Levinas and Two Ways of Approaching the World

Blog post by Jeffrey Thayne on June 22, 2009
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Jeffrey Thayne

Emmanuel Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew who lived from 1906 to 1995, and studied under some of the most influential thinkers in Europe. He later moved to France and authored one of the most exciting and original philosophies of the 20th Century. He lived for a time as a prisoner of war during World War 2. After the war he responded with force against what he saw as the movement of western philosophy.

In Contrast with Western Philosophy

What is Western philosophy? Western philosophy traces its ancestry to ancient Europe, to countries such as Greece and Rome. It is the philosophy that you and I are already familiar with. It permeates our thoughts, ideas, and even how we make sense of the world. In Western philosophy, truth is generally considered to be the unchanging, foundational principles of the Universe. Philosophy itself is thought to be the method of reducing the flux of everyday experience to a set of static principles. For Western philosophy, there is no loss in this “reduction,” because we are making the world intelligible, or reducing the chaos we find in experience to unchanging unity.

In simple terms, in order to be truth, it has to be true everywhere, all of the time. Mathematical abstractions are the perfect example of Western truth. The equation c2 = a2 + b2 seems to be true everywhere and everytime, regardless of the particular circumstances, and thus Pythagoras and subsequent Greek philosophers regarded it as truth. Thus, for Western thinking, all things that are dynamic, that are in motion, and that change can be accounted for by the few things that fundamentally do not change. The few things that are always the same govern or explain the many things that are in flux.

A perfect example of this Western way of thinking is in the scientific discipline. Scientists observe change in the world—be it objects falling or creatures evolving—and attempt to discover the unchanging principle to account for that change. For example, they develop a law of gravity to explain why things fall, and thus all the many instances of falling objects can be explained by the one law of gravity. They also formulate the law of natural selection to explain why creatures evolve. Both these laws are considered unchanging and static. Because these principles never change, scientists assume that they are more fundamental than what does change.

We can see that this idea of truth is everywhere in our society. Of course, this does not perfectly capture the thoughts of all Western philosophers. There are many variants and deviations from this worldview. We have summarized enough, however, to see what it is that Levinas responds to in his writings.

Reducing the Other to a Totality

Levinas claimed that there are two ways to know the world, or two ways that we can approach a phenomenon. Another way to say this is that there are two ways that we can know what is Other. The first way of knowing the world is the way that Western philosophy has adopted since its beginning. In order to describe this way of knowing the world, it may be best to use a metaphor. Consider a fruit, like an apple. The apple, upon first encounter, is not part of me; it is something other than me. However, when I eat the apple, it then becomes a part of me. When we consume food, we make it part of us, or part of the Same.

According to Levinas, Western philosophy does the same thing when it encounters the Other. It makes sense of the Other in a way that turns it into the Same. It destroys the otherness of the Other by reducing it to the Same. When we describe the Other in words or abstractions, we turn it into something that we can grasp, understand, encapsulate in words, and remake it in our own image. We use the idiomatic phrase, “I get it!” or, “I’ve got it!” to describe the way we know the phenomenon we’ve encountered. We thus take possession of the Other, and it thus becomes part of us. We become masters of the Other, because the Other has surrendered to us and has lost its alterity. The word alterity means “the state of being other, or different.” “Percieved in this way,” said Levinas, “philosophy would be engaged in reducing to the Same all that is opposed to it as other.” In essence, the goal of Western philosophy is to turn that which is alien into that which is familiar. Levinas continued, “Western philosophy coincides with the unveiling of the other in which the Other … loses its alterity. Philosophy is afflicted, from its childhood, with an insurmountable allergy: a horror of the Other which remains Other.”

There are many experiences that are perfectly compatible with this way of knowing the world. For example, descriptions of how things fall, mathematical principles, even bacterial infections are encounters with the world that are not distorted when enframed into a Totality.

Approaching the Other as the Infinite

However, there are many experiences where this process of subsuming the Other does distort the reality of the Other. For example, people are foremost and always an irreducible Other that must be approached differently. The second way Levinas said that we can know the world can be illustrated with another metaphor. Like the apple, when we drink from a spring, that which we drink becomes a part of us. But unlike the apple, we cannot drink all of the water that flows from the spring. Not only is there more to the phenomenon than we can consume, but there will always be more than we can consume, because it is an inexhaustible source. Thus, the Other is not something that we can encapsulate in words, take possession of, or make part of ourselves. There will always be something genuinely and irreducibly Other about it.

Levinas said, “The relation with infinity cannot, to be sure, be stated in terms of experience, for infinity overflows the thought that thinks it.” Let’s consider another example: when we think of the ocean, we have an idea what the ocean is and what it is like. However, there is always more about the ocean that we do not know. There will likely always be more in the ocean than what we know. Perhaps an even better metaphor is an idea of the cosmos: no matter what is contained in our idea, the reality of the cosmos is inexhaustible. It can never be fully encapsulated into words. The reality of the infinite will always be able to shatter whatever conceptions we make about it. We can never make the Infinite into a Totality. It can never be fully consumed, tamed, mastered, or made a part of us. In this mode of approaching the Other, we cannot make the Other into the Same. The Other is always in flux, because of its inexhaustible nature.

Because people are foremost and always an irreducible Other, they escape any attempt to  reduce them into a totality or to make them into the Same. C. S. Lewis wrote that when his wife died, he would remake the images and memories he had of her in his own image. He said, “Although ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real Helen would correct all this, the rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness [was] gone. … The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real Helen so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.” This experience shows that there is something about the Other that is always in flux, that will always shatter whatever conceptions we form about it, that is inexhaustible in its presence as a spring of water. C. S. Lewis described God in a similar way: “My idea of God … has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?” Levinas described this shattering as the other’s face: “The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face. … The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me.” In other words, the Otherness of the Other cannot be made perfectly familiar without destroying its alterity.

When we make the Other into a Totality, the Other surrenders to us, and we take possession of it. When we approach the Other as the Infinite, something different happens; the Other inevitably pulls us into a relationship of obligation. “The face resists possession, resists my powers.” When we totalize another person, we do violence to that person. Only when we approach the Other as Infinite can we reduce the violence we do to them.

Conclusion

Human beings are inescapably an Infinity, not a totality. We see this in the way we approach others. Even when we are in a position to treat another person as an object, we inevitably acknowledge their humanity. For example, if a scientist wants to see what is inside a fruit, he simply slices it open and looks inside. However, few people would simply slice a living human being merely to satisfy a scientific curiosity. Even when we mistreat another person and treat them as objects, we acknowledge their humanity. We may laugh maliciously when we mischievously trip our friend, but no one laughs when a chair falls.

We see here a contrast between two different approaches: The reducing of the Other into a Totality, and the reverent approaching of the Other as the Infinite. Emmanuel Levinas worked to rupture the way we make sense of the world, to question the assumptions we make, and to create space for the second way of approaching the Other. According to Levinas, the reduction of what is infinite and Other to a totality and the Same is sometimes, if not often, a lesser and destructive method that mangles the phenomena we seek to understand. When we approach people as a totality, we can mask the genuine Otherness of those around us.

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  1. This is a very good post Jeff. You have the ability to take very complex and difficult ideas and make them understandable without trivializing them. That is a very important attribute of a good teacher.

    It seems to me that Levinas’s insight is critically dependent on Buber, whom he roundly criticized and rejected. It seems to me, however, that is he making essentially the same point but denying the kind of sympathetic contact and revelation of the Other as Thou experienced by a n I that is made whole in the encounter that Buber taught. It seems to me that in Levinas’s thought we always remain alienated and the Other always remains an alien Other and not another who is friend or a Thou to be intrinsically valued. Is that how you see it?

  2. Blake Ostler,

    Sorry I’ve taken so long to respond. I’ve been at a seminar all week at Clemson University. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    I agree that Buber and Levinas are closely related. I plan to write a follow-up post about both of them, and to detail how each of them treated the ethical obligation we experience in the face of the Other. I do see that, for Levinas, the other is more alien than what we find in Buber. Personally, I see the Other’s alienness (if that is even a word) as experienced in the fact that the Other can always surprise us, can never be cast into a set of propositions, because whatever conceptions or conclusion we draws about them can and always will be shattered in the actual experience of them. However, just because they can surprise us doesn’t make them unfamiliar to us. To me, it means that there is something not me in them, something Other that I am relating to, whereas my conceptions and ideas of the Other are simply contents of my own thoughts and therefore part of me. Right now, I’m have more to learn about both philosophers, and haven’t reached any conclusions about whose point of view most closely resembles my own experience.

  3. Hello—

    Some years ago I was introduced to Levinas by someone who was in the midst of a paranoid episode. As a result I never read the book he thrust into my hands. My loss. I clearly missed out on a really insightful mind.

    You say Levinas was a prisoner for a while. Prison is a place where the infinitude of the Other is absolutely subsumed by the status of being a prisoner. I have myself only experienced 12hrs of jail for a ticket gone to warrant but my entire experience there was that I had no depth or history to my jailers. I was no better nor worse than anyone else behind bars. I was a perp and that was that. My distress was boring to the guards.

    I don’t actually dwell on that experience much, but somehow reading your article brought this up from the depths.

    More recently I have been watching cop-shows and have been affected by the way in which the murderer is treated as merely a bad person. In my 63yrs I have known three murderers. One was indeed a psycho-path who was murdered in his turn. The others were overwhelmed by life, and their lives were effectively destroyed. I felt like they were falling away from life. Their lives were totalized around their lack of control.I wasn’t close with either the victims or the killers so I could look at the situation as a whole event. They all became very small. I don’t approve of murder from either side, but I wonder if we relate to violence properly by merely being appalled. The way violence can trivialize a person and totalize his/her being is more to the point. Being open to another person’s unexpectedness is the essence of friendship. I intuit a political dimension here but I can’t quite express it.

    Bruce.

  4. That’s a really sobering example. I have an in-law who spent two years in prison. That seems to be an area where an otherwise moral, kind, generous, spiritual person seems to feel justified in totalizing another person—when you find out they have a criminal past. We seem likely to justify doing it out of safety or whatever reason. It’s a good reminder to me to resist that temptation whenever I meet someone who’s done time.

  5. Hello,
    Re-reading my note it occurred to me that we can’t entirely blame others for being “totalized”. It may be that Levinas is describing what we do to ourselves when we “beat ourselves up” over something we have done or not done, as well as what the judge or the jailer does to us.
    In conversation with legal types I have yet to find anyone who can demonstrate how this or that punishment fits the law that it is attached to. Way too many abstractions and too little real world foundation to the law or to its sanctions.
    The same goes for the way we treat ourselves and our families and our friends. The original meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” is to be friendly and helpful to your neighbor as you would be to yourself. Jesus, as you know, said any person who takes pity is a neighbor. Using Levinas’ approach maybe we could say any person open to our unexpectedness is on a par with the Samaritan in our concrete daily lives.
    I think we have to take one more step and be our own Good Samaritan. For everyone’s sake. If you are mean to yourself how are you going to treat your kids?

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