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 ."
Pascal’s ethical sentiments here go against the ontological privileging of "the right to exist". To expose myself to the vulnerability of the face is to put my ontological right to existence into question. In ethics, the other’s right to exist has primacy over my own, a primacy epitomized in the ethical edict: you shall not kill, you shall not jeopardize the life of the other.
The ethical rapport with the face is asymmetrical in that it subordinates my existence to the other. This principle recurs in Darwinian biology as the "survival of the fittest" and in psychoanalysis as the natural instinct of the "id" for gratification, possession, and power–the libido dominandi.
RK: So I owe more to the other than to myself …
EL: Absolutely, and this ethical exigency undermines the Hellenic endorsement, still prevalent today, of the conatus essendi. There is a Jewish proverb which says that "the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs;" it is this disproportion, or asymmetry, that characterizes the ethical refusal of the first truth of ontology–the struggle to be. Ethics is, therefore, against nature because it forbids the murderousness of my natural will to put my own existence first.
RK: Does going towards God always require that we go against nature?
EL: God cannot appear as the cause or creator of nature. The word of God speaks through the glory of the face and calls for an ethical conversion, or reversal, of our nature. What we call lay morality, that is, humanistic concern for our fellow human beings, already speaks the voice of God. But the moral priority of the other over myself could not come to be if it were not motivated by something beyond nature.
The ethical situation is a human situation, beyond human nature, in which the idea of God comes to mind (Gott faellt mir ein). In this respect, we could say that God is the other who turns our nature inside out, who calls our ontological will-to-be into question. This ethical call of conscience occurs, no doubt, in other religious systems besides the Judeo-Christian, but it remains an essential religious vocation. God does indeed go against nature, for He is not of this world. God is other than being.
RK: How does one distill the ethico-religious meaning of existence from its natural or ontological sedimentation?
EL: But your question already assumes that ethics is derived from ontology. I believe, on the contrary, that the ethical relationship with the other is just as primary and original (urspruenglich) as ontology–if not more so. Ethics is not derived from an ontology of nature; it is its opposite, a meonotology, which affirms a meaning beyond being, a primary mode of non-being (me-on).