In Praise of Emmanuel Levinas

Thursday November 2, 2006

Levinas

I arrived back from Bulgaria a couple of days ago, and since then I have been catching up with myself. It was a wonderful week away, and I benefited enormously from the break. Not that the conference was much of a break – twelve hour long days packed with papers and presentations.

My own paper had the title “Otherwise than Levinas”, a reference to Levinas’s final major work, “Otherwise than Being”, and it seemed to go down well, despite being almost at the end of the second and final day, when everyone was beginning to tire, and despite being fairly critical at a conference dedicated to the one hundredth anniversary of the philosopher’s birth.

Levinas, for those who don’t know him, is an ethical phenomenologist, or a phenomenologist of ethics. As the name suggests, phenomenology aims to explore phenomena: i.e. it explores that which appears to us, rather than jumping straight to the more apparently “philosophical” questions such as “What is good?”, or “What is time?” The way I sometimes talk about it – although this is a very loose way of speaking – is that phenomenology is about the easy questions – What is x like? – rather than the difficult questions – What is x? So if we are asked “What is goodness?” (a difficult question) we might have difficulty, we might get lost in abstraction very quickly. But if we ask “What is goodness like?” (a relatively easy question) then we might realise that actually we know quite a lot. Husserl, who initiated the phenomenological method, talked about it as a return “to the things themselves”.

Although it inevitably gets lost in Byzantine complexities of its own, at its best, I think of phenomenology as a kind of attentiveness to the world and to our own processes of interaction with the world. In ethics, it seems, this might be quite a useful thing. We spend a lot of time talking about ethics, but we don’t necessarily pay much attention to the phenomena of ethics themselves. As an example, here is a story with which I began my paper in Sofia, a story from the end of my time in India where I went on a journey around the Buddhist sites:

We left the hotel in Darjeeling early, shouldering our bags and heading through the narrow streets to the bazaar where the jeep was waiting. As we hurried through the marketplace, we heard the sound of wailing. There, to the side of the road by a flight of steps, was a man, sitting amid the detritus of the market, sniffed at by mangy dogs. His clothes had slipped away from his upper body to reveal a hollow chest. His ribs stood out starkly in relief. Skinny arms protruded from his rags: he hugged himself with one whilst propping himself up with the other. But it is his face I remember the most: an abyss of distress and misery and aloneness turned towards us. The passers-by and market traders ignored him. We faltered for a moment. The man was crying out in distress, each cry further contorting his face.
What would it have taken to have alleviated his suffering? Perhaps a universe, perhaps merely the touch of another human being’s hands. I will never know. We were tired and ready for our journey to end. We turned away from his suffering. India, after all, is full of suffering. There is little that one can do. We climbed into the jeep and headed down to Siliguri.
Only then, as we wound our way down the valley to the river Teesta, did my friend speak.
‘We should have done something,’ she said.

What went on in this experience? When I now attempt to answer this question, I see it as perhaps a quintessentially Levinasian story. Levinas asks us the question: What is it like to be faced by another human being? – an experience so common that we take it for granted, but a strange one nevertheless, one that is worthy of reflection. Exploring this experience, Levinas recognises a profound otherness in the other person we encounter, a sense in which they are always a stranger to us, and in which they challenge our complacency and the self-absorption of our own schemes. They break with our own self-constructed world. But this break has a curious character. In being faced by another, Levinas says, I am already responsible, I am incapable of not responding, even if this response is to turn away, as we did in Darjeeling. Responsibility comes before any choosing of responsibility.

The story above took place before I had ever heard of Levinas; but at the same time, I cannot now think of it without understanding it in Levinasian terms: the encounter with the face of a stranger, the experience of responsibility, the turning away whilst thinking “What can one do?” and the defaulting upon this responsibility, the naked, human relationship that comes before any attempt at ethical calculus.

It was perhaps recognising experiences such as these in Levinas’s work that drew me in to philosophy. And after eight years or so immersed in his work, I am grateful to him for the light that he has thrown upon certain aspects of ethics. Having said this, Levinas’s ethics is no doubt limited in scope. It has great difficulty in talking about subjects such as environmental degradation and our relationship with non-human others, for example; and it is couched in a theistic language that is not only completely alien to me, but that also seems to be unhelpful for the possibility of thinking ethically. This, in effect, was the conclusion of my paper: an expression of my debt to Emmaneul Levinas, whilst at the same time attempting to suggest that a phenomenological appraoch to ethics might benefit from being conducted in many ways that are otherwise than Levinas.

Read about Levinas on Wikipedia
An introductory guide to Levinas.

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#1 · matt

7 November 2006

Thank you – this article made me think. That is something that does not happen enough.

#2 · Will

7 November 2006

Glad that it was useful, Matt. Levinas is certainly a thought-provoking philosopher, and for all my disagreements with him, I am grateful for that.

Best wishes,

Will

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