Levinas and my lived experiences with others

Note: This is an essay I wrote when I was in college and still a baby philosopher. I wrote this essay back in 2014 for my Moral Theory course.

Emmanuel Levinas was a French philosopher born in the 20th century. He studied and critiqued Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophies. Heidegger was a phenomenologist, which means that he studied the structures of experience and consciousness. Levinas, as well, wanted to find the origin or the ontological foundation for our lived experiences. Heidegger and Levinas both wrote about “the other.” Heidegger argues that every being is a “dasein,” we are “beings in the world.” “Dasein, is the being of human being, it is delineated as, that creature who’s being is essentially determined by its ability to speak.” (Heidegger, pg. 24)

These “others” appear to us in the world as “they.” So we, as individuals, protect ourselves from “the other” in order for them to not steal our authenticity. The others decide the world for us/me. Levinas on the other hand, says that “the other” is something more fundamental than that and that when we look at others, as “they” that is when atrocities such as the holocaust happen. We forget that we have this fundamental relationship between the self and the other which is the foundation of all our lived experiences. It’s not “they” and “I” but “I and others.” Levinas also argues that morality is the first philosophy.

“Morality is not a branch of philosophy, but first philosophy.”

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Philosophical Series)

What Levinas means by this is that it’s not that we come into this world and deontology and virtue ethics, and utilitarianism already exist, it’s that my relationship with others is what allows for these systems of ethics to come into being. Morality is the ground of existence and we need to avoid totalizing the other.

“The void that breaks the totality can be maintained against an inevitably totalizing and synoptic thought only if thought finds itself faced with an other refractory to categories. Rather than constituting a total with this other as with an object, thought consists in speaking.”

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Philosophical Series)

I will get back to speech and language but I want to keep talking about this “totalization.” We totalize others, we totalize who they are, and we refer to them as “they are my friends or they are my students.” We need to avoid totalizing or generalizing others in this way and keep our relationship with others as incomprehensible. This incomprehensibility is the infinite.

“The incomprehensible nature of the presence of the Other, which we spoke of above, is not to be described negatively.”

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Philosophical Series)

This encounter with the other always occurs through language. The other speaks to me and this shakes me up, it makes me realize that I am not alone in the world, there is this Other questioning me, making me rethink my ideas. This difference, this “alterity” (in the language of Levinas), between the other and me is what makes me a phenomenologist. When we encounter the other, when we face the face of others and this infinite relationship, the others are requesting something from us, which is: “do not kill me.”

“Infinity presents itself as a face in the ethical resistance that paralyzes my powers and from the depths of defenseless eyes.”

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Philosophical Series)

We see vulnerability in the face of others and we feel responsible towards them. Most of us tend to totalize others, and not look at their faces but Levinas argues that we ought to look at each others faces, we ought to communicate through language and we ought to respect our differences. Levinas writes: “The face is neither seen nor touched” (pg. 194) This means that the face is a mere representation. Representation is when the same or the self in a certain way determines the object. When you look at others faces we posses them as a representation. If the other is determining us, in what ways can we be represented? When we look at others, we see their faces, and in their faces we see humanity. So when we stare into each other faces we have this epiphany or realization that we do have a responsibility towards others, and that is why most of the times we look away. People have looked away from my face in order to not feel that guilt or responsibility. When someone doesn’t look at your face they at least acknowledge within them that they do feel responsibility towards others but are just avoiding this feeling. But when someone can look at your face and not feel any sense of responsibility, when someone can look at your face and not see this “vulnerability” which Levinas talks about, is when things go bad in the world.

When I was 18, something tragic happened in my family. My cousin, my aunt’s son, my cousin’s brother, this human being whom we loved so much was taken away from us. Some drug dealers in Mexico came into our home and took him away while assaulting and molesting us. We wanted to talk to them, naïve as it may sound, make them think twice about what they were doing but they couldn’t look at us. They couldn’t look at our faces; they couldn’t bare the sound of our voices. When I was 15, something heart-breaking happened as well, my father abandoned us, but as he did, he looked straight into my face, with no sense of remorse or responsibility, he could look at my face and see nothing. Both instances deeply hurt me and left me marked for the rest of my life, in different ways but nonetheless both experiences made me suffer and made me look at the world in different ways.

How can we love others when they are harming us? How can we still look at other people’s faces and feel responsibility? How can we feel responsibility towards other when people have had none towards you? Through personal experience I have found that even though I might not get anything in return from others, or in many cases will even get hurt, I must continue to love and respect others. I must love those who love me and still respect and acknowledge the inherent human rights of those who have hurt me. Only through loving others will this relationship with the infinite prosper, it will maintain this incomprehensible relationship between the other, and me which is the ground of my existence.

“Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.”

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Philosophical Series)

Even though I’ve been hurt, and my face has not been seen, or has been seen and still been hurt, Levinas has something very powerful to teach me and others which is that in the face of evil, we find our highest level of faith, it is not having faith in God but having faith in others and being able to love with no expectation of reward and that is our highest level of faith.