chunk o’ Levinas; my sketch here is intended to lead into the description of suffering he offers, to demonstrate the challenge his ethics-as-first-philosophy approach poses to existing philosophies, with their implicit focus on ontology (and the priority of the individual essence), to explore the question of rationality in relation to the other, and finally to sketch the distinction between ethics and politics.

…As I have demonstrated through the preceding discussion, the experience of suffering is thoroughly bound up with subjectivity. Implicit in all of the previous consideration of suffering is the long-standing model of Western subjectivity (although a number of the subject’s attributes have already been discussed). This liberal, humanist subject arises naturally, is autonomous, sovereign, individual and self-present, capable of rationality and has an unchanging essence (often conceived of as a concealed interiority, truth or “true self”) which is inserted like a hand into the glove of the body. It is this model of the subject that hovers behind van Hooft and Frank’s considerations of suffering, and perhaps even Cassell’s. Yet the theoretical framework of Levinas challenges this implicit narrative, and along with it a philosophical tradition that has focussed on the primacy of being (or in some cases, Being) and the subject’s consciousness as a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit point of origin. Ethics, if even considered, comes well after the enumeration of the nature of being itself.

Levinas’ version of ethics differs from other forms: he puts ethics before ontology, claiming that ‘being must be understood on the basis of being’s other.’ (Levinas 1998, 16) Thus the relation with the other is what brings time, being, knowledge and the subject into being. This is a complex challenge to existing philosophies, whose obsession with ontologies, epistemologies and metaphysics (and only then, maybe, questions of ethics) become increasingly clear in contrast to Levinas’ discussion. In positioning ethics a ‘first philosophy’ (Levinas 1989, 76) the ‘face-to-face’ (Levinas 1998, 160) relation with the other as the very condition upon which the subject can be, even as that being is placed perpetually in question. The ‘face’ refers to ‘[t]he way that the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me… This mode does not consist in figuring as a theme under my gaze, in spreading itself forth as a set of qualities forming an image.’ (Levinas TI, 50) The face calls the subject, as Levinas describes in detail:

But, in its expression, in its mortality, the face before me summons me, calls for me, begs for me, as if the invisible death that must be faced by the Other, pure otherness, separated, in some way, from any whole, were my business. It is as if that invisible death, ignored by the Other, whom already it concerns by the nakedness of its face, were already “regarding” me prior to confronting me, and becoming the death that stares me in the face. The other man’s [sic] death calls me into question, as if, by my possible future indifference, I had become the accomplice of the death to which the other, who cannot see it, is exposed; and as if, even before vowing myself to him [sic], I had to answer for this death of the other, and to accompany the Other into his [sic] mortal solitude. The other becomes my neighbour precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question…. as if I had to answer for the other’s death even before being. (Levinas 1989, 83)

The subject ‘comes not into the world but into question,’ (Levinas 1989, 81) a phrase carefully worded: the call engenders a response, in which the subject is already questioning his/her existence (as it takes from the other, beginning with its ‘place in the sun,’ as Levinas repeatedly cites Pascal):

My being-in-the-world or my “place in the sun,” my being at home, have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man, whom I have already oppressed or starve, or driven out into a third world: are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing? (Levinas 1989, 82)

This response is, precisely, subjectivity. It is the inarticulate cry of the other expressed in the nakedness of the face that brings the subject into responsibility, and thus into being, but as a subject rather unfamiliar when set against the “common sense” of a liberal humanist individual:

To posit subjectivity in this responsibility is to catch sight of a passivity in it that is never passive enough, that of being consumed for the other. The very light of subjectivity shines and illuminates out of this ardour, although the ashes of this consummation are not able to fashion the kernel of a being existing in and for itself, and the I does not oppose to the other any form that protects itself or provides it with a measure… What do these metaphors mean, if not an I torn from the concept of the ego and from the content of obligations for which the concept rigorously supplies measure and rules, and thus left to an unmeasured responsibility, because it increases in the measure – or in the immeasurableness – that a response in made, increasing gloriously. This is the I that is not designated, but which say “here I am.” (1989, 181-2)

It is in response to the other that ‘[a]ll my inwardness is invested in the form of a despite-me, for-another… it is the very fact of finding oneself while losing oneself. (Levinas 1998, 11) The cry is, as Levinas puts it, ‘pre-originary,’ (Levinas 1998, 188) or ‘an-archic’ (Levinas 1998, 11): the moment of cry and response occurs not in time, but is precisely what brings time into being. As such, the relation with the other is not a developmental moment, but the condition for the possibility of each and every moment of the subject’s existence: in some sense, it both never occurs and it has always just occurred in time ‘immemorial.’ (Levinas 1998, 11)

The other is always a stranger, always exceeding my capacity to know them: ‘The Other as Other is not only an alter ego: the other is what I myself am not… because of the other’s very alterity.’ (Levinas, 1989, 48): not simply unknown but unknowable. I am responsible for the other, then, but that other is always and endlessly other, always beyond my ability to fully comprehend (or in Levinas’ language, thematise). This absolute otherness is not an object, not a thing, and always beyond comprehension, is known as alterity. ‘Alterity figures in it [the face] outside any qualification for the ontological order and outside any attribute.’ (Levinas 1998, 16) Indeed, ‘[t]he Other alone eludes thematization.’ (Levinas 1969, 86) However, this capacity to elude thematization-knowability-does not prevent the subject’s attempt to ‘kill’ the other, an attempt incited precisely by its unknowability: ‘[i]deal priority… wipes out all otherness by murder or by all-encompassing and totalizing thought. ‘(Levinas 1989, 85) As Levinas points out, this violence is problematic because ‘[t]he neutralization of the other who becomes a theme or object – appearing, that is, taking its place in the light – is precisely his [sic] reduction to the same.’ (Levinas 1969, 43) This killing is particularly problematic because it is alterity that gives me myself, precisely because :

The Other, whose exceptional presence is inscribed in the ethical impossibility of killing him in which I stand, marks the end of powers. If I can no longer have power over him it is because he [sic] overflows absolutely every idea I can have of him [sic]. (Levinas 1969, 87)

In this respect, the other is precisely that which delimits the subject’s conquest of the world; the other delimits the subject, circumscribes it, and thereby it is as responsible, as a responsible subject. The attempt to destroy the alterity that I am responsible for is thus particularly problematic: ‘[t]he thematisation of a face undoes the face and undoes the [ethical] approach.’ (Levinas 1998, 94)

It is for this reason that this ethics (as first philosophy) poses such a challenge: it queries ‘modern man [sic] persistin[ing] in his being as a sovereign who is merely concerned to maintain the powers of his sovereignty,’ and whose interaction with others can only be one of ‘knowledge… [of] that other which is an object,’ (Levinas 1989, 78) Not only does it challenge the implicit progress narrative that shapes other forms of philosophy (usually along the lines of being-knowledge-ethics), he reconfigures the for-itself/in-itself construction of subjectivity and objectivity in earlier philosophy as the more complex structure ‘of the one-for-the-other.’ (Levinas 1998, 158) Knowledge becomes ethically a source of violence against the other, a violent rejection of the otherness that makes me who I am:

The function of language would amount to suppressing “the other,” who breaks this coherence and is hence essentially irrational. A curious result: language would consist in suppressing the other, in making the other agree with the same. (Levinas 1969, 73)

It is here that Levinas’ ethics shows its real content, because my responsibility to the other is to the other as other, not merely as my own (or some universal) conception of the other, which would always do violence to that otherness in attempting to grasp it. As such, then, knowledge is very far from the grounds for ethics, as Frank would have us suppose; indeed, it does violence to not only the ethical relation, but to the other, and in some sense to myself. In requiring that the other justify the reason for an ethical intervention through rational dialogue, Frank makes ethics a matter of ‘making the other agree with the same,’ even in the simple requirement of rationality.

It should be noted here that for all that Levinas puts ethics first, he may not be entirely disapproving of Frank’s proposal. Ethics remains between subject and other; but when “the third” enters into the picture, s/he provokes a severe troubling of the ethical burden. This is not simply because the subject is abruptly responsible for two others, but because I am responsible for the other’s responsibilities.

The other stands in a relationship with the third party, for whom I cannot entirely answer, even if I alone answer, before any question, for my neighbour. The other and the third party, my neighbours, contemporaries of one another, put distance between me and the other [the ethical relation] and the third party… The third party introduces a contradiction… It is of itself the limit of responsibility and the birth of the question: What do I have to do with justice? A question of consciousness. Justice is necessary, that is, comparison, coexistence, contemporaneousness, assembling, order, thematization, the visibility of faces, and thus intentionality and the intellect, and in intentionality and the intellect, the intelligibility of a system, and thence also a copresence on an equal footing as before a court of justice… (Levinas 1998, 157)

It is at this point, Levinas argues, that politics comes into being, as a means for ‘comparison of the incomparable… the latent birth of representation, logos, consciousness, work, the neutral notion being.’ (Levinas 1998, 158) Politics, then, is driven not by ethical responsibility, and indeed, fundamentally contradicts it; it is driven by questions of justice, or more precisely, by questions of what to do when the ethical relationship is made to extend beyond two. If alterity is always unknowable and unthematisable, and violence is done to it in thematising it, then justice is always to some extent violent:

All the others that obsess me in the other do not affect me as examples of the same genus united with my neighbour by resemblance or common nature, individuations of the human race, or chips off the same block… The others concern me from the first. Here fraternity precedes the commonness of a genus. My relationship with the other as neighbour gives meaning to my relations with all the others… The one for the other of proximity is not a deforming abstraction. In it justice is shown from the first, it is thus born from the signifiyingness of signification, the one-for-the-other, signification…Justice is impossible without the one that renders it finding himself in proximity. His function is not limited to the ‘function of judgement,’ the subsuming of particular cases under a general rule… Justice, society, the State and its isntiutions, exchanges and work are comprehensible out of proximity. This means that nothing is outside of the control of the responsibility of the one for the other. It is important to recover all these forms beginning with proximity… (Levinas 1998, 159)

In many respects, it may be a fairer characterisation of Frank’s suggestion of Socratic dialogue-that it seeks justice, rather than ethics-and it certainly appears to jibe more easily with his concerns about suffering. However, as Levinas is careful to recall, ethics retains priority, and as such acts as a kind of “corrective” to the space of politics, and to the alleged justice it can engender. Given that Frank positions his rational, dialogical decision-making as a tool of justice, the question remains: can his model allow us to respond to suffering? Yet as we have already seen, he is unwilling to allow that the woman with ugly toes might really be suffering, and justifies this through such a logical approach. If his tools of justice can be deployed to such ends, the question remains: what is suffering, and what kinds of ethical requirements does it make of us? Can Frank’s justice be ethical, or has it, according to Levinas, lost its way?

Main References:

Levinas 1998 Otherwise than Being

Levinas 1989 The Levinas Reader

Levinas 1969 Totality and Infinity