One of the central themes in the thought of Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) is the relationship between ‘the face and the Infinite’.1 This relationship puts us immediately in line with his thought about God, or rather with his thought ‘leading-towards-God’. His view on the ethical epiphany of the face of the other indeed offers the ‘concrete phenomenological conjuncture and circumstances’ where God authentically makes his ‘entrance’ as the Infinite One (DVI 7/XI).
In his view we can distinguish between two movements, namely a ‘transascendence’ and a ‘transdescendence’. For this double movement Levinas takes direct inspiration from the promoter and mentor of his ‘doctorat ès lettres’or ‘doctorat d’état’ (1961) ,2 namely the philosopher-poet Jean Wahl (1888-1974).3 In his first major wok Totalité et Infini (1961)^ Levinas refers to the influence that Wahl’s concrete metaphysics of feeling as the ‘bare and blind contact with the Other’ has had on his thinking. This influence is confirmed by the two studies that Levinas has dedicated to the thought of Wahl: ‘Jean Wahl et le sentiment’ (1955) and ‘Jean Wahl. Sans avoir ni être’ (1976).4
2. The path of transascendence
To begin, we briefly sketch Wahl’s idea of transascendence in order then to reflect on the way in which Levinas points to the upward path to God (’au-delà’) on the basis of the epiphany of the face and the ethical appeal to responsibility. Afterwards, we trace Wahl’s idea of transdescendence, which then forms the point of contact in order to make explicit how Levinas gives this shape by means of descending into the subject (’en deça’) and discovering there the immanence of God as the Infinite and Good, thanks to an ethical and religious redefinition of the subject.
2.1. The trace of ‘transascendence’ towards the Other outside of oneself (Wahl)
For a proper understanding of the thought on transascendence of Jean Wahl, we must begin with his stubborn resistance against all intellectualistic (coercive) systematism. Beyond logical and conceptual constructions, he seeks — being strongly inspired by the anti-Hegelianism of Kierkegaard — a direct and intense contact with reality. For that purpose he sees some possibility in the feeling. In the feeling he discovers a double movement with which he links together a double movement of transcendence. First of all, he discovers in the feeling an ‘extra-versive’ movement that is directed towards ‘the other outside oneself’ (’hors soi’): ‘a bare, blind contact with the Other’ (NP 173/117). At this, he links the objective pool of transcendence, namely ‘transascendence’. This involves literally an ascending surpassing: a movement that departs out of a being, that wants to leave itself behind itself in this movement. In and through the feeling that enters, without any diversions, into contact with the other, the subject reaches beyond itself towards the other than itself. In this regard, the feeling is also longing and tension, literally also ‘hyper-tension’, precisely because it reaches from within itself towards something that is not to be found in itself: the other. Without any externality, entirely unto oneself, the human person is a miserable being, exclaims Wahl (NP 167/112). The true sovereignty of the human consists in one’s dependence on what is external to oneself, the other.
Now, not every alterity with which the subject comes into contact — like for instance the environment, the world, the other — is to the same extent and in equal radicality a metaphysical transcendence. All too often, one reduces the other around oneself into food, an instrument, a possession and a finality for oneself: spontaneous materialism. That is why Wahl begins to search for an alterity with which one enters into a relationship in a different manner than by means of utilisation and consumption. According to Wahl only the other that is absolutely different can be the ‘terminus ad quem’ of transascendence. And even on the level of the absolute alterities there are also false or bad transcendencies in circulation, insofar as it concerns imaginary projections. In this regard Wahl also describes the absolute other as the ‘extra-ordinaire’: the other is only absolute when the subject that strives towards the other surpasses its own striving and, at the same time, when it does not absolutise into a final object that towards which it strives for out of its desire. As a being that strives for transcendence the subject cannot remain fixated on the ‘object’ or ‘final goal’ striven for; on the contrary it is a movement towards a term, going over and beyond this term, a movement without an end point, synthesis, rest and completion precisely because it concerns the radical Other that can never surrender itself into a concrete object or goal. The metaphysical Other can only be absolute in the literal sense of the word: ‘ab-solute’, detached, separated, irreducible, so that the feeling becomes an inexhaustible, infinite desire (NP 168-169/113-115).5 In the metaphysical movement towards the wholly Other, the person finds oneself in total disproportion with oneself: an unbridgeable chasm gapes between the searching person and the wholly Other, which the person strives for. In this way, the person is lifted up above oneself, without ever going to be able to fall back into oneself (HS 109/ 73-74).
Levinas likewise characterises his metaphysical thinking in his first major work Totality and Infinity as an outward and upward movement, as ‘transascendence’ (TI 12/41). Metaphysics directs itself towards the absolute as a term, on the basis of a desire that is and remains not only factual but also in principle inadequate and disproportional (TI 5/33). Precisely because in its questioning search for the wholly Other, the subject experiences its utter ‘inequality’ before that Other, its search becomes an ‘infinite desire’. And this desire is — in line with Wahl — a feeling. In an extensive, illuminating footnote in his study ’Énigme et phénomène’ he likewise calls it ‘the primordial feeling’ that comes about as a ‘relationship with the Absolute’ (EPH 205/62-63). In concretising the metaphysical desire for the wholly Other, Levinas goes his own way — with respect to Wahl — in the sense that he discovers the deformalising of the wholly Other especially in the radical alterity of the face and in that he comes to trace the insatiable desire in the responsibility to which the face ethically appeals the ‘I’. We follow Levinas in his phenomenological explorations of the epiphany of the face, which points him to the path of the transascendence towards the wholly Other, the Infinite.
2.2. The intractable alterity of the face
The path of transascendence for Levinas has clear phenomenological points of contact. The idea of God, as an idea of the Transcendent and Infinite One, can only dawn on me in an authentic manner in a context of anteriority, exteriority and superiority (TI 267/291). Well then, that is precisely what is revealed in the epiphany of the face: ‘the shock of the divine, that is the face of the other’ (EFP 93/48). In the face of the other Levinas discovers a radical alterity that at the same time is hard and vulnerable. We first reflect on the hard alterity of the other, and later enter into the vulnerable alterity.
The alterity of the other is hard insofar as it presents itself as that which is irreducible to myself and my own attempt at being (’conatus essendi’), which I attempt to substantiate in a continuous ‘struggle for life’ — ‘by trial and error’. That is why Levinas also says that the other appears to me as the event or the ‘fact’ par excellence. The other appears into my existence without my calling upon the other, my having designed or conceived of the other beforehand. The other is for me a radically heteronomous or ‘absolute experience’: ‘I-self’ no longer am the law, but the other that imposes itself ineluctably upon me as something that literally ‘overcomes’ me from elsewhere. He calls this the ‘epiphany’ of the face.
In a provocative manner Levinas concretises this epiphany of the face by stating: ‘The other is invisible’ (TI 6/34). With this, Levinas reacts immediately against a great, but obvious misunderstanding. When we hear the word ‘face,’ we spontaneously associate it with ‘countenance,’ that is to say with the physiognomy, facial expression and, by extension, character, social status and situation, past and ‘context’ from which the other person becomes visible and describable for us. The face of the other thus seems to coincide perfectly with what its appearance and behaviour offers to ‘seeing’ and ‘representing.’ By taking what is literally an ‘option’ regarding the other person, we suppose ourselves able to ‘define’ that person, whereupon we then also delimit our reactions and behaviour. Likewise, in all sorts of forms of counselling (medical, psychological, therapeutic), we begin from a ‘diagnosis,’ from a methodically and technically professionalized ‘observation’ through which, based on our foreknowledge of symptoms — the images of sickness — we can propose a diagnosis with an eye to prognosis and treatment.
What Levinas really means by the ‘face of the other’ is not his or her physical countenance or appearance, but precisely the noteworthy fact that the other — not only in fact, but in principle — does not coincide with his or her appearance, image, photograph, representation or evocation. According to Levinas, we therefore cannot properly speak of a ‘phenomenology’ of the face since phenomenology describes what appears. The face is nonetheless that which in the countenance of the other escapes our gaze when turned toward us. The other is ‘otherwise,’ irreducible to its appearing, and thus reveals itself precisely as face. To be sure, the other is indeed visible. Obviously, it appears and thus calls up all sorts of impressions, images and ideas by which it can be described. And naturally, we can come to know a great deal about the other on the basis of what it gives us ‘to see.’ But the other is more than a photograph, or rather it is not only factually more — not only more in the sense where there is always more for me to discover — but it can never be adequately reproduced or summarized by one or another image. The other is essentially, and not merely factually or provisionally, a movement of retreat and overflowing. I can never bind or identify the other with its plastic form (EI 89-90/85-86). Paradoxically, the other’s appearing is executed as a withdrawal, or literally, as ‘retraite’ or ‘anachorese’. The epiphany of the other is always also a breaking-through and a throwing into confusion of that very epiphany, and as such the other always remains ‘enigmatic,’ intruding on me as the ‘irreducible,’ ‘separate and distinct,’ ‘strange,’ in short as ‘the other’ (AS 81). The other is insurmountably otherwise because it escapes once for all every effort at representation and diagnosis. The epiphany of the face makes all curiosity ridiculous (DVI 168/107).
And note well, this ‘unknownness’ of the other is not only factual-accidental and thus temporary, but essential and definitive. The conceptualising ‘I’ will never be capable of disclosing and knowing the other fully. The face is the territory of what remains ‘un-issued’ for good. It manifests itself, paradoxically enough, as the ‘great unknowable’. It appears by means of disappearing; it shows itself by means of withdrawing itself. The face is that which leaves a trace by means of immediately obfuscating and even erasing its own trace. In that sense it is the ‘reversed world’ insofar as it never adequately coincides with my preconceptions, a priori’s and expectations. It confounds all preceding description as utterly inadequate. It is a presence that immediately denies itself: an ‘apostate’ or ‘heretic’ towards itself. The face literally is ‘extra-vagant’ and ‘e-normous’, beyond all measure and norm, the purest ‘anachronism’, essential inscrutableness or ‘enigma’ (AE 109-115/87-91). This concretely implies that the other is not constituted by me as a supplementation on account of my shortcoming, and neither as my mirror image, alter-ego or ‘re-issue of my-self’ (TA 75/83).
This rather negative description of the alterity of the other, however, has a clear positive significance. The basis for its ‘un-knowableness’ and ‘un-calculability’ is indeed its ‘manifestation of the kath’auto’ (TI 37/65). The face of the other is precisely that which shatters through all fixating forms and images in order to show itself out of itself. It simply is ‘expression’ (TI 37/66). And this expression manifests itself in an eminent manner in and through the glance and the word of the other.
The most naked aspect of the face is the eyes. They penetrate beyond the mask; they speak an unfalsifiable language. «This way for a being to break through its form, which is its apparition, is, concretely, its look, its aim. There is not first a breakthrough, and then a look; to break through one’s form is precisely to look; the eyes are absolutely naked» (LC 41/20). In this way, the glance is the most direct and personal presentation of the other by the other itself. Out of itself the glance reveals the hard substantial core whereby the other truly is irreducibly different. The glance, however, is more than only but the expression of the other. By means of its glance the other directs itself indeed also to me, and this in a direct manner. The face is that which beholds me, looks at me right in the eye. When we look at each other we directly encounter each other. The glance of the other is other itself, who looks at me in absolute ‘uprightness’. The encounter with the face that looks at me is then the direct relationship par excellence. We do not stand originally beside each other, but eye to eye (face-to-face) with each other.
The other, however, does not only look upon me, the other also speaks to me. The eye does not sparkle, it speaks. Hence that Levinas likewise states that the face is precisely face because it speaks to me, which at the same time is made concrete in factual speaking (although this is thus not the only speaking, as is apparent precisely in the expressive glance). If the other now speaks to me, then is the other directly present in what it says to me. The other expresses itself in its word, and in what it says it is directly present to me, without, however, losing its radical separateness. Its word preserves, or stronger still, installs the radical purity and unassailable chastity of its alterity. Its speaking is completely at its own disposal. This escapes me entirely so that I am ‘obliged’ to listen. That is also why Levinas characterises the expression of the face in and through the word as ‘teaching’, that in no way whatsoever can be reduced to one or the other form of (Socratic) pedagogics that is only a method to draw out what already lies contained inside. The expression of the face comes to me ‘from elsewhere’ and brings in more for me than I already contain in myself, namely the true ‘message’ or ‘revelation’ of the presence of the other (TI 22/51). The face does not awaken an idea in me that was already slumbering, but teaches me something utterly new: «The absolutely new is the Other» (TI 194/219). In that sense, Levinas can say that the other is my Master, who by means of its appearance itself instructs me masterfully about its irreducible alterity, without my already containing this instruction within the depths of myself or my being able to let it simmer up from within me. I can entirely not foresee nor predict the word of revelation of the face; I do not have a grasp on it in any way whatsoever. I am neither the designer nor the creator, but the one who receives, the one who listens and in listening obeys, the ‘created one’ (TI 41/69, 73/99).
2.3. The alterity of the face as the enigmatic trace of God
Well then, according to Levinas it is precisely this radically ‘ir-reducible’ and ‘in-visible’, at the same time expressive, alterity of the face that arouses in me the idea of God or of the divine as the Infinite One. To make this explicit, he takes inspiration from the way in which Descartes thinks of the Infinite in relation to the ‘I’, and this according to two aspects. First of all, it concerns an idea that has ‘penetrated’ or been ‘inserted’. It was put inside us, which means that it radically precedes us as origin and initiative. We have not designed but received this idea — which precisely makes up its utterly positive irreducibility, heterogeneity or transcendence. Applied to the face this means that the idea I have of the other was not thought of and designed by me, but comes ‘from elsewhere’ and is inserted and imprinted in me by means of the epiphany. There is more, however, and that is the second aspect. Insofar as the face is not constituted by me, the other is also radically separated from me and thus — in the qualitative sense of the word — distanced infinitely from me. This implies that the idea that the face leaves behind in me, is infinitely surpassed by the other. This disproportion between idea and what is aimed at by the idea — the ‘ideatum’ — is essential for the idea of the Infinite. In contrast to ordinary knowing that strives for the agreement of its idea with the ideatum, namely with the reality intended, the inadequateness forms an essential part of the thought of the Infinite. The distance between idea and ideatum is in the idea of the Infinite of a fundamental nature, not merely temporary and factually unbridgeable, but essential and for good. To think of the Infinite means to think of something that can never be contained by this thinking, stronger still: that cannot ever be contained by any thought at all (DVI 105/63). There exists an absolute distance and disproportion between the Infinite and the idea that I form of it, and that separation remains in existence. By means of thinking of the Infinite as infinite I give an account of that which I cannot render an account of, namely the Infinite (PIF 192/56). I integrate in me the external and transcendent as an idea, but insofar as this idea can never contain the Infinite — precisely because it concerns the Infinite — my idea does not annul the transcendence of the Infinite (TI 186-187/211-212). This is precisely what we can discover in the idea that is left behind in me by the Face through its epiphany. «The Face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me, and the idea existing to my own measure» (TI 21/50-51). Stronger still, Levinas precisely calls the way in which the other indefatigably surpasses its idea that it lays down inside me the face — with which we end up in the affirmation given above that in the face the other is invisible, notwithstanding its given visibility at first sight. The face precisely consists in that the other never coincides with its face, whereby the face evokes the idea of a radically separated alterity that infinitely surpasses its face — the idea of the Infinite!
What ensues from it, according to Levinas, is that the radically heteronomous and infinite alterity of the face evokes the idea of height. Since the other introduces a meaning that does not emerge from my subjective meaning and already rises far above it, namely the incontestable fact of its own withdrawing alterity, the other does not stand on the same level as I: not only does it stand before me (’eye-to-eye’), but also infinitely above me. It turns itself toward me as my Superior, before whom I must bow. Levinas likewise calls this «the ‘curvature’ of the intersubjective space» (TI 267/291). By means of its self-expression the face brings about a de-levelling in being, literally a ‘trans-ascendence’ of the other. The other ‘trans-ascends’, literally goes above us, and this, time and again, in a movement that does not decrease but increase. We should of course not understand this height geometrically-spatially, but rather qualitatively as ‘nobility’ and ‘sublimity’ (TI 12/41). This sublimity is not a static condition but a dynamic event, in the sense that it concerns a withdrawing sublimity, a sublimity that withdraws itself when I attempt to approach it in order to understand it. The other manifests itself in the epiphany of its face as a highly exalted and an ever higher elevated Thou, and not as a ‘you’ that is directly accessible in the mutuality of friendship (Buber).
With this, Levinas also links the idea of the ‘holiness’ of the face whereby he intends everything but a magical and impersonal sacrality that imprisons and consumes the ‘I’: «his ‘holiness’ is without any odour of the ‘numinous’» (TI 169/195). The other, after all, is so purely separate and infinitely transcendent that any hope for a total fusion is groundless for good. We can likewise call this the untarnished, or rather the untarnishing holiness of the face. This leads Levinas to speak about the ‘divinity’ of the face (TI 269/293, 273/297). By means of its radically separate self-expression, which precedes my initiative and infinitely surpasses my thinking, the face not only evokes the idea of createdness but also of God as the One who radically precedes me. By means of its ‘pre-originality’ with respect to myself as origin and initiative, the other is likened to God, so that «the other is closer to God than I» (PIF 174/56).
Levinas goes further, however, than the affirmation of this ‘likeness’ or affinity between the other and God. Or rather, this likeness becomes for him the point of contact in order to introduce God into the discussion: «the curvature of intersubjective space is, perhaps, the very presence of God» (TI 267/291). Or more direct still: «The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face» (TI 50/78). There is no immediate access to God at all. He is only accessible from an inner-worldly mode of alterity or transcendence. Well then, this is given to us in an eminent and unambiguous manner in the heteronomous appearance of the other: the face is that through which and in which the Invisible One becomes visible and enters into relationship with us (DL 187-188/140).
This should not be understood as an identification of the other and God. The likeness between the other and God is no ‘equality’: «The Other is not the incarnation of God, but precisely by his face, in which he is disincarnate, is the manifestation of the height in which God is revealed» (TI 51/79). This leads Levinas to say that the face only refers to God like a trace (HAH 57/102). The trace is an ‘impression’ that a being has left behind, while that being has already disappeared. The trace does not make present the one that left the trace, just as the symbol — in and through its dialectics of visible/invisible — makes the absent present, but precisely refers to it as radically absent, as passed over for good (AE 15/12). Well then, the radical alterity of the face refers to God as the completely Transcendent One, meaning to say as the ‘ab-solutely’ Absent One, as the One who has disappeared once and for all and thus is not to be caught in any way whatsoever. In this regard the face refers to God as the absent ‘third party’, as ‘He in the you’. In the face God comes towards us, but at the same time He is the one who ‘has been passed over for good’. He has withdrawn Himself into an ‘immemorial past’. Hence Levinas also speaks about God’s ‘illeity’: in the face He is not the ‘eternal Thou’ of Buber but the ‘One over there’ (’Ille’). God comes to meet us in the face as Someone who immediately draws oneself away (’anachorese’). In this regard, He empties Himself in, or rather from the face of the other, even though He evokes in us, in and through the face, His idea of the Infinite.
This has drastic consequences for all ‘theo-logy’, literally all talk about God, both philosophical as well as theological. On the basis of the face as the enigma of the trace of the Infinite One, the radically Other, all speaking and thinking about God is doomed to be a ‘winding path’ (’la voie tortueuse de la recherche de Dieu’) (DVI 7-8/XI-XII). According to Levinas, even though theology as thematisation is necessary, even though it may merely be the articulation of the difficulty and the failure of the thematisation (AE 148/116), all theological talk must still remain subject to scepticism. Every language about God sounds false or becomes mythical: it unarbitrarily betrays God’s transcendence. In spite of its pure intentions, it becomes indiscrete and violates the holiness of God (AE 195-196/153-154). This implies the necessity of the theological ‘counter-word’ (’le dédire’). The questions about God can never find rest in the answers. The questions remain resounding in the answers as the one which is in the end more important than all answers. The paradox, however, is that this ‘counter-word’ still remains a ‘speaking’, which precisely underlines the importance of theological speaking. This theological speaking can never be a self-assured mastery, but on the contrary a wrestling, a doubt and a pain that never ceases. In this way, this hesitating and time and again — up to eternity — self-questioning speaking becomes also a ‘place’ or ‘context’ where God’s transcendence can be approached as infinite withdrawal without ever being grasped (AE 198/155, 214-215/168-169).
2.4. The vulnerable alterity of the face as ethical appeal
The radical way in which Levinas rises from the alterity of the face to the idea of the Transcendent and the Infinite raises the question whether this does not lead to a deistic, distant God. If God is so radically transcendent, as Levinas states, what does He still have to do with the world, and in particular with humans. Even though Levinas does not proceed, for his idea of God, from nature, the cosmos, the being of the world, God still remains up to this point as the Absent One par excellence, the Inaccessible One once and for all, the irreducible Other, ‘the most Foreign of all’, just as Levinas also puts it. Does He not remain thus the deistic indifferent one, who in no way whatsoever is involved with what takes place amongst people? As the absolute Other and Infinite One, is God not literally so removed from the world and human history that He has become entirely irrelevant?
As a response to this question, Levinas points out immediately that his idea of the radical alterity of God, which for us means the ‘trace’ in the alterity of the face of the other, only represents half of his view. This alterity of God must immediately be linked to a well-defined form of involvement and nearness, which we can also label as a first form of immanence (in the movement of transdescendence we shall still discover a second, more radical form of immanence). The absence of God, according to Levinas, does not remain at a distance, and still less neutral and formal; on the contrary it comes very concretely near by means of qualifying itself ethically, namely by binding itself to the ethical appeal that speaks to us from the face.
As long as we interpret alterity only in a ‘metaphysical’ manner, meaning to say only making it explicit as a radical and irreducible transcendence, as we have done above, then we have not yet penetrated into its true and integral meaning. According to Levinas, it is even so that the metaphysical alterity of the face only becomes accessible if we attend to the ethical appeal that is not only written in the alterity of the face but that also establishes this alterity.
Levinas repeatedly points out how the alterity of the face appears as a paradox, or rather as an alterity with a ‘double meaning’, in the literal sense of the word. It is not only strong, but also weak; not only sublime, but also small and humble; not only unassailable, but also vulnerable. And immediately linked to this, says Levinas, is likewise the ethical dimension of the epiphany of the face: «The face is the fact that a being affects us not in the indicative, but in the imperative» (LC 44/21).
In order to make this clear, Levinas characterises the other also as the ‘foreigner’. Since the other cannot be designed by me, and thus comes from elsewhere, the other falls beyond the horizon of my own familiar world. It is a ‘foreigner’ in the sense of the ‘the poor, the widow and the orphan’ in the Bible. «The strangeness that is freedom is also strangeness-destitution» (TI 47/75). That is also why Levinas speaks in this regard about the nakedness of the face: its poverty and exposure to the elements, to our attempt at being, which ‘without looking left or right’ advances forward like a blind force (’comme une force qui va’) (Victor Hugo). «The nakedness of the face extends to the nakedness of the body that is cold and that is ashamed of its nakedness. Existence kath’auto is, in the world, a destitution» (TI 47/75). And, of this misery, its suffering and mortality are the most eminent and, at the same time, most painful expression (DVI 263/175).
Well then, according to Levinas this vulnerability of the other is precisely the basis for the encounter with the other as an ethical event. And this ethical experience consists precisely in that the other, through its own meagre appearance, invites as it were the ‘I’ that strives for happiness and power to reduce that other to itself, to use and to consume it as an instrument and as nourishment for one’s own unfolding of existence. As an exposed and threatened being the face challenges me, in a manner of speaking, to commit violence: the face is the invitation to violence, the temptation to murder, says Levinas laconically and frankly (EI 90/86). But — and this is precisely the core of the ethical experience — at the very moment that I am tempted by the face in its poverty to grasp, manipulate or abuse it, I experience and ‘feel’ that that which may be possible, is not allowed. The face of the other is, on the one hand, in its vulnerable appearance and thus not through its factual word and behaviour, that which I am able to kill; but, on the other hand, it is at the same time the rejection of this act of violence.
This rejection does not appear as an active deed, but as the word: ‘You shall not kill’. Turning towards me the face screams out, as it were, its misery and poverty and it appeals to my freedom to not do any violence to its alterity, to not kill it, to restrain my attempt at being, which immediately implies the positive demand to show mercy and hospitality to the other. But precisely on account of its fundamental poverty and weakness, which lie interwoven with its very alterity, the other cannot extort my non-violence and responsibility with physical or moral force. Thereby, the prohibition ‘You shall not kill’, which ensues from the naked face itself, becomes a supplication. The ethical imperative not to kill the other but to stand up for the other in its being-other and thus to vouch for the other is no ontological necessity or inevitability in biology or nature. The sublimity of its unseizable alterity is at the same time the humility of an almost inaudibly murmured question, a beggar’s plea, in short an appeal. Only by means of the begging does the demand become ethical: without coercion or a not-being-able-to-do-otherwise I am called not to violate the other but to promote the other in its being-other. The naked face of the other is, in other words, the experience of violence as a real possibility, as a banal fact that fills up the newspapers everyday, and immediately therein the awareness that that which can be done is not allowed. The invitation to murder, which ensues from the destitute face, is the demand for responsibility for the other. But the paradox is that this demand begins with the appeal not to do something, namely to kill, to violate, to exploit and to exclude, to disregard or to hate, and so forth: killing has many faces! Levinas then characterises the first moment of the ethical relationship towards the other as the negative movement of ‘restraint’ (NLT 95/125) and only afterwards as the positive dynamism of responsibility. Only the one who opts not to kill the other creates space for the acknowledgement and promotion of the other in its alterity. This confirmation of the other in its alterity, however, should not remain spiritualistic; it must grow into the incarnated ‘work’ (œuvre) of commitment and service (diaconie) (HAH 40-44/90-93), which develops a ‘radical generosity’ without ‘turning back’ or without expecting any reward from the other — which draws out from Levinas the rather crass statement that ‘work’, when thought through to its extreme conclusion, demands the ungratefulness of the other. In this regard Levinas also speaks of the goodness, or rather of the ‘goodness full of desire’ (HAH 46/94). It concerns a goodness that deepens itself to the extent that it fulfils itself: «proximity is never close enough» (AE 176/138). Goodness is not based on the need of the ‘I’ that seeks to satiate itself; on the contrary, it is based on the appeal of the face that arouses me to a movement of attention, nearness and support that time and again rises above myself, towards the other, for the sake of the other: an ‘insatiable desire’ that at the same time comprises the pure joy and fullness of the ‘affectivity of love’. In this manner, the movement of transascendence also acquires ethically a boundless character. With this boundlessness, however, no negative or ‘bad infinity’ (Hegel) is intended, but a positive, external dynamism of a responsibility that grows to the extent that it fulfils itself. Levinas discovers here a dynamics of ‘infinitising’, in the sense that the responsibility through and for the other is in principle infinite and precisely for that reason surpasses itself, or rather must surpass itself (AE 177/139).6 The highest expression of this responsibility consists in not abandoning the other, in its suffering and dying, to its own fate, even though one is utterly incapable of going against the unrelenting enemy and one can only but respond with a lingering and caring nearness, that holds on to the hand of the other and by means of one’s mere presence makes the other’s dying bearable (EI 128/119).
2.5. The responsibility for the other as ‘à-Dieu’
The question now is, how does Levinas see the bond between his ethics of responsibility for the other and the idea of God. The answer is actually quite simple, and is directly tied up with his ethical qualification of the face.
For Levinas it is indeed clear that the alterity of the other is not accessible via knowledge (la pensée comme savoir) (TrI 11/151). Levinas describes the fundamental structure of knowing as «the determination of the other by the same» (TI 101/128). Knowing is a relationship of the same with the other, wherein the other is reduced to the same and is rid of its foreignness. This thinking does involve itself with the other, but this other is no longer truly other, since what is unique to it is made into that which is mine. It has no secrets anymore and stands open to an investigation that wants to explore and test everything (TI 97-99/124-126). This investigation takes place via conceptualisation, categorising, thematising, systematising and generalising. The synthetic term that Levinas uses for this is ‘représentation’. We need to take this term literally as ‘re-present-tation’ or ‘making-present’, in the sense that one brings in that which is known as a ‘given’ in consciousness. By bringing in ‘something’ — a fact, object, idea… — into the present of the clear consciousness as a ‘given’, we then have it at our disposal. This having at our disposal, however, is only fully real if it also carries itself out in language. Think of the stories, the explanations, the agglomeration of words (’le Dit’), as these are stored up in writings, sound and video recordings, libraries and computers, whereby we are enabled to have past knowledge made available today, as if we were here and now the ‘absolute masters’ of the world (AE 45-46/35-36). The intention of all this is simply to ‘understand’, which immediately refers to the grasping by the hand. The terms ‘per-ception’, ‘con-cept’, ‘com-prehension’ and ‘to grasp’ refer etymologically to this ‘grasping’ by the hand, as if understanding itself is already a ‘taking by hand’ and ‘keeping in one’s hand’ (’main-tenance’). By means of ‘grasping’ the other, the ‘I’ can also put it at the service of my attempt at being, so that my initial dependence with regard to the other can be transformed into a ever greater independence and ‘boundless freedom’. Knowing does indeed step out of itself towards the other, but only with the goal of returning to itself ‘enriched’ and stronger. Understanding thought ultimately strives for an ‘absolute knowing’ (cfr. Hegel): it does not leave anything outside of itself, it attempts to give everything a place, a function or ‘meaning’ in its own ‘world’, in which it sets itself up as the indisputable principle (’origin’ or ‘archè’) (TrI 14-17/152-154). In this sense the understanding knowledge is in no way whatsoever a neutral and innocent phenomenon, but an instance of power that completely stands in service of the practical unfolding of being of the ‘I’ and for that reason also develops itself into competence and technique (TI 143/168-169).
Such knowing, however, cannot do justice to the radical alterity of the other. On the contrary, as a reduction of the other to the same it leads, when taken to its logical conclusion, to the denial and destruction of the other. Only when one hears the appeal that ensues from the face of the other, namely the appeal not to reduce the other to the same and thus not to kill, can one acknowledge the other as other. And since this acknowledgement implies the ethical relationship of respect and responsibility for the other, Levinas can then state that justice precedes truth («truth presupposes justice») (TI 62/90). It is not grasping knowledge that opens the way to the alterity of the other, but the ethical openness for the other. Stronger still, it is only the ethical relationship of acknowledgement, respect and responsibility that creates the possibility for a true and genuine knowledge of the other. Levinas also calls this «the wisdom of love», in contrast to the «love of wisdom» (AE 207/162). The love of wisdom, literally philosophy as it was developed in Greece, puts into centre stage the knowing that wants to explain and fathom everything. Starting from the description of the phenomena it attempts to understand these ‘data’ by going back to their causes and finalities. In so doing it tries to discover what are the ‘principles’ and ‘final goals’ that make the phenomena what they are and that make them ‘function’ the way they function. This search can proceed both on an empirical as well as on a meta-physical level. On the empirical level, namely in the sciences, one seeks for the measurable and verifiable (or falsifiable) causes and mechanisms, whereby the data of the reality not only become comprehensible but also ‘graspable’ and controllable. Philosophy proceeds onto the metaphysical level and looks for the ultimate and encompassing efficient and final causes, whereby all that is becomes comprehensible and displays cohesion, up to the ‘divine’ first and last ‘Efficient and Final Causes’, the highest Principle whereby reality can be traced back to its First Origin and Ultimate Goal. Over and against that, Levinas presents the wisdom of love. Insofar as love is the highest form of non-indifference and thus of responsibility for the other, it likewise implies that it is its own very unique form of wisdom or knowledge. This knowledge is not added from the outside, but simmers up from within love itself. As involvement with the other than itself, love is attention to and respect for the other, namely a dedication ‘despite oneself’ to the fate of the other. Love consists in not treating the other indifferently, but to let be and to let act, meaning to say to do justice to its alterity. This dedication implies an openness, literally an ‘re-cogni-tion’ of the other, which leads to the true knowledge and confirmation of the other as other. In this regard ethics is the foundation for a true knowledge of the other, which is entirely different from ‘grasping knowledge’. Only those who relate in an ethically respectful and responsible manner towards the other can also know the other in truth!
Thought through to the idea of God, the ‘wisdom of love’ means that via the face we can only gain access to God if we give ear to its ethical appeal. Only when we acknowledge and do justice to the other in its alterity, do we gain access to the transcendent alterity of God that has left its trace in the face of the other. This is the strong thesis that Levinas develops for the first time in his first major work (TI 49-52/77-79). The ‘religious’ for him is inseparable from praxis. The ethical is not the prelude or the corollary to the god-relationship; it belongs, on the contrary, to its very intimacy. When Levinas was once asked whether ethics was possible without God, namely on the basis of the well-known question whether everything is permitted if God did not exist, he turned the question around and posed a counter question: ‘Is religion indeed possible without ethics?’ The ethical relationship with the other is an exceptional relationship; it places humans on the track to God, the Transcendent and the Infinite One. Ethics is no appendix to the ‘seeing’ of God; it is this ‘seeing’ itself. The ‘vision’ of God is made possible through the moral act of doing justice to the other as other: the option for God is ethical. The responsibility that I take up as a response to the appeal of the face brings me nearer to God in an unsurpassable manner. Hence Levinas laconically describes responsibility as «unto-God» (’à-Dieu’), a going towards God, a being on the way to God. This means that no authentic relationship with God is possible without taking seriously the ethical appeal of the face: «To posit the transcendent as stranger and poor one is to prohibit the metaphysical relation with God from being accomplished in the ignorance of men and things» (TI 50/78). For grasping knowledge, God remains utterly invisible; only in justice is He accessible: «and ‘vision’ here coincides with the work of justice» (TI 51/78). This means that in the relationship to God one is always ‘in three’s’: ‘I’ and the ‘other’ (neighbour) and the ‘Third Party’ (God) in our midst (DVI 230/151).7
3. The path of transdescendence
Thus far Levinas’ transascendence movement, that has set us on the path to God starting from the face and its wordless appeal to responsibility. With this, however, not everything has been said regarding Levinas’ thought about the other, responsibility and God. From his promotor and philosophical mentor, Jean Wahl, we have already announced another movement, namely a transdescendence movement. Proceeding from the way in which Wahl sees this transdescendence, we then would like to reflect on how Levinas works out this downward or backward movement as an ethical and theological re-definition of the subject, namely by means of descending to the underground of the ‘I’ itself.
3.1. The trace of transdescendence towards the Other in itself (Wahl)
Precisely because Wahl proceeds from the feeling for his idea of transcendence, and this in order to avoid all sour and deadly form of abstract intellectualism and totalising systemic thinking, he is able to link with the ascending intentionality of the feeling, namely the direct and intense contact with the Other, a descending movement into the subject itself. Insofar as the contact with the Other takes place as a shock, a shiver, a spasm, which precisely makes the experience of the Other a fundamental and foundational feeling, this contact likewise brings about something in the subject itself. By means of the «naked and bare contact with the Other» the subject undergoes unarbitrarily a change. On the basis of its contact with the radically external and sublime, the Other, the subject experiences at the same time an internal movement in itself, towards its interiority. The feeling characterises the way in which we descend into ourselves, precisely thanks to the direct — moving and immovable — contact with the other than oneself. The concentration on the external implies just as immediately and originally a concentration on oneself. And it is precisely by means of this movement of contraction and interiorisation that the subject lives out its ‘being’ as ‘life’, stronger still as ‘living life’ or ‘life that lives out itself’. In this regard, the feeling is a dynamism of immanence par excellence, thanks to transcendence or the involvement with the other.8 In a paradoxical manner ‘we transcend transcendence towards immanence’ (NP 172/116). The movement upwards and outwards implies — thanks to the feeling — a movement downwards and inwards at the same time: a movement that descends into the immanence of one’s own intimacy. Thanks to the ‘extra-version’ (’hors soi’) the feeling realises an ‘intro-version’ (’vers soi’): «the beyond of oneself is the uniqueness of oneself» (HS 112/76). It is only to the extent that subjectivity rises above itself towards the other than itself, that it is subjectivity. Transcendence founds subjectivity! Or stronger still, thanks to the direct and shocking contact with the other, there arises precisely a dynamism of ‘intro-spection’ from and towards ‘one-self’ and this interiority deepens in a never ending movement of interiorisation.
To this inward dynamism of the feeling, Wahl9 also links a ‘metaphysical’ significance (HS 120-122/81-83). By means of descending into the feeling we can dig in the subject towards that which is deeper than the subject itself (’en deça’) (’hither side’). This possibility directly flows forth from the very nature of the feeling as a ‘movement of turning inwards inside oneself’. By means of the feeling, I descend not only into my intimacy as a lived through depth, but I reach still deeper than myself, into under my depth, toward the ‘under-ground’ as the bearing and inspiriting foundation of all. In the feeling I am handed over to the roots of my self. As a descending movement in the subject the feeling opens up the possibility of reaching still deeper, namely into the abysmal depths of my self-experience. This movement of self-surpassing of the self in the self presents itself paradoxically as a fulfilment that is, at the same time, an dissolution (’défection’) or destruction of the self: a failure that is at the same time a triumph! In this way, the immanence of the self is the access to transcendence, meaning to say to the surpassing of myself in the depths of the self towards something — the other than the self — that is situated deeper than the self and through which the self is also ineluctably marked. The immanence of the self is characterised by a transcendence that lies deeper than that immanence. Or put differently: the autonomy of the subject is characterised by an irreducible heteronomy that goes deeper than the subject and that is already present and active therein even before the subject tries to come to itself — whereby the heteronomy of the Other in the underground of the subject is irreducible and remains at the autonomy of the subject. In this regard, the self is older than itself, marked as it is by the other than itself in its ‘ground before its ground’. And since in human existence the feeling is directly liked to the sensory and the bodily, Wahl then also arrives at the affirmation that the body — not the ‘corps objet’ but the ‘corps sujet’, the body lived through (’la chair’) — is the place and the symbol of the immanent transcendence towards the wholly Other (HS 110/74).
In contrast to ‘transascendence’, that via the object-pole of the feeling — the ‘other’ of concrete reality — reaches over and beyond the subject (’au-delà’) towards the entirely Other, we can label this as a ‘transdescendence’ that descends into the deepest depth, or rather into the ‘bottomless depth’ of the subject itself. Upon closer inspection, however, this contrast should not be conceived of as an opposition between two poles or modalities that exclude each other. The one movement indeed makes the other possible, and vice versa. The movement upwards, which reaches over and beyond existence towards the transcendent, likewise makes possible the movement downwards, which reaches into the depths, or rather to under the depths of existence. Just as the descent into one’s own bottomless depth makes possible the transcendence towards the irreducible and transcendent Other. In this regard ‘the outbreaks towards on high’ and the ‘descent into the depths’ are mutually involved with each other. The ‘au-delà’ (beyond) is at the same time an ‘en deça’ (hither side), just as transdescendence opens up the perspective of transascendence. In this regard Wahl speaks of the ambiguity of transcendence, in the sense that it is simultaneously displays a double dynamism of ascending and descending: an unimaginable interchange of high and low, of ‘sur-vérité’ and ‘sub-vérité’ or of ‘that which is situated above and under the truth’. According to Wahl, this concerns two ‘infinities’, which are located at both extremes of being and that are involved the same transcendence that at the same time — without internal hierarchy — ascends and descends. And it is precisely this ambiguity that guarantees the utter incomprehensibility of transcendence: God is not only the ‘supra-human’ enlightening Most High, but also the ‘infra-human’ darkly Abysmal, unknown and inaccessible God! In his sketch of this ambiguity Wahl strongly puts emphasis on the abysmal transcendence because in Western thought transascendence has received most attention. Nevertheless, transdescendence is precisely indispensable in order to keep pure and to guard against reduction the transcendence (of God). Moreover, the infra-human transcendence, which bears not an animal but a divine signature, is an alterity that makes the humane possible (HS 119/81).10
Whoever is familiar with the thought of Levinas, especially with his later thought starting from his second major work Autrement qu’être (1974), cannot deny that he not only takes inspiration from Wahl’s idea of transascendence, but also from his strong appeal for transdescendence, even though he does not say so as explicitly as was the case for transascendence. An important indication is that Levinas ends his study, Jean Wahl. Sans avoir ni être, wherein he especially sketches the metaphysical thought of Wahl, by making use of terms that are derived directly from his later views and terminology, namely «the Other in the Same», «the awakening of the Same by the Other» (HS 122/83). Insofar as these expressions no longer refer to the exteriority of the other with regard to the ‘I’, but to the interiority of the other in the ‘I’, they indicate how Levinas in his own manner takes up the transdescendence-idea of Wahl and interprets it. We would now like to make this more explicit on the basis of the ethical and metaphysical redefinition of the subject which Levinas carries out.
3.2. Returning to what has remained hidden
The way in which Levinas describes the ethical encounter with the face, especially in the period of Totalité et Infini, can mainly be called phenomenological. What is not said at that point is that there are no transphenomenological elements to be found therein, in the sense that his phenomenology consists precisely in reaching beyond the countenance to the face (cfr. supra). This (trans) phenomenology proceeds from the appearance of the other, which, in and through its face, addresses an appeal to me — an appeal for responsibility for the other. The ‘I’ that is presupposed is the ‘I’ as ‘the same’, namely as ‘reduction of the other to the same’. This reduction must be conceived of dynamically, in the sense that the ‘I’ not only remains the same but also becomes more and more the same, becomes itself. Levinas has taken great pains to describe this self-interested ‘I’ starting from his first works as the process of becoming independent (’hypo-stase’) by means of overcoming all depersonalising and anonymity (of the ‘there is’), likewise as an exiting out of oneself (’ex-stase’) by means of transforming the world into a house to live in, to work on and to possess, and thus to unfold its own independence. The constantly recurring core of all these expressions of the ‘I’ is, according to Levinas, the ‘interest’ (’intéressement’), synthetically articulated as ‘conatus essendi’ (Spinoza) or the attempt and effort in order to be. The being of the ‘I’ is no untroubled fact but a vehement event, a ‘struggle in order to be’. As a finite and needy being, the ‘I’ is not yet in the full sense of the word: it is not yet what it is; it still must become what it can be. In this regard, the ‘I’ is similar to all living beings that strive to live, and it is similar to all beings that intends to persevere in its being. Being streams in and through all beings as an activity, literally as a verb. Levinas likewise indicates this being as event with the Platonic term ‘Essence’, an all encompassing and all penetrating process. What is unique to humans is that their striving in order to be unfolds into consciousness, understanding and will, effort and calculation. The human being is a ‘project’ to be authenticated: a ‘to be’, as Heidegger puts it (DVI 78/43). In humans the being of Essence arrives at its peak, its true and full expression. In this regard, humans are the ‘sacrament’ and the ‘revelation’ of Essence (AE 161/125).
The question that subcutaneously finds its way throughout Levinas’ second major work Otherwise than Being (1974) and thereafter no longer subsides is the question whether there was not something essential that escaped his attention or rather was unconsciously overlooked. Is the first, spontaneous description of the ‘I’ as energy, realisation and expression of being indeed correct? Has it not too hastily and one-sidedly occurred? Is that which at first sight is given indeed the true nature of that which presents itself? May we then continue on our first impression? Should we not retrace our steps in order to discover, under the surface of that which so eagerly unveils itself as being, whereby it concerns its very own being (Heidegger), a more original but hidden — or repressed — dynamism? Concretely: has everything truly been said about the ‘I’ when it is labelled as self-interested attempt at being? Is being the alpha and the omega of the ‘I’?
Throughout this questioning Levinas emerges as a true blooded phenomenologist, in line with his master, Husserl. An essential aspect of the phenomenological method is the return ’zu Sachen selbst’, after having described in a first movement what appears in everyday observation. Phenomenology begins with what is given immediately to our intentional consciousness, and attempts at mapping out this phenomenality as accurately as possible. Phenomenology, however, is at the same time a critical consciousness regarding itself, in the sense that it wonders whether in its initial analyses, it has indeed done justice sufficiently to the phenomenon in its multi-faceted, integral sense. Has one not let oneself be misled by the immediate given and the most evident, so that one has overlooked the ‘true, deeper reality’? Has one not neglected something essential that slumbers in the depths of the phenomenon, so much so that a distortion has crept in in the description of the phenomenon? The phenomenological reduction, for that reason, suggests that it retrace its steps in order to retrieve that which was ‘overlooked’ and to bring it to the surface, so that the original reality and meaning of the phenomenon — the thing itself (’die Sache selbst’) — can present itself (AE 84/67). Even though Levinas, in the application of phenomenology, has arrived at other views than Husserl, he still remained faithful throughout his entire work to phenomenology as a method, namely the development of a thoroughly carried out critical suspicion with regard to that which appears to be evident in direct and spontaneous observation and that which imposes itself as a ‘clear and lucid idea’. This phenomenological ‘crisis’ then is recalcitrant, in the sense that it does not operate progressively but regressively. It goes forward by means of turning back. It does not look forward onto the future but turns around to the past in order to descend therein and begin to seek for the intentions that were concealed or overlooked. It does not allow itself to be enraptured by the glitter of that which announces itself here and now in the consciousness, but it goes in and burrows behind, or rather in front, of consciousness into that which may be hiding and that which exposes the true nature of the phenomenon. Concretely speaking, it becomes a search for the conditions of possibility of the phenomenon: what makes possible that that which can appear does somewhat appear? The phenomenological reduction, in other words, is at the same time a trans-phenomenological reduction, in the sense that it also displays a transcendental character.11 The reduction carried out concretely realises itself as a ‘de-fection’, literally as an ‘ab-solution’ or a release and disenchantment of the consciousness and as a form of recurrence or retrocession (récurrence, retro-cendence) up to before the consciousness and all its givenness (AE 90/71). And note well, this recurrence that follows the consciousness comes second place in the thought process, while upon closer inspection — in reality — it comes first place, which Levinas pithily expresses as ‘secondarité préalable’ (previous secondariness) (DVI 54/28). That which comes first loses its primordial character, while that which we discover only afterwards (’après coup’) acquires a full priority, whereby it likewise attains a foundational and meaningful character (DVI 47-56/23-29).
Applied to the first, immediate and apparently evident and indubitable appearance of the ‘I’ as being that is concerned with its own being, Levinas wonders whether he has thereby indeed exposed the ‘thing itself’ of the ‘I’. He asks himself whether in this manner he has not obfuscated and perverted the truth and significance of the ‘I’. In other words, the question is whether the only and most original meaning of being can be found in the interest (DVI 164/104). The second wave of his work that unfolds in Otherwise than Being and complete waxes in ‘Of God Who Comes to Mind’ (De Dieu qui vient à l’idée, 1982) — which he has, here and there, already modestly announced in Totality and Infinity — demonstrates how on the basis of phenomenological reduction he ascends to something which lies hidden in the being of the ‘I’, namely an ‘otherwise than being’, which he also calls in line with Plato ‘epékeina tès ousias’ or ‘beyond essence’, just as the complete title of his second major work goes: ‘Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence’ (1974).
3.3. Ethical transdescendence: the other in me
To make clear what we mean by this, we must return to our description of the ethical encounter with the face of the other. We have described this encounter as the heteronomous happening of being touched by the vulnerable and injured face of the other. We are literally ‘moved’ and affected by the epiphany of the other, so much so even that we no longer can remain indifferent. In spite of ourselves we are appealed to by the naked face of the other, literally called to responsibility. In order to be able to be touched by the fate and the suffering of the other, we must be touchable. So that that which happens would be able to happen, namely the ‘hetero-affection’ by the face, we must assume that we are ‘affectable’. With this, we clearly move on from a phenomenological, descriptive level to a transcendental level in the Kantian sense of the term: in the depths of the phenomenon we search for its condition of possibility. Precisely because it concerns a condition of possibility, which is not given in the consciousness but which we must presuppose so that the phenomenon that effectively takes place would also be able to take place, it is rather obvious that we take no notice of it or we do not inquire about it. Even before I take up the responsibility for the other, I must in my being already be responsible. In this regard Levinas draws attention to the ending of the French term ‘responsabilité’: ‘bilité’ refers indeed to the possibility of giving an answer, to the being made capable of responding effectively to the face of the other. Even before I attune myself to the ups and downs of the other, I am already — in spite of myself, thus in my very being — attuned to the other. I am entrusted to the other, beyond my own initiative, and thereby I am called to dedicate myself to the well-being of the other. In other words, in heteronomous responsibility I discover myself as already marked by an event that radically precedes me. In order to know my true ground, I must return to before or under ‘my-self’, to an immemorial past. The passive being affected by the fate of the other is the very intrigue of my subjectivity: being moved in spite of myself, ‘animation’ and ‘inspiration’, in the sense of ‘being enraptured and enthused’ by the other than myself. The leads Levinas to the idea of ‘soul’, in the sense that the other is the soul — the heteronomous principle of life and meaning — of the self. And note well, soul should not be equated here with consciousness, since it precisely concerns the opposite of consciousness, knowledge and act. The one who is different — the other — has made itself in such a way master of the same — the self — and this in a non-recoverable past, that it becomes the driving force that propels the self forward. Levinas rightly labels the soul conceived of thus as ‘the depth of the psychical’ or as the ‘de profundis’ of the mind. This means that the ‘I’ was touched in a depth that lies still deeper — infinitely deeper — than its very own psychological depth with all its conditions of consciousness and affects. The ensoulment by the other is indeed not located on the psychological level of inner perception and self-consciousness; it has, on the contrary, touched the self on the level where it cannot exercise any mastership at all. It concerns a radical and irreducible passivity, which is laid under one’s own ‘inner depth’. Hence Levinas, in his iterative and emphatic language, speaks about the infinitely withdrawing transdescendence into ‘the soul within the soul’ (DVI 47/24).
In short, the responsibility by the naked face does not remain exterior to me, but fulfils itself in me, or rather has already fulfilled itself in me as ‘awakening’, stronger still as ‘already being awakened’ to responsibility, which I myself naturally then must take up and substantiate. This requires a redefinition of the ‘I’, which Levinas initially — in the context of Essence — has characterised as ‘conatus essendi’ and as an expression and event of Essence. This description of the ‘I’ as ‘being’, on the basis of what simply — at first sight — seems evident in our daily observation is too flat, in the sense that it concerns a half, and thus incorrect, truth. We may, in other words, never trust our first impression. Even though conventional wisdom suggests the opposite, the first impression is indeed not the best, but on the contrary the most dangerous! Upon closer inspection, meaning to say on the basis of the above-mentioned phenomenological reduction, with its transcendental question regarding what makes possible the factual being touched by the face, namely the affectability of the ‘I’, Levinas arrives at stating — especially in Otherwise than Being — that the being of the ‘I’ is not simply ‘to be’, but in its ‘being’ is already ‘otherwise than being’. As a being that is concerned with its own being, the ‘I’ in its being is already marked by ‘the other than its own being’. According to Levinas — and at this we stumble upon, in our opinion, the real origin of his ethical thought — with the characterisation of the ‘I’ as self-interest and attempt at being we have neglected something essential, namely ‘something’ that is already at work in the attempt at being itself. In the attempt at being itself, in it and not outside of it, there is clearly a scruple at work that questions the conatus essendi from the inside out and breaks it open towards the other than itself. ‘Scruple’ literally means a ‘pebble in the shoe’, whereby someone cannot remain standing but is ‘moved’ or ‘prodded’ to take the next step. Hence Levinas also speaks, not coincidentally, about ‘the other in the same’, ‘transcendence in the immanence’. We can also rightly qualify this as ‘transdescendence’: the ‘extra-ordinary’ that has nestled itself in the ‘ordinary’; the higher that has withdrawn into the lower, in an inaccessible depth. This intrigue of the other in the same — the other in the ‘I’ — comes to light by means of the encounter of the face, but it is not introduced nor created by this encounter. The confrontation with the appeal of the naked and vulnerable face arouses in the conatus essendi the scruple about itself, whereby the ‘being’ of the ‘I’ reveals itself as ‘otherwise than being’ at the same time. This ‘otherwise than being’, however, is not added by the face, but manifested as essentially belonging to the dynamism of the conatus itself, however paradoxical this may sound.
The scruple about oneself, that is at work in the conatus essendi itself from the inside out and through which the ‘I’ is already linked with the other than itself, manifests itself however as an ethical event. The involvement with the other than oneself is no ‘natural necessity’ (cfr. supra). The ‘dedication in spite of myself to the other than myself’ fulfils itself precisely as a scruple, as a questioning, as an uneasiness of the attempt at being with itself. As conatus essendi, I am not at ease with my own dynamism of being; I realise that the obviousness of my perseverance of being and self-unfolding is not entirely so obvious, that I may not simply indulge in my self-interest. In the exercise of my attempt at being, it dawns upon me that my attempt at being left to itself is brutal and leaves corpses behind it left and right. Even though there is a certain ‘natural impulse or urge’ in the conatus to think and to act according to its own interest, it is indeed not left at the mercy of itself as a mechanism that is unavoidable or a natural necessity. Precisely because it is characterised by an internal scruple or restraint on itself it is ethical, whereby it surpasses nature — understood as natural law. By means of the crisis that it bears within itself — ‘la crise de l’être’ — it is not left to its own mercy as a fatality but it can surpass itself towards the other than itself. By means of the internal scruple it is made capable of choosing for the self-interest, or of choosing for the ‘otherwise than being’, whereby it surpasses itself as ‘involvement with the other than itself’. But again, this does not mean that this ‘otherwise than being’ would be an ontological necessity or a natural phenomenon. The ‘I’ is not delivered up irresistibly to its being nor to its otherwise than being. It can choose simply to be and indulge in its self-interest, at the cost of or in compromise with others, but it can also choose to substantiate its otherwise than being in caring responsibility for the other, both in the singular — interpersonal — as well as in the plural — social, economic and political, national, international and worldwide. In this regard, the ‘I’ is an ethically ‘equi-vocal’ being: at the same time being and otherwise than being, without it being like a stone that unavoidably falls downward, it must fall in one or the other direction.
It does not, however, concern a neutral, free choice, between two equal possibilities. One can choose for ‘being’, but one must choose for the ‘otherwise than being’. And this flows forth directly from the fact that the ‘otherwise than being’ determines and directs the human-being itself. The attempt at being in itself is likewise already marked and ‘touched’ by the ‘otherwise than being’ or ‘the Good above being’, not as a necessity but as a possibility and ‘appealability’. It is not for nothing that Levinas labels this as ‘the miracle of the human’: I am as such marked by the other that has lodged in me a ‘different movement’ than the self-interest, whereby I feel myself drawn away in an ‘extra-versive’ movement out of myself towards the other. Levinas characterises this movement as ‘an-archic’ and ‘pre-original’ (AE 12/10). After all, it begins not in my freedom, that poses itself as ‘arché’ and as origin of its very own active attempt at being, but it has, beyond my knowledge and capability — ‘in spite of myself’ — already infiltrated in me (HAH 74-75/132-134). Levinas likewise describes this as the ethical motherhood that is not derived from any decision at all of the ‘I’ but is the very condition itself of the ‘I’: «the bearing par excellence» or «gestation of the other in the same» (AE 95/75). Responsibility for the other as ethical pregnancy, not as a wish and free choice, but as a calling — as an already being called — preceding all conscious and free self-determination. Levinas does not see this as a kind of spiritual metaphor but as the indication of the real and necessary incarnation of the ethical subject. The soul, as we have described it above as ‘ensoulment of the same by the other’, is only possible as embodied animation. That we in our deepest being, deeper than our consciousness, are marked by the ‘being for the other’, is just a radically and pre-originally inscribed in our bodies. In the encounter with the other, we discover that we — before every choice and before every awareness — already stand ‘directed towards the other’. Levinas also calls it the pre-original or an-archic ‘exposition’ to the other, up to the nakedness of the vulnerable skin. And that I in spite of myself stand directed towards the other manifests itself in our ‘sensibility’ — wherein both the emotion as ‘shock and shivering due to the other’ as well as bodily tangibleness and vulnerability are contained. Our body is, on the basis of its sensoriness, our ethical directedness: eyes, ears, nose, hands are of the nature that they present themselves as the ‘antennae’ of our ‘soul’ or ‘extra-versive’ ensoulment towards the other. In this regard, Levinas can state that our body is our soul: «Here the psyche is the maternal body» (AE 85/67). We already bear the other in our body, whereby we receive the other to be borne: our body is ethically ensouled; it bears an ethical signature or ‘tattoo’ in itself, which has already since time immemorial — before all possible remembrance — been etched indelibly therein (AE 89/70-71). I am in and through my exposed and vulnerable body already connected with the other, even before I can link and identify myself with my body as ‘my’ body (AE 96/76-77). Being an ensouled body here means «having the other in one’s skin» (AE 146/115): we are able to be ‘occupied’ with the other because the other already ‘occupies’ or ‘sits inside’ us, in the sense that the directedness towards the other marks and ensouls our bodylines and precisely in so doing makes it sensitive for the other. And this sensitivity is not only corporeal but also ‘passive’: the bearing of the other is a bearing even of the passion and suffering of the other. It likewise implies the ‘birth pangs’ that it entails, precisely because it is a bodily bearing, a bodily ‘com-passion’: «groaning of the entrails» (HAH 94/147). Levinas likewise describes this bodily soul as ‘pré-nature’ or ‘pre-natural’, in the sense that the being driven by the other despite oneself precedes the natural attempt at being of the ‘I’. The ‘self’ (’soi’) of the ‘being for the other’ precedes the ‘I’ (’moi’) that — at first sight, at least — is concerned with itself (and is only prepared to accept certain boundaries because of their feasibility). Upon closer inspection, and that was our thesis in our second movement — the movement of transdescendence — the ‘self’, however, does not only precede the ‘I’ but ensouls and orients it, too, whereby the subject is not only being, but in the depths — in the unfathomable underground of the depths — of its being is also essentially an ‘otherwise than being’, whereby it is pre-originally attuned to the other.
It is only against this background that we can understand the radical, even shocking, categories with which Levinas characterises his ‘being for the other in spite of myself’: «assignation», «hostage», «obsession», «expiation», «persecution» and especially «substitution» — a central, synthesising category in his thought since Otherwise than being (AE 125-166/99-129). With substitution he does not mean in the active sense of the free ‘I’ itself taking the place of the other, but rather in the passive sense of ‘being put in the place of the other’, or stronger still ‘being already put in the place of the other’ (AE 149/117). It concerns moreover an irreversible passivity: one is always already put in the place of the other, or as Levinas puts it emphatically: «offered in place of another — not a victim offering itself in his place» (AE 185/145). The subject is literally ‘subjected’ even before it chooses to subject itself. The word ‘subject’ must literally be understood as «subjectness» (’subjectité’) (AE 106/84): «the subjectivity or the very subjection of the subject» (AE 70/55). The responsibility by and for the other is not an attribute, that would only be ascribed afterwards to a subject that already would exist in itself (EI 103/96). The subject is essentially, from the very beginning, ‘by the other’, even before it can take up the position as ‘for the other’: the intrigue of the other in me, preceding every contract of free and conscious subjects who conclude an agreement or pact amongst each other (AE 112/88): «I’m bound to him before any liaison contracted» (AE 109/87). This implies that the ‘I’ no longer stands in the nominative but in the accusative, as it is literally apparent in the French expression, which Levinas frequently quotes: ‘me voici’. In contrast to the English expression ‘here I am’, whereby the ‘I’ stands in the active nominative, we find the ‘I’ in ‘me voici’ in the passive accusative, meaning to say in a grammatical form for which no nominative form even exists. In spite of myself I already stand — before every choice by myself — under the demand of the Face, whereby I discover myself as the one who ‘from elsewhere’ has already been called. Indeed, calling in the passive sense of ‘being called’ or of ‘already been called’ and not ‘ideally’ wherein the ‘I’ articulates its dreams and desires and its existence as project. I am already a passive ‘me’ even before I can become an active ‘I’. Levinas also calls it the createdness of the ethical subject: we are created as ‘our brother’s keeper’ even before we ourselves could have any idea, longing or intention to want to be such a keeper (AE 140/110). Only in a radical movement of transdescendence up to the underground of the ‘I’ do we come trace our ‘being created in solidarity with and responsibility for the other’ (AE 117/92). Our createdness in an ethical createdness through and through!
3.4. Metaphysical transdescendence: God as the Good in me
Levinas, however, still takes a step further, for out of this ethical creatureliness he draws the trace towards God as the idea of the Infinite and the Good in the subject. Thus we arrive at the metaphysical transdescendence, as was already traced by Jean Wahl, and we can also call this metaphysical transdescendence a religious transdescendence.
As it has already become apparent along the way, we must read the entirety of Levinas’ thought as a movement that proceeds from being with the intention of surpassing this being. Starting from the introduction to his first independent work, ‘De l’existence à l’existant’ (1947), he explicitly states that he seeks, in line with Plato, for the Good above being (EE 9/15). This implies that he does not understand being in a neutral way, as a mere formal fact of to be. For him, ‘being’ as verb immediately has a qualified meaning, namely the event of being that realises itself as «interest» in and through all beings: Essence as dynamism and drama, just as we have already indicated above. This implies that the idea of the Good above being has no bearing with «to be otherwise», and still less with the «not-be», but rather with an «otherwise than being» or «other than being»-«being’s other» (AE 3/3), also called «beyond Essence». And since Essence as event of being is characterised by Levinas as interest, the ‘beyond Essence’or the ‘otherwise than being’ can be characterised by Levinas as «disinterestedness» (’désintéressement’). That is also why Levinas announces from the very beginning of this thought (EE 9/15) that he shall attempt to demonstrate how the ethical relationship with the other realises and reveals the movement towards the Good beyond being: a task that he will never let go of and will endeavour to make explicit and to radicalise in and through all sorts of paths and points of view. We have already unfolded above what the ethical relationship towards the other implies, namely a responsibility by and for the other that infinitises itself into the miracle of disinterested goodness.
Levinas then logically thinks through his view when he links, not only in the dynamism of transascendence, the idea of God — an idea of God that is not contaminated by being (AE X/XLI)^ — with the ethics of responsibility for the other, but that he likewise links this God-idea, which is authentic according to him, with transdescendence, meaning to say with the redefinition of the subject as we have sketched above. Since he discovers the condition of possibility for the disinterested responsibility by and for the other in the ‘I’ capacity of being appealed to and affected, it is very much obvious that he discovers a direct affinity between the idea of the ‘other in the same’ and the God-idea as the idea of the Good. Insofar as the ‘I’ is marked by the other than itself and thereby is also set in motion towards the other, for the sake of the other, the ‘I’ is not only marked by the struggle in order to be, but — in that being — it is equally marked by the idea of the Good. And since, according to Levinas, the idea of the Good above being can be the only authentic ‘milieu divin’, humans in their intimacy — or rather in the depths of their intimacy, stronger still up to the ground of their intimacy — are ‘signed’ or ‘brandmarked’ by God.
This leads Levinas to radicalise his idea of the Infinite One, in the sense that he reinforces the link between subjectivity and infinity. Just as we have already stated on the level of the movement of transascendence, the subject thinks more than it thinks when it thinks the idea of the Infinite. Thereby the more is situated in the less. Likewise on the level of the movement of transdescendence is there mention of the more in the less. Levinas presents it with a word-play on ‘l’In-fini’, meaning to say about the Infinite in the finite. Insofar as the ‘I’ is in its being attuned to the other, and thus bears the other in itself, it actually bears something that it neither can conceive of nor contain, which is precisely the radically Other and thus the Infinite. In this regard the Infinite is the denial of the finite: radical and irreducible difference. But this denial does not place the Infinite outside of the finite, for the Infinite is located in the finite. With the word-play, Levinas states that the ‘In’ of ‘Infini’ (Infinite) means at the same time ‘non’ and ‘in’. This idea of the Infinite in me, that in no way whatsoever coincides with me as finite, can only be understood as the radical passivity of the consciousness, in the sense that my consciousness is ‘touched’ or ‘affected’ by something that is radically different from myself. And this non-assimilable alterity, that is situated in, or rather under the consciousness, awakens the consciousness to the other, in an infinite movement as well: pure goodness. In this regard, the consciousness is that which in its underground bears the Infinite, or rather that which up to its depths is borne by the Infinite, a consciousness aroused by the other: in spite of itself, driven from its underground out of and above itself towards the other. In this regard, the radical difference between the Infinite and the finite ‘I’ is at the same time a radical non-indifference for the one different from itself, meaning to say for the other.
This evokes inadvertently the already mentioned idea of the desire. The idea of the Infinite in the finite — an idea that likewise precedes the finite — indeed points to the depths, the radical passivity of the affection, literally of the being affected by the other in spite of the finite. It is a fire that burns in the depths of the soul and cannot be extinguished. Passivity as passion, as experience in the sense of ‘to undergo’, preceding all active experiencing, and wherein Levinas discovers the flame of the desire by and for the other. A flame whereby the ‘I’ reaches from underneath, from its underground that lies deeper than all capability and all activity of the consciousness, for the other — above the grasping and comprehending consciousness: desire leading towards the good, out of the Good whereby the consciousness is already marked pre-originally. And precisely because God as the Infinite is also the Good One, this desire is inspired, literally blown and propelled by the Good — God — in me. And this drivenness by God brings me as well to ecstasy, literally to a coming to stand outside, in a movement towards God as the Good, thanks to a highest and infinite non-indifference for the other (DVI 110-111/66-67).
In this regard, God as the Infinite is at the same time the Good in me, the deepest mystery of my subjectivity. Even before I come to myself via the acts of my own self-consciousness I am already awakened by God to myself. God is the intrigue of my soul, or better sill, of the soul of my soul. This likewise leads Levinas to describe the subject as a theological being, whereby ‘theological’ has no confessional but only a strictly philosophical meaning. In an almost shocking manner he states: ‘the psychical is originally theological’ (’le psychique est originellement le théologique’) (TrI 39/271), whereby he not only puts behind him the current Western definition of the human as ‘rational animal’ (’animal rationale’) but also brings it into a radical crisis (TrI 40/271). He also speaks about the essential «the religiosity of the self» (AE 150/117), in the sense that the subject, insofar as it is driven by that which is different than itself — the other — and thus stands directed towards the other, is likewise affected and moved by God as the Good. The human is of a divine signature, or to put it with a biblical metaphor: the human is the image of God, even before the human is a reasonable, conscious and free being.
Logically thought though, this means that according to Levinas the ethical — as the other in me — is founded in the divine. I can only be ethical, meaning to say called in spite of myself to responsibility for the other, unless I am inspirited by God — as the Good above being — up to the intimacy of my self: ‘more intimate that I am intimate with myself’, to put it in the expression of Augustine. Hence my religiosity, my inspiritedness by the Infinite, the Good, counts as the condition of possibility of my ethically standing directed towards the other. It is apparent from this how this reference to the ‘theological’ and ‘religious’ underground of the ethical appealability by and for the other cannot be called accidental or optional. The ethical redefinition reveals a metaphysical redefinition, whereby it must be stated in all honesty that for Levinas the religious-theological deepening of the ethical subject — a deepening that, in view of phenomenology, comes first — is at the same time the source and foundation of the ethical relationship to the other. That which, reflectively, comes second place, namely the religiosity of the ‘I’ — God as the soul of the human — comes, in reality, first, whereby that which appears to be first, namely the ethical relationship towards the other, in reality comes second place. That is also the reason why the human, thanks to its religious ground — or rather ‘under-ground’ — in its ethical life of responsibility by and for the other, far above and beyond itself, can become the witness and prophet of the Infinite and the Good One and in that way can contribute to the revelation and the ‘life of God’ in this world (DVI 13/XV).
4. By way of conclusion: The reversed world of the intimate transcendence
By way of conclusion, we can ask ourselves whether we still can maintain the thesis which we, at the beginning of this investigation concerning Levinas’ thought towards God, have put forward, namely that the access to the idea of the Infinite and Transcendent is only possible in a context of anteriority, exteriority and superiority.
As far as anteriority it concerned, there seems to be no problem since it is even made more radical by Levinas. The core of transdescendence consists precisely in descending into the underground of the conscious subject and to surmise there in an ‘immemorial past’ the other in the same as the idea of the Good, without being able to recuperate in the present this signature by the Infinite. Such a radical alterity that precedes once and for all all initiative of the subject remains transcendent, literally infinitely transcendent, no longer above or outside of us but within ourselves. It is about a withdrawing alterity, that retreats even more deeply, beyond all imagination and thematisation of the comprehending (and grasping) ‘I’.
But, does not this interiority of the other precisely destroy exteriority and superiority? We first tackle exteriority. If we were to ascribe to it a quantitative or spatial meaning, then would the interiority of the Infinite in the finite annul God’s transcendence. However, it concerns a qualitative exteriority, namely an other that in no way whatsoever can be conceived of and contained by the same. And then it is indeed possible that the exteriority becomes internal, to be sure without losing its exteriority. In the finite, the Infinite remains infinitely greater, irreducible and unassimilable. It is precisely the paradox of the Infinite in the finite that the distance and the difference can never be bridged, whereby the consciousness of the ‘I’ is also simultaneously, and will be, a troubled consciousness. Precisely because the ‘I’ thinks of something that it cannot think of, it is an ‘unhappy and tragic «I»’, an unfulfilled, or more radically still, an ‘unfulfillable’ consciousness, an shattered and devastated consciousness, a sick ‘I’. The immanence wherein the idea of the Infinite resides, or rather sows unrest, can never annul the transcendence of the Infinite. On the contrary, the unrest that perturbs the consciousness, bears witness to the transcendence in immanence. Here we discover how, in a paradoxical manner, God’s immanence — the Infinite in me — precisely signifies and guarantees His transcendence. His immanence in the human subject in no way destroys His transcendence but even reinforces and exalts it, precisely because God’s transcendence withdraws even more deeply into the immanence, into the depth, of the subject.
But perhaps the superiority of God’s transcendence is indeed affected by the immanence of God as the Good in me? Upon closer inspection, however, this superiority remains entirely untouched. As the other in myself, as the Infinite in the finite, God indeed appeals to me via the epiphany of the face towards an infinite, self-surpassing responsibility for the other. The other in me calls me towards the highest non-indifference, whereby the Good in me exercises a divine authority over me. In this manner, the idea of God’s omnipotence also acquires a new significance. It certainly is not about a ‘super-’ or ‘supra-natural’ power that expresses the force of its being and its self-interest, and that surpasses all worldly powers and comes to the aid of the deficiencies of my finite being. On the contrary, in line with Nietzsche, Levinas declares the almighty god as the projection of being that in its powerlessness strives for perfection. This does not mean that this god is dead, since he is, after all, still in so many places around the world and is alive and kicking in so many human hearts, and likewise often resurfaces in a post-religious world under the guise of ‘supra-natural’ powers and forces that must be implored. It does indeed mean that this god as the highest, omniscient and omnipotent being must be declared dead in order to gain access to the true, transcendent and ethically qualified God, who has nestled Himself in my being as the ‘defenceless power’ of the appeal to responsibility for the other (DVI 112/68): the «disarmed authority of the Infinite in me», who calls me to a more than my less, to a being for the other that infinitely surpasses my finitude, to a ‘divine more in the human, finite less’ that I am (AS 85). The wondrous intimacy of transcendence!
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.
The cited studies of Levinas are listed below in alphabetical order. Citations in our text are indicated with an abbreviation of the original French edition, along with the cited page or pages. For the literal quotations, the cited page from the available English translation is indicated after the forward slash (/). Abbreviations used: AE: Autrement qu’être ou Au-delà de l’essence, Nijhoff, La Haye 1974. [English translation (ET): Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, translated by A. Lingis, The Hague/Boston/London, Nijhoff (Kluwer), 1981.]; AR: «Amour et révélation,» in P. Huot-Pleuroux, et. Al., Ma charité aujourd’hui, Éditions S.O.S., Paris 1981, pp. 133-148; AS: Autrement que savoir (Interventions in the discussions and Débat général), Osiris, Paris 1988; AT: Altérité et transcendance, Fata Morgana, Montpellier 1995; BPW: Emmanuel Levinas. Basic Philosophical Writings, edited by A. Peperzak, S. Critchley and R. Bernasconi, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1996; CPP: Collected Philosophical Papers, translated by A. Lingis. Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster, Kluwer/Nijhoff, 1987; DL: Difficile Liberté. Essais sur le Judaïsme, Albin Michel, Paris 1963 (1st ed.), 1976 (2nd ed.). [ET: Difficult Freedom. Essays on Judaism, translated by S. Hand. Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 1990]; DVI: De Dieu qui vient à l’idée, Vrin, Paris 1982. [ET: Of God Who Comes to Mind, translated by B. Bergo, Stanford, University Press, 1998; EE: De l’existence à l’existant, Vrin, Paris 1978 (2nd ed.). [ET: Existence and Existents, translated by A. Lingis, The Hague, Nijhoff, 1978]; EI: Éthique et Infini. Dialogues avec Philippe Nemo, Fayard & France Culture, Paris 1982. [ET: Ethics and Infinity. Conversations with Philippe Nemo, translated by R.A. Cohen, Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1985];EN: Entre nous. Essais sur le penser-à-l’autre, Paris, Grasset 1991. [ET: Entre nous. Thinking-of-the-Other, translated by M.B. Smith and B. Harshav, London/New York, Continuum, 2006]; EPH: «Énigme et phénomène», in En découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger, Vrin, Paris 1967, pp. 203-217. [ET: «Phenomenon and enigma» in CPP, pp. 61-73]; HAH: Humanisme de l’autre homme, Fata Morgana, Montpellier 1972. [ET: The three essays are taken up in CPP, respectively «Meaningful Sense» at pp. 75-107, «Humanism and Anarchy» at pp. 127-139, and «No identity» at pp. 141-151]; HS: Hors sujet, Fata Morgana, Montpellier 1987. [ET: Outside the Subject, translated by M.B. Smith, Athlone, London 1993]; I: Ideology and Idealism, in M. Fox (ed.), Modern Jewish Ethics, Ohio State University Press, Ohio 1975, pp. 121-138; LC: “Liberté et commandement” (suivi de “Transcendance et hauteur”), Fata Morgana, Montpellier 1994. [ET: “Freedom and Command”, in.CPP, pp. 15-45]; NLT: Nouvelles lectures talmudiques, Minuit, Paris 1996. [ET: New Talmudic Readings, translated by R.A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh 2000]; NP: Noms Propres, Fata Morgana, Montpellier 1976. [ET: Proper Names, translated by M.B. Smith, Stanford, University Press, 1996]; PIF: «La philosophie et l’idée de l’Infini,» in En découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger, Vrin, Paris 1967, pp. 165-178. [ET: «Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity» in CPP, pp. 47-59]; TA: Le temps et l’autre, Fata Morgana, Montpellier 1979 (2nd ed.). [ET: Time and the Other, translated by R.A. Cohen, Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1987]; TI: Totalité et Infini. Essai sur l’extériorité, Nijhoff, La Haye 1961. [ET: Totality and Infinity An Essay on Exteriority, translated by A. Lingis, The Hague/Boston/London, Nijhoff, 1979]; TrI: Transcendance et intelligibilité (suivi d’un entretien), Labor et Fides, Genève 1984. [ET: «Transcendence and Intelligibility,» in BPW, pp. 154-159; «Discussion Following ‘Transcendence and Intelligibility’ (1984),» in J. Robbins (ed.), Is It Righteous to Be. Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, translated by J. Robbines, M. Coelen, with T. Loebel, Stanford University Press, Stanford 2001, pp. 268-286]. ↩︎
In 1930 in Strasbourg, Levinas obtained his doctorate in philosophy under the supervision of Jean Héring: ‘La théorie de l’intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl’. On June 6, 1961, he then defended his second doctorate, also called the ‘doctorat d’état’, before the ‘Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de l’Université de Paris’: ‘Totalité et Infini. Essai sur l’extériorité’. At the invitation of Jean Wahl, Levinas presented on January 27, 1962 the main lines of his thesis and his book for the influential ‘Société française de philosophie’, of which Wahl was the president at that moment. The presentation of Levinas was published in the Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie under the title: ‘Transcendance et hauteur’ (vol. 56, nr. 3, 1962, pp. 89-101), followed by a report of the discussion (pp. 101-111) and a letter (112-113). Both the text of the presentation as well as the discussion contain important elements for a correct interpretation of Levinas’ thought in the period of his first major work ‘Totalité et Infini’. Taken up in: LC pp. 49-100. ↩︎
Jean Wahl was born in Marseille on May 25, 1888 and died in Paris on June 19, 1974. He was an ‘assimilated Jew’, who during the Second World War did experienced problems on account of his Jewish origins. In 1936 he founded ‘Collège Philosophique’ in Paris: a forum that gathered together three afternoons or evenings per week at his place, in his apartment, and offered all sorts of young (and not so young) thinkers from home and abroad the opportunity to present their views, however controversial they may be. Levinas also got that chance, which resulted among others in the work ‘Le temps et l’autre’ (1947). For further bibliographical data on Wahl, see: B. Hamet-Wahl, Jean Wahl (Notice biographique et bibliographique), in: J. Hersch (ed.), Jean Wahl et Gabriël Marcel, Beauchesne, Paris 1976, pp. 89-92. ↩︎
‘Jean Wahl et le sentiment’, in: Cahiers du Sud, 42(1955), n° 331, pp. 453-459. Taken up in: E. Levinas, Noms propres, Fata Morgana, Montpellier 1976, pp. 165-174, 192. English translation: ‘Jan Wahl and Feeling’, in: Proper Names, Stanford University Press, Stanford California 1996, pp. 110-118, 182. ‘Jean Wahl. Sans avoir ni être’, in: J. Hersch, ed., Jean Wahl et Gabriel Marcel, Paris, Beauchesne, 1976, pp. 13-31. English translation: ‘Jean Wahl: Neither Having nor Being’, in: E. Levinas, Outside the Subject, The Athlone Press, London 1993, pp. 67-83. For completeness see also: ‘Lettre de M.E. Levinas’, in: Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, 37(1937), pp. 194-195; (Intervention in and discussion about Wahl’s description of existentialism), in: J. Wahl, Petite histoire de l’existentrialisme, Paris, Éd. Club Maintenant, 1947, pp. 81-89. ↩︎
See also: J. Wahl, Existence humaine et transcendance, La Baconnière, Neuchâtel 1944, pp. 34-35. ↩︎
Notwithstanding Levinas’ statement that the responsibility by and for the other is in principle infinite, and time and again ‘infinitises’ itself (’s’infinit’), he acknowledges on the level of the ‘third party’, meaning to say on the level of the concrete interhuman and social relationships with the numerous near ones and the faraway others that there must be moderation and fairness, and likewise care for oneself. ↩︎
Levinas illustrates this by means of referring to the biblical encounter between Abram and the three Bedouins who were wandering in the heat of the desert (Gen 11). Only when Abram offers them hospitality does the revelation of God occur to him. His ethics opens his eyes for God (AR 147-148). Levinas refers on numerous occasions to Jeremiah 11,6; also to Isaiah 58,7. As far as the New Testament is concerned, he readily refers to Matthew 25, and likewise to James 1,27 and to 1 John 4,20b. ↩︎
J. Wahl, Existence humaine et transcendance, pp. 30-34. ↩︎
Ibid., pp. 34-38. ↩︎
This immanence of the divine transcendence in the underground depths of the subject implies, according to Wahl, a stage in human experience where humans, in their relationship with the wholly Other, should no longer find refuge in one or the other cult. Humans themselves become the temple and the liturgy: a religion ‘in spirit and truth’. All external cult then only becomes ‘theatre’, meaning to say a ‘mise en scene’ and presentation of the transcendence. This excludes neither the dignity nor perhaps indeed the empirical — factual, historical — necessity of the theatre (HS 121/82). ↩︎
On the basis of his interpretation of this phenomenological, and at the same time transcendental reduction, namely from the ethical relationship to the other, it is not surprising that Levinas likewise describes this reduction as ‘intersubjective Reduction’: «The intersubjective Reduction, starting from the other, will tear the ‘I’ out of its coincidence with self and with the centre of the world» (DVI 52/26). ↩︎