, language and ethics, it felt like being in the middle of a chain reaction as ideas jostled up against one another, scattering in different directions, endlessly colliding, doubling back on themselves before setting off again. But let us persist for the moment with the unifying 'string theory' that has been attempted to be traced here and see what Levinas suggests are the implications for this notion of responsibility, which he says is 'an infinite responsibility', for the Other that the I has.

"The infinity of responsibility denotes not its actual immensity, but a responsibility increasing in the measure that it is assumed: duties become greater in the measure that they are accomplished."[18] Later on, he says, "Justice summons me to go beyond the straight line of justice... beyond the straight line of the law the land of goodness extends infinite and unexplored, necessitating all the resources of a singular presence. I am therefore necessary for justice, as responsible beyond every limit fixed by an objective law.[19]. On the one hand it appears that it is on my state of responsible singularity upon which the whole concept of justice is founded as "justice would not be possible without [that] singularity" but he also refers to ' a system of justice of universal law' which I, though the reason for its very foundation, must go beyond:

"Beyond the system of justice of universal law, the I enters under judgment by the fact of being good. Goodness consists in taking up the position in being such that the Other counts more than myself.[20]" Ethics for Levinas is not a matter of following the letter or spirit of the law, not a matter of equality or reciprocity. The relationship between the I and the Other is 'asymmetrical'.

It is not clear therefore if there are two systems of justice — one which is founded on my singularity and which I am challenged to ascribe to and act on having due regard to my infinite responsibility for the Other, and another which is founded on some other principle of 'objective law', the source of which is not specified in this work. Is Levinas thus saying that our institutions of justice, founded on and codified on such ideas as equality, universal human rights, of reward and punishment and the common good miss the point? Does the ethical relation which he says is at the heart of the I-Other relation operate in parallel to formal (totalizing?) systems of justice or is the system to be founded on that relation? It is not clear. One can see this parallel relationship in operation from time to time when, against all 'natural' expectations of 'objective justice' people forgive their enemies, even those who have committed murder. One thinks of the admirable Gordon Wilson, himself injured in the IRA bomb in Enniskillen that killed his daughter, Marie, who immediately said, despite his grief and loss, that he forgave her killers; in forgiveness he remained in relationship with them and in the process encouraging us to see them as people — Others — who retained the possibility of responding in an ethical way to Others. In so doing, he went beyond what any system of justice might demand. In offering his forgiveness, he did mean that the perpetrators should not be brought before the justice system and answer, face-to-face, for their crime (unfortunately, that has not happened), but for him, forgiveness is not a matter of any man-made system of justice but a matter of giving expression to his religious faith. Undoubtedly, Levinas would have admired this as an ethical stance. But are we to think that those who do not forgive are somehow less ethical when they insist, like the families of the Omagh bomb victims, that there is no justice of any kind until those who murdered their loved ones are held personally responsible in a court of law for the crime they committed? I think not.

Critchley, in his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Levinas asks, "..Is ethics the right word to describe the experience that he is trying to express?"[21] He points out that when we normally think of ethics, we think of some theory of justice or general principles or rules that we can use to evaluate how we conduct ourselves as neighbours, employers or as citizens for example, but that no such detail is provided by Levinas. He goes on to say that while such detail or system is ultimately required, that what Levinas is attempting to do is to "give an account of a basic existential demand, a lived fundamental obligation that should be at the basis of all moral theory and moral action."[22] In Critchley's view, the ethical demand of infinite responsibility that Levinas proposes while 'impossibly demanding' is compelling; otherwise, he claims ethics would be reduced to a kind of 'procedural programming'. What Levinas reminds us of, he says, is that the ethical demand must be presupposed as the basis of any such theory or practice. Levinas himself, in conversation with Kearney explains the difference he makes between ethics and a system of morality: "ethics, as the extreme exposure and sensitivity of one subjectivity to another becomes morality and hardness its skin as soon as we move into the political world of the impersonal 'third' — the world of government, institutions, tribunals... etc. But the norm which must continue to inspire and direct the moral order is the ethical norm of the interhuman."[23] But, as indicated earlier, the nature of this relationship between what he terms 'ethics' and 'morality' is not very clear.

Critchley says that Levinas summarized his philosophy in the words, 'Apres vous, Monsieur', that is "the everyday and quite banal acts of civility, hospitality, kindness and politeness."[24] Whether adopting such practices is sufficient to encourage the development of ethically based systems that will stop murder remains to be tested; they seem like small steps but ones that at least I can take immediately in my relationships with others.

Select Bibliography

Buber, Martin, I and Thou, Trans. R G Smith, Continuum Impacts, London 2004

Cambridge Companion to Levinas, Eds S Critchley and R Bernasconi , Cambridge University Press 2002

Descartes, Rene, Meditations on First Philosophy (Trans: John Cottingham) Cambridge University Press, 1986

Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time (Trans: Macquarrie & Robinson) Blackwell, Oxford, 1962

Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, Trans. A Lingis, KluwerAcademic Publishers, Dordrecht, 1991

Kearney, Richard, States of Mind Dialogue with Contemporary Thinkers New York Press 1995

Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception (Trans: C Smith). Routledge 2002

Moran, Dermot, Introduction to Phenomenology Routledge London and New York, 2000

Wright,Tamra, The Twilight of Jewish Philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas' Ethical Hermeneutics, Harwood Academic Publishers 1999


1. Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, Trans. A Lingis, KluwerAcademic Publishers, Dordrecht, 1991 page 15

2. Ibid p25

3. Ibid p89

4. Ibid p82

5. Ibid p82

6. Ibid p83

7. Ibid p83

8. Ibid p62

9. Ibid p50

10. Moran, Dermot Introduction to Phenomenology Routledge London and New York, 2000 p347

11. Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, Trans. A Lingis, KluwerAcademic Publishers, Dordrecht, 1991 p207

12. Ibid p 209

13. Wright, T, The Twilight of Jewish Philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas' Ethical Hermeneutics, Harwood Academic Publishers 1999

14. Ibid p 10

15. Ibid p 12

16. Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, Trans. A Lingis, KluwerAcademic Publishers, Dordrecht, 1991 p213

17. Ibid p215;p216

18. Ibid p245

19. Ibid p245

20. Ibid p247

21. Cambridge Companion to Levinas, Eds S Critchley and R Bernasconi , Cambridge University Press 2002, p27.

22. Ibid p28

23. Kearney, R, States of Mind Dialogue with Contemporary Thinkers New York Press 1995 p 195

24. Cambridge Companion to Levinas, Eds S Critchley and R Bernasconi , Cambridge University Press 2002 p27