Naud van der Ven


Click here for blogmessages

The Trap of Universalizing Reason

(Paper for the EBEN Conference 2010 at Queen Mary University London)

A modernist attack

In the summer and autumn of 1964 Jacques Derrida published the article Violence et Métaphysique. In that article he responds to the book Totality and Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas, which had appeared in 1961. The tenor of Derrida’s article was that what Levinas wants to do in his book is actually impossible.

In Totality and Infinity Levinas stresses that there is something like the experience of infinity, particularly in the appearance for us of the surprising Other, which for that reason he writes with capital O. In order to designate that experience he takes recourse to rather unusual terms. He speaks about the ‘Face’, about the ‘Discourse’ and about the encounter with the ‘absolute Otherness’ of the other.

Levinas knows very well that these words do not fit into common language. The language of these remarkable words, he says, “does not belong among the relations that could appear through the structures of formal logic; it is contact across a distance, relation with the non-touchable, across a void” (1991: 172).

At another place he makes clear that the phenomenon he wants to express in language is too big for language.“[E]x-pression does not manifest the presence of being by referring from the sign to the signified;(…)Signs are a mute language, a language impeded” (1991: 181, 182). These citations show that Levinas was quite aware of the difficult task he set himself in Totality and Infinity and that he knows very well that language is not well suited to describe the experience of the other. But he insists that this observation does not invalidate the experience itself. Besides, he says, he disposes of nothing but just language to treat his theme.

To this view Derrida responds with a very severe and strictly logical argument. According to Derrida language determines our entire horizon. Language is our alpha and omega, and it does not allow us to do what Levinas wants: to point to something outside language. Derrida for instance pinpoints the violation by Levinas of the (linguistic) law of non-contradiction in Levinas’ use of the word ‘exteriority’, which for Levinas indicates something beyond the totality of the language. Derrida replies: “Why do we still have to use the word ‘exteriority’ to indicate a non-spatial relationship? Language cannot but refer to space. The crossing-outs of Levinas are in vain” (1967: 165). Because of this kind of levinasian inconsistencies Derrida denies Levinas the right to use language as he does.

Levinas, according to Derrida, gets entangled in his own endeavours. For he uses ontological language while indeed he wants to describe something which is beyond ontology. Derrida points out to him that paradox or impossibility.

Levinas’ response

Levinas has been quite upset by this modernist attack by Derrida. And subsequently he began to place different accents. In Otherwise than Being (first published in 1974) for example, he emphasizes less the completely unexpected and surprising nature of the appearance of the other. He is more inclined there to speak in essentialist terms, such as the designation of the subject as ‘being-for-the-other’, which implies a being-prepared-already for the appearance of the other. And thus a more stable, a priori existing essence which fits better into the common use of language.

By taking this position Levinas went part of the way to meet Derrida, who believes that human existence only takes off starting with the abstract generalities of the logos. Indeed, according to Derrida, these enable us to anticipate phenomena, and thus experiences, including the encounter with the other. Because the logos is already familiar with ‘otherness’ as a concept, it has protected itself forever against every absolutely surprising call, says Derrida. And Levinas let himself be influenced by these remarks. By describing – on instigation of Derrida – his favorite phenomena increasingly in terms of essences and stability, he wrote the surprise out of his work. This explains how Levinas could become an easy prey for followers who see him as the champion of the order of universal ontological goodness.

So, in a way, the effect of Derrida’s attack was contrarily: the unexpected, the infinite was treated more and more in terms of a stable identity, be it the identity of the-one-for-the-other. Paradoxically enough we thus got more essentialism and ontological language.


Why allowed Levinas this to happen? Why didn’t he point more emphatically to the fact that already in Totality and Infinity he was well aware of the complexities and limitations of language and that, therefore, Derrida did not come up with something surprisingly new? Why didn’t he launch a counter-attack, as for example Hillary Putnam – forty years later - did?

Putman, in his book Ethics without ontology (2004) sides with Levinas against Derrida. In  the first chapter (p. 24) Putnam approvingly quotes from Totality and Infinity a passage in which Levinas extricates ethics from the ontological web of references and interpretations. Putnam formulates as follows what he likes in this move: For Levinas, the irreducible foundation of ethics is my immediate recognition, when confronted with a suffering fellow human being, that I have an obligation to do something”. So he stresses in Levinas the kind of immediacy for which Derrida had attacked him, precisely because that immediacy is contrary to the endless web of references which Derrida believes in.

Putnam’s objection against Derrida is not that the latter showed us the web of endless associations of significations and the importance of interpretation. But he does criticize him for subjecting everything to the laws of interpretation and thus not leaving any space for immediate experience. Deconstructionists claim that all perception and thought involve interpretation, and that every interpretation is susceptible to still further interpretation” (p. 115). In other words: the observation that in some cases interpretation is needed does not mean that it is needed in all cases. “Derridian critique is sometimes in place. The important thing is to perceive when a text could be read “deconstructively” and when this is not the way a text should be read” (p. 120).

To return to my question: why did Levinas himself not respond to Derrida in this way?
I think it has been too difficult for Levinas to say: sometimes this phenomenon (i.e. the Face) occurs, and sometimes it does not. It does so with some people and it does not with other people. I think he cóuld not say so, because in his view of philosophy, which by the way is many people’s view, philosophy must speak about things fundamental in the sense of always present, even when hidden or ignored. For, if philosophy does not lay bare generally valid patterns, according to that view, it is no longer philosophy. This is the way Levinas must have conceived of philosophy, otherwise he would not have arrived at concepts like for instance a universal structure of the subject, prior to everything else and applicable to everybody. He was wayward enough to digress from common philosophical discourse if he wanted to. But apparently he wanted to keep using these classical philosophical words ‘always’ and ‘everybody’.

As much as they are avidly cherished by many Levinas fans. For example by Michael Morgan in his book Discovering Levinas, when he says (p. 306) that the face-to-face in Levinas has a certain cognitive character, by which he means a certain universality. Or when he confronts (p. 307) the unicity of being this or that person, having his or her indivual features and roles, with the universality of being responsible, always accused and obsessed.

I think that to talk about unicity and then to fill it up in a generally covering way by saying ‘Everyone is always already summoned by the other’ is contradictory. In my view a suchlike statement lacks, from the start, respect for the otherness of the other, precisely by claiming universality.

In order to avoid this kind of consequences of his theory, Levinas should have blocked the tendency to universalize. I wish Levinas had said: the encounter with the Other occurs with some people, not with others. I wish that because I dislike the pedantic tone with which Levinas and many of his fans say that the subject’s structure (so every subject’s structure) is: being-for-the-other; and that, when people don’t recognize that, they are simply not that far yet.


Apart from my dislike of pedantry, I would wish that for another reason. That reason is that, in the workshops I give on this issue, I note that people may genuinely not recognize the phenomenon Levinas talks about. In those workshops I explore the experiences participants have had (or had not) of the Face of the other as Levinas describes it. The main question is: does it occur you let yourself be whistled back by the grief of another person at the moment you intruded too much upon him or her? In treating this question it appears in the workshops that some participants do recognize the phenomenon indeed – even very emphatically sometimes – and other participants do not recognize it at all. The only appropriate response to this observation, in my view, is the conclusion that the phenomenon of the Face is not universal. Which may leave unshattered the idea that – when it does occur – it is an important phenomenon.

Levinas did not want to draw that conclusion. And, to be honest, I note in the workshops that participants don’t like a suchlike conclusion either. An unpredictable phenomenon which occurs sometimes and sometimes does not, that’s not what we want to get at. Apparently in all of us the notion is deeply anchored that things are worth while to be discussed only when we can use universally valid terms.

Apart from this human attachment to universality the rejection of contingently occuring phenomena could have to do with the way in which our knowledge institutes are organized. Namely in the form of stable, permanent institutes, with corresponding truth pretensions. Institutions which receive a lot of money and are concerned that the flow of money may come to a halt if they don’t return enough certainty.

But the phenomenon of the Face is elusive, because it appears now here, then there. By claiming universality one squeezes life out of the reflection about this phenomenon, which means: out of ethics. That could explain why we end up with lifeless ethical codes. Universal but empty.

For that reason I would say: if philosophy and ethics have to talk about universals and things-always-present  because otherwise, according to the definition, there is no question of philosophy and ethics; let us then discuss the phenomenon of being touched by the other’s face outside the context of philosophy and ethics.



Derrida, J. (1967) Violence et Métaphysique. In : Derrida, J. (1967) L’écriture et la difference. Paris : Éditions du Seuil.

Levinas, E. (1991) Totality and Infinity. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Levinas , E. (2008) Otherwise than Being. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Morgan, M. (2009) Discovering Levinas. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Putnam, H. (2004) Ethics without Ontology. London: Harvard University Press.

Ven, N. van der (2011) The Shame of Reason in Organizational Change. A Levinassian Perspective. London: Springer.