Emmanuel Levinas: Horizons on the Face of the ‘Other’
Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) was a French Jewish philosopher born in Kaunas, Lithuania. He studied philosophy in Strasburg, France. In 1940 he was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a labor camp for officers. His Lithuanian family were murdered. His wife and daughters were hidden by religious sisters in Orléans. From 1947 onwards he took… The post Emmanuel Levinas: Horizons on the Face of the ‘Other’ appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) was a French Jewish philosopher born in Kaunas, Lithuania. He studied philosophy in Strasburg, France. In 1940 he was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a labor camp for officers. His Lithuanian family were murdered. His wife and daughters were hidden by religious sisters in Orléans. From 1947 onwards he took up various academic positions in France. Speaking about Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, St John Paul II once described how, their writings approximate very closely to the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. But in these philosophers the pathway to understanding reality and ourselves passes not through careful considerations of ‘being’ and ‘existence’ but through people and their meeting each other. It is, through the ‘I’ and the Thou’ of each other as human beings that we comprehend the ‘Other.’

New horizons on transcendence

So, Levinas develops a new approach in arriving at the ‘transcendent.’ The search for the ‘beyond’ is usually ‘mediated through the sacred’ but for Levinas it is in the ‘face’ of the ‘other’ that we encounter and directly experience the ‘beyond.’ To Levinas this is not an abstract reality since that would be an ‘untrue’ transcendence. The ‘other’ ‘demands me, requires me, summons me’ [Alterity and Transcendence, 27]. Levinas explains how ‘the face-to-face is a relation in which the I frees itself from being limited to itself.’ In the encounter with the ‘other’ person we experience an ‘exodus from that limitation of the I to itself’ [56]. Of course, many other philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel reflected on what is often called a philosophy of the ‘Other.’ The challenge is, according to Levinas, not to get caught up in a tangle of abstractions. It is in loving one’s neighbor and ‘working on oneself’ that we can ‘go toward the Other where he is truly other.’ Indeed, he calls this emphasis on ‘the presence’ and ‘proximity of persons’ a ‘new spirituality’ [88].
Levinas observes how when we address another person it causes an ‘ethical disturbance’ within us. We cannot remain indifferent to them. It is as if ‘the tranquility of the perseverance of my being, in my egoism’ is shattered in the encounter. So, when I meet a stranger, I am provoked to go outside of myself and it is then that ‘all thought is subordinated to the ethical relation, to the infinitely other in the other person’ [97, my emphasis]. So, Levinas holds that ‘love’ is not just consciousness of the ‘other.’ Any thinking (cogito) about the ‘other’ follows on from our preexisting ‘vigilance for the other’ [98]. Whereas Descartes’ emphasis was on the cogito in the famous dictum ‘I think, therefore, I am,’ Levinas’ emphasis is on the priority of the ‘other.’ Putting it in philosophical terms he says ‘the transcendental I in its nakedness comes from the awakening by and for the other’ [98, my emphasis].
Levinas highlights what he calls ‘the proximity of the other’ seeing it as putting into question our very ‘being’ as human persons. He speaks of how we can, of course, live purely at the level of ‘there is’ (il y a). The concept of ‘there is’ as in the statements like ‘it is raining [il pleut]’ or ‘it’s a nice day [il fait beau] remain at the ‘absolutely-impersonal’ level. But when we come to human beings we move beyond the mere ‘recognition of things [choses]…’ [99]. It is in this experience that the human subject realizes that it cannot be ‘sufficient unto itself.’ It is the meeting with the ‘other’ which facilitates ‘the first exiting from self’ [99]. In experiencing the ‘other’ I can, so to speak, let go of myself. The ‘other’ human person is, therefore, the threshold to transcendence. In the encounter with them I can pass through to the Other. The ‘Other’ is in our midst and is as proximate to us as our neighbor. The epiphany of the human face, in the Levinasian perspective, actually ‘constitutes a penetration of the crust’ of the human being who is ‘preoccupied with itself.’ Our responsibility before the ‘other’ in putting them first is a ‘disinterested’ love which is a new kind of holiness. This type of vocation of saintliness, according to Levinas, is what essentially defines the human. He observes how it is in this way that
the human has pierced through imperturbable being; even if no social organization, nor any institution can…ensure, or even produce saintliness [171].

Priority of the other: ‘saintliness’

In an interview given in 1987 Levinas explains how ‘the encounter with the other is the great event’ and this cannot be reduced to the mere acquisition of knowledge. It might be the case that I can never totally understand the other but ‘the responsibility for him, where language is born…overflows knowing’ as such [Unforeseen History, 127]. In answer to the question, ‘what is ethics?’ he answers, ‘it is the recognition of “saintliness.”’ He outlines how the fundamental preoccupation of each individual being is its own being. When it comes to the world of plants and animals ‘all living things hang onto their lives.’ In each case it is all about ‘the struggle for survival.’ But when you come to the encounter with the human you have the ‘possible advent of an ontological absurdity.’ The experience, he says, is that
the concern for the other is greater than the concern for oneself. This is what I call ‘saintliness.’ Our humanity consists in being able to recognize the priority of the other [128, my emphasis].
This is awakened before the ‘face’ of the other. So, Levinas believes that it is in putting the other person first ‘that God comes to mind.’ Human existence lived in terms of this ‘priority’ of the ‘other’ is ‘transcendence.’ It means we ‘escape’ or ex-it ourselves. There is, Levinas says, a deep need to ‘to come out of being’ and not remain ‘cramped inside a tight suffocating circle’ [On Escape, 97]. He holds that when he uses the term ‘face’ he means the ‘other.’  Indeed, when we think of the experiences of the international pandemic, when we all had to wear masks, we can easily understand what Levinas has in mind. The ‘face’ is what is behind the mask; because it is ‘behind the façade and under the countenance that each person gives himself’ [129]. Indeed, the challenge was that we could not even see each other face-to-face which ends up deconstructing who we are as human persons. Levinas when asked ‘what is philosophy?’ explains that traditionally it is understood as the ‘love of wisdom,’ but he sees it as the ‘wisdom of love.’ We can at times run the risk of being intoxicated by ‘the rhythm of words and the generalities they express.’ So, there is a continual need and challenge to ‘be awakened’ by the ‘other.’ It is in this way that we can open ourselves up to ‘the uniqueness of the unique in the real’ which we discover in the uniqueness of other persons. He sees philosophy as being a kind of ‘insomnia,’ that is, being continually awake to who the ‘other’ really is. Levinas describes how ‘transcendence is what faces us. A face breaks up the system.’ In masking up during the health crisis, we missed the experience of ‘the face which looks at me affirming me.’ It is when we are ‘face to face’ that we can ‘no longer negate the other.’ He says we cannot ‘escape the face of the neighbor’ [Collected Philosophical Papers, 167]. Our awakening to this reality can be described as a ‘shudder of the incarnation through which giving takes on meaning…in which a subject becomes a heart.’ In Levinas’s perspective, it is in living out this priority that we become and discover who we are as human beings [43].
This was originally published at Living City Magazine, 1 June 2022 and is republished here with permission of its author.

The post Emmanuel Levinas: Horizons on the Face of the ‘Other’ appeared first on VoegelinView.

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