The Trap of Universalizing Reason
(Paper for the EBEN
Conference 2010 at Queen Mary University
A modernist attack
In the summer and autumn of 1964 Jacques Derrida
published the article Violence et
. In that article he responds to the
book Totality and Infinity
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
J. (1967) Violence et Métaphysique.
In : Derrida, J. (1967) L’écriture et
la difference. Paris :
Éditions du Seuil.
E. (1991) Totality and Infinity.
, E. (2008) Otherwise than Being.
Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
M. (2009) Discovering Levinas. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
H. (2004) Ethics without Ontology.
London: Harvard University Press.