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Levinas, Totality and the Other

by Martin Jenkins

In Philosophy, Post-Modernism could be described as that movement of thought which challenges foundationalism and its corollary of closed, reflexive systems of conceptions that characterise modernist thought. Closed systems of totalising thought by and in which human beings perceive other human beings do violence insofar as they value all others from under the horizon of 'the Same'. Totalised thought seeks to explain and inclusively account for phenomena totally, exhaustively and definitively.[1] There is nothing subsequently worthwhile outside or beyond the boundaries of the totality. We can bear witness to this in everyday life.

For instance, one person judges the actions of another by saying 'I wouldn't have done that if I were he' or 'I couldn't do it so why should she be any different?' Here, what is different is substituted by and buried under reasoning by analogy with the Self. The Other individual is not recognised as unique, who can disclose him/ herself but instead, is buried and pre-judged from existing pre-conceptions of the Self. In our lives we are pre-judged and labelled by our job title — look on quiz shows where contestants are asked 'What do you do?' as if one's job or position totally defined one. We are labelled and pre-judged as passive consumers interested in the latest fad. We ask others what they did on their days off from the work place applying the totalising logic of productionism to non-work time as to work time. At its violent extremes, whole ethnicities and peoples are pre-judged from the standpoint of totality and valued as differing from it, are subordinated or annihilated.

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was a thinker who developed a highly original 'Post-Modern' ethics from out of the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and from his readings of Jewish Theology.[2] His famous work Totality and Infinity was published in 1961.[3] It was an ethics announcing itself twenty-four years after the ending of the second world war and the most modern attempt at mass murder by a totalising violence.


Western Philosophy and ethical systems devised within it, have practiced a methodology of systematic foundationalism. In other words, consequences and corollaries are developed and deduced from founding first principles constituting a closed, reflexive system. As phenomena are categorised and judged from within such epistemological and ontological monoliths, 'Identity' and 'Sameness' are practiced. The system is total in its explanation and account of phenomena — hence Levinas' term, 'Totalisation'. Whatever is within the system is legitimate because defined by and identical with it. Whatever is outside the system is either incorporated into it (thus repressing its otherness and extending the violent sameness of the same) or is denied any existence whatsoever.

Existing ethics such as Immanuel Kant's Deontology[4] and Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism[5] operate totalisation. Kant's defence of the individual as an end in itself intrinsically deserving of autonomy and respect, practices a totalising sameness of the same in its emphasis on rationality inherent to each and every individual. Utilitarianism treats the individual as an instrumental cog in the felicific calculation of the sum total of happiness. The individual qua individual is smothered and definitively pre-judged by prior existing categories. As such his/ her Otherness to the totalisation of sameness is deemed insignificant.


Although totalisation is unavoidable in its acting as an operational guide for everyday human interaction, it is subject to Transcendence. The Other founds the self and society as it is the primordial and original relation. It constitutes the beginning of everything human as it is only through the Other that I can become myself, so that the event of the Other marks the beginning of language, of community and of course, the beginning of ethics. The sheer presence of the Other is unavoidable: it demands my attention by charging into my world and disrupting it in a profound way that a rock or tree does not. Although established upon the revelation of the Other, subsequent culture smothers the Other under the edifices and categories of totalised sameness.

The Face of the Other is not a physical appearance but an Epi-Phany. This epiphanic event of irruption disrupts the sameness of the self and breaks its expectation of linear totalised categories of Being constituting the world. Its revelation demands a response and the nature of the ethical is to provide the appropriate response. This event is so profound it evokes an Infinity which from its exuding plenitude, overflows and transcends the existing representational structures of totalisation. For example, the presence and caress of a lover is such an instance of transcendence. We may use a word to thematise the event and those involved but the sheer presence of the Other, as lover, cannot be contained in a mere description as a theme or event. Overflowing mere conceptual representation, it transcends totality.

This event of the Other cannot — on pain of being re-absorbed into the existing schemas of conceptual totalisation — be represented. It is an event of such magnitude and height that it discloses 'signification without content'. Like the Ontological Argument employed by Descartes, where an initial conceptuality may point the way, the content of the argument takes on a momentum and life of its own which can leave the thinker quite overwhelmed in attempting to think thoroughly and appreciate the argument; likewise the Face of the Other initially points the way but it is a place of departure for the revelation of the Other.[6] Beyond representation, like the memory of a significant dream whose content cannot be remembered, so is the event of the Other. It demands an ethical response and because the event occurs outside existing concepts of representation, the ethical response is more pure because it is undetermined. Beyond possibility of limit in a concept, the Face is unlimited. As unlimited it is not finite. As not finite it is infinite.

God or Infinity?

Translating Biblical themes into Philosophy, Levinas does not maintain a belief in a personal God or an Afterlife. Eschatology is the situating of the ending or break with Totality (Being) found in the transcendent exteriority of the Face of the Other.[7] Because it is not subject to a finite representation within the Being of Totality, Transcendence hints at Infinity. It is the commencement of what Levinas calls 'Illeity' or the remoteness, absent otherness of God: of signification without content.[8] He writes:

The Other proceeds from the absolutely Absent, but his relationship with the absolutely Absent from which he comes does not reveal this Absent: and yet the Absent has a meaning in the Face.[9]

If God is Illeity — an absence disclosed in the Face of the Other — this appears to be a Negative Theology. Contrary to traditional Onto-Theology, God cannot be known let alone any definition attempted; because of its infinity there can only be pointers toward and against. God is not God because it is God.

Levinas extracts the 'teaching' of the Talmud of Jewish thought, purging it of its outward, historical symbols and manifestations, and applies it to a world now secularised and de-sacralised. In this modern context, the relation to God is realised in relations with other people. It is this relation with people that takes on a superior importance to that of the older, primitive onto-theology. It is in this relation that the 'religious' is to be found.


To my reading (and I am probably wrong) despite Levinas' reconfiguration of religious categories, his ethics are a continuation of the theme that only with God or the Transcendent can there be ethics. The point is succinctly made by Dostoevsky when he writes that without God anything would be permissible.[10] The break with Totality allows what is Other to appear and the event may alter our ethical response but why must the event be the irruption of God, Illeity or Absence? The face of the other may irrupt and suspend my finite representation of the world and in that moment, the alterity of the Face calls, shows itself whatever but, this does not have to be 'God' however construed.

Secondly, what is the correct ethical response? Some commentators criticise Levinas for being vague on this point, as he doesn't offer any explicit ethical prescription.[11] If the event of the Other is beyond Totalisation we cannot refer to existing representations to guide us in our response. As Levinas says, the Face is an encounter with Infinity, with Illeity then perhaps like Heidegger's disclosure of Being, the disclosure is an event so enigmatic that is calls us to question our habitual ethical response (indicative of Totalised structures of thought) and to think anew. So when commentators say Levinas is not explicit in prescribing the correct ethical response to the event of the Other, they miss the point that it is intentional on his part.

The event of the Other signifies without content, a break with Being so that Being can be re-configured. The irruption of the Other breaks our unthinking operation within totalisation so that we challenge it and offer a truly original and appropriate response.


1. Totalised or Identity Philosophy (Modernism) is viewed by Post-Modernism as the traditional Western approach of building reflexive conceptual systems upon foundational first principles. The metaphysics of Aristotle's Final Cause where the ends can be discerned in the beginning exemplify the approach. This methodology can be seen in Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, the German Idealists and their derivatives such as Marx. Onto-Theology can be seen as a similar approach in Theology where the existence and nature of all Being is epistemologically based on and derives from the first origin of all Being namely God.

2. Phenomenology. A movement in Philosophy which sought to base human knowing and knowledge by going 'to the things themselves' free of any dualism between Subject and Object. What is experienced [Phenomena] and how it is experienced [Logos] is subject to description. See:

Edmund Husserl Cartesian Meditations. Springer Press 1977

Martin Heidegger The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Indiana University Press 1995

3. Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity. Duquesne University Press 1961

4. Immanuel Kant First Section. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals Hackett 1993

Immanuel Kant Critique of Practical Reason Everyman 1990.

5. Jeremy Bentham. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Penguin 2007

6. Rene Descartes. Meditation III 'Of God that He Exists' Meditations on the First Philosophy Everyman 1987.

7. Eschatology understood as the doctrine and Biblical study of the end of things.

8. Illeity meaning the remote otherness of God. Deriving from the Latin demonstrative pronoun ille, illa, meaning 'that over there'.

9. Emmanuel Levinas P. 59-60. Meaning and Sense Basic Philosophical Writings. Indiana University Press 1996

10. Fyodor Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov Penguin Popular Classics. 1999.

11. Dermot Moran highlights this point in Ch 10 op cite below


Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority. Duquesne University Press 1991

Emmanuel Levinas Basic Philosophical Writings, Eds: Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, Robert Berlasconi. Indiana University Press 1996

Andrew McGettigan The Philosopher's Fear of Alterity Radical Philosophy #140

Dermot Moran Introduction to Phenomenology Routledge 2000

Mary Jennings 'Justice and the Other in Levinas Totality and Infinity' Pathways to Philosophy Associateship Essay

© Martin Jenkins 2007