Responsibility in the Face of the Other

Responsibility that begins in seeing the face of another human being is a primary philosophical category.

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Emmanuel Levinas was among the most prominent European Jewish intellectuals in the second half of the 20th century. His philosophical writings are considered an important contribution to phenomenology, and his writings on Jewish subjects, including philosophical interpretations of talmudic passages, are studied both as contributions to the philosophy of Judaism and as extensions of his more strictly philosophical works. For Levinas, one’s response to other human beings as they are embodied–quite literally–in their faces is a primary philosophical category. In this excerpt from a longer dialogue, Levinas presents a brief exposition of his theory of the Other. Reprinted from "Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas," in Face to Face with Levinas, edited by Richard A. Cohen (State University of New York Press).

EL: The approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility. As such, the face of the other is verticality and uprightness; it spells a relation of rectitude. The face is not in front of me (en face de moi) but above me; it is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. Secondly, the face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death.

 

Thus the face says to me: you shall not kill. In the relation to the face I am exposed as a usurper of the place of the other. The celebrated "right to existence" that Spinoza called the conatus essendi and defined as the basic principle of all intelligibility is challenged by the relation to the face. Accordingly, my duty to respond to the other suspends my natural right to self-survival, le droit vitale.

My ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world, within the ontology of sameness. That is why I prefaced Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence with Pascal’s phrase," ‘That is my place in the sun.’ That is how the usurpation of the whole world began ." Pascal makes the same point when he declares that "the self is hateful ."

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