Emmanuel Lévinas’s Totality and Infinity can be understood as a response to two large crises, one cultural and one philosophical. When the book was written, Europe had recently come through two bloody wars, World Wars I and II, which demonstrated on a scale never before seen the barbarity of humanity against humanity. The depth of this crisis was seen in the genocidal programs carried out by nations that were supposed to represent the best of the Western tradition. In response to this crisis, Lévinas asks if there is not an eschatological hope available to people, a hope sustained and nourished by the life of one’s responsibility to another, that will redirect the pessimism and despair that the witness of history ought to teach people.

On the philosophical level, phenomenology, as it was defined by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, promised to put philosophy on a new and rigorous path. Husserl envisioned phenomenological philosophy as the science that would lead people past the relativism and naturalism that ruled the day; however, Heidegger believed that phenomenology evoked the sense of long-forgotten Being and by doing so would lead humanity into authentic existence. Neither of these attempts, in Lévinas’s view, addressed the crucial philosophical problem of how to address and overcome the violent tendencies latent within Western philosophical practice. Because Lévinas believed that philosophical reflection is inherently...

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Otherness, Sameness, and Ethics

The first section begins with an analysis of the appearance of otherness within thought. Can the other appear “as other,” or must otherness always be a feature of the thinker’s frame of reference and thus not genuinely other but more of the same? Although the history of philosophy has tended to be governed by sameness, as when the aim of a thought is always directed by the a priori conditions that make each thought possible or when reason is grounded in a thinking being who sets the terms for rationality, Lévinas nonetheless claims that it is possible to find moments within the tradition where the ubiquity of sameness is called into question. One of these would be the persistence of metaphysical desire. By this desire, Lévinas means the tendency to seek out that which is absolutely other, that which is not of this world. To be sure, metaphysicians have often claimed to grab hold of the metaphysical world they seek, but in this grasp, they forget the desire that propelled them forward in the first place. Desire is not to be confused with need. A need can be met and filled, but it is the essence of desire to desire beyond that which could possibly complete it. Metaphysical desire thus prepares a rupture within the totality of thought and, in so doing, clears a space for genuine otherness to make itself felt.

Lévinas is also aware that metaphysics has often taken the form of an ontology, a science that pertains to the being of things. Being becomes the theoretical category in terms of which all things are understood. However, this metaphysical desire, because it is allied with the drive for comprehension, denies metaphysical desire and the otherness of what is known; Lévinas developed this theme at much greater length in Autrement qu’être: Ou,...

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The Face of the Other

Section three carries out a phenomenological analysis of the “face of the other” as the occasion for redirecting one’s freedom to responsibility and eventually continuing on into justice and peace. The face presents the exteriority that calls into question the machinations of thought and thus makes thought’s totality and sameness tremble. Lévinas turns to the face of another person because it, better than anything else, refuses to be contained by the theoretical gesture that threatens to comprehend it. It is not the bare physicality of the face that interests Lévinas but its “ethical resistance,” or its capacity to say no to all the meaning bestowals people would otherwise confer upon it. The face is thus the mark of the integrity, even sanctity or holiness, of the other person.

The face manifests itself primarily as speech. The face “speaks,” not only in terms of the phonetic words it may utter but also in the very expression of bearing witness to itself. This expression, which has little to do with the communication of the other person’s interior states, founds language and communication because it evokes from one, if one is attentive, a response. Language is not enacted in a sovereign consciousness but comes to be in the ethical relation that acknowledges and welcomes the other person. Language is created in the community freely established across the distance between beings. The essence of language is discourse, the relation with the other. The first and primary rationality would thus live in discourse. In this analysis of discourse as the basis for language, Lévinas finds the occasion for the redefinition of reason as the welcoming of the face of the other.

In the fourth and final section, Lévinas gives several short and somewhat enigmatic analyses of love and eros, fecundity, filiality, and fraternity, all with the aim of addressing how the ethical relation of the self-other is to be worked out in a history governed by violence. In certain respects, he is invoking an eschatological time in which the particularity of the self-other relationship is expanded into a universal program of justice and peace.

Lévinas’s Impact

Totality and Infinity was the work that first brought Lévinas international acclaim. Because of its difficulty and originality, however, it was easily misunderstood. In the years following its publication, Lévinas wrote several essays, as well as the equally important Otherwise than Being, that refined and developed its themes. His work was appropriated by Jacques Derrida, for instance, because it manifests the supreme attention to and welcoming of otherness that Derrida thinks is vital to the work of deconstruction. His work has also been influential within the fields of psychoanalysis, literary theory, feminism, and political theory, primarily because of Lévinas’s profound analysis of the face of the other and its dissimulation in the history of thought. More recently, his work has been of great interest to theologians interested in how speech and thought about God as the “supremely other” is to be possible. There is little doubt that Lévinas’s work, beginning with Totality and Infinity, will continue to exert its influence, for in it we find one of the most serious, and certainly one of the most profound, reflections on the violent character of human thought and history.


Additional Reading

Bernasconi, Robert, and Simon Critchley, eds. Re-reading Levinas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. This collection of essays by several of Emmanuel Lévinas’s major interpreters covers a wide range of themes, including the philosopher in relation to deconstruction, his later works, Lévinas and the feminine, and his thought in relation to the philosopher Maurice Blanchot, psychoanalysis, and the care of animals. It includes a lengthy essay by Jacques Derrida on Lévinas’s later work.

Cohen, Richard A., ed. Face to Face with Levinas. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986. This early collection of essays on Lévinas is valuable for its contextualization of Lévinas’s thought. It includes an important and accessible interview conducted by Richard Kearney that covers a wide range of philosophical issues. Several other essays deal with Lévinas’s method and his relation to the history of philosophy.

Davis, Colin. Levinas: An Introduction. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. Davis, who is not a philosopher, introduces the broad themes of Lévinas’s work in a style accessible to those who are not conversant with European philosophy.

Derrida, Jacques. Adieu à Emmanuel Lévinas. Paris: Galilée, 1997. Provides expert...

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