Who is the Other in Levinas?
(Webinar on June
26 2020 for Haagse Beek Consultancy, via Zoom)
- Little Green Riding
- Answer to the question
- Further thoughts on
“Take care a bit for each other”, or: “Pay
attention to your neighbor”; We quite readily agree
with these statements. But for those who take them
seriously, a question soon arises: who is that
neighbor, who is “each other”? I can't take care of
everyone, can I?
And with that question the issue immediately
acquires a much wider scope. Because in the light of
the many abuses, dictators and refugees with which
the newspaper news floods us every day, the
intention to take good care of your neighbor can
easily create a feeling of impotence. Where should
we start, who should we help? We cannot accept every
refugee who comes forward, can we?
To begin a reflection on that question, I first
turn to the answer of Christianity with which our
culture is so familiar. After all, in the Gospel of
Luke (10, 25-37) Jesus gets exactly that question:
who is actually my Neighbor? He gets that question
from a scripture scholar, and he answers through his
parable of the Good Samaritan. It goes like this:
A man on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho is
taken by robbers, beaten and robbed, and left
for dead. A priest and a Levite pass by, but
leave the man and arch around him. Then a
Samaritan passes. He is moved by pity. He helps
the man, bandages his wounds and pays the inn
When Jesus finished the parable, he turned to the
scribe and asked him, “Which of these three seems to
you to have been neighbor to the man who fell among
the robbers?” The scribe replied, “He that showed
him mercy”. Jesus said, “Go and do likewise”.
So Jesus turns the question around and actually
asks, “To whom are you a neighbor?” That is a lucky
find, because it puts one directly in action mode,
with the perspective to mean something to someone
That reversal is made in many sermons and
reflections on Christian sites and in Christian
books. But the original question “Who is my
Neighbor” meanwhile continues to urgently ask for an
answer, and is therefore just as present on those
same sites and in those books. This makes sense
because charity, love for neighbor, is a recurring
commandment throughout the Bible, both the Old and
And then the question of who the Neighbor – or
also: the Other – is, turns out to be a difficult
one. This is evident from the struggles that you can
pick from the internet. I hereby give a selection of
The Refoweb site:
“Anyone who is in need is your neighbor who
needs help.” But a side note is made here:
“Don't rush at everyone right away. First
consult God”, for there may be many more
neighbors than we can ever help.
The site of theologian Jan Vaessen:
Jan Vaessen exclaims: “But who is my neighbor? I
can’t take the whole world on my neck!” Yet that
is the outcome of his argument: “You can in
principle be a neighbor to everyone you meet”.
It could be argued that the answer to the question,
traditionally – and by this I mean according to
Christian beliefs that have set the tone in the West
for centuries – comes down to the answer: Everyone
in need is my neighbor. Subsequently, practical
problems are foreseen, but they no longer affect
that principle: every fellow human being is my
Let me say straight away: That answer is not
workable for me. Because everyone, that’s too much.
And everyone in need, that is also too much, it
becomes meaningless. Moreover, when the bar is set
so high, cynicism and discouragement are lurking
because most people cannot live up to such a high
For myself I have determined that I need criteria
that help me to get into action for someone else.
These are criteria such as political feasibility,
practicality and fairness, but I’m not going to talk
about that. There is another criterion, of a
completely different nature, that I want to discuss.
That is the phenomenon of thinkshame. I got that
phenomenon from the French-Jewish philosopher
Emmanuel Levinas, and it brings me to my actual
subject: who is the other in Levinas? My answer to
that question will be: the one who evokes thinkshame
To make this understandable, I will discuss the
phenomenon of thinkshame in more detail.
But first of all, something about Levinas. Levinas
is a French Jewish philosopher who lived from 1906
to 1995. He was born in Lithuania and went to study
philosophy in France at the age of eighteen. He was
interested in phenomenology, he obtained his
doctorate with the phenomenologist Husserl, and
introduced Heidegger in France. He became principal
of a Jewish school in Paris.
He survived the war as a soldier in captivity, his
wife and daughter went into hiding. His family in
Lithuania was completely massacred by the Germans.
After the war, Levinas developed his own thinking,
which resulted, among other things, in his two great
works Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than
Being. He was awarded professorships at the
Universities of Paris Nanterre and the Sorbonne.
The phenomenon of ‘thinkshame’ can be described as
follows: thinkshame is the phenomenon that you feel
embarrassed because of your own thinking, while you
only mean well, also for the one(s) you think for.
But it is precisely that well-meaning thinking for
another which can create a kind of existential
Now thinking for someone else is something very
normal. We all do that: a manager is paid for it, a
parent does it for her child, a caregiver for his
patient. And I assume: we all do that in good faith,
with the best of intentions. But there may be times
when, despite our good intentions, the other for
whom we think is not served by our plans. He shows
grief or injury. And that surprises us, because we
mean well, don’t we? At that point, there may be
Let’s conclude: it’s a strange phenomenon. You mean
well and yet you are ashamed of what you do.
You may find the phenomenon so unlikely that you do
not believe it exists. To make it plausible that it
does exist, I want to read two stories from people
who apparently have experienced it. Listening to
them may also give you a more precise idea of what I
mean by thinkshame.
The first story comes from a book by
managementconsultant Wim van Dinten. Van Dinten
describes a trip with a colleague through the United
States. On their way to San Francisco they decide to
spend the night in a small town.
After we had checked in in a hotel, we walked
to a restaurant. In a petrol station we passed a
camper. A man got off: I estimated him to be in
his late thirties, he was a bit dirty and
unshaven. He caught my attention because he
looked somewhat helplessly around. Behind the
windscreen three dogs watched us.
As we walked along, he spoke to us. He said he
had no money and asked whether we could give him
some so that he could refuel. He was very
gentle, showed no aggression at all. I gave him
I asked him whether he always travelled around
with those three dogs. “It are no dogs sir, it
are people.” I thought he had not understood me,
pointed at the dogs in the cabin and repeated my
question. Again he replied: “It are no dogs sir,
it are people.”
My colleague asked him whether for him there
was no difference between dogs and people. He
said that there was a lot of difference, that
dogs gave much more love and were much better
life partners. We looked at him, paused for a
while. I said that, even then, there are still
so many differences that dogs cannot be called
people after all. He looked at us a little
longer, still without any aggression. He gave
the five dollars back to me and walked away. I
knew nothing to say, felt myself crude, rude and
aggressive. (Van Dinten 2002: 253)
What I want to emphasize here is the incongruousness
of the narrator’s response. He says, “I felt rough,
rude and aggressive”. That’s the shame part.
And why is he ashamed? Because he said “that dogs
cannot be called people after all”. But he doesn’t
have to be ashamed of that at all, does he? Isn’t
his statement a completely reasonable, sensible view
of dogs and people, namely “that dogs cannot be
called people after all?” I see no reason to be
ashamed of such a statement, I could easily repeat
it. That’s the thinking part.
And yet he is ashamed because, through that
thinking, he has clearly crossed a line and hurt
someone. Therefore: thinkshame.
That is the incongruousness of thinkshame: what you
said is by no means unreasonable, and yet you are
ashamed. So thinkshame itself is not reasonable. Yet
it dóes determine your actions: you feel your own
rudeness, you make excuses.
Here you find Levinas to the fullest: the other
triggers you in such a way that reason is no longer
the most important thing. There you will find the
other. And at the same time you yourself are
addressed on the deepest ground of your own
existence: your responsibility.
Green Riding Hood
My second example is taken from the lawyer and
writer Naema Tahir. She is Pakistani by origin, born
in England, and married to a Dutch man. Since 2001
she has been involved in the Islam debate in the
Netherlands. In 2008 she came to the conclusion that
the Dutch Islam debate should be conducted
differently, with more humor. She had just written Little
Green Riding Hood, a collection of short fairy
tales about Muslims in a fictional multicultural
society. She tried to take the sting out of the
debate by means of funny twists and names, under the
motto: if you can laugh at yourself and the other,
the rapprochement has already started. The chapters
in her book had titles such as: ‘Little Green Riding
Hood and the Converted Wolf’ and ‘The Sleeping
Virgin’. She had it read to a friend at a birthday
party of Surinamese-Dutch Muslims. They were not
amused and even hurt, and that confused her. “The
Christians had allowed Life of Brian”, she
thought, “and Jesus Christ Superstar? I have
the right by my side”.
Still, shame reigned. She rewrote parts, and all
the characters jokingly called Mohammed and Aisha
were given new names. It cost her thousands of
euros, because the book was almost printed already.
Let me put it this way, I do not know whether
thinkshame is involved here, because in her report
Tahir uses the word ‘shame’, and not the word
‘thinkshame’. But all the ingredients and symptoms
of thinkshame are there: the initial self-evidence
and good intentions of an idea, in this case: the
belief in the liberating and fraternizing effect of
humor in a stalled debate; the shock and confusion
when you discover that what you cannot perceive as
anything but positive is not necessarily positive
for everyone; the realization that with that
self-evident and even well-intended thought you may
have hurt others; and the change that this
realization brings, in this case: Tahir has since
felt that headscarves and veils should not
Íf, as I belief, thinkshame has indeed been at
issue here, it is not difficult to situate it. Then
it comes in the moment when Tahir expects amused
reactions from her Islamic version of Life of
Brian, and instead receives shocked reactions.
At that moment she realizes that with her enthusiasm
for a certain idea she is crossing a line with
someone else. So when she first finds out that
fellow Muslims don’t appreciate her humor. Shame
then is: the realization that in my enthusiasm I go
too far and thereby hurt someone.
to the question
At this point I return to our original question:
who is the Other? For when something like the above
happens to me, I have, if only for a moment, an
answer to that difficult question: who is the other.
The other, to whom I owe something, is the one with
whom I crossed a line. To her of him I want to
apologize, or in some other way make amends, because
I did not respect her dignity. Usually I can do so,
and I usually do.
That is why one of the answers to the question who
is the other for me is: the other is the one who
causes me thinkshame.
As said, I got that answer from Levinas. That’s
because Levinas reflects on all kinds of phenomena
associated with thinkshame. For example, he
• The violence of reason; he speaks
a lot about our rational thinking that pretends to
know the world and the other and thus crosses borders.
• The fact that the other might be
much more different from what you can imagine, and
that well-meaning thinking can take on something
• The moment you realize this; that
may well be a moment of real encounter; the moment of
thoughts on thinkshame
Thinkshame is a rich phenomenon, on closer inspection
it has all kinds of implications that are worth
mentioning. If I zoom in on that, partly on the basis
of the Little Green Riding Hood issue, the following
aspects stand out.
• Good intentions are not decisive.
You have nice ideas and good intentions. But all of
that no longer counts when someone else is hurt by it
and you are somehow convinced of that injury. Then the
other suddenly determines your leeway, even if the
other reacts – in your opinion – in an exaggerated or
humorless way. So there is a certain loss of autonomy.
Yet it doesn’t feel wrong, because there is authentic
• It could be about something that
you definitely think differently about. What the other
person is saying you may judge primitive, and you
actually want to keep that at a distance. Yet you do
not want to withdraw from it.
• What happens when you let someone
else’s grief touch you is not necessarily reasonable.
It cannot always be adequately explained by the
substance of the matter. For example, in the Little
Green Riding Hood issue, no major financial, economic
or geopolitical interests are at stake. It is about
subjectively experienced identity and its injury, and
reasonableness is ricochetted on that. That may be
vague, but it does not feel wrong, because there is
• Due to the characteristics just
mentioned: loss of autonomy, the sometimes primitive
nature of the issue at stake, and the elusiveness for
reason, something irritating can come to stick to the
effects of thinkshame and the resulting discussions.
For example, when it comes to integration, you can
hear a lot, “Why don't they just adapt?” But for
someone with thinkshame, the impulse to talk is
greater than the irritation.
It is easy to associate thinkshame – or lack of it
– with many of the problems the newspapers present
us on a daily basis, such as integration, the
arrogance of Northern Europe towards Southern
Europe, or the trivialization of the refugee
problem. However, on those fronts the personal
component is hardly or not at all present. Personal
action – which is the habitat of thinkshame – is
therefore only possible to a limited extent in those
fields, the impotence we spoke about in the
However, in the fields where the personal
component is important, thinkshame can have great
impact. When I myself, in my environment, cross the
line with someone else, and thus become
totalitarian, I can immediately allow myself to be
corrected – by thinkshame –, make excuses and start
afresh. And that can turn out to be very political.
Dinten, W. van (2002) Met gevoel voor realiteit.
Ven, N. van der (2011) The Shame of Reason
in Organizational Change. A
Levinassian Perspective. London: