Naud van der Ven


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Who is the Other in Levinas?

(Webinar on June 26 2020 for Haagse Beek Consultancy, via Zoom)

  1. Introduction
  2. Levinas
  3. Thinkshame
  4. Little Green Riding Hood
  5. Answer to the question
  6. Further thoughts on thinkshame
  7. Conclusion
  8. Literature


“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 for him.

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 else.

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 New Testaments.

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 answers:

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 neighbor.

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 ideal.

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 in me.

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 embarrassment.

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 thinkshame.

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 five dollars.

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.

Little 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 disappear.

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.

Answer 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 elaborates on:

•    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 totalitarian.

•    The moment you realize this; that may well be a moment of real encounter; the moment of thinkshame.

Further 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 contact.

•    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 real contact.

•    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 beginning remains.

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. Delft: Eburon.

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