Levinas and Two Ways of Approaching the World

Jeffrey Thayne

Emmanuel Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew who lived from 1906 to 1995, and studied under some of the most influential thinkers in Europe. He later moved to France and authored one of the most exciting and original philosophies of the 20th Century (at least, that’s how I see it). Levinas introduces a whole new language for talking about our experience of the Other. Because this is a new way of talking about things, this post may not be as crystal clear as other posts. Not everything in Levinas’s worldview translates into plain English. However, I believe that this new way of talking about the world can lend valuable insight into the experience of being a human among humans.

In Contrast with Western Philosophy

Levinas saw his ideas as a response to Western philosophy. What is Western philosophy? Western philosophy traces its ancestry to ancient Europe, to countries such as Greece and Rome. It is the philosophy that you and I are already familiar with. It permeates our thoughts, ideas, and even how we make sense of the world. In Western philosophy, truth is generally considered to be the unchanging, foundational principles of the Universe. Philosophy itself is thought to be the method of reducing the flux of everyday experience to a set of static principles. For Western philosophy, there is no loss in this “reduction,” because we are making the world intelligible, or reducing the chaos of daily experience to simplicity. From the Western perspective, making sense of the world is explicating the world in terms that we are familiar with.

In simple terms, in order to be truth, something has to be true everywhere, all of the time. Mathematical abstractions are the perfect example of Western truth. The equation c2 = a2 + b2 seems to be true everywhere and everytime, regardless of the particular circumstances, and thus Pythagoras and subsequent Greek philosophers regarded it as truth. For Western thinking, all things that are dynamic, that are in motion, and that change can be accounted for by the few things that fundamentally do not change. The few things that are always the same govern or explain the many things that are in flux.

A perfect example of this Western way of thinking is in the scientific discipline. Scientists observe change in the world—be it objects falling or creatures evolving—and attempt to discover the unchanging principle to account for that change. For example, they develop a law of gravity to explain why things fall, and thus all the many instances of falling objects can be explained by the one law of gravity. They also formulate the law of natural selection to explain why creatures evolve. Both these laws are considered unchanging and static. Because these principles never change, scientists assume that they are more fundamental than what does change.

We can see that this idea of truth is everywhere in our society. Of course, this does not perfectly capture the thoughts of all Western philosophers. There are many variants and deviations from this worldview. This, however, is the general perspective that Levinas responds to in his writings.

Reducing the Other to a Totality

This is the point at which we introduce a new way of talking about things. Levinas claimed that there are two ways to know the world, or two ways that we can approach a phenomenon. Another way to say this is that there are two ways that we can know what is Other. The first way of knowing the world is the way that Western philosophy has adopted since its beginning. In order to describe this way of knowing the world, it may be best to use a metaphor. Consider a fruit, like an apple. The apple, upon first encounter, is not part of me; it is something other than me. However, when I eat the apple, it then becomes a part of me. When we consume food, we make it part of us, or part of the Same.

According to Levinas, Western philosophy does the same thing when it encounters the Other. It makes sense of the Other in a way that turns it into the Same. It dissolves the otherness of the Other by reducing it to the Same. When we describe the Other in words or abstractions, we turn it into something that we can grasp, understand, encapsulate in words, and remake it in our own image. We use the idiomatic phrase, “I get it!” or, “I’ve got it!” to describe the way we know the phenomenon we’ve encountered. We thus take possession of the Other, and it thus becomes part of us. We become masters of the Other, because the Other has surrendered to us and has lost its alterity. The word alterity means “the state of being other, or different.” “Percieved in this way,” said Levinas, “philosophy would be engaged in reducing to the Same all that is opposed to it as other.” In essence, the goal of Western philosophy is to turn that which is alien into that which is familiar. Levinas continued, “Western philosophy coincides with the unveiling of the other in which the Other … loses its alterity. Philosophy is afflicted, from its childhood, with an insurmountable allergy: a horror of the Other which remains Other.”

There are many experiences that are perfectly compatible with this way of knowing the world. For example, descriptions of how things fall, mathematical principles, even bacterial infections are encounters with the world that are not distorted when enframed into a Totality. They are phenomena that we can explicate entirely in terms that are familiar to us, and that we can assimilate into a framework of familiar laws and principles. Consider an example: a scientist has succeeded at his work if he can explain how a new phenomenon is really just another manifestation of an already established scientific law. This is what it means to turn the Other into the Same.

Approaching the Other as the Infinite

However, there are many experiences where this process of subsuming the Other does distort the reality of the Other. For example, people are foremost and always an irreducible Other that must be approached differently. The second way Levinas said that we can know the world can be illustrated with another metaphor. Like the apple, when we drink from a spring, that which we drink becomes a part of us. But unlike the apple, we cannot drink all of the water that flows from the spring. Not only is there more to the phenomenon than we can consume, but there will always be more than we can consume, because it is an inexhaustible source. Thus, the Other is not something that we can encapsulate in words, take possession of, or make part of ourselves. There will always be something genuinely and irreducibly Other about it.

Levinas said, “The relation with infinity cannot, to be sure, be stated in terms of experience, for infinity overflows the thought that thinks it.” Let’s consider another example: when we think of the ocean, we have an idea what the ocean is and what it is like. However, there is always more about the ocean that we do not know. There will likely always be more in the ocean than what we know. Perhaps an even better metaphor is an idea of the cosmos: no matter what is contained in our idea, the reality of the cosmos is inexhaustible. It can never be fully encapsulated into words. The reality of the infinite will always be able to shatter whatever conceptions we make about it. We can never make the Infinite into a Totality. It can never be fully consumed, tamed, mastered, or made a part of us. In this mode of approaching the Other, we cannot make the Other into the Same. The Other is always in flux, because of its inexhaustible nature.

Because people are foremost and always an irreducible Other, they escape any attempt to reduce them into a totality or to make them into the Same. C. S. Lewis wrote that when his wife died, he would remake the images and memories he had of her in his own image. He said, “Although ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real Helen would correct all this, the rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness [was] gone. … The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real Helen so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.” This experience shows that there is something about the Other that is always in flux, that will always shatter whatever conceptions we form about it, that is inexhaustible in its presence as a spring of water. C. S. Lewis described God in a similar way: “My idea of God … has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?” Levinas described this shattering as the other’s face: “The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face. … The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me.” In other words, the Otherness of the Other cannot be made perfectly familiar without destroying its alterity.

For example, when we categorize another person in terms of a stereotype, we are attempting to turn the infinitude of the Other into a set of ideas that are familiar to us. Rather than allowing the Other to constantly shatter our ideas about it, we are simply trying to turn the Other into the Same. This is a form of violence against the Other. Metaphorically, it is like pinning butterflies to a board. Sure, they’ll never violate our expectations, but they are also no longer living. The same thing happens with people when we are racist or when we stereotype them: we make sense of all their Otherness in terms of our expectations of them, and they no longer surprise us. However, they are also no longer living (at least, in the way we approach them).

When we make the Other into a Totality, the Other surrenders to us, and we take possession of it. When we approach the Other as the Infinite, something different happens; the Other inevitably pulls us into a relationship of obligation. “The face resists possession, resists my powers.” When we totalize another person, we do violence to that person. Only when we approach the Other as Infinite can we reduce the violence we do to them.


We see here a contrast between two different approaches: The reducing of the Other into a Totality, and the reverent approaching of the Other as the Infinite. Emmanuel Levinas worked to rupture the way we make sense of the world, to question the assumptions we make, and to create space for the second way of approaching the Other. According to Levinas, the reduction of what is infinite and Other to a totality and the Same is sometimes, if not often, a lesser and destructive method that mangles the phenomena we seek to understand. Human beings are inescapably an Infinity, not a totality. We see this in the way we approach others. When we approach people as a totality, we can mask the genuine Otherness of those around us. It is the cleansing tang of the Otherness of people that “pulls [us] up short,” and pulls us into obligation to acknowledge their humanity.

17 thoughts on “Levinas and Two Ways of Approaching the World

  1. In simple terms, in order to be truth, something has to be true everywhere, all of the time.

    There is nothing about the Western conception of truth that requires a true proposition to be something like a law of physics. Anything, however particular, that is fact-like will do.

    The idea that all truths were eternal truths was philosophically obsolete in the Western world about 2400 years ago. It was one of the major changes from Plato to Aristotle.

    As far as Levinas goes, I like the idea, but like libertarian free will, which I consider the sine qua non of true philosophy, it is difficult to deal with. Completely Other, in a way that makes it hard to persuade others that it exists at all.

  2. Mark D., thanks for your comment! Most scholars would disagree, however, that the idea of eternal, unchanging truths died with Plato. Neo-platonism has carried this idea even to the modern age. Most of modernism is based on this idea. The idea is even expressed explicitly in the physics textbook published by BYU: http://www.ldsphilosopher.com/?p=197. Basically, any worldview that claims that the physical, tangible world is governed by metaphysical absolutes (like scientific laws) is at least partly informed by neo-platonism.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen these concepts of Levinas’ explained so clearly.

  4. Jeff, I hardly know where to start. I did not claim that there are no timeless truths, only that the Western tradition does not require that all truths apply at all places and at all times. Where from the perspective of someone like Parmenides, something wasn’t a truth unless it did.

    What the Western tradition of realism requires is that all truths be a representation of actual facts. The world of facts, naturally, is much larger than the world of those truths that apply everywhere and everywhen.

    As to those poor benighted souls whose world view does not admit any timeless truths, however, the less said the better.

  5. Mark D:

    I don’t really undertand what you are saying. If we agree that something is ‘true’ then by definition, it will always be true.

    Suppose I wear a red shirt today. Then tomorrow a blue one.

    I suppose I would see your point if you were to say that today “Bruce is wearing a red shirt” is true and tomorrow it is not true. But likewise, I could just switch that around and say “On Jun 23 Bruce wore a red shirt” and then it is now a fact and also an eternal truth.

    How did you mean this?

  6. Jeff,

    I always struggle with ideas like Levinas’. This is probably because I’m such a computational reductionist myself. (Not be be confused with a physical reductionists.)

    From a certain point of view, I agree with what he is saying. And I definitely agree that our desire to break things down to logical (computational) reductionists statements often leaves a lot of unexplored territory. But in all honesty, I would expect that’s only true because we have much more to learn, all of which will ultimately be learned through computational reduction.

    I can’t even fathom what it would mean to comprehend something that isn’t comprehended through explanation. And I can’t even fathom what it would mean to explain something save by giving it in a form that is simpler sub parts.

    How would this point of view fit with Levinas’? Or would it not?

    Still there is no denying that when you reduce things down physically — and this is how most people see reductionism — that you lose a lot. Emergent phenomena are generally more important than their physically reduced forms.

  7. Bruce,

    I think Levinas would consider computational reductionists as people who try to totalize the infinite. =)

    Phenomenologically (that is, experientially), I think we experience people in non-computational ways on a regular basis. In fact, I think many of us can relate to C.S. Lewis’s experience described above, in which the living Helen would resist any of his attempts to “pin her down.” This is an example of a phenomenon (Helen) that cannot be known computationally. In fact, that is what defines her as a living person (dead Helen couldn’t resist his attempts to totalize her, and that was his frustration).

  8. Jeff, an example of a truth that applies everywhere is a law of physics. In differential form, such a law establishes constraints that apply at every point in the universe.

    If you take something like a bare fact, such as I was born on such and such a date, that can be expressed, as you say in a form that is true no matter when or where it is said. But of course a particular fact about specific place and time is of relatively limited application.

    I would characterize the primary change in natural philosophy from Plato to the present as a realization that the sort of constraints that apply at all places and all times are much fewer in number than previously believed, and many of what used to be considered eternal truths are contingent functions of the form and structure of things (which Aristotle understand), forms and structures which themselves have themselves evolved through time (which properly speaking, he did not).

    My concern about that trend is that I think too many go overboard to the point of considering either that there are no natural truths whatsoever of general application, or that the only ones there are of the sort that physical scientists now well understand.

    I would say, at a minimum, that there must be additional ethical and moral truths of an eternal nature to ground any meaningful sense of right and wrong, progress, repentance, religious practice, and so on. Otherwise all religion reduces to some combination of the worship of conformity and the worship of raw power.

    Standard question: Are divine commands to be followed because they are good, or because they are God’s? Without moral realism (which means eternal truths in the realm of ethics) the latter, what I call Stockholm syndrome theology, is the only option, remediable only by making God himself into a timeless abstraction, i.e. Platonizing Him.

  9. Perhaps this will blow your mind, but I believe that God is a tangible, embodied being (not a platonic abstracting), but I also believe that divine commands are to be followed because they are God’s. =) And I don’t believe that is a contradiction either.

    In addition, I believe that ethical or moral obligation is rooted in our experience of the face of the Other. There is no way to abstract or generalize what the face of the Other will call upon us to do. In this way, I don’t believe that we can derive universal moral laws in the ordinary sense. I don’t believe that we can calculate what is right to do in a situation by “applying” a universal. Rather, what is right is discovered in the moment of our encounter with Other, and it can always surprise us.

  10. I don’t believe that is a contradiction either.

    It is not a contradiction, but it is most certainly a variation on Stockholm syndrome theology. My questions for you are:

    (1) Is it within God’s power to make the torturing of the innocent an unquestioned good?
    (2) If it is within his power, what reason do we have to believe that he won’t do just that?
    (3) If he did so, would God still be worthy of worship?
    (4) Why?

  11. I believe that God has the same phenomenological experience that we do when we encounter the Other. He experiences the call of the Other just as we do. As such He is beholden to respond to that call. Thus, He is under constraints. However, those constraints are not universal, abstract moral truths. They are experienced in the moment of the encounter with the Other, and cannot be deduced, derived, generalized, or universalized. In this way, it is not an existence of a universal moral truth that constrains God. It is the existence of the Other (e.g., us), and the face of the Other beckons to Him.

    We are in a unique relationship with God, one that is both familial and covenantal. An additional facet of our unique relationship with God is that He is our Truthgiver and Lawgiver. This means that He can create moral and ethical obligations via commands that obligate us not because of their moral content, but because of His relationship with us as Lawgiver. Of course, He never issues commands except in response to the call of the Other (the beckon He receives from the faces of His children). However, it is not because God’s commands reflect universal truth that makes them obligatory. They are obligatory because it is the face of God, our Lawgiver, that gives them. Only He can generalize our response to the Other, and history shows us that His generalizations are quite malleable. He can bend them as He needs to, in response to the specific beckons He experiences from His children.

  12. Jeff T and Mark D. Personally, I think you are both saying the same thing but approaching it from a different angle. Or at least that is now my working hypothesis.

    I do not see Jeff T claiming that morality solely springs from God’s commands. So there is a sense in whic morality is co-eternal with God. (What that sense is, Jeff is ‘defining’ through examples.)

    I couldn’t resist this — though I know this isn’t what Mark D intended:

    (1) Is it within God’s power to make the torturing of the innocent an unquestioned good? (Yes, crucifixtion of Jesus. Though the case may not be so good for those that ordered it.)
    (2) If it is within his power, what reason do we have to believe that he won’t do just that? (He did.)
    (3) If he did so, would God still be worthy of worship? (Yes.)
    (4) Why? (Because it still conformed to the underlying co-eternal principles of morality, even if we aren’t yet able to define them — yet.)

  13. Jeff T,

    Good response to my question. I’m still not sure if it’s different from what I believe or not. I think it’s a more complicated issue than can be addressed in a few comments.

    For exmaple, as a ‘computational reductionist’ I’d actually say that the reason C.S. Lewis can’t totalize Helen is because “Helen” is a Godelian loop contained within the physical form of her soul (body and spirit) that Lewis only has a gross approximation of in his head. Further, if he *did* have all of Helen in his head it would be a living thing distinct from Lewis. Plus, it would be physically impossible.

    In other words, I agree we can’t totalize each other, but I think the reason why is because there is no way to simulate/predict a calculation that is already the smallest possible calculation it could have been and where to make the calculation is to be that person by definition. So it would be impossible for Lewis to totalize Helen ever. He couldn’t even do it in principle.

  14. Bruce, what I meant by “unquestioned” is “in all times and all places”, i.e. a complete inversion of morality as we know it. – legislating good to be evil, and evil good by fiat, to the degree that torturing the innocent becomes the highest moral duty of all mankind, that which glorifies, sanctifies, and fills us with joy. If a temporal God has that kind of power, than morality is entirely subjective.

    In addition, the primary reason for a suffering atonement is to save the world from sin. As sin is the primary cause of the torture that you speak of, it cannot be said that torture is an unquestioned moral good unless sin is as well.

  15. Mark D, keep in mind that I said that I knew this wasn’t what you meant by it.

    “If a temporal God has that kind of power, than morality is entirely subjective.”

    I agree.

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