Levinas et al.


The Face of the Other

“The relationship with the Other,” says Levinas, “puts me into question, empties me of myself….The I loses its sovereign coincidence with itself” (TTO 350-53). For Levinas, ethics is this putting into question of the self, the interruption of self arising in the encounter with the face of the other (le visage d’Autrui). The face is the concrete figure for alterity. Just as the definition of face in Totality and Infinity emphasized its nonadequating, infinitizing mode, “the way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we […] name face” (TaI 50), so too, here, the face’s mode of presentation is described as an exceeding. In the terms that Levinas uses, the other is given first in a context, in a totality, in the light, in a world. But while the other is given in a world, he is also out of world. Signifying in a context, with its totalizing explanatory power, the other also signifies out of context. The other is given as a phenomenon, but also as a face.[1]

For Levinas, the face is not an image, not a phenomenon, but an enigma. It is not an idea nor a concept, but that which is concrete, in the flesh, particular, and unique. It is “invisible” in the sense that is beyond visible (in-visible). It is a particular, unique experience of the I with the other. It is the reality that comes to you upright. It produces its own meaning, that is, not constituted by the I, a meaning that does not refer to anything else. It is a reality which escapes the categories, ungraspable.

For him, access to the face is straightaway ethical. Ethics is an experience (not in the Husserlian sense), where the I is no longer the center (sur-pris). As one is knighted, “to be subject is to be at the base.” Levinas places responsibility first before freedom. The Other puts into question the perseverance in being of the I. The Other “disturbs” the world. The Other is the greatest trauma that inflicts upon us, opens the meaning of the Other as source of ethical command (“Thou shalt not kill”), a double negative (e.g. non-in-difference, to show the appreciation of difference), which is positive.

The first word of the face is the “Thou shalt not kill.” It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me. However, at the same time, the face of the Other is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all. And me, whoever I may be, but as a “first person,” I am he who finds the resources to respond to the call.[2]

For Levinas, “the face is what one cannot kill, or at least it is that whose meaning consists in saying: ‘thou shalt not kill.’” “The face speaks” “and begins all discourse.” It is discourse and, more exactly, response or responsibility which is the authentic relationship.[3] In discourse, Levinas distinguishes between the saying and the said. “That the saying must bear a said is a necessity of the same order as that which imposes a society with laws, institutions and social relations. But the saying is the fact that before the face I do not simply remain there contemplating it, I respond to it.”[4]


Responsibility for the Other

I have said that in my analysis of the face it is a demand; a demand, not a question. The face is a hand in search of recompense, an open hand. That is, it needs something. It is going to ask you for something. I don’t know whether one can say that it is complex or simple. It is, in any case, a new way of speaking of the face.[5]

For Levinas, the ethical experience with the face is the nexus of command, plea, and response. “Responsibility is initially a for the Other,” that is, “I am responsible for his very responsibility.”[6] Levinas understands responsibility as responsibility for the Other, “thus as responsibility for what is not my deed, or for what does not even matter to me; or which precisely does matter to me, is met by me as face.”[7]

Within the traditional framework, responsibility for the Other can only be taken as an enlarged form of self-responsibility, “an originally limited form of responsibility, measured by my liberty and by what is possible for me” (AE 129, 164; OB 102, 128), “in contrast to an unlimited responsibility that becomes limited only afterward” (AE 165; OB 128).[8] In Heidegger’s concept of care (Fürsorge), one is able to substitute oneself for the Other or to precede him in his own possibilities. “The guardian (Vormund) does the latter, anticipating the responsibility of the Other—temporarily, if the Other has not yet awakened to his own reason, as in the case of a minor; permanently, if the Other has lost his own responsibility, as in the case of the insane person.”[9]

The tie with the Other is knotted only as responsibility, this moreover, whether accepted or refused, whether knowing or not knowing how to assume it, whether able or unable to do something concrete for the Other. To say: here I am [me voici]. To do something for the Other. To give.[10]

Levinas, however, pleads for a responsibility for Others that is anything but preliminary and secondary, but a primary responsibility. He takes this kind of responsibility as “original substitution”. “Through this substitution, I become a corporeal hostage of the Other and have to substitute myself for him with life and limb, and that in radical form.”[11]

The responsible person speaks and acts instead of, and this has to be understood as substitution, as the title term in the central chapter of Otherwise than Being reads. The “for” of the substitution does not place terms in relation to each other, it is the relation. “My responsibility for the other is the for of the relationship, the very signifyingness of signification, which signifies in saying before showing itself in the said.”[12]


In the face of Others

 “Project” and “Substitution”

One of the fundamental themes in Totality and Infinity that Levinas speaks of is the “intersubjective relation” which is “a non-symmetrical relation.” “I am responsible for the Other without waiting for reciprocity, were I to die for it. Reciprocity is his affair.”[13] The “I” essentially becomes “subject” in this sense. And for Levinas, “subjectivity goes to the point of substitution for the Other. It assumes the condition—or the uncondition—of hostage.”[14] “I can substitute myself for everyone, but no one can substitute himself for me.”[15]

Heidegger, on the other hand, is concerned about the authentic potentiality-of-being of Da-sein, each with their ownmost, individual, existential projects. Da-sein is a “being about which this being is concerned.”[16] For him, one can choose who one can be: it can inspire a change of course, or one can choose to remain as he is, but in such a way that he chooses his identity, instead of just letting it happen. Heidegger refers to our need to determine our own identity as Da-sein’s existentiality or its being-ahead-of-itself. We can think of this dimension as our having a future.[17]

            Tacitly and inconspicuously, Da-sein has already been dominated by others, taken over unawares. The they presents every judgment and decision as its own, takes the responsibility of Da-sein away from it, and reduces, levels it down to averageness. The they always “did it.”[18]

Heidegger allows one to be involved in the project of another, if only to fetch him from nothingness or everydayness, save him from dread, from inauthenticity, and from entanglement, not in order to take “care” away from Da-sein, as in leaping in, “but to first to give it back to him as such. This concern which essentially pertains to authentic care; that is, the existence of the other, and not to a what which it takes care of, helps the other to become transparent to himself in his care and free for it.”[19]

Where Heidegger is concerned about the authentic potentiality-of-being of Da-sein, each with their ownmost, individual, existential projects, each being able to project and construct his own future; Levinas pushes for radical substitution as the call for responsibility for the Other.

“The Other” and “Oneself as Another”

For Levinas, the I is responsible even for the responsibility of the other. The subject is not for itself but for the others, that is, you cannot say “I” unless as “being for others.”

Further on in the recent history of philosophy, we find a criticism of Levinas’s idea of responsibility for the Other in Ricoeur’s Oneself As Another. Ricoeur seems to leave something for the self, instead of radically, totally substituting the other, life and limb included.

For Ricouer, the self is a bundle of relations, not a solitary I. The “desire to be” does not simply mean the “me, myself” (moi), but the “self” (soi), that is, I-you-institution. He defines ethics as the putting together of: esteem for oneself, solicitude for others, expectation for just institutions. To be ethical is to aim for the good life (virtue) with others in just institutions.

Levinas gives the example of brotherhood, which is based on ethical solidarity, the I and the Other being deeply involved in one another even before a conscious commitment. Ricoeur, on the other hand, gives the example of friendship, which he holds as already bordering on justice without itself turning into justice, “something he sees as appearing only at the level of institutions, thereby giving continuity to the discontinuity in his preferred ethical intention. Friendship borders on justice because it is based on giving and receiving, but also because it goes beyond such exchanges to raise the possibility of benevolent spontaneity and even the possibility of sharing other’s suffering.”[20] For Ricoeur, it is about loving your neighbor as you love yourself, and loving your neighbor as a good neighbor loves you.

Response and Responsibility: “I more than the others”

Father Zossima said to them….He spoke of many things. He seemed anxious before death to say everything he had not said in his life, and not simply for the sake of instructing them, but as though thirsting to share with all men and all creation his joy and ecstasy, and once more to open his whole heart.

…”For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man…”[21]

It is from these words that Levinas took his mantra: “Each of us is guilty before everyone for everyone, and I more than the others” (OB, 146). Indeed, much can be learned from the story of the Karamasov’s in Dostoyevsky, even the embodiment of the “stupid kindness” and the “senseless act of goodness” can be found in Dostoyevsky’s Prince Lev Nikoyevich Myshkin, the primary character in The Idiot. Reading literature such as these is not primarily about knowledge, it is, first, ethics.



A Response: The Thirds

            We see in Levinas’s substitutional responsibility a philosophy of doing justice to the Other. As I see it, however, to substitute the Other in his responsibility (Levinas), requires a great amount of daring, fortitude. To identity oneself in the promotion of just institutions (Ricoeur) presupposes the virtue of justice. To be involved, but not to leap in, in the project of the other (Heidegger) requires temperance. In deciding what to do and what steps to take in certain situations require prudence. Responding, therefore, requires all the cardinal virtues combined. All these virtues are areas of effort, and one’s effort becomes authentic if it is willed. One is there (thrown) in the particular circumstance purposefully. One just, and prudently, have to recognize one’s ownmost potentiality to be able to respond with utmost concern, to do one’s utmost, ones’ greatest possible effort.

Before I conclude, I’d like to play further with the idea of the third person and other thirds. I stand outside from where I am standing, but not to substitute the other whom I stand face-to-face with (or, at least, not immediately, unthinkingly). For a moment (quickly, contemplatingly) I become a third, seeing the I and the Other as Thirds, at the foreground of other thirds. Looking at all the silent faces, I hear their stories, blaring, introducing other faces, some blank, some I may have already seen or encountered, the rest I don’t’ see, nor recognize, nor know if I should care to be concerned about them. But they are all there, woven into a single narrative. And the weaving continues as all the thirds in this circumstance come together. Inevitably, each character’s part in this story will end, some already approaching rapidly, and everyone in danger of falling into the they of everydayness. That is so, unless the I who has now become a third becomes the “self” (soi) again and wills to do something.

Perhaps it is not really about the question “Who am I?”, “What can I do?”, not even, perhaps, “What would Levinas, Heidegger, or Ricoeur do?” But being always ready to say Me here for you!”

It may not necessarily be leaping in for the Other and substituting him, but to see his face, to become attentive to its traces, to hear by seeing deep through it the narrative that calls, disturbs, moves, makes the I become restless, then pulls one out from one’s self, making the I challenge oneself: “If I were me, I would–”



Ivan Richard F. Deligero

February 24, 2012

[1] J. Robbins, “Tracing Responsibility,” in A. T. Peperzak (1995), Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion (New York and London: Routledge), p. 175.

[2] E. Levinas, in Ethics and Infinity, Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. by Richard A. Cohen (Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 1985) p. 89.

[3] Ibid., pp. 87-88.

[4] Ibid.

[5] E. Levinas, in T. Wright, P. Hughes, A. Ainley, “The Paradox of Morality: an Interview with Emmanuel Levinas,” trans. by A. Benjamin and T. Wright, in R. Bernasconi and D. Wood, eds. (1988), The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the other (London and New York: Routledge), p. 169.

[6] E. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, p. 96.

[7] Ibid., p. 95.

[8] B. Waldenfels, “Response and Responsibility” in A. T. Peperzak (1995), Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion (New York and London: Routledge), p. 43.

[9] Ibid.

[10] E. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, p. 97. “me voici,” “Me here for you!”

[11] B. Waldenfels, “Response and Responsibility” in Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion, p. 44.

[12] Ibid.

[13] E. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, p. 98.

[14] Ibid., p. 100.

[15] Ibid., p. 101.

[16] Being and Time (BT), Martin Heidegger (MH), p. 42; J. Stambaugh (JS) trans., p. 39.

[17] Cf. Richard Polt (1999), Heidegger: An Introduction, New York: Cornell University Press, p. 79.

[18] BT: MH, 127; JS119. Cf. I. Deligero (January 26, 2012), “De-distancing Da-sein (Towards the Phenomenon of Care),” p. 1.

[19] BT: MH, 122; JS, 115.

[20] D. Pellauer (2007), Ricoeur: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum), pp. 103-104.

[21] F. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamasov (New York: Signet Classics, 1958), p. 184.

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