Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 07 August 2020

Emmanuel Levinas

Abstract and Keywords

Emmanuel Levinas, twentieth-century French phenomenologist and ethical/political philosopher, critically reappraises the meaning, grounds, and significance of intelligibility in relation to the irreducible transcendence and alterity of the other person conceived as my moral responsibility for you, rather than in ontology, epistemology, or aesthetics. Based in original phenomenological studies of human sensibility as vulnerable and mortal, as both suffering and moral capacity to alleviate suffering, Levinas finds in ethics the ultimate guidance for achieving mental health and a new approach to psychopathology beyond such standards as integral coherence or conformity to conventions. Human dignity is attained or regained through the obligations of moral responsibility to and for the other person, and ultimately, based thereupon, in responsibility to and for all others by contributing to the attainment of social justice.

Keywords: Levinas, ethics, other, responsibility, justice, moral, obligations, vulnerability, transcendence, alterity


Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) is a phenomenological philosopher of ethics. His great originality and importance derives from two elements or dimensions of his thought. One, and no doubt central, the primacy of ethics: an argument that intelligibility, sense, and significance, originate not in knowing but in moral responsibility and justice. Two, scientific contributions: rigorous phenomenological investigations conducted in various regions of signification such as sensibility, worldliness, eros, and temporality. The latter have the additional virtue, or ambition, of contesting and correcting the earlier and more celebrated phenomenological studies of Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1927). Levinas is at once one of the masters of the rigorous science of phenomenology, in France having been one of the first and leading expositors of Husserl and Heidegger, having engaged in and published many fundamental and original phenomenological studies of his own. And then, as well, he moved beyond the borders of phenomenology, outside the limits of noetic-noematic “intentionality,” and through many lectures and publications proposed what is perhaps the most original and outstanding twentieth-century continental philosophy of ethics, an ethics which profoundly makes sense of the “humanity of the human.” Each of these by itself is an extraordinary accomplishment; together they place Levinas in the top tier of world philosophers. Two basic ideas orient his thought: first, knowledge, to be knowledge, must acknowledge its roots in moral responsibility; and second, moral responsibility means helping others, putting the other first, and such solicitousness is the highest priority of all the exigencies which compete for human attention. To be human is to aid others. Thus Levinas breaks with both monadic and totalizing philosophies: the self, to be itself, must be for-the-other.

Biographical Sketch

Levinas was born in 1906 in Kaunas, Lithuania, into a traditional Jewish home. In 1923 he left for university studies in Strasbourg, France. During 1928 to 1929 he studied under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger in nearby Freiburg, Germany. In 1930 he published (p. 81) The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, the first book in French on Husserl’s phenomenology. “It is,” Levinas wrote, “precisely the method by which we are going back to concrete man” (1973: 146). He also became a French citizen, married, and became a teacher at the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris. In 1939 he was conscripted into the French army, served as a translator of German and Russian, in 1940 became a prisoner-of-war and spent the duration of the war in Germany in a labor camp, part of a Jewish section. After the war, he returned to his job, was made Director in 1947, and re-engaged in Parisian intellectual life. In two short books of 1947, Existence and Existent and Time and the Other, Levinas began articulating his own ethical philosophy utilizing the phenomenological method. Breaking new philosophical ground by finding the roots of intelligibility not in knowing but in moral responsibility and justice, the primacy of ethics became the central claim of all his subsequent thought, including his two magisterial books, Totality and Infinity (1961), and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974). Each year from 1957 to 1989 Levinas delivered the keynote address, known as a “Talmudic Reading,” at the annual Colloquium of Jewish Intellectuals which he helped to establish. In 1961 he was made Professor of Philosophy at Poitiers; in 1967 at Paris-Nanterre; and finally, from 1973 to 1976, at Paris-Sorbonne. To the end of the 1980s, Levinas, in lectures, articles, and collections, continued to elaborate, refine, and deepen his original ethical philosophy. Following several years of dementia, he died in 1995.

Ethics and Phenomenology

Though his outlook is comprehensive, Levinas’s contributions to philosophy and to psychopathology can be analytically sorted under two headings: phenomenological and ethical. Both appear throughout his writings, especially insofar as Levinas’s ethics is not abstract but concrete, the singular requirements of the other and others impinging on and arousing the singular moral and juridical responsibility of the self. Indeed, the inextricable relationship between knowledge (ordinary, scientific, and phenomenological), and goodness, is an explicit and central topic of Levinas’s thought. In the following, where I turn to three key elements—body, world, and time—of Levinas’s thought, I focus primarily on his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (1961). Here Levinas’s phenomenological studies are original and well-developed and here so too is his ethics. Not surprisingly his second major work, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974), deepens many of his earlier themes, especially regarding the character and significance of moral agency and language. Nonetheless all the major themes of Levinas’s philosophy are already found in Totality and Infinity. A second reason I will draw from Totality and Infinity is because its phenomenological studies are so clearly worked out and, while pursuing a path opened up by Heidegger, do not flinch from rejecting the primacy Heidegger accords to ontology and contesting the results of Heidegger’s earlier phenomenological studies.

Also the arrangement of the text of Totality and Infinity lends itself to our interests. Subsection two, entitled “Interiority and Economy,” is primarily phenomenological; and subsection three, entitled “Exteriority and the Face,” is primarily ethical. Thus Totality and Infinity lends itself to seeing the multi-layered and complex meanings of subjectivity and worldliness and then appreciating more clearly and precisely the impact of the otherness of (p. 82) the other person on such worldly subjectivity. Thus, to use terms taken from grammar, we begin with the nominative, and see how it is put into the accusative. To be sure, ethics does not come “after” ontology in a chronological sense. Indeed, ethics has priority, it “comes first” in the sense that its imperatives trump the imperatives to know and to will. Nevertheless, this analytical division between phenomenology and ethics is illuminating.

One of Heidegger’s great insights, building on Edmund Husserl’s notion of “intentionality,” was that subjectivity is not monadic, not a cogito or substance in opposition to the world. Rather, humans are always already “in-the-world,” they are in this sense “ecstatic” beings, projected not self-contained. For this reason Heidegger drops the very term “subject” and replaces it with the term “Dasein,” which in ordinary German means “existence,” but in Heidegger’s usage refers to “being there” out in the world. Humans are thus worldly beings in their very essence. To be and to be there, in the world, is the same thing for humans. So Heidegger’s phenomenological question is not “How do we know there are other minds?” but “What is the character of the worldly being which we are?” His answer is twofold. First, the world is what he calls an “instrumental totality.” That is to say, the world is not first something we know, but something we use, an instrumental engagement. A hammer, for instance, is a hammer not when I cognize it, but when I hammer away at something, that is, when I use it. The second feature of the world, to which we will turn shortly, is that it is historical, that we are permeated by a meaningfulness that comes from and through historical development.

Levinas agrees that human subjectivity is not a monad or substance. Nevertheless, regarding Heidegger’s first point, that the world is an instrumental totality, Levinas’s phenomenological investigations discover something important which, Levinas argues, Heidegger’s analyses overlooked and left out. And this is that the world is not first a tool; it is something enjoyed. The hammer, then, is not simply what it is when one is hammering, but it is even more primitively something one enjoys handling. The world is first, then, sensational rather than instrumental. The sun is not just for light; one enjoys its warmth on one’s arms; one enjoys the brilliance of colors. While this difference may not seem to be particularly important, it is actually the basis for the entire disagreement between Heideggerian ontology and Levinasian ethics. This is because Levinas’s philosophy starts not with technology, but with sensibility, with the flesh-and-blood person. While in his later thought Heidegger’s major worry is the dehumanization effected by modern technology, Levinas’s major worry is always the suffering of flesh-and-blood human beings, the suffering of pain, mental anguish, deprivation, hunger, illness, as well as the suffering caused by injustice. Because Levinas begins with the body as sensibility, in considering the meaning of being-in-the-world he never overlooks, as Heidegger did, the moral imperatives that arise to alleviate concrete sensible suffering.

Regarding the second point about worldliness, its historical character, here again Levinas parts company from Heidegger. The meaning of human being-in-the-world does not, for Levinas, come from the world as a historical formation, does not come—contrary to German Idealism—from History personified, Geist, or world Epochs. Or to put this in another way: transcendence for Levinas is not a function of history. Rather, it is a function of the other person. History, for Levinas, is not sufficiently “other,” does not free the self from the circuits of immanence. On first sight this may appear to be quite an odd claim. All of history immanent to subjectivity, it seems so unlikely. But the real issue at stake is the source of meaning. Does meaning come to humans from History, like a modern substitute for God, or are humans the makers of history, history being a human project? And if history is a human (p. 83) project, in what way is history genuinely transcendent, genuinely other? For Levinas, the greatest, indeed the only, absolute alterity is the alterity of the other person. This is what he calls “the face of the other.” “This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, is his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: ‘you shall not commit murder.’ ”1 The face is neither an ontological nor an historical alterity, but the perspective from which being and history can be evaluated. It is a moral force, the force of weakness, of vulnerability, a call to my own responsibility to and for the other as other. “There is here a relation not with a very great resistance, but with something absolutely other: the resistance of what has no resistance—the ethical resistance.”2 The only genuine escape from narcissism, conceived broadly—or one could invoke such terms as “projection,” “cathexis,” “identification,” or even “co-dependence”—the only relation whose terms cannot be assimilated to one another, contained, or integrated, is the infinite obligation toward and aroused by the other person. This relation—which Levinas calls a “relation without relation,”3 because the self is not destroyed or obliterated in it, but rather exists as “turned inside out” for the other—is from the first a moral one, responsibility to and for the other. Such is each person’s highest vocation, to alleviate the suffering of the other, and of all others. So it is not from history that the self finds the highest meaning of its life, but from service to the other person, and in relation to such service history itself must be judged.

Finally, Levinas will propose an entirely new notion of time. Perhaps nothing has been more radical in contemporary philosophy than time, because the overcoming of classical thought has only been achieved by overturning its illusory exit from time to “eternity,” its sub specie aeternitatis. Heidegger in Being and Time (notice the title), following Henri Bergson and Husserl, made an “ecstatic” theory of time fundamental to all signification. Dasein’s being-in-the-world was a projection into the future and a retrieval from the past, personally in being-toward-death, and ontologically in the unfolding of history’s dispensations. No doubt ecstatic theories of temporality, including Heidegger’s, represent a great advance over the previously prevalent “clock” theory of time, time as a series of instants, which Bergson had exposed as the measure of space rather than the flow of duration. But Levinas, while accepting this advance up to a point, is not content. What he discovers, and it is a remarkable discovery, is that the futurity of the future, the “not yet” which cannot be brought into the present, cannot be sustained through projection. Rather, such transcendence, if it is to retain its alterity, must depend on that which is truly transcendent, namely, the face of the other. Time, then, is neither objective nor subjective, but intersubjective.

Levinas’s insights into time are so original that they are difficult to understand let alone appreciate at first glance. Yet his argument is compelling. The future cannot be truly future, truly novel and “not” yet, if it is a projection. The past cannot be truly past if it is a retrieval. For a genuine future and past, a genuine temporality, time must be bound to the transcendence of the other person, the only genuinely absolute transcendence, and that transcendence, as we have seen, arises only as morality and justice. Levinas, as a philosopher, will take this step: time is intersubjective, hence time is a function of morality and justice. So what is truly future, not yet, novel, is not some distant project of mine or of history’s, but the unachieved world of justice. So also what is truly past, gone, immemorial, irretrievable, cannot be (p. 84) a function of human memory or appropriation, but is rather the lateness, the “too late” of my moral obligation to alleviate the suffering of the other. The moral subject is always too late on the scene, and always too early for the world of justice, which is humanity’s ultimate aspiration. Time, then, is a matter of ethics, not ontology, not memory, not history. It is an radical insight, and these few pages cannot do it full justice.

Importance for Psychotherapy

In the last few decades Levinas’s philosophy—despite the difficulty, its enormous erudition and catholic range, uncompromising rigor, profundity, and an originality bursting in catachrestic style—is increasingly being recognized, discussed, and appropriated by psychologists and psychotherapists. Two recent collections attest to this: Psychotherapy for the Other: Levinas and the Face-to-Face Relationship,4 whose contributors are all practicing psychotherapists; and Psychology for the Other: Levinas, Ethics and the Practice of Psychology,5 whose contributors are professors of psychology and professors of philosophy.

Yet Levinas has written no explicit therapies. Nor has he written much explicitly about psychology, psychoanalysis, psychopathology, or psychotherapy. Indeed, his attitude toward psychoanalysis, once a fashion of Parisian and European intellectuals following Jacques Lacan, has been dismissive.6 The great interest and importance of Levinas for psychopathologists (and for other theoreticians and practitioners in psychology), however, derives from grasping the character and significance of his philosophy, however, and more specifically from an appreciation for the meaning and consequences of his central idea that the human is defined not by knowledge, nor by feeling, for that matter, and even less by self-interest or self-esteem,7 but rather through the exigencies of moral responsibility. In other words, psychology and psychopathologists can learn and improve their self-understanding and their therapeutic work by grasping Levinas’s philosophy, as a philosophy that is at once and fundamentally an ethics, a philosophy for which morality counts most.

Inasmuch as psychopathology’s idea of health depends, as it must, on a more or less well-defined self-understanding of what it means to be a flourishing human being, then Levinas is important, accordingly, because he articulates with depth and precision a philosophical anthropology. But more specifically Levinas’s philosophical anthropology is conceived through the lens of ethics, of good and evil, justice and injustice, in contrast to the pre-eminence philosophy usually accords to knowledge and truth claims. It is not to criticize or denigrate knowledge and truth, however, that Levinas turns to ethics, but precisely the reverse, for, so he argues, it is in ethics that science finds its proper and necessary ground, lacking which science distorts its own purview, for instance as one finds in all forms of positivism. Thus for Levinas (p. 85) the distinctions between “reality and appearance” and “true and false,” whose coordination so many philosophies have presented as ultimate, turn out to be dependent on the deeper and conditioning distinction between “is and ought.” Instead of conceiving that latter distinction subject to the rule of being or knowledge, as philosophers are wont to do, Levinas conceives morality morally, as it were, finding the orientation and priority of the “ought,” the imperatives of morality, as all deriving from the priority of the other person’s needs as my moral commands.

Levinas reconceives “selfhood” in terms of a being-for-the-other initiated not in the self by itself but through obligation and responsibility to and for the other person. Thus the self, through responsibility, is not an “identity,” like a fortress, but a “non-identity,” “de-posed,” or “an-archic,” in the etymological sense of the latter term (i.e. not finding its “principle” within itself), a being-for-the-other, the singularizing of a moral self hood—a self-emptying rather that a self-aggrandizement—across its obligations and responsibilities to and for the other person. Levinas goes so far as to call the moral self “maternal,”8 taking the image of the pregnant woman bearing the other within herself, and appropriates the term “trauma” to indicate the full extent of the other’s impact on my moral agency: my “I” is introjected as a “for-the-other,” but a for-the-other that makes sense beyond the understanding of being or knowledge, but in the singularity of moral responsibility. In Levinas’s own words: “The proximity of the neighbor in its trauma does not only strike up against me, but exalts and elevates me, and, in the literal sense of the term, inspires me. Inspiration, heteronomy, is the very pneuma of the psyche. . . . The for-the-other characteristic of the subject can be interpreted neither as a guilt complex (which presupposes an initial freedom), nor as a natural benevolence or divine ‘instinct,’ nor as some love or some tendency to sacrifice.”9

The self is thus centered in its decentering: for-the-other before being-for-itself. Its “before” can only be maintained, and can only find its true sense, as a moral orientation, the moral priority of aiding the other person, which takes precedence over all the willfulness and self-interest of the self by itself. Or as Levinas succinctly writes: “No one is good voluntarily,” and completes the sentence, from the other side, as it were, “no one is enslaved to the Good.”10 Its center—or decenter—is thus a self-for-the-other prior to being-for-itself, a self as moral responsibility elicited by the priority of the vulnerability not of itself but of the other, the other’s needs, the other’s suffering, and built upon this priority it is decentered toward everyone’s responsibility to contribute to the making of a society of justice for all.

Here, then, the human being, and per implication mental health, is no longer defined by self-interest or self-satisfaction, or even by self-enrichment or self-fulfillment, all the usual ways by which the self’s quest for ontological or existential wholeness have so often been justified, especially by psychology. Rather, the human self—the humanity of the human—arises as goodness, compassion, the elevation of a responsibility to and for the other, in facing the neighbor morally, and in facing all others through the labors of justice and its institutions. We must keep in mind, in order to quiet the carping voices of instrumental reason which are raised everywhere today, not to mention the narrowmindedness of positivism, cost–benefit analysis, and a ubiquitous commodification, that Levinas wrote neither self-help manuals nor inspirational spiritual literature. His is a rigorous philosophy, but in an ethical key. In the full rigor of his difficult philosophical works, based on strict and clear phenomenological (p. 86) intuitions, strength of argumentation, and the most careful attention to the meaning and status of importance, the importance of importance, he refused to reduce the meaningful to the knowledge requirements of a quantitative objectivity. Thus he is neither a positivist nor a dreamer, but a philosopher determined—despite the great difficulties—to give fair hearing to the primacy demanded by ethical imperatives.

The achievement of mental health, from such a perspective, would depend not on repairing the stressed or broken defenses of a stronghold self. It would depend not on a retreat into the safety and closure of an insular thing-like solidity. But rather mental health would demand raising the self to the dignity which arises through respect for the other person as moral obligation, and respect for all others through the tasks of creating a just society. These are not expendable glosses. Ethics is not a luxury. Nothing is more important, nothing closer to our true being, than alleviating the suffering of others. “Nothing,” Levinas writes, “is more grave, more august, than responsibility for the other.”11 “The word I means here I am, answering for everything and for everyone.”12 Thus health—to be a flourishing human being—comes not in the proud independence of an impossible self-sufficiency, not in the fortress ego, but in the weakness, as it were, the pacific non-fulfillment and vulnerability, the self-sacrifice of moral striving. To serve the other is each person’s highest vocation. True humanity, and hence mental health, comes in realizing and rising to the command that nothing is better than helping others. Mental health comes in helping others, through compassion and giving, for in giving to others one gives of the self, and that self, the self that gives, for-the-other, is our better being.


What should be evident is that Levinas’s philosophy, if taken seriously by psychology and psychopathology, represents a significant paradigm shift, a breakthrough, conceiving the human not in objective or subjective terms, but more deeply, or higher, in the ethical terms which represent what is noblest about humans, their humanity. Truth, and health, lies not in being or non-being, but in what is more precious, what is best, for you and for all of us.


Alford C. F. (2002). Levinas, the Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.Find this resource:

Cohen R. A. (2001). “Ricoeur and the Lure of Self-Esteem.” In R. A. Cohen, Ethics, Exegesis and Philosophy: Interpretation After Levinas, pp. 283–325. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Cohen R. A. (2002). “Maternal Psyche.” In Psychology for the Other, ed. Edwin E. Gantt and Richard N. Williams, pp. 32–64. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.Find this resource:

Fryer D. R. (2004). The Intervention of the Other: Ethical Subjectivity in Levinas and Lacan. New York: Other Press.Find this resource:

(p. 87) Gantt E. E. and Williams R. N. (eds.) (2001). Psychology for the Other: Levinas, Ethics and the Practice of Psychology.Find this resource:

Krycka K. C., Kunz G., and Sayre G. C. (eds.) (2015). Psychotherapy for the Other: Levinas and the Face-to-Face Relationship. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.Find this resource:

Kunz G. (1998). The Paradox of Power and Weakness: Levinas and an Alternative Paradigm for Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

Levinas E. (1961). Totality and Infinity. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.Find this resource:

Levinas E. (1998). Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.Find this resource:

Marcus P. (2008). Being for the Other: Emmanuel Levinas, Ethical Living and Psychoanalysis. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.Find this resource:

Marcus P. (2010). In Search of the Good Life: Emmanuel Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and the Art of Living. London: Karnac Books.Find this resource:


(1) Levinas (1961: 199).

(2) Levinas (1961: 199).

(3) Levinas (1961: 80).

(4) Krycka, Kunz, and Sayre (2015). Here let us also add: Fryer (2004); Kunz (1998); Marcus (2008, 2010). A monograph which deals with Levinas’s relation both to psychoanalysis and to politics, especially the Frankfurt School: Alford (2002).

(6) For a different reading, which sees Levinas and Lacan as fellow travelers in their shared critique of Sigmund Freud, see Fryer (2004).

(7) On the question of self-esteem, see Cohen (2001: 283–325).

(8) See Cohen (2002: 32–64).

(9) Levinas (1998: 124).

(10) Levinas (1998: 11).

(11) Levinas (1998: 46).   

(12) Levinas (1998: 114).