Freedom Justified: Morality as Heteronomy in the Thought of Levinas

Morality understood as autonomy is founded upon the premise that the subject is primarily free, self-governing, and rational. Within this tradition, moral responsibility is viewed as correlating with freedom.1 One is responsible for an act proportionate to which one can be said to have acted freely and, therefore, is responsible for that which one has initiated, or failed to initiate, by choice. When one begins from such a premise, any talk of morality as heteronomy is seen as at best an offense to subjectivity and at worst abject slavery, because freedom is seen to be compromised.2 In questioning the view of morality as founded in autonomy, we must ask ourselves if this modern view of subjectivity is, in fact, an accurate description of human life, or at least, the full picture. Far from grounding morality in a free and rational agent, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), argues that it is in fact the reverse.3 It is the ethical encounter with the face of the Other which founds rational self-reflective thought and consequently freedom understood as rational self-governance, which in turn allows for the possibility of deliberation over how one ought to act. For Levinas, autonomy cannot be the condition for ethics because it is through the ethical encounter with the Other that the self becomes free. This position, therefore, overturns the traditional approach, by claiming that the subject is responsible for the Other prior to being free. Levinas maintains such a position in his philosophy precisely because he does not accept the free and rational autonomous subject as his starting point, and through his work he not only asks how is morality possible, but also what founds critical self-reflective thought. The most familiar aspect of Levinas’s position that morality begins in a heteronomous encounter, known by those loosely familiar with his work, is that of the infinite responsibility for the Other. A summary of his position often goes as follows: through the encounter with the face of the Other a noncoercive demand is placed on the subject who, although never initiated the encounter nor chose responsibility for the Other, find themselves infinitely obligated. Burdened with a debt that can never be rescinded and can never be paid. That being the case, in the following we will focus on a lesser appreciated premise in Levinas’s philosophy, that for Levinas the encounter with the Other is what founds the freedom of critical self-reflective thought.4 By doing so, it is hoped that a greater appreciation of this important aspect of his thinking can help to clarify the more familiar characterisation. This paper will examine how it is that Levinas arrives at his position that responsibility, in fact, both precedes and founds freedom. Levinas’s postmodern description of the self as a split subjectivity is crucial to understanding his account of morality as beginning in heteronomy. Therefore, we will begin with Levinas’s description of the self as primordially a passive affective sensible self, who is open to exteriority through the corporeal sensual immersion in the world. It is at this level of the self, which simultaneously runs ‘below’and ‘before’representational consciousness and critical self-reflective thought, that the encounter with the Other takes place. Levinas’s description of morality as heteronomy justifies freedom in two senses; by explaining how it is possible for the self to place itself into question, in other words, to offer an account for freedom understood as critical self-reflective thought, and secondly, by describing how in not being self-serving it is possible for freedom to be just or good.

As a student Levinas became interested in Husserl’s new method in philosophy, phenomenology, and in 1928 travelled to Freiburg in order to gain a deeper understanding. Levinas has since famously remarked that he went to Freiburg for Husserl and discovered Heidegger.5 Even though phenomenology was still in its infancy, Heidegger’s novel interpretation and application of the method had already began to significantly alter this burgeoning method, illustrated in Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927). One of the ways in which the young Levinas was so taken by Heidegger’s work, in addition to the existing appeal of phenomenology, was the turn to our pretheoretical involvement with existence and preconscious forms of meaning.6 Heidegger’s work challenged the idealist view of the conscious subject that had dominated modern philosophy.7 Consciousness was no longer taken to be the defining feature of human existence. The pre-reflective world of concrete life was opened up to phenomenological significance and analysis, calling the primacy of reflective consciousness into question. In contrast to the work of Heidegger, the early Levinas found that in Husserl’s application of his own method Husserl prioritised theoretical intentionality over concrete life, and so judged Husserl’s approach to be too intellectual. In his doctoral thesis, The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology (1930), Levinas characterised Husserl’s philosophy as an objectifying thought that gave priority to representation. Intentional analysis takes place through the act of consciousness reflecting on itself. It is when consciousness turns on itself to reflect on what was already present to consciousness. Levinas, however, questioned whether significant aspects of human existence were overlooked by beginning with conscious states that are reducible to representation.8 Dissatisfied with Husserl’s so called intellectualism, Levinas became interested in phenomenologically examining the significance of pre-reflective aspects of human existence that are symptomatic of our embodied concrete sensual existence. In a manner similar to that of Heidegger, Levinas moves away from the “transcendental and purely contemplative consciousness of Kant and Husserl”, in favour of broadening the method to include the forgotten aspects of pre-reflective life, experiences that have a sense other than those that are reducible to representation.9 In his thesis, a further criticism that Levinas raises against Husserl was that Husserl takes reflective critical consciousness for granted and does not seek a metaphysical foundation for this freedom.10 For Husserl, the impetus behind the phenomenologists’ability to call our natural naïve attitude into question and then subsequently perform the reduction was not questioned. Levinas, conversely, believes that this unnatural ability needs to be accounted for.11 He questions what gives rise to the situation of the Homo philosophus.

The natural attitude is not purely contemplative; the world is not purely an object of scientific investigation. Yet it seems that man suddenly accomplishes the phenomenological reduction by a purely theoretical act of reflection on life. Husserl offers no explanation for this change of attitude and does not even consider it a problem. Husserl does not raise the metaphysical problem of the situation of the Homo philosophus.12 It would appear that Husserl’s reflections began too late, taking the critical attitude of the philosopher for granted. As Levinas’s own thinking develops, he returns to this question and deepens its significance, as he questions not only how we can account for the Homo philosophus but reflective consciousness and objective rational thought in general. Before we deal with the significance of the development of this insight in Levinas’later work, we will briefly turn to his developing description of the self from his work of this early period. This interest in the pretheoretical life of a concrete embodied existent is developed through his analysis of certain prereflective sensual aspects of life and contribute to his description of the passive affective self that runs below and before representational consciousness. This is first evident in an important early work, On Escape (1935). In contrast to Heidegger’s understanding of temporality as ecstases, Levinas turns to an examination of the instant and argues that through doing so the relationship between an existent and existence can be understood on an even more fundamental level.13 Removed from any relationship with the past or anticipation of the future, what emerges is a description of the powerlessness and passivity of the existent who, in the instant, is inescapably chained to its own unchosen existence. It is in this work that Levinas begins to describe a split in subjectivity that proves pivotal for his later work.14 There is an integral duality and tension fundamental to the subject, but this split in the subject is significantly not a dualistic split between the materiality and immateriality of the self; rather, it is in the dramatic form of the subject’s relation to its self. “Thus, escape is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I [moi] is oneself [soi-même] ”.15 The “I” is inescapably chained to its self. As Levinas’s work develops, he will situate the encounter with the Other at the level of affective sensibility (the self) in a moment prior to freedom understood as intentional consciousness and self-governance (the I).

To demonstrate this sense of being inescapably chained to existence, Levinas gives a detailed phenomenological analysis of certain noncognitive existential phenomena, namely need, pleasure, shame and nausea.16 Such existential states illustrate further the passivity of the affective sensible self that is chained to the conscious ego and rooted to the instant. Levinas’s analysis of nausea, for example, captures the heavy weight of being in the instant. The debilitating feeling of needing to vomit reveals the inescapable presence of our self to our ego. “We are revolted from the inside; our depths smother beneath ourselves; our innards heave”.17 Similar themes are explored in his Existence and Existents (1947) and Time and the Other (1947), deepening this primordial description of the self as affectivity and sensibility. In Existence and Existents the duality of the subject becomes more central to the argument. The way in which Levinas describes the bond between the self and the ego, using terms such as “weight and a responsibility”, “fatality”, “enchainment”, “destiny”, “impossibility of getting rid of oneself”, all capture the powerlessness of the subject to escape this condition of existing.18 The description of the affective self as powerless and vulnerable is deepened through an examination of fatigue, effort, indolence and insomnia. Like with nausea, insomnia is beyond the powers of the subject. The subject cannot choose or will to go asleep, “sleep evades our appeal”, and in the case of insomnia, sleep simply does not come.19 Labour, likewise, when its examination is restricted purely to the instant, captures the sheer effort to exist, even though existing is unchosen.20 “There is in the labour most freely consented to, in the most spontaneous effort, an irrevocable, unredeemable commitment”.21

This description of the self gives rise to another crucial point that Levinas stresses in his work of this period; that the subject is responsible prior to being free. The sensible self may have a very minimum freedom, understood in the very basic sense of a mere place in being, a beginning, but it cannot outrun the unchosen responsibility that comes with existing.22 The freedom of the present finds a limit in the responsibility for which it is the condition. This is the most profound paradox in the concept of freedom: its synthetic bond with its own negation. A free being alone is responsible, that is, already not free. A being capable of beginning in the present is alone encumbered with itself.23 This minimal freedom understood as a beginning in being, which is described above, is prior to the freedom of representational consciousness. It is not yet the freedom of autonomy, which is only possible with the advent of rational critical thought. The structure of this important point will remain the same in Levinas’s later work, only the content will be significantly different. The subject will be said to be responsible for the Other, whom they encounter at the level of affective sensibility, before they are free. Similarly, this responsibility will not be tied to any initiation or free activity, nevertheless, one must respond. What is important from this description of the self, for our current purposes, is that intentional consciousness is not the sole way in which the subject engages with being. In fact, it is a derived mode that is founded on a more immediate and passive engagement as a sensible embodied self. As the affective self is described as prior to intentional consciousness, objectivity and critical thinking, this leads Levinas to the view that the self is responsible prior to being free. Given that Levinas does not take the reflective conscious ego as his starting point, and in his thesis challenged Husserl for accepting the validity of the premise that the subject can simply call their naïve natural attitude into question, how then does Levinas account for reflective critical consciousness? We will turn now to the increasing presence of this question in Levinas’s work and briefly outline his answer, that this “unnatural” ability is due to the heteronomous ethical encounter, wherein the justification of the existent’s existence is called into question by the face of the Other.

In an article from 1954 “The Ego and Totality”, Levinas makes a distinction between an unthinking being that lives violently as if it were a totality and a thinking being that is aware of its own particularity in relation to a totality. Biological consciousness is described as a being that lives purely from and for itself, completely unaware of, and therefore not concerned with, exteriority. “A simply living being is thus in ignorance of the exterior world”.24 This self-centred biological being, described as closer to instinct than consciousness, lives a life trapped in the same.25 Hence not yet free but determined by its biological drives. As this being considers nothing outside of itself, confusing their particularity with the totality, it is therefore said to live a violent life.26 Thinking being, in contrast to this, has an awareness of an exteriority that it cannot consume. “Thought then is not simply reminiscence, but always cognition of the new”.27 As biological consciousness exists within a totality, it cannot give itself this required novelty. It must come from outside of the totality, and not be reducible to it. In another article from this period, Levinas adds to this description of consciousness:

Consciousness is the impossibility of invading reality like a wild vegetation that absorbs or breaks or pushes back everything around it. The turning back on oneself of consciousness is the equivalent not of self-contemplation but of the fact of not existing violently and naturally, of speaking to the Other.28

How then does this “turning back on oneself”, which is necessary for thinking being, occur? Levinas explains that when biological life comes up against an obstacle, something external that resists its control, it merely clashes with the object that stands in its way.29 On a purely physical level, the mere confrontation with an external being that resists assimilation is not enough. It takes contact with, what Levinas calls, a metaphysical encounter, an encounter with an infinitely excessive exteriority that cannot be consumed, and through which its very presence calls my existence into question. This, for Levinas, occurs only through the passive resistance of the face of a human Other. It is the human Other alone, for Levinas, who brings an ethical awareness that there is a radical alterity that cannot be consumed or eradicated by the self.30 Although “face” brings to mind a visual stimulus, Levinas is not merely describing seeing an ontological object. What is important in his description is that it is a metaphysical, hence on his understanding, an ethical encounter.31 This means that there is always a more than that escapes and confronts the powers of the subject. What is encountered is beyond the realm of appearance and cannot be “known”, as it is an excessive exteriority not reducible to a representation or to a concept. Despite his choice of the term “face”, Levinas’s description of the encounter is often of an aural stimulation and not a visual one.32 It is an unsolicited address by another human being that you must respond to, even if this response is to ignore him or her. Like Cain’s eyes that haunted Abel, the Other is not easily forgotten.33 To be a face is to be a no to a violent naïve self, who would otherwise behave as if they were alone in the world to act. This no that the Other opposes to the self’s attempt to consume and contain exteriority is described by Levinas as the command You shall not kill.34 Confronted by the defenceless Other, and the realization that the Other escapes the power of the I, the egotistical self-centred life of the self is confronted and can come to an end. Only through this encounter is the self truly introduced to exteriority for the first time. “The solipsist disquietude of consciousness, seeing itself, in all its adventures, a captive of itself, comes to an end here: true exteriority is in the gaze which forbids me my conquest”.35 Through its passive resistance, the face alerts the self to its self-centred existence, which the self subsequently calls into question, hence bringing the distance necessary for self-reflection. The life of freedom discovering itself to be unjust, the life of freedom in heteronomy, consists in an infinite movement of freedom putting itself ever more into question. This is how the very depth of inwardness is hollowed out.36

The freedom that Levinas is referring to here is the spontaneous egotistical freedom of the self, which, in his writings, is distinguished from the freedom of critical self-reflective thought.37 This encounter prompts the self to question the justification for its own existence and brings an awareness of radical otherness that for Levinas no nonhuman encounter could bring. Only the infinite alterity expressed in the face of the Other can do so.38 “For me to feel myself to be unjust I must measure myself against infinity”.39 This, for Levinas, makes it possible for the human being to act morally, to place the needs of another before their own and validate their existence.40 In addition, this “putting itself ever more into question” is the primordial impetus behind the possibility of the subject to question its naïve natural attitude; an ethical answer to the criticism that Levinas rhetorically raised against Husserl in his dissertation. “Moral consciousness is thus not a modality of psychological consciousness, but its condition”.41

Given that Levinas argues that moral consciousness is the condition of psychological consciousness, a logical question then arises; is there, therefore, a before such an encounter? How can we understand his claim empirically when the human being is a conscious subject capable of self-reflective thought? In one important sense, Levinas is describing a very real empirical event and yet, for Levinas, there never was a time when the self was not yet for the Other.42 This is why it was important for us to begin with Levinas’s very early description of the split subject. The Other disturbs the self at the level of the affective sensible body, that is not equal to the conscious ego and is always there, just before or below consciousness. Both temporal and spatial language is unhelpful when describing this split in subjectivity as our affective sensibility is an ever present reality of sensate life, even if it is often overlooked and forgotten in our conscious engagement with the world. Similarly to how sensibility conditions our engagement with the world, whilst not being consciously part of it, the disturbance of the Other occurs at the level of the affective self and cannot be captured by intentional consciousness. Levinas believes that his argument is similar to Kant’s transcendental method, as the face of the Other can be understood as a strange kind of transcendental condition for the possibility of subjectivity as we experience it.43 The event transcends experience and escapes representation, and yet the trace of this metaphysical encounter is detected within historical experience, always lagging just behind constituting consciousness.

In a very straightforward way, by not beginning with the free autonomous subject, Levinas describes a certain vulnerability and passivity that a sensate affective body cannot escape. Sickness, fatigue and pleasure are rarely a matter of choice or autonomous control; they are simply part of the reality of existence that we must respond to. When we contract a virus we should not view it as an affront to our freedom, nor does the fact that our bodies tire and require rest mean that we are not free. For we are free to decide how to respond to the situation. The unprovoked and unchosen encounter with the Other is a similar reality, and yet importantly distinct, as unlike any other it alerts the existent to its self-centred living and brings the possibility to live otherwise. In provoking the self to stand back and call itself into question this also brings the distance necessary for objective thought and critical consciousness, detached from immediate need and pleasure. For Levinas, without such a disturbance the self would live a self-referential life seeking to consume and dominate other-being, never questioning its own behavior. This is why, for Levinas, the heteronomous responsibility is not an affront to the freedom of the subject. For it occurs outside of the categories of freedom or nonfreedom: “this opposition is not revealed by its coming up against my freedom; it is an opposition prior to my freedom, which puts my freedom into action. It is not that to which I oppose myself, but what is opposed to me”.44 The face does not stand in the way of the subject’s freely undertaken action, but confronts the subject prior to action. This does not have to be understood as servitude or the limitation of our autonomous will, for we are still ultimately free to decide how we respond, but the fact that we are initially disturbed and confronted, responsible for something we never choose, is a description of an important aspect of human life.

Ethics redefines subjectivity as this heteronomous responsibility, in contrast to autonomous freedom. Even if I deny my primordial responsibility to the other by affirming my own freedom as primary, I can never escape the fact that the other has demanded a response from me before I affirm my freedom not to respond to his demand. Ethical freedom is une difficile liberté, a heteronomous freedom obliged to the other […] . The other haunts our ontological existence and keeps the psyche awake, in a state of vigilant insomnia. Even though we are ontologically free to refuse the other, we remain forever accused, with a bad conscience.45 An important aspect of the view of the modern subject, from Descartes through to Kant and beyond, despite the many variations, is to understand freedom as rational self-governance. By pushing back before this understanding of consciousness, or, perhaps, one could also say under consciousness, Levinas also pushed back before the freedom of the subject understood as critical consciousness and rational agency. In placing this understanding of freedom into question, Levinas never intended to argue against freedom, or to undermine its importance. He sought, rather, to find an explanation and justification for this freedom. Against the tradition that views freedom as autonomy, Levinas argues that freedom is heteronomy. For Levinas, without the ethical interruption of the face of the human Other the self would never have the impetus to place its self into question and hence could never question its own behavior and could never judge its own actions. For Levinas, without such an event, the freedom of self-reflective critical thought could not of itself arise. Even if one wished to defend a Kantian approach to ethics, which similarly to Levinas calls for the self-limitation of the subject, one would still need to account for how it is that the subject can come to place its self into question in the first place. The freedom to place oneself into question, which is the very freedom that makes morality possible, is for Levinas a consequence of the ethical event. As Levinas clearly states in Totality and Infinity,

[…] one is not against freedom if one seeks for it a justification. Reason and freedom seem to us to be founded on prior structures of being whose first articulations are delineated by the metaphysical movement, or respect, or justice — identical to truth. The terms of the conception making truth rest on freedom must be inverted.46

Responsibility, in other words, precedes freedom. For those uninitiated to the thought of Levinas it should be made clear that Levinas is not setting forth a normative ethics nor prescribing how one ought to behave in a particular situation, rather, it is a description of how morality is possible at all. As Derrida famously described Levinas’s work, “it is an ethics of ethics”.47 For Levinas, morality is not one area among many that we may choose to give our attention to, or that troubles us from time to time, rather it is built into the very constitution of self-hood. By describing ethics as the basis of subjectivity, and as prior to freedom, Levinas provides not only a justification of morality but also a justification of freedom.


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  • Bergo, B. (2009), “The Flesh Made Word; Or, The Two Origins”, in B. Bergo and J. Stauffer, eds., Nietzsche and Levinas. “After the Death of A Certain God”, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 99-115;
  • Chalier, C. (2001), “Kant and Levinas: On the Question of Autonomy and Heteronomy”, in M. New, R. Bernasconi and R. A. Cohen, eds., In Proximity. Emmanuel Levinas and the Eighteenth Century, Texas, USA: Texas Tech University Press, pp. 261-83;
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  1. The philosopher most often associated with viewing morality as autonomy and self-governance was Immanuel Kant. The relationship between Levinas’s understanding of freedom in contrast to that of Kant’s has been explored among commentators, most notably, by Chalier (2002). See, also, Chalier (2001), pp. 261 and following; Perpich (2001), pp. 303 and following; Atterton (2001), pp. 327 and following. ↩︎

  2. More recently, this correlation between freedom and moral responsibility has been called into question. In philosophical literature over the last fifty years, particularly in the analytic tradition, there is a growing awareness that dealing with morality from a non-autonomous standpoint does not involve a defence of abject slavery. For example, P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” (1962), points to the integral importance of reactive attitudes in our personal relationships, arguing that even if determinism were true we can still make sense of moral responsibility. Harry Frankfurt’s 1969 article, “The Principle of Alternate Possibilities”, wherein he argues that the principle of alternate possibilities is false, is another such example. Frankfurt claims that even if an individual could not have done otherwise that individual may well still be morally responsible for their action. In doing so, he demonstrates a way to defend moral responsibility even if autonomy is false. ↩︎

  3. As Levinas says in “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity” (1957), “[…] existence is not condemned to freedom, but judged and invested as a freedom. Freedom could not present itself all naked. This investiture of freedom constitutes moral life itself, which is through and through a heteronomy”. Levinas (1998), p. 58. ↩︎

  4. As Levinas states in a short autobiographical essay, “[…] the fundamental experience which objective experience itself presupposes is the experience of the Other”. Levinas (1990), p. 293. ↩︎

  5. Levinas’s “Freiburg, Husserl and Phenomenology” (1931) outlines Levinas’s early impressions of Husserl and Heidegger. For more on his own reflections on his time in Freiburg see his interview with François Poirié. Levinas (2001), pp. 23 and following. It is in this interview that Levinas remarks that he went to Freiburg to see Husserl and found Heidegger. ↩︎

  6. For more on Heidegger’s influence on Levinas during this period, see, Levinas (1996), pp. 11 and following. ↩︎

  7. Heidegger is often given too much credit in respect to singularly influencing Levinas in this regard. Prior to Levinas’s introduction to phenomenology he was already influenced by the work of Henri Bergson through his study of philosophy at Strasbourg. The philosophical consideration that Bergson gives to both nontheoretical and embodied phenomenon, for example; affective sensations, conscious states involving physical symptoms, anger, fear and disgust, in his Time and Free Will is testament to how his work can be understood as prefiguring certain postmodern concerns. Throughout Levinas’s life, he regarded Bergson as hugely influential and undervalued not only in shaping his own thinking but also in shaping the direction of Western philosophy. See, interviews with Levinas, in Levinas (2001), p. 30, 86, 154, and 200-201. ↩︎

  8. This charge of intellectualism was attributed to the role of representation in Husserl’s phenomenology. See, Levinas (1995), p. 136. Levinas later revisited this reading of Husserl, specifically on the description of the role of Sinngebung (sense-bestowing function of consciousness) in Husserl’s account of intentionality, and revised his reading on the passive and active dimensions of intentionality, as demonstrated in his “The Work of Edmund Husserl”, (1940). See, Levinas (1998), pp. 47 and following. This revised reading proved fruitful for his own development. On this important topic, see, Drabinski (2001). ↩︎

  9. Levinas (1998), p. 39. This article helps us to understand the attraction that Heidegger’s philosophy held for the young Levinas, in contrast to that of Husserl’s. ↩︎

  10. In his Ideas I, Husserl himself justifies this position by recourse to Descartes’ methodological doubt. “The attempt to doubt universally belongs to the realm of our perfect freedom: we can attempt to doubt anything whatever, no matter how firmly convinced of it, even assured of it in an adequate evidence, we may be”. Husserl (1982), p. 58. Levinas appears to have been aware of this and yet finds the acceptance of this premise unconvincing. “Although he [Husserl] solves this problem by talking of our freedom to neutralize the existential thesis of the naïve attitude in order to begin looking at it, the freedom in question here, analogous to doubt, is the freedom of theory. […] The freedom and the impulse which lead us to reduction and philosophical intuition present by themselves nothing new with respect to the freedom and stimulation of theory. The latter is taken as primary, so that Husserl gives himself the freedom of theory just as he gives himself theory”. Levinas (1995), p. 157. ↩︎

  11. In Totality and Infinity (1961) Levinas calls this an “unnatural movement”. “Knowing becomes knowing of a fact only if it is at the same time critical, if it puts itself into question, goes back beyond its origin — in an unnatural movement to seek higher than one’s own origin, a movement which evinces or describes a created freedom”. Levinas (1969), p. 82-83, my emphasis. ↩︎

  12. Levinas (1995), p. 142. Levinas raises this criticism in the final chapter of his doctoral study and then again in his conclusion. “How does man in the naïve attitude, immersed in the world, the ”born dogmatic“, suddenly become aware of his naïveté?”. Levinas (1995), p. 157. ↩︎

  13. In a similar fashion to Heidegger’s use of the term Dasein, yet importantly distinct, Levinas uses the term existent. Moving away from any earlier understanding of the subject within the history of philosophy, Heidegger gives Dasein a particular and unique meaning. Dasein (from the German da there” and sein “being”) means the awareness of the “there” (Da) of “Being” (Sein). Dasein is a being for whom being is an issue for it and who has a pre-reflective implicit “understanding of Being” (Seinverständnis). See, Heidegger (1962), pp. 67-77. Levinas, similarly, does not use the term subject, but chooses existent, however, the existent is prior to even the implicit understanding of being that Dasein is said to have. For similar reasons, the later Levinas does not use the term experience to characterise the ethical encounter with the face of the Other which takes place at this preconscious affective sensible level of life, as experience denotes representational consciousness. “The analyses themselves refer not to the experience in which a subject always thematises what he equals, but to the transcendence in which he answers for that which his intentions have not encompassed”. Levinas (1990), p. 295. ↩︎

  14. To borrow an apt summary from Simon Critchley: “The whole Levinasian analysis of the subject proceeds from a rigorous distinction between the subject and consciousness or between the le Soi (the self) and le Moi (the ego). Levinas’s work, […] proceeds from the rigorous distinction between consciousness and subjectivity”. Critchley (1999), pp. 230 and following (pp. 232-33). ↩︎

  15. Levinas (2003), p. 55. ↩︎

  16. This method of analysis by Levinas brings to mind Heidegger’s reflections on moods (Stimmungen), such as anxiety as an affective disposition (Befindlichkeit) that reveals to us Dasein’s understanding of being-in-the-world. However, although similar, Levinas’s analysis here is significantly different from Heidegger’s moods, as Levinas is attempting to describe an aspect of existing that precedes such moods, which for Heidegger already imply a level of understanding, albeit an implicit understanding. In this regard, Levinas’s starting point can be seen as a more radical critic of the idealist conception of the modern subject than that of Heidegger’s, by examining existential phenomena that have no such level of understanding, even in Heidegger’s non-theoretical sense. As Bettina Bergo notes: “To deformalise Heidegger’s moods, which are already a kind of comprehension, Levinas has to show that at the depths of living embodiment lies a gap, between what we feel and the way we become aware of actively feeling anything. This also meant contesting the primacy Husserl attributed to transcendental consciousness as passive temporal synthesis”. Bergo (2009), pp. 99 and following (pp. 99-100). ↩︎

  17. Levinas (2003), p. 66. ↩︎

  18. Levinas (2001), p. 89. “Identity is not an inoffensive relationship with itself, but an enchainment to itself; it is the necessity of being occupied with itself”. Levinas (1987), p. 55. ↩︎

  19. Levinas (2001), p. 61. ↩︎

  20. “In the humility of the man who toils bent over his work there is surrender, forsakenness. Despite all its freedom, effort reveals a condemnation; it is fatigue and suffering”. Levinas (2001), p. 19. ↩︎

  21. Levinas (2001), p. 24. ↩︎

  22. A further consequence of Levinas’s existential phenomenological examination of the instant is his description of the existence of an existent as an act, a movement. Levinas calls this event, whereby existence is continuously taken up by the existent in the present, hypostasis. “[…] To be means to take up being, the existence of an existent is by essence an activity. An existent must be in act, even when it is inactive […] the upsurge of an existent into existence, a hypostasis”. Levinas (2001), p. 25. This beginning in being is described as “freedom” in a minimal sense meaning the mastery that comes by merely existing. ↩︎

  23. Levinas (2001), pp. 78-79. ↩︎

  24. Levinas (1998), p. 25. ↩︎

  25. The term “same” (même) has become synonymous with Levinas’s work. It is not an easy term to define as it is used in many different contexts referring to aspects of egoistic life, such as, knowledge, autonomy, power, and freedom understood as spontaneity and self-sufficiency. Each of these structures are regarded by Levinas as totalizing systems that eradicate all alterity, be that through a thought structure, such as knowledge, or by viewing the other human person as an object that can be taken under ones control and manipulated, and in doing so miss the radical alterity of the Other. Hence, Levinas defines ethics as the calling into question of the same by the Other. “A calling into question of the same — which cannot occur within the egoist spontaneity of the same — is brought about by the other (l’Autre). We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other (d’Autrui) ethics”. Levinas (1969), p. 43. Levinas also broadly characterises the Western philosophical tradition as prioritising structures belonging to the same over and against the Other, in, for example, his “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity”. Levinas (1998), pp. 47 and following. ↩︎

  26. Levinas has a very broad definition of violence: “Violence is to be found in any action in which one acts as if one were alone to act: as if the rest of the universe were there only to receive the action; violence is consequently also any action which we endure without at every point collaborating in it”. Levinas (1990), p. 6. Elsewhere Levinas describes knowledge as violence because it is akin to “possession” and “consumption” of the object. Levinas (1998), pp. 1 and following (p. 6). ↩︎

  27. Levinas (1998), p. 28. ↩︎

  28. Levinas (1990), p. 9. ↩︎

  29. Levinas explains war in a similar manner, wherein the particularity of the individual in front is overlooked and it is treated merely as an object. “I do not face the freedom with which I struggle, but throw myself against it blindly”. Levinas (1998), pp. 15 and following (p. 17). ↩︎

  30. Of course, one can say that in killing another human being they are eradicated, but what Levinas is describing is an ethical impossibility. The face is an ethical (in Levinas’s understanding metaphysical) encounter. “For in reality, murder is possible, but it is possible only when one has not looked the Other in the face. The impossibility of killing is not real, but moral. The fact that the vision of the face is not an experience, but a moving out of oneself, a contact with another being and not simply a sensation of self, is attested to by the purely moral character of this impossibility. A moral view measures, in the face, the uncrossable infinite in which all murderous intent is immersed and submerged”. Levinas (1990), p. 10. ↩︎

  31. In Totality and Infinity metaphysics is defined by Levinas as a movement towards the “elsewhere”, the “other”, that disturbs one’s state of otherwise being “at home” (chez soi) with oneself. This movement can never be completed as the other remains other and cannot be consumed. Hence it is a movement beyond the self towards which can never be fully comprehended, as, for Levinas, comprehension is a return to the self. Levinas (1969), p. 33. ↩︎

  32. “The face is not of the order of the seen, it is not an object, but it is he whose appearing preserves an exteriority which is also an appeal or an imperative given to your responsibility: to encounter a face is straightaway to hear a demand and an order. I define the face precisely by these traits beyond vision or confusion with the vision of the face”. Levinas (2001), pp. 23 and following (p. 48). ↩︎

  33. In Totality and Infinity Levinas repeats the point that even if one ends the life of the Other, encountered in the face is the impossibility to annihilate the Other. Referencing the biblical narrative of Cain and Abel, Levinas writes that even though Cain killed his brother Abel, he will be haunted by Abel’s eyes, that “in the tomb shall look at Cain”. Levinas (1969), p. 233. ↩︎

  34. See, for example, Levinas (1990), pp. 3 and following (p. 8). ↩︎

  35. Levinas (1998), pp. 47 and following (p. 55). ↩︎

  36. Levinas (1998), pp. 47 and following (p. 58), my emphasis. ↩︎

  37. Levinas refers to moments in the tradition that for him typify such a definition of freedom: Hobbes’s description of man in the state of nature, Victor Hugo’s “a force on the move”, and later Spinoza’s “the right to existence” or conatus essendi↩︎

  38. Not only does Levinas refer to Descartes’ idea of infinity to explain how the Other overflows any understanding that we may have of them, but also in a way that is important for our current reading. In a discussion following a presentation of his “Transcendence and Height”, Levinas emphasised that without the idea of God, without the idea of the infinite, the cogito would not have been possible. “And yet, if Descartes begins with the Cogito, he says a little later that in fact it is the idea of God that is primary, that is, the idea of the infinite. The idea of God was prior to the Cogito, and the Cogito would never have been possible if there had not been already the idea of God. Consequently, for Descartes as well, it is in the direct act and not in the reflective act that philosophical critique begins. This is what I also wanted to retain from Descartes.” Levinas (1996), pp. 11 and following (p. 25). ↩︎

  39. Levinas (1998), pp. 47 and following (p. 58). ↩︎

  40. For Levinas, what differentiates humans from other living beings is the ability to sacrifice oneself for the other, to put the other before your own needs. As he expressed in an interview, “[…] and yet, it does happen that a man dies for another, that the being of the other is dearer to him than his own. This is only possible within the order of the human, and is found nowhere else”. Levinas (2001), p. 191. ↩︎

  41. Levinas (1990), p. 293. ↩︎

  42. Although I would argue that this is also the case in Totality and Infinity, it is most clearly expressed in his later work, notably, Otherwise Than Being, “[…] 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”. Levinas (1998), p. 117. ↩︎

  43. Near the beginning of Totality and Infinity Levinas states that his method “resembles” the transcendental method, even though there are significant differences between his method and Kant’s. Levinas (1969), p. 25. For Levinas, our experience of being part of a community, language, objectifying consciousness, knowledge, and our ability to be self-critical, justify the face of the Other as a transcendental condition for experience as we experience it. Drabinski calls this novel approach by Levinas, which is both critical of the modern subject whilst incorporating transcendental and empirical language into his descriptions, a “postsubjectivistic transcendental [approach]”. Drabinski (2001), p. 87. ↩︎

  44. Levinas (1998), pp. 15 and following (p. 19), my emphasis. In the same article Levinas describes what he is attempting to do as, “[w]e have sought to set forth exteriority, the other, as that which is nowise tyrannical and makes freedom possible”. Levinas (1998), p. 23. ↩︎

  45. Levinas and Kearney (1986), p. 27. ↩︎

  46. Levinas (1969), pp. 302-03. ↩︎

  47. “[…] Let us not forget that Levinas does not seek to propose laws or moral rules, does not seek to determine a morality, but rather the essence of the ethical relation in general. But as this determination does not offer itself as a theory of ethics, in question then, is an Ethics of Ethics”. Derrida (1978), p. 111. ↩︎