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Adriaan T. Peperzak


What does the ipseity of the subject, I myself, become in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas? I -- or «the I» as philosophers like to say -- has many figures, but in all its configurations I am always caught in relations: the I (le moi) is related to the world, the Other as you, him, her, and them, the Absolute, and the I itself, Me.

1. I Desire the Absolute ^

My widest horizon is set out by my Desire of the Absolute, which constitutes me as always already related to the Infinite through an «idea» -- the primordial and all-transcending «idea» -- that makes me «think» more than my mind can contain: an ideal fulfillment that overwhelms me, because it exceeds me while overarching all other relations that are constitutive for my ipseity.

It is not difficult to recognize the beginning of Totality and the Infinite as a refiguration of Diotima's Eros and to understand why Levinas himself presented his main thesis for the Doctorat ès Lettres as a «return to Platonism».1 Jean-Marc Narbonne and Wayne J. Hankey have described how this «return» fits into the Neoplatonizing climate of the philosophical scene that dominated a good deal of the first half of the 20th century in France.2 The names of Blondel, Bréhier, Lavelle, Duméry, Trouillard and others can be mentioned, but already Descartes's idea of the Infinite, to which Levinas frequently appeals, is clearly a retrieval of the Platonic tradition, which -- through Plotinus, Augustine, Proclus, Dionysus, Bonaventura, Cusanus, and many others -- had dominated two millennia of European philosophy, before it, one last time, dominated Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy. However, although Levinas follows that tradition by calling the Absolute «infinite» and «the first intelligible»,3 he does not see the Desire of the Infinite as an immediate reaching out to the Good, which is also the One and the Source of all that exists. On the fourth page of Totality and the Infinite (Totalité et Infini), he explains the meaning of the absolutely «Other» that is the utmost Desirable by the puzzling statement that its otherness must be understood «as alterity of Autrui and as alterity of the Most High (le Très Haut)»,4 but the meaning of the «and» that links God with the human other remains enigmatic in the course of this book, and even, to a certain extent, in the writings that appeared afterwards. Certainly, Levinas offers some precisions by saying that autrui emerges «in the trace of» God5 and by emphasizing that God allows us to meet God by meeting human others; but prayer, sacramentality, and the mystical presence of God in the figures or faces of human others hardly play a role in his philosophy, and nature has hardly any sacramental power. Insofar as the Infinite is revealed to me, I must turn to you, my neighbor, who looks at me, in order to enter into a correct relationship with the Most High. God himself has always already disappeared from the scene; He hides in an immemorial past that has never been present, a «past» before creation that cannot be transformed into any present, except in the form of an altogether human and interhuman proximity. The Other's face takes the place and is, but does not imitate or symbolize God's shining glory. The infinity of the human face coincides with the absoluteness that separates it from all the phenomena that fit into the economy of our world and into the confines of my open mind.

2. The Needy I ^

If Desire (Désir) makes me infinitely open to the Infinite, Needs (besoins) give me a world. Not a utilitarian one, but a world of enjoyment. Levinas's extensive descriptions of human life as «living on» (vivre de... ) and enjoying the terrestrian goods and the many summaries that have been given in the secondary literature6 are too well known to be repeated here. Let us remind ourselves of a few aspects that invite further reflection.

The main paradigms of life's self-enjoyment (jouissance) are eating, bathing, breathing, and other forms of being involved in and becoming one with the elements. However, less material events or activities can be enjoyed in similar ways. Making music, doing one's work, having a good conversation, meditation, and thinking, even liturgical celebration and silent prayer can be enjoyed as components of an «economy» that allows me to enjoy my existence, while enjoying all sorts of happy events. Levinas emphasizes that all forms of self-enjoyment place me in the center of my world and thus make me independent and autochthonous (thanks to the satisfaction of needs that make me dependent!). At the same time, however, they close me in.7

According to Levinas, the independence of this «egoism», which he also calls «interiority,» constitutes my substantiality or ipseity. It is then a specific mode and exercise of living that solidifies me and gives me a specific stance in the center of a worldly constellation that Levinas characterizes as an «economy». By enjoying the world, I am at home in it. The «egoism» that I practice makes me independent and this independence is a necessary condition for the separation without which I cannot engage a correct relationship with autrui. The economic form of my existence as center of this enjoyable world is a condition for any appropriate relation to another human independent ipse: you, who, just as I, are a self-centered substance in the same world. But how can the universal centeredness of many egos coexist with the ethical relations that are and must be developed between and by these same ipseities?

Before we try to answer this question, two other questions should be asked: First, how can the «substantiality» of a human subject be constituted by a needy and hedonic engagement of that subject? Must this subject not already be capable of performing a certain arrangement and an «economic» organization in order to eat, bathe, breathe, take care of and enjoy its own survival? And does such an economic self-involvement not presuppose an initiative and an initiating principle, a kind of effort or will, some sort of self or ipse that does not yet enjoy but wants and attempts to live and enjoy living? A certain form of substantiality or «hypostasis» seems a necessary presupposition for indulging in jouissance and persisting in its addiction.8

The second question is: How can we call a human substance egoistic, and not merely egocentric, if we have bracketed all others in order to concentrate on «me», the ego alone, in isolation? One could answer that the very use of the pronoun «ego» already evokes other ego's, but if we take the brackets seriously, there does not seem to be any reason to call the lonely ego's self-centeredness «egoistic», and if an original egocentrism is natural and characteristic for each ego, as long as we do not pay attention to the social consequences, we certainly cannot use the word «egoism» in any pejorative or accusatory sense. From Levinas's own perspective, a moral judgment is not appropriate outside the social (or «metaphysical») relations that confront me with you or her or him or them. Obligations toward myself are hardly mentioned and never thematized in his work, and a hedonic form of existence seems quite appropriate to the existence of an isolated ego.

If the economy of self-centered hedonists were the whole truth of human society, it would be obvious that a war of all against all -- perhaps mitigated by some truces via treatises or other kinds of contract -- will follow. But how does a truly ethical solution for such a war of all against all emerge? Does all ethics rest on an ongoing combat against the natural, inevitable, constitutive, universal, and necessary economy of individual egoisms? If my ipseity presupposes my enjoyment of life, how then can I escape a solipsism without windows? Or can my egocentrism be radically transformed -- which transformation then also will transform the world in which I will continue to live? Are peace and a non-egocentric ethics possible? If so, then either enjoyment must be open to transformations that liberate it from the egoistic structure described by Levinas (i. e., a kind of enjoyable concern for myself must then be possible, which does not exclude -- or even includes -- concern and care for others), or caring for others excludes all of my own joys (i. e., I must respect and serve others, while sacrificing my own enjoyment of life).

Before I try to answer these questions, I would like to suggest that jouissance (enjoyment) perhaps is not the only form of pleasure, joy, contentment, and peace with oneself, and that Desire, despite the infinity of its longing, has its own experiences of joy and exultation.

3. I am responsible for You ^

You face me; I am the one who, while enjoying my life in the world, am summoned to make place for you. By addressing me, you are the first who shows me the meaning of a human face. You open the dimension of ethics by the command that targets me when you look at me or speak to me. Independently of all your wishes and motivations, by simply being yourself, but against the ego-centered intentions of my enjoyment, you offer me a meaning for my life -- which, thereby, is revealed as being more and different than a possibility of enjoying everything that comes my way. The meaning you impose on me lies in my devotion to you, my responsibility for you -- not only for your future, but also for your past and presence with all the right and wrong they contain. I can become a saint by carrying your burdens with you.9 By serving you, I will at the same time accomplish, as far as I can, my own destiny.

Levinas's impressive descriptions and analyses of the one-for-the-Other as hostage and substitute do not only emphasize the humiliation and suffering of such an existence; they also emphasize the «divine» character of the election that thus is realized.10 If your existence, in its vulnerable neediness, summons me to be your servant, my life is thereby dedicated to a task that I cannot choose because it has already been inscribed in my ipseity and my Desire. Although Levinas, in speaking about the Other and me, does not concretize who the Other («you») and «I» are, it is obvious that the readers for whom he writes will identify themselves with the «me» that figures in his texts. They will understand that the asymmetry of the «metaphysical» relationship between you and me puts each of them in the place of the servant who is devoted to the Other's highness. However, the readers also know that each actual or potential reader is as much an Other for all others (who are other I's) as the Other described in Levinas's work. A good reader thus cannot avoid the thought -- which is correct and intended by the writer -- that the asymmetry, as described by him, is a universal characteristic of all relations between (any) you and (any) me. In my critical interpretation of Levinas's thesis about the non-reciprocity of the asymmetric relation between you and me, I have therefore pleaded for a distinction between asymmetry and mutuality or reciprocity, and on the basis of this distinction I have proposed to characterize the relation that separates and unites you and me as a «chiastic asymmetry».11 Such an asymmetry does not coincide with the symmetry of equal rights and universal respect, because I appear to myself otherwise than others appear to me: I do not look at myself and I do not speak to myself as if I were two persons at the same time, but, in a certain, further to be determined sense, I too am an Other for myself. If it is at all possible to experience myself as somehow commanding, summoning, or obligating me, this experience of my own otherness must be described in a simultaneously different and analogically similar way.

The ethical relationship to which you summon me shows that the description of ego-centered enjoyment as celebration of a hedonistic economy can only be a provisional introduction of my -- the subject's -- involvement in human life. Because you (the Other) are needy, my responsibility for you includes your enjoyable use of worldly goods for making you good and happy. Your enjoyment of the earth and its elements is a purpose, and thus a part, of my dedication to you; even if I must sacrifice my pleasures to your well-being, such devotion belongs to the accomplishment of both your and my own destiny.

The Other, Autrui, is you who, by facing me, awaken me to my incessant responsibility for you. This responsibility does not stop at feeding, clothing, healing, and protecting you against dangers. Your humanization demands education and civilization. It also includes my responsibility for your moral growth, which includes your moral awakening and your acceptance of your own responsibility. Within the limits that your singular destiny and your freedom impose on me, I am responsible for your responsibility. I awaken and encourage you, and cooperate with your taking responsibility for other Others: him, her, them,12 and... me13!

Your being responsible for me confirms what I said above about the chiastic asymmetry that links you and me by a double bond, which is stronger than any unilateral devotion. Mutual and asymmetric responsibility, implied in the meeting of your and my own «heights», is essential for the universal responsibility that regards not only you, but all those others who may become and are already waiting for being linked to you or me: he, she, they and all of them.

4. I am also «the Third's» Servant ^

«The third» is Levinas's name for all those who appear behind or with or in you who look at me or speak to me. The only difference between them and you is that I am not immediately and singularly confronted by their unique faces or words. Their «highness», however, is the same as yours and the obligations their existence imposes on anyone who encounters them, have the same validity as those that your presence reveals to me.14 When Levinas, with Dostojevski, insists on my responsibility for the entire humanity, this seeming exaggeration is a consequence of the fact that every human individual has a face and that the unicity of each potential you is as absolute as that of you who face me here and now. The problem that emerges from the multiplicity of yous that obligate me, is that it seems to annul the infinity of your command and my total dedication: how could I be as completely and endlessly responsible for all possible or virtual yous as I am for you who here and now regard me? Will my being-for-you then not be scattered into minimal and irrelevant portions of service to innumerable yous?

The problem is aggravated by the fact that the pronoun «we» does not receive much emphasis in Levinas's analyses. If the asymmetric relation that dedicates me to you cannot be reversed (you are also responsible for me), the emergence of an authentic we becomes very difficult, because then no ego -- no I or me -- can share in the rights of all Others. If, on the contrary, it is correct to state that the originary asymmetry is reciprocal and chiastic between each You and me, then we can at least speak of a nuclear We that unites you and me through a relation of mutual care from which some kind of solidarity or even friendship may arise.15 But even this is not yet enough for constituting the broader «we» of a society. Levinas mentions the human fraternity that issues from creation, but how can a Levinasian genesis of a communal being-with be sketched? The hedonic economy of jouissance cannot explain our ethical solidarity, but we may postulate a political unity to guarantee the distributive justice demanded by the existing manifold of faces. However, can such a postulate justify the cohesive principle that transforms all singular yous, egos, and «thirds» into members and «ends» of one human community?16

Does the latter question betray the unicity of each you or I? Must we maintain a radical and ultimate separation between all face-to-face relations and those social relations that tie us together as sharing members of encompassing communities, i. e., must we stick to an absolute separation between you and me, on the one hand, and a massive gathering that unites all of them, on the other?

It is certainly important to prevent your unicity and my own from drowning in the anonymous mass of a totalizing realm. Each individual's destiny is so radically different from each other's that no You or I can ever be reduced to a mere component of some higher, all-encompassing union or communal unity. Insofar as You or I are merely parts of a supra-individual or infra-singular reality, we are no longer You and I, but instances of one and the same universal that only allows for variations.

5. I Like You ^

In the strong sense of You-as-high, you correlate with me, your servant, who find myself dedicated to you despite myself (malgré-moi). I discover my self as ethically situated and determined by your existence. But there are other figures of the Other in Levinas's work, and, since each figure of the Other induces a corresponding figure of Me, there are as many configurations of «the I».

Within the horizons of the egocentric economy, my dwelling in the world would be cold and barren without intimacy with a feminine other, who creates the homely climate of a house. Levinas's phenomenology of dwelling shows that being at home (chez soi) in the world demands more than material protection. It also includes a human and humane companionship. When written by a man, such a phenomenology will easily evoke the feminine tenderness (la douceur féminine) of someone who, as such, veils and mitigates the rigor of persistent demands and commands by showing the welcoming warmth of ongoing hospitality.17

How is the intimacy of a hospitable home related to the erotic intimacy of lovers who are driven by a seeking that is neither Desire nor a mere need, but still a form of mutual enjoyment open to a hidden future? Again, it is obvious that Levinas's description of eroticism and fecundity is typical of his masculine perspective, but whatever amendments or alternatives one may propose, erotic love as such neither presents a concretization of the ethical relation, nor can it be seen as component of a merely hedonic economy. Love opens a dimension that is neither merely needy, nor already ethical. How does it affect the beloved and the lover? How do you appear and who am I when involved in this dimension between the other two dimensions of life and dedication?

The introduction of the feminine Other as essential for the two forms of intimacy just mentioned keeps putting me, «the I», in the center, still portraying me as an egocentric inhabitant of the world. As such, I am not yet confronted with my ethical destiny. Being at home in the world and belonging to a history of love and procreation condition my self-appropriation and the realization of my destiny, but they do not yet show the ultimate meaning of human lives.

In Totalité et Infini, Levinas explores to what extent fecundity might answer the question of a mortal life's meaning. To illustrate the future that love makes possible, he focuses on the son, who is always a unique new beginning of infinite service and devotion, a new creation of a new responsibility thanks to which the tradition of substitution can be handed on, continued, retrieved, amended, expiated, and to a certain -- always limited but real -- degree fulfilled. To live, like Moses, for a history that goes on after one's death -- the «infinition» of a mortal life that is relived in others, history as messianic endeavor and expectation -- is that the final hope that emerges from obedience to the unchosen but embraced election that consumes our lives? Is this the final meaning of «the I», of Me who find myself subjected to each and all of those who come my way?

In his philosophical work, Levinas has not returned to the eschatology that closes Totality and the Infinite, but hope remains present in the background. However, the question of whether or not this hope is justified is not decisive for the main message: even the greatest uncertainty about the meaning of history cannot destroy my substitution for the Other(s).

6. I Myself ^

Desire, Needs, You, He/She/They, the beloved Companion, the Father, and the Son -- all of these reveal correlated figurations of Me. I am a multitude of figures, while maintaining one unique ipseity. How can these figurations of my self compose one singular individuality?

The main tension -- or rather, the real struggle -- that seems to split me in two different orientations is caused by the opposition between the Desire of the Absolute that draws me out of myself, on the one hand, and the needs that imprison me in a hedonic «interiority», on the other. Both orientations are constitutive of my existence, but they seem to exclude a synthesis. What I must learn and perform is a true metabasis, a periagogé18 or a conversion from my being steeped in narcissism to complete devotion. I must give my bread to the hungry, my energy to those who need help, my thoughts to the child that needs education. I must spend my life and work for the survival of the wounded, the liberation of the persecuted, and the salvation of the abused. But giving my life for others implies that I die and my needs with it. Are we summoned to sacrifice ourselves and to become saints like the Servant of the Lord?19 Must I hate my own life in order to be devoted?

As Levinas explains in Otherwise than Being, the «interestedness» or «interessence» (intéressement) of beings, understood as effort or conatus and persistence in maintaining, confirming, empowering, and expanding themselves, generates a war between as many egoisms as there are existences.20 If being (esse, être) is interesse and universal (self-) interestedness, then evil is inseparable from it. But such be-ing cannot be the primordial dimension of creation; it neither coincides with the pre-human, innocent, all-promising and generous source of all possibilities, nor with a most general, univocal, and therefore almost empty, transcendental kind of being (esse, être) that has been stripped of all good and bad qualifications. Insofar as human existence participates in being-as-intéressement, it is essentially egoistic, but how could it become such, how could this sort of being become tainted, if it cannot be created as such?

Levinas evokes a primordial level or dimension of being that precedes the interested conatus essendi, when he explains the expression il y a by underlining that the kind of being indicated in it is not only indeterminate but also horrifying.21 The difference between «being» as intéressement and «being» as indicated by il y a is the difference between the economy of hedonic subjects (étants) that constitute their own substantiality by enjoyment, on the one hand, and the verbality of an incessant movement (être) without entities or subjects (étants) that precedes their emerging as «hypostases» and ipseities, on the other. «Il y a» signifies less than «there is,» because it indicates an esse/être/essence that is neither anything nor anyone, but rather an impersonal and anonymous no-thing that is stripped of all determinations, including all effort or centering, all meaning, order, distinction, signification, orientation, substantiality, or identity. In Levinas's interpretation, this (kind of) be-ing is a philosophical translation of the tohu-bohu of Genesis 1, 2: the undefinable, indistinct, absolutely barren, dark, and desertic, rustling and growling, impersonal, uninteresting and disorderly nothingness that is and is not absolutely nothing; an anonymous, chaotic, threatening and horrific abyss, into which all created entities risk to fall back and drown. Thus, the «be-ing» of «there was» or «there is» must be characterized as the opposite of any giving or granting, as Heidegger would have it when he evokes being's generosity through the German formula Es gibt.

Levinas describes our being steeped in the unlimited and indefinable (apeiron) kind of being evoked by «il y a» as a burden from which we cannot escape, a meaningless charge that weighs on me and resists my liberation. It makes me guilty and accusable before I have had any chance to position myself with regard to the existence of the world, humanity, or myself. Its impersonal and wholly indeterminate obscurity is what weighs me down and makes me guilty by association. For it is only by awakening to faces that light and goodness are revealed to me, so that my existence may discover a meaning and a destiny.

Levinas presents the indistinct hybrid of nothingness and «being-there» that precedes any light and ordering as horrible and evil.22 If the essence of interestedness (intéressement) is a first concretization of il y a, its egocentrism shows how the pre-creational chaos issues in egoism, war, and a return to disorderliness. The problem remains, however, how it is possible that the most originary itself -- «being» as such -- can be bad -- especially if it is produced or presupposed by God.

We can understand that a Jew, during his years in a German labor camp, while the holocaust seems to symbolize the truth of social interest, describes the very fact of existing as a yoke and a disaster. In search for a source of the massive horrors that seem to dominate the history of humanity, the temptation is great to interpret these horrors as emerging from being itself and to find confirmation for this interpretation in the self-centered and cruel needs that seem to drive all beings. However, we must also realize that Levinas's phenomenological explanation of the expression il y a brackets all faces in order to focus on the anonymous, i. e., impersonal, givenness of be-ing as such, insofar as it precedes all illumination by face or speech. Faces are not seen as facing me and speech is not heard as addressing and awakening me to the discovery of persons, if I observe them from above as parts of a panoramic display of entities that share one all-encompassing and self-promoting being. Reduced to erring atoms in an anonymous hurly-burly («remue-ménage»), faces are lost in a threatening night of total confusion. Even I myself am then nowhere, incapable of identifying a position of my own with regard to others and the world in which I live. The distance that is needed for such a self-determination is not given until I am summoned by you, who address me, as I see or hear you -- not from above, but in looking up or listening to you.

Passing from the totally indistinct il y a to the more determinate dimension of being as self-interested conatus essendi, we might find the latter somewhat comparable to that of Kant's «penchant to evil» (Hang zum Bösen) .23 By participating in the «inter-essence» of being, I am imprisoned in a solitude that ties me to the nightside of being. My addiction to life at any cost, the self-enclosing narcissism that never seems to abandon me completely, shows affinity with the tendential returning toward chaos that precedes creation. Transcendence, Desire of the Good, saves me from drowning in the apeiron that draws me down into an idleness from which only a more radical interest, the interestedness in your true interests, can save me.

The main difference between Kant's and Levinas's identifications of evil seems to lie in the fact that Kant points at an enigmatic self-distortion of the human will, whereas Levinas finds the root of evil in the most primitive levels of being itself. However, the difference is perhaps less pronounced than it may seem. Both thinkers refer to a source that precedes the human capacity of making conscious choices: in acting badly, we are seduced, and by acting well, we testify to our being-for-the Other and thus to the Good that empties our egoism. Whereas Kant emphasizes the autonomy of the will as fully responsible for its own disobedience, Levinas insists on both my responsibility and the egoism of being as conatus essendi, but his description of being as a selfish effort portrays this self-promoting process as motivated by an unchosen kind of self-determination that precedes and tempts the human will. Being itself is driven by a tendency that prefigures the voluntary preference for my own interest over yours. I am not necessarily egoistic, however, because I can follow the opposite motivation, which also precedes my choice: a motivation that makes me a hostage and servant, because the Good itself, as «uncontaminated by being»,24 is generous.

If my self-interested effort, my enjoyment, as participation in the all-encompassing «interessence» (intéressement) of being, constituted my ipseity, I would never be able to be completely dedicated to the Other, completely «yours». Not only would I then never be able to perform the infinite task of serving you, but I must then continually «expiate» the self-preference that I cannot stop performing. If I cannot put an end to my self-enjoyment, because I am imprisoned in my egoism, I am and remain necessarily guilty and stand rightly «accused» of not taking my being-for-you seriously enough. My guilt is aggravated if my obligations do not only signify my responsibility for your well-being, but also, more radically, my incessant substitution for you. As such, I am guilty of your guilt and responsible for your responsibility, liable for your misdeeds and the entirety of your life, like «the servant of the Lord».25

That I am responsible for you, although I cannot and should not take away your liberty, does not mean that my life can replace the entirety of your life, because this would erase your freedom and your own responsibility. Nor can I burden you with the entirety of my words, deeds, and thoughts. Insofar as I can replace you in certain actions and functions and, as we call it, live (and die) for you, I fulfill my destiny. My life is then not empty but meaningful. The kenôsis that follows from my interest in your ultimate and most intimate interests, is not a loss of my own life's meaning but instead a consequence of my attempt to realize it. Insofar as I live for you, I realize what I am supposed to realize as being always already dedicated to you, even if the ensuing emptying exhausts me. If I die because I let you eat my bread, I cannot indulge in jouissance and I neglect the interestedness of my needs; but does the realization of an utterly dedicated -- and thus meaningful -- life exclude all kinds of joy, contentment, delight, or jubilation? No! Even suffering can be undergone without destroying the experience of a certain joy that accompanies devotion.

It is not necessary -- is it even possible? -- to hate one's own life in order to be totally «yours», although it is often necessary to accept pain, suffering, and death for you. The kind of humiliation implied in the asymmetry of your and my relationship triumphs when it plays a role in your doing and being well.

A conflict between your and my survival can arise from scarcity. When your eating makes me hungry, your enjoyment limits mine. However, there are non-exclusive forms of joy, enjoyment, and happiness. «I am happy about your success.» «I enjoy our conversation and your enjoying it». «I intensely desire that your best desires be fulfilled, even if it costs me a lot». «I am happy because you are happy and I would not be happy if you were not». Not only can I be happy about your joy or peace or happiness, certain kinds of my joy are conditioned by the joy of Others. Sexual enjoyment comes to mind, of course, but many other forms of cooperation, such as dancing, making music together, teaching and learning, have a similar intersubjective and communal structure.

By radicalizing the asymmetry of the relationship that links me to you through a development of the key notions of hostage, sacrifice, substitution, emptying, and denucleation, Levinas opposes your interest to mine, your survival and happiness to my well-being and survival. However, if it is possible to show that my service and responsibility for your true interest (and therewith for the realization of your destiny) does not exclude but includes the realization of my own life's true interest, then my being-for-you does not destroy, but, on the contrary, fosters the main task of my life and the fulfillment of my destiny. This would not exempt me from sacrificing certain kinds of interest, not even -- dependent on the circumstances -- from suffering and dying in your place, but it would integrate these sacrifices into the decisive meaning of my own life as much as yours. A judicious differentiation of kinds and levels of interest and interestedness allows for a synthetic realization of your and my own most important interests at the same time. My suffering is meaningful if it conditions the meaning of your life, but it is also possible that my effective proximity helps you to accept unavoidable sufferings which I cannot alleviate or take away from you, even if I am willing to undergo them myself for you. The kenôsis demanded by my responsibility for others codetermines the priorities that rule my life: although the consumption of some food enables me to help you, eating cannot be my highest priority; but teaching, for example, is not necessarily better, when I do not enjoy it. Certainly the willingness to suffer for others is required for holiness; but suffering as such does not guarantee a victory of the Good.

7. I am respectable ^

If I -- with you -- am responsible not only for your corporeal well-being, but also for the orientation and quality of your entire life, this presupposes in me the necessary conditions for such a huge task: benevolence, freedom of action, some wisdom about human destiny, a certain degree of prudence, acquaintance with a good tradition, and so on. But even without being a perfect example of such properties, I cannot avoid to be impressed -- at once frightened and elated -- by the «election» that has made me responsible not only for you, but also for myself. To accept responsibility for your life would be irresponsible if I cannot bear responsibility for myself. But how, through which experiences, do I discover my responsibility for my own life? How do I awaken to the respectability of my own, non-chosen but amazing and amazingly worthy existence? How do I become aware of the «height» of that in me, which orders me «to take good care of myself»? To follow my conscience presupposes that I discover what calls me through it. Is it, as Kant would say, my humanness, my dignity (Würde), which he interprets as reason-ality? Or rather, is it a «highness» similar to the highness revealed in your face?

Respect for the dignity that characterizes the fact -- or rather the gift -- of my unchosen, singularly unique and demanding, existence is not selfish, although it is motivated by the amazing fact of having or being a self. Concern for this self, which precedes my taking a stance toward it26 -- cannot coincide with any jouissance, because enjoyment presupposes such concern, but a certain kind of jubilation, mixed with awe, belongs to it. The substantial or «hypostatic» core of my life precedes my acceptance of the responsibility to which my given self trusts the unfolding of my possibilities. The conscientious realization of my own self is a service that I desire to perform in order to honor the conscience that targets me. On the elementary level of life, my ipseity is confirmed and unfolded by an enjoyable transformation of the earth into my home, but the deepest, originary interest or Desire in me is the most disinterested, unselfish, and un-egoistic of all interests. If we are not motivated by this «Desire of the Absolute,» neither my own, nor any other self could inspire any interest in the Good beyond being.27 Indeed, what interests me in you is the Desirability of your fully realized destiny, but how could I ever desire or even state that either you or I myself are indifferent about my own becoming good? Concern about the «luck» of your election to a responsible and generous existence and concern for the same luck of my election cannot be separated; they presuppose and include one another. This solidarity does not contradict the double asymmetry that unites us, because I am called by your face and you are called by mine; I am concerned about my own destiny because I experience it from within as an awesomely lovable burden, whereas I experience your destiny as the call that liberates me from being imprisoned in endless self-reflection. You present me with the opportunity of discovering that devotion to you calls me away from a narcissistic misinterpretation of care-for-my-self to an unselfish practice of care-for-your-self; but my caring for you also takes care of my own true self because it promotes me as if I were another Other. I must honor and love the Self in me as much as You, because You and I meet in the trace of the Good, which has made us responsible keepers of one anOther.

Copyright © 2009 Adriaan T. Peperzak

Relazione tenuta al Convegno internazionale Visage et infini. Analisi fenomenologiche e fonti ebraiche in Emmanuel Levinas, Roma 24-27 maggio 2006. Gli atti sono pubblicati nel volume a cura di Irene Kajon, Emilio Baccarini, Francesca Brezzi, Joelle Hansel, Emmanuel Levinas. Prophetic Inspiration and Philosophy, Giuntina, Roma 2008.

Adriaan T. Peperzak. «Transfigurations». Dialegesthai. Rivista telematica di filosofia [in linea], anno 11 (2009) [inserito il 5 luglio 2009], disponibile su World Wide Web: <>, [50 KB], ISSN 1128-5478.


  1. Cf. Levinas' summary of TI, as translated in Adriaan Peperzak, Platonic transformations, pp. 120-21. <

  2. Cf. Jean-Marc Narbonne, Levinas et l'héritage Grec. Suivi de Cent ans de néoplatonisme en France: un brève histoire philosophique, par Wayne Hankey, traduit de l'anglais par Martin Achard et Jean-Marc Narbonne, Vrin, Paris 2004. See also my «'Illeity' according to Levinas», in Philosophy Today 42 (Supplement 1998), pp. 41-46. <

  3. Cf. Platonic Transformations, p. 121. <

  4. TI, p. 4 (my emphasis). <

  5. Cf. «La trace de l'autre», in EDE, pp. 187-202. <

  6. Cf. TI, pp. 81-125 and, for example, my To the Other (Ind.: Purdue University Press, Lafayette 1993), pp. 94-105 and 147-161. <

  7. Levinas recognizes that vivre de... also includes being involved in disasters and suffering (cf. TI, pp. 87, 114-120, 215-216), but in TI he does not contrast a phenomenology of suffering with his extensive descriptions of enjoyment. In later texts, he shows how suffering - even «useless suffering» - is the clearest expression of being-for-the-Other. Cf., e.g., Entre Nous (Grasset, Paris 1991), pp. 107-120. <

  8. Cf. EE, pp. 115-145 on hypostasis. <

  9. Levinas does not emphasize this «with you», but - as we will see further on - if I am responsible for your life and destiny, this responsibility includes your own becoming more responsible for your own life and destiny, including your suffering and your responsibility for others. <

  10. Cf. AE, p. 157. <

  11. Cf. Beyond. The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1997), pp. 226-227, 176-177, and Elements of Ethics, pp. 127-128. <

  12. Levinas does not often ask or answer the question of what I must offer to Others, when I accept my responsibility for him, her, them. Most often he insists on the importance of «material» support and the spiritualist (and egoistic) mistake of looking down on it. Implicitly, Levinas recognizes also the necessity of our responsibility for such more «spiritual» offerings as education, guidance, and cooperation in the search for meaning on all levels of humanization. <

  13. To what extent you are also responsible for my well-being, is a difficult question, the answer to which demands a complementary phenomenology of the intersubjective and social relations between you, all of you, them, and me. As far as I know, it is only in some late essays that Levinas has given hints for such a phenomenology. See, for example, Hors Sujet (Fata Morgana 1987), pp. 175-187; but also AE, pp. 165, 173, 205. <

  14. Cf. «You: Universal and Unique» (Rome, January 2006) and below. <

  15. Cf. Aristotle's analysis of the lower levels of philia that are fundamental for any kind of community in his Nicomachean Ethics. <

  16. Whereas Heidegger's analysis of Mitsein, in line with the modern tradition of social philosophy, hardly pays attention to the face-to-face relation linking you and me, Levinas says very little about the constitution of communal structures that differ from my interpersonal relations to other individuals. <

  17. Levinas's descriptions of feminine existence are clearly determined by a masculine and «traditional» perspective. In conversation, however, he emphasized that the «feminine» component of «homeliness» can also be represented by men. The home of a homosexual couple, for example, would demand an analogically similar and different description. <

  18. Cf. Plato, Republic 518cd. <

  19. Cf. Isaiah 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12 <

  20. AE, pp. 4-5. <

  21. Cf., for example, TI, pp. 103-05, 116-17, 132-34, 165; AE, pp. 207-210, 220-23. <

  22. For excellent documentation and interpretation of the passages in which being as such is associated with evil, one may consult the articles of Catherine Chalier, «Ontologie et Mal», in Jean Greisch and Jacques Rolland (eds.), Emmanuel Levinas, L'éthique comme philosophie première, Du Cerf, Paris 1993, pp. 63-72; Jean-Louis Chrétien, «La dette et l'élection», in Emmanuel Levinas, Paris, l'Herne 1991, pp. 262-274; Didier Franck, «Le corps de la difference», in Philosophie 34 (1992), pp. 70-96. <

  23. For Kant's genealogy of evil, see the first part of his Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft. For Levinas's own ontology, see my Beyond. The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), pp. 72-120 and «Metaphysique et Ontologie», in Joëlle Hansel (ed.), Levinas. De l'être à l'autre, PUF, Paris 2006, pp. 99-122. <

  24. Cf. AE, p. x. <

  25. See above, note 19. <

  26. Cf. what Socrates says about «care for oneself» in Apologia 29e, 32d, 36c, Alcibiades 120d4, 128d, and Phaedo 107c. <

  27. Cf. «Transcendence», in Adriaan Peperzak (ed.), Ethics as First Philosophy (Routledge, New York 1995), pp. 185-192. <

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