Levinas, Emmanuel Essay

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Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95) was a Jewish Lithuanian philosopher in the phenomenological tradition. That is, he followed Edmund Husserl in seeking truth not in transcendental realities or logical analytics, but in the lived experience of subjects. However, unlike other phenomenologists, who seek naïve and accurate descriptions of the phenomena of human experience, Levinas moves the focus from description to prescription, constructing his notions of ethics from an ideal of moral response that demands more of the individual than the lesser, but still necessary, value of justice, thus demoting justice, a primary value in every society, to the status of a lesser good.

Levinas follows Plato in his hyperbolic valuation of a good beyond justice, which is the lesser good located in societies and political organizations, but for Levinas, the good is brought down from the heavens and resituated in an ethics of “proximity” that brings human beings into a faceto-face ethical relationship that requires of them infinite moral response. The mere fact of proximity to need requires the “one who has” to endlessly give to those who have not—the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Levinas’s hyperbolic ethics is grounded in his religious mythology. He sees ethics as a way to fulfill a divine commandment that, for Levinas, precedes laws, institutions, and the requirements of justice; this prior commandment requires of every human being, as a function of their being human, the duty to be their “brother’s keeper.”

Because the good is unstinting and infinite, the moral respondent remains always guilty, always indebted to needy others in proximity, no matter how often, selflessly, and thanklessly he or she responds. Thus enters justice. For Levinas, justice is the utterly necessary lesser good that returns reason to this otherwise unreasonable command to respond to others in need. Because the needy other before the subject is but one among many others, and because the subject, too, is also a need-based creature and another’s other, the need arises for a just distribution that balances the subject’s giftgiving, limits the subject’s infinite response to those in proximity, and leaves something in the subject’s possession to preserve his/her own life and to give to other others who may not reside close at hand.


Levinas is a religious thinker and philosopher who epitomizes the Jewish philosophical turn in ethical orientation that characterizes post-Holocaust or postmodernist philosophy. Born January 12, 1906, in Kaunas, Lithuania, of Jewish parents, Levinas grew up in a household speaking both Hebrew and Russian and received a traditional Jewish education. In 1923 at the age of 17, Levinas immigrated to France where he undertook his studies in philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, working with many fine thinkers, such as Charles Blondel, Maurice Halbwachs, Maurice Pradines, Henri Carteron, and his lifelong friend and fellow philosopher, Maurice Blanchot. By 1928, Levinas was studying at the University of Freiberg in Germany, under the masters of phenomenological thought, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

His doctoral dissertation, published in 1930, which examined and critiqued Husserl’s theory of intuition, his French translation of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, and his 1932 essay on Heidegger were critical chapters in the evolution of the philosophical methods and ideas of these seminal German thinkers. Responses to Husserl and Heidegger form the core of Levinas’s own philosophical thought.

After World War II, Levinas launched his fervent rejection of Heidegger’s ideas, indicating his deep regret for his early enthusiasm for this thinker, after Heidegger joined the Nazi Party, a lapse in judgment that Heidegger himself may have come to regret but never recanted. Levinas became a naturalized French citizen in 1930 and joined the French army, but his service was short-lived, as the German invasion of France in 1940 saw his military unit promptly surrounded and forced to surrender. Levinas spent the rest of World War II in a prison camp near Hanover, Germany, where he was assigned to a special barrack for Jewish prisoners. Most of his family was killed in the Holocaust; only his wife and daughter survived, hidden in a French monastery, thanks to the risky efforts of his lifelong friend, Maurice Blanchot. Levinas enjoyed a flourishing philosophical career from the 1950s until his death in Paris on December 25, 1995. Levinas’s entire body of work reflects the tragic experiences of the Holocaust era.

Levinas and Justice

Levinas’s ideas about justice in many ways follow Plato, but with significant alterations. Like Plato, Levinas departs from the traditional assumption that justice is an unambiguous good and a primary value. Plato’s cave allegory, which opens Book V of the Republic, pictures a “good beyond being,” imaged as the sun beyond the Earth, far above the human city that, in this allegory, is not placed on the earth’s surface but beneath in a cavern, where men are depicted chained and fed a false vision of reality that serves the interests of powerful leaders. For Levinas as for Plato, justice dwells in this lower realm, in the arena of laws and institutions designed to make citizens good, and the mechanisms of justice are vulnerable and can be twisted by powerful parties to betray the values and the general good that they purport to serve.

At its best, justice is far from the pure good of ethics. Justice is a lesser good, an aspect of the broad arsenal of state hardware that seeks to control and regulate citizen behaviors and punish transgressors. Its forms are always violent, ranging from the subtler violence of equalizing incomparable human differences to the direct violence involved in police interrogations, crowd control, armed sentries, identity cards, immigration selection policies, prisons, surly guards, nightsticks, death camps, and gas chambers. Undeniably, Levinas’s experiences during his prison internment inform his ideas about justice, warning him of the range of potential dangers associated with all state institutions, but his extreme notion of justice as antithetical to ethics is meant to highlight the potential of all states to violate citizen rights and the dangers of the best-intended laws and institutional traditions.

Laws and institutions are made rigid to respond to the phenomenon Plato underscores in the Phaedrus: Written words have the tendency to transform into “bastard sons” running all over the place, saying anything to anyone. To prevent the slippage of meaning from one judge, one jury, one lawyer or plaintiff to another, legal hardware is designed to hold everyone to firm and intransigent standards. This is precisely the problem of justice in Levinas’s account. The state and its legal contract with its citizens are violent institutions because in applying universal standards to singular human beings, they cannot help but violate people’s uniqueness, stripping people and their situations of their infinite differences in a quest to bring the equality that democratic law demands.

Mechanisms of justice are not ethical, in Levinas’s account, because ethics happens in the “saying” of a face-to-face relationship, whereas laws and institutions compose the “said,” a discourse that hardens into institutional truth and immediately betrays the unique parties it was designed to protect. This does not mean that the state institutions of justice should be dissolved in the interest of ethics. On the contrary, the mechanisms of justice are utterly necessary to a fair human world, because in Levinas’s hyperbolic ethics, people will be driven relentlessly to unreasonable, obsessive, and crazy expenditures to fill the needs of proximate others to the point that they will bankrupt their own resources and leave nothing for needy “other others.”

For Levinas, a necessary justice enters with the arrival of the “third man” who reminds the moral respondent that others will need help, too, and that empty hands cannot give. To keep justice honest, however, the “said” must be returned to a “saying”; that is, laws and courts must be readily bent to serve individual needs and to reflect people’s singular identities and circumstances. An attempt can, and must always, be made to return the hardened rules and procedures of state institutions to the realm of living truth by adjusting the hardened statutes of the law to fit the needs of the individual petitioner, giving each the opportunity to return from the absence of an abstract equality and present themselves in their unique singularity.

By placing liberal standards of justice themselves in question, Levinas is reminding his readers that social contracts in wealth-structured societies are no better than marketplace deals. Justice aspires to fair, reciprocal relations for the sake of mutual return and balanced transactions among contending parties in profit wars. Justice is about what one is guaranteed (rights) and what is owed to others (responsibilities) in formal relationships, such as spouse, parent, client, proprietor, and citizen.

But justice is not ethics. Ethics places people outside the safe security of their system rules that balance their responsibilities and their rights, and throws them out into unknown, unregulated, unprotected territory—into anarchy, or what Levinas names the “elemental,” an irrational dimension where mythical gods hold sway. On the other hand, justice represents security because it is designed, at least in theory, to maintain every citizen’s equal status with the others, to regulate their relationships, and to punish those that betray their neighbors and threaten the balance of the society.

Written Works

In Totality and Infinity, the stable, reasonable realm of justice protects the respondent, who consciously assumes the role of the tireless, selfless host and “hosts” the widow, the orphan, and the alien in “a delightful lapse of the ontological.” In the darker mood of Otherwise Than Being, however, the delight fades and festers and terrifies, and ethics calls the moral respondent far beyond the duty of hosting and into the more treacherous territory of assuming responsibility for irresponsible others, such as Nazi S.S. guards. Jacques Derrida, in the article “Violence and Metaphysics,” challenged Levinas that the welcoming host was too active, too knowing a giver to represent a truly selfless ethic. In response, Levinas abandons the active ethic of the host of Totality and Infinity and introduces in Otherwise Than Being the passive ethic of the self-sacrificial victim who undergoes, rather than chooses, ethical response. Therefore, between the two major books, the “delightful lapse” of ethics collapses into a shock, an oppression, an obsession, and a persecution, and the host becomes the hostage. Thus, in the second work, justice is called in to rescue the hostage, since ethics has become a brutal rape of the freedom that would calculate gifts to others judged needy and deserving.

Levinas’s extreme prescriptive ethic that excludes reason and rejects the critical democratic value of equality is often sharply reproached by critics as unrealistic, unbalanced, and thus useless for aiding in real-life crises. By declaring justice ethics-free, Levinas is rejecting the timeworn value of “due measure” that Aristotle posits as the golden mean (courage is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness) and affirming his faithfulness to a Platonic ethic whose goods or “forms” do not admit to deterioration as they increase in potency (one can never be too just, too beautiful, too courageous).

Levinas also abandons the value of balance, seminal to Plato’s definition of justice, in demanding limitless response to the endless needs of others. However, for any parent who has nursed a sick child through a long night or any friend that has kept terrified vigil over a suicidal comrade, the hostage image for ethics resonates truly. Ethics often requires of people responses they would rather not give, and often people who are faced with a real moral crisis do not have the luxury and freedom for a carefully calculated response that weighs their own best interests against the needs of desperate others. Freedom of choice is often illusory under the gravity of ethical demand. Exigency can be irremissible. Levinas does admit that individuals can always retreat from the weighty demands of ethics to the security of justice with its protections of equality and balance, but when they do so they abandon the site of ethics where the glory of god passes by.

In Levinas’s ethics, individuals are passively burdened with the very gravity of being, the moral weight of the hungry and homeless, and they are hostage to responsibility for the irresponsibility of death camp guards. Ethics deprives people of justice and compels them to the event of their own execution. Such ethics cannot be named anything short of madness, a self-holocaust that makes no reasonable sense. Hebrew meshougass ruptures the typical Western ideas of Cartesian conatus essendi that underpin Western ideas about freedom and justice, but since egoism goes on behind the scenes all the while that the subject undergoes the demand of an unrelenting ethics, justice is ultimately reconfirmed as necessary, so that givers retain something to give and ethics can continue. One is caught up in a spiral of thankless, endless giving that may land one in an abyss of suffering and death, but justice steps in to rescue its victims before they expire of generosity.


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  2. Descartes, René. Discourse on Method. John Veitch, trans. London: J. M. Dent, 1996.
  3. Fackenheim, Emil L. To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
  4. Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Patrick Gregory, trans. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
  5. Hamblet, Wendy C. The Sacred Monstrous: A Reflection on Violence in Human Communities. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004.
  6. Hamilton, Edith and Huntington Cairns. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.
  7. Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations. Dorian Cairns, trans. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1995.
  8. Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. F. Kersten, trans. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1998.
  9. Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Random House, 1989.
  10. Levinas, Emmanuel. Collected Philosophical Papers. Alfonso Lingis, trans. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993.
  11. Levinas, Emmanuel. Discovering Existence With Husserl. Richard Cohen and Michael Smith, trans. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998.
  12. Levinas, Emmanuel. Existence and Existents. Alfonso Lingis, trans. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1978.
  13. Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. Alfonso Lingis, trans. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.

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