Emmanuel Levinas wants to identify where and when ethical thought begins, what the irreducible ethical experience is like. Crucially, Levinas wants to assert that ethical experience – that is, the experience of an obligation to act in a certain way – is the very first kind of experience we have and, as such, is where philosophy must begin. In answering these questions, and staking out his position on where and how ethical encounters occur, Levinas lays out a novel and distinctive ethics that centers on our senses and our encounters with other humans. Encounters, Levinas stresses, which are mediated through the face.
Emmanuel Levinas’s Focus on the Body and Face
Though his ethical philosophy is idiosyncratic, Levinas’s focus on the senses and on the physicality of the human body as something that philosophy must reckon which locates Levinas in a twentieth-century tradition of philosophers who want to corporealize philosophy. This tradition includes the likes of Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Georges Bataille. These thinkers are all interested in how the perceiving subject is shaped, limited, and enabled by their embodiment.
Levinas is certainly interested in this, too, as his philosophical project is concerned with escaping the finitude and limitations imposed on the subject by their body. However, part of what distinguishes Levinas’s philosophy from these other thinkers is that he is also concerned with the embodiment of others, of the people who the subject encounters, and with the ways in which their physicality is central to the most basic questions of philosophy: questions of ethics, of God, of knowability.
The Face-to-Face Encounter
Levinas does not begin where traditional ethical philosophy begins. He does not propose a set of metrics by which we measure the rightness or wrongness of acts or a specific set of rules that govern how we should behave. What Levinas begins with is the subject, and with the experience of ethical obligation – an experience which, for Levinas, precedes any particular rule or principle. Where ethical philosophy conventionally tries to talk about relations between persons abstractly and impersonally, Levinas asserts that the encounter with an Other can only make sense ‘starting from an I’ (Totality and Infinity, 1961).
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Starting from this ‘I,’ we find a kind of ethical obligation no more familiar in the history of philosophy than the means by which we reach it. The obligation that comes with encountering another human being is an enormous one, indeed, an infinite one. Each ‘I’ is totally responsible for the Other whom they encounter face-to-face. We are obliged, Levinas says, to do more for every person we encounter than we are, in fact, able to do.
Where this obligation comes from can only be broken down so far. For Levinas, the particular effect of the face, the human face (though there is debate among Levinas scholars over whether animals might have a face in the same crucial sense), rests on theological bedrock. There is no argument that tells us we should feel an obligation when we see the face of the Other, only an analysis of the fact that we do.
In part, my obligation to any stranger I encounter has to do with a kind of Heideggerian priority. In short, the stranger was there first and is part of the world I am thrown into, without me getting to make decisions first. This is not a priority in the sense of some hierarchy of age – we are not just thrown into the world once at birth and left to get on with it – but a priority that comes every time we encounter someone, irrespective of who they are. This responsibility, then, is constantly present when the subject encounters other humans, relentlessly renewed and felt. The face of the Other constantly seeks us out and places upon us, as subjects, an immense burden.
Responsibility and Subjecthood
One of the most distinctive and perplexing parts of Levinas’s ethics is his insistence on the asymmetry of our ethical relation to the Other: that I am infinitely obliged to the person I encounter and cannot cancel that obligation by appealing to their reciprocally infinite obligation to me. Though Levinas appeals to every possible subject and asserts to each of us our obligation to the stranger we meet, to suggest that I – as a subject – can get from that universality to a lesser obligation, or an obligation tempered by entitlement, is to fundamentally misunderstand Levinas’s ethical project.
What is crucial to Levinas’s ethics, and here Edmund Husserl’s influence is evident, is that we always begin from subjecthood. We are anchored to ourselves and separated from others so absolutely that we cannot conceive of our obligations from a detached, impersonal viewpoint. Rather, ethics must begin with the “I” who perceives another person and experiences a total responsibility to that person, even (perhaps especially) if they are a stranger.
Since each of us is a subject and bound by that subjecthood, we cannot project onto the Other the knowledge we possess of ourselves, and the obligation that comes with it. The Other, as we recognize them in their face, with all its suggestions of their subjecthood, remains perpetually beyond our grasp, and beyond the fulfillment of our obligations to them.
For Levinas, the subject’s relation to the Other is not like their other relations (indeed, it is perhaps not a relation at all, Levinas calls it a “relation without relation”) insofar as we do not conceptually possess the other person. In Levinas’s scheme, our relations to ordinary things are “relations of comprehension,” whereby we possess those things as objects. The subject’s relation to the Other, however, is what Levinas calls a “relation of prayer.”
The Other is not and can never be fully grasped, and therefore transcends the boundaries of the subject. Unlike things that can be subsumed by subjective experience, the Other’s evasion of possession introduces into experience an irreducible exteriority. It is precisely this exteriority, this experience of the limits of our being, that makes the face-to-face encounter an ethical encounter. When I see the face of the Other, and realize the unbridgeable unknowability of that Other, I also realize the existence of standards and responsibilities outside myself and enter into the domain of ethics proper.
A “Normativity without Norms”
Levinas is interested in describing and analyzing the experience with which ethics begins – the moment at which the human being first experiences a responsibility to act in a certain way. Unlike other philosophers of ethics, Levinas is not, however, keen to lay out what behavior that responsibility demands of individual subjects. The necessarily transcendental quality of an Other who cannot be assimilated into my subjectivity provides the foundation for, and structure of, the ethical experience at large, but it does not tell me what I should or should not do; it does not even provide any the metric by which one should begin to distinguish or measure the rightness and wrongness of actions.
Levinas’s ethics does not even make prescriptions or demands that are mutually exclusive with other major strands of ethical thought. I can begin with a transcendental, prayerful relation to a stranger, and end up with any number of theories about my practical obligations to other people, from the most minimal deontological constraints to the most demanding utilitarian scheme.
Diane Perpich, in her book The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas (2008), describes this unusual ethical position as a “normativity without norms.” In short, Levinas argues strongly for the existence of ethical obligations, and for the existence of these obligations as prior to other kinds of thought, including the theoretical ethics of conventional moral philosophy. Therefore, however, he states no specific norms or prescriptions: no particular content fills in the prescriptive space carved out by Levinas’s writing on the face-to-face encounter.
What the Other Demands of Us
This curious, distinctive, normativity without norms is undercut by a single example, offered by Levinas. The face of the Other, Levinas says, has one specific demand, which he treats as effectively identical to the general demand of ethics at large. When I encounter the face of the Other – the “widow, orphan, or stranger” (Totality and Infinity, 1961) – the face commands me, and this command is entirely pre-theoretical and pre-reflective: “do not kill me.” (Totality and Infinity).
This command, for Levinas, is a necessary expression of the underlying structure of the Other’s effect on the subject. The Other forbids us to kill them simply by existing beyond the boundaries of the self; in the very fact of its transcendence, we are reminded of a limit to our subjective will. The Other reminds me that I am not sovereign, and for Levinas, the natural implication of this limit is that even if the Other is defenseless and I am inclined – within the bounds of my subjectivity – to kill them, their very exteriority forbids this total satisfaction of the will.
The specific injunction against murder, however, does not proceed as naturally from the structure of the encounter with the Other as Levinas seems to think. Why should the Other demand this restraint of me and not the inhibition of any number of other things that I might desire but that would harm another person? Levinas’s choice seems to betray the religious bedrock of his thought; the Other commands us as God would command us – the transcendence of the stranger who cannot be fully known comingles with the transcendence of a God.