Naud van der Ven


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Who is the Other in Organizations?

Widows and Orphans

Levinasian ethics departs from the centrality of the Other and speaks about the Other in terms of the widow and the orphan. But what about Levinasian business ethics? Widows and orphans are not really relevant categories for organizations. So what does the other look like in organizations? That’s the question which will be central in this article.

In Levinas’ vision the other is the one who can make me conscious of my imperialistic rationality. According to Levinas the activity of thinking has an inherently totalitarian tendency which can lead us into impasse situations. But for him these impasses do not have to be definitive. For, something exists like a shameful confrontation in which the thinker is being confronted with his victim’s (the other’s) resistance. He sees himself and his thinking made questionable. This can lead to self-criticism and to more reflection and compassion.

If there is some truth in what Levinas says this other must be traceable in organizations, but the question is: in what way can Levinas’ speaking about the other be related to the world of management and organization?

In order to be able to answer that question we can fruitfully turn to parts of Levinas’ anthropology which are to be found in his early works Le temps et l’autre (TA), De l’existence à l’existant (EE) and in Totalité et Infini (TI). His descriptions of the human condition treat subjects like action, labor and rationality which indeed make connections possible with working life. Those elements will be touched upon below. Before presenting them I will introduce the framework in which Levinas positions those subjects, that is to say the framework of Il-y-a and hypostasis, and I will give an outline of the application of that scheme on organizations.


Il-y-a and hypostasis

A central pair of concepts in the writings of Emmanuel Levinas is the combination of il-y-a and hypostasis. The combination is of great importance for Levinas’ description of the human condition. Il-y-a with Levinas denotes being, but then being in its specific appearance of formless, undetermined being. He at times calls it a noise, a roar. It is frightening, on the one hand because of its unstoppable character: it is unlimited, continues endlessly. But on the other hand, and more so, because of the horrible indifferent character of the il-y-a, its colossal neutrality. The unlimited aspect generates weariness regarding the endlessness and the meaninglessness, the neutral aspect evokes anguish. Levinas encounters it in insomnia.
Hypostasis is the breaking apart of a being from the il-y-a. It is the proces of substantiation, taking a distance from the surrounding being, at first by assuming a position in space and time and next by creating a world, that is by naming things and by developing consciousness. It is: becoming a subject. The subjects choosing of position and the creation of its own time are to be seen as a first escape from the disgusting il-y-a. And as a sequel to that the being that originates in this way: man, plans his future and designs his world in a rational way. So, the hypostasis means a substantiation vis à vis the il-y-a.

But that substantiation appears to be vulnerable. The hypostasis is never sufficiently strong to eliminate the il-y-a completely. The sea of the il-y-a keeps dashing against the isle that has come up in its midst. Returning in its original or in a disguised shape it takes back the achievements of the hypostasis. The il-y-a cleaves. It reappears into the heart of the rationally managed world of man. The achievement of time turns into a new endless continuum, namely that of a planned and closed future. The achievement of  a well-arranged and named world degenerates into a collection of dogma´s and reïfications, or, out of aversion against that, into a new kind of indeterminacy and indifference. The highest form of victory over the il-y-a, rationality, turns out to be carrier of the same properties that characterized the il-y-a: meaninglessness and indifference.

Here comes to the fore what can be called the “deficiency of rationality”. The very rationality that helps us escape the disgust of the meaningless il-y-a, leads to forms of closeness, self-complacency and uneasiness that make return the expelled meaninglessness. Levinas does not give an explanation for this, but stresses this deficiency of rationality and makes heavy of it. Is there no escape then? he wonders. Is this impasse the last we can say about it?

Levinas does not think so. He notes that we humans experience the impasse intensely, but that often enough we find ways to cope with it. That’s what he is interested in. What exactly happens when we cope with it? Levinas thinks that, if you want to describe that, the phenological method, which he is so fond of, does not suffice. To be able to say at least something about the escape he has to take recourse to themes with what he calls a mystical or transcendent character. It is in our confrontation with death, with time, with eros and with the other that, according to Levinas, an opening is presented to us which really puts the il-y-a on a distance, be it always only temporarily. To the extent that Levinas’ work further develops, his interest focuses ever more on the other as the one who pre-eminently presents us the opening.


Organizations find themselves in the field of force of the il-y-a and the hypostasis. As we shall see below, one even could say that organizations are an embodiment of hypostasis in its more developed form. But not at the level of a individual (the subject) but of groups of people. The phenomena that characterize the rationality-stage, like the appropriation of time, the planning of the future, the working with representations and the rational design and control of the own world are essential aspects of organizing and organizations. This means that the impasse we spoke about above, and that is given with the deficiency of the rationality, is also within the world of organization a well-known phenomenon. This may be shown by the perennially returning control-dilemma: the necessary control appears to have strained relations with the need for creative and motivated workers. At the level of organizational theory this comes to the fore in the deadlock between positivistic reductionism and postmodernistic sterility.

At the same time it can be argued, in line with the tendency of Levinas’ philosophy as a whole, that also in organizations people know to find the escape. People do regularly escape the closeness of a planned future and the totalitarian constraint of rational structures. There actually ís sensemaking in organizations. It dóes occur that traditional, rigid controlsystems give way to systems that give workers more space. It dóes occur that bosses who could organize a business at will afterwards want to account for their actions. It dóes occur that consultants who never bothered to thrust their rationally accounted for ideas upon organizations, in confrontation with everyday praxis open themselves for completely different sounds from the workfloor.

It may be wondered whether in these situations one can talk of an escape, as Levinas would have it. Do these developments not entirely fit in in the autonomous dialectics of reasonableness and of enlightenment to arrive at more humane forms of organization?

I hold the position that, on the basis of Levinas’ work, one certainly can accord a place to these last mentioned developments as a driving force, but it is a secundary place. From the viewpoint of Levinas the main impuls towards innovation and humanization stems from an intrusion from outside the rational order. This has much to do with the totalitarian character which Levinas ascribes to reason and the organizational conscience. Because of that feature it is exactly the confrontation with the totalitarian character of one’s own rationality and the embarrasment with one’s own ideology which generate truly new insights.

As indicated above that confrontation for Levinas takes primarily place in the encounter with the other. In order to get a better understanding of those confrontations within organizations it therefore is important to determine more precisely what, within the context of organizations, the other looks like. Who is, within the framework of organizations, the Other?

Action, labor and rationality

To answer that question it may be helpful to start from what Levinas says about getting into action, about labor and acting rationally. These themes come up in Levinas’ work when he discusses the hypostasis. As we saw Levinas describes the hypostasis, conceived of as a substantiation in respect of the il-y-a, as a proces that contains several phases. The proces starts with choosing position with regard to the il-y-a, passes through the phase of reinforcing that position without any role for consciousness, and results in a phase in which consciousness plays an important role.

Hypostasis’ first phase

The conceived point of departure for the hypostasis is a situation of aversion against the il-y-a, in combination with the necessity for the emerging subject, if it is to become really subject, to choose position with respect to the anonymous il-y-a. We may use the word ‘taking a distance’ to indicate this proces, but that tells only the half story. The subject will not be able to ban the il-y-a completely. In the taking up of its own being the subject will also have to entertain a relationship with the il-y-a, that is: with that being which at the same time arouses fright and disgust. As Levinas writes in Existence and Existents: “The questioning of Being is an experience of Being in its strangeness. It is then a way of taking up Being…The question is itself a manifestation of the relationship with Being. Being is essentially alien and strikes against us” (EE, 9).

So the question is one of entering into a relationship with something repulsive. Weariness and sloth characterize this situation and form the expression of the reluctance which holds the emerging subject in its grip.The weariness has to do with the impossibility to escape the boundless being, perhaps even more so in hypostased form than without hypostasis because hypostasis presupposes a kind of coming to terms with being and therewith acceptation of being. In all cases there is one rule: you háve to be. There is “… a commitment to exist, with all the seriousness and harshness of an unrevokable contract” (EE, 12). The weariness is not so much a content of consciousness (it finds itself at a too early stage in the hypostasis for that), but something which happens, and primarily so a refusal, a refusal to exist: “Weariness by all its being effects this refusal to exist” (EE, 12). This weariness thus does not have any link with action. The weariness boggles at action.

With sloth, or indolence, this is different. Levinas links sloth to human action, namely the beginning of action: “Indolence is essentially tied up with the beginning of an action: the stirring, the getting up…It may inhere in the act that is being realized, in which case the performance rolls on as on an ill-paved road, jolted about by instants each of which is a beginning all over again” (EE, 13). The emerging subject has erected itself, but incessantly falls back. It keeps starting up. The same repugnance that preceded the beginning of action returns here. The refusal of existence pervades the indolence as well and manifests itself precisely in that repeated backslide from action. “And indolence, as a recoil before action, is a hesitation before existence, an indolence about existing” (EE, 15).
Levinas stresses that all this is not nice. The pleasures of the hypostasis are reached by the subject only in a later stage, the phase of enjoyment. There he speaks about play, here about the necessity of “one must try to live”. Sloth at this stage is linked with repugnance against the constraint to exist. The opportunities which are offered to the subject at this stage above all present trouble and sorrow: The beginning of an act “…is concerned with itself…It possesses riches which are a source of cares before being a source of enjoyment” (EE,15).

Whereas sloth is somehow connected with a beginning of action, the loss of the beginning and the next restart, Levinas places fatigue in the full display of activity. The subject has already taken up its own existence, or, more precisely, is incessantly engaged in taking up its existence. But existence takes a lead over the subject, the subject cannot keep up well with existence; the subject is a moment behind its existence. This relaxation of the grip on its own existence, that´s fatigue. “It struggles behind the instant it is going to take on” (EE, 22). Fatigue is about the exertion that is needed for that. That effort gives the activity a double character: “Action is then by essence subjection and servitude, but also the first manifestation, of the very constitution, of an existent, a someone that is” (EE, 23). Effort and fatigue thus are part of the genesis of the subject, which, according to Levinas, may be succinctly characterized as the taking upon itself of existence by the existent. 

Hypostasis’ second phase

Compared to the tragedy and heaviness of the first phase of the hypostasis the second phase strikes us because of its much more pleasant features. Once the substantiation of the subject has started off, this movement develops further in a way Levinas describes mainly in positive terms. Levinas often calls the hypostasis after the phase of the fatigue a “separation” (namely between the indeterminate being and the emergent subject) and the main features of separation are enjoyment, labor and finally representation.

The enjoyment is a name for the stage in the substantiation of the subject in which the subject no longer just melts with the surrounding being. It has acquired a relationship with that being. The nourishment which is enjoyed by the enjoying being is taken from what Levinas calls “the elements”. By that he means wind, earth, sea, heaven, air and all the rest which supports man and which constitutes, after the separation, the environment of the enjoying being. Elements are not to be considered as things, but as qualities which offer themselves to the senses. This corresponds with the affective, sensory character of the enjoyment which at several places is stressed by Levinas.

The role the enjoyment plays in the proces of hypostasis lies in the particular form of independence which is introduced with the enjoyment. Preceding the enjoyment there is a situation of indeterminacy: the being coïncides with the whole from which it derives its nourishment, which can be interpreted as pure dependency. The enjoyment according to Levinas’ description causes a change in that situation. A distance is being created, the dependency can be suspended and in this way the paradoxical figure arises of a being which has untied itself from a world on which nevertheless it feeds itself (TI, 131)! The enjoyment is a decisive step in the proces of breaking away from the il-y-a.

Labor constitutes both a reaction on and a deepening of the enjoyment. It is reaction in sofar the sensory enjoyment and the reliability of the elements imply uncertainty. Labor can, by seizing and fixing, wrest things from the elemental and in this way reduce uncertainty. From this point of view the trouble of effort cleaves also to labor: “The ancient curse of labor does not only lie in the necessity of working to feed oneself; it is already wholly to be found in the instant of effort (EE, 24).

On the other hand labor is a deepening of the enjoyment. For, labor introduces us to the world of things and objects, with the possibility to seize and enjoy them. This did not come up at the stage of sheer taking up existence, that is: in the phase of action. “But if the active moment of activity, that which makes it actual, is nothing else than the taking up of the present, labor concerned with the objects of the world seems to contain more than this” (EE, 25). By the directedness towards objects, the acquisition thereof and the satisfaction that goes with it a play-element comes in which connects to the enjoyment. The subject develops a kind of relationship with labor that resembles the relationship with the elemental in the enjoyment: there is dependency, but the dependency can be suspended and so turn into play and enjoyment.

Levinas stresses that at this stage of the separation we cannot speak of knowing or thinking. Labor and taking-into-possession are the work of the hand, “…the organ of grasping and taking, the first and blind grasping in the teeming mass” (TI: 159), and not of the mind that sees and represents.

The step towards knowing and thinking, which is the completing step of the hypostasis, is being taken with the development within the subject of consciousness, rational thought or what Levinas calls the light. That step is characterized by the appearance of representations and is made possible by the preparing work of labor and possession. They achieve the “very mobilization of the thing, grasped by the hand” (TI: 163) and that is a condition for the appearance of representations in the conscious mind. This appearance of representations is considered by Levinas as the culmination of the hypostasis: the separation between the subject and the surrounding being are being radicalized in it. “…life in the world is consciousness inasmuch as it provides the possibility of existing in a withdrawal from existence”(EE, 37). The subject now has its own world.

Arrived at this stage, Levinas pays much attention to the character of representation. What interests him in that, is its illusory nature. The illusion of representation consists in the ability of the representing consciousness to see itself as origin of the world. “Representation consistst in the possibility of accounting for the object as though it were constituted by a thought, as though it were a noëma” (TI:128). That this is illusory is evident for Levinas. He takes much trouble to show that thinking is conditioned: only if preliminary conditions are satisfied – i.a. by way of labor – man can arrive at thinking and knowing. With this peculiarity that thinking subsequently tends to forget its own conditions: it sees itself as the condition for the world in stead of the other way round. That’s the illusion (but sometimes for Levinas also: the genius) of representation.

For Levinas this illusory nature of representation is not necessarily to be valued negatively. His appreciation for the achievements of the hypostasis and the escape from the il-y-a is too big for that. But he points to the problems that are connected with the problematic nature of representation: it creates a new form of totalitarianism. “Reason is single. And in this sense knowledge in the world never meets something really different. That’s the deep truth of idealism”(TA, 53).

Hypostasis and organizations

When Levinas discusses representation, nowhere in his work he connects this with human work, as, in opposition to that, he does connect weariness, sloth and, of course, labor with effort and work. But it is not difficult to make that link. The organizing function of man, resulting in, for example, working organizations, pre-eminently makes use of the power of human rationality. Robert Cooper has shown how working with representations is an essential feature of organizing (Cooper 1992).
That means that at the level of organization the ambivalence of the hypostasis reappears. On the one hand there is the achievement of the escape from the il-y-a that according to Levinas cannot be valued enough. But on the other hand there is the continuous return of the il-y-a, and that even in two appearances. The primeval il-y-a manages at times to break through our rational organization and control and because of that the danger of being flooded by unchained elements keeps permanently threatening. But besides that the solitude or reason, which is given with the high degree of rationality of organizations, generates its own version of the il-y-a. This il-y-a shows itself in the closed, totalitarian character of organizations that may be linked to the misplaced  feeling of sovereignty and the forgetting of its own origins, which are defining features of representation. The kind of totalitarity that is linked to this second appearance of representation is no longer the totalitarity of the primeval il-y-a, but it still is totalitarity. Specific forms of repugnance and weariness belong to it, which nevertheless do remind us of the supposedly dispelled primeval il-y-a, specifically in the experience of meaninglessness and uneasiness that go with it. So in both its original and its disguised form the il-y-a keeps returning, it cleaves. “In the hypostasis of an instant – in which a subject’s mastery, power or virility are manifested as being in a world, in which intention is the forgetting of oneself in light and a desire for things, in the abnegation of charity and sacrifice – we can discern the return of the il-y-a. The hypostasis, in participating in the il-y-a, finds itself again to be a solitude, in the definitiveness of the bond with which the ego is chained to its self”(EE, 84).

We may conclude that organizing and organizations may be linked to the hypostasis in its most cristallized stage: the stage of representation, that is to say, of rationality. That means that organizations are strongly characterized by an important feature of rationality according to Levinas, namely: the tendency, in its representative thinking, to consider itself as the origin of the world. Representative thinking is troubled by the illusion that its existence is self-evident and mirrors a pre-given order. It does not know anymore about a situation which preceded that order, it forgets its own origins. That’s why, for organizations, in this condition of blindness, weariness or sloth are no issues, no more than the refusal of existence which pervades the getting into action. They conceive of labor as something which according to Levinas is only its partial truth: a play, that is: as “labor mystique, which appeals  to themes of joy or freedom  through labor” (EE: 22).

The Other

But, in opposition to organizations, people cannot simply be linked to one of the hypostasis’ stages. Neither can people in the context of organizations simply be linked that way. Levinas’ description of the genesis of the subject is linear, but should be understood, I think, in such a way that man permanently bears all hypostasisstages within himself. He can permanently experience them. It will be clear that in our intellectual work we deal with representations. But we also know of the laboriously getting into action, through repugnance and sloth.

The fact that to people in organizations can be linked many stages of the hypostasis and to organizations just one stage causes a tension between organizations and the people who work there. Organizations, as social phenomena in which preparedness for action is already taken for granted, tend to ignore the problems of the early stages of the hypostasis, like weariness and sloth. But individuals, working in organizations, do not forget those origins. The very thing organizations ignore keeps returning for people: the trouble to collect oneself and to organize oneself in the middle of an anonymous, threatening existence.

This discrepancy between the hypostasis-stage of organizations and the stage in which individuals find themselves, can with workers who are sensible for that, arouse repugnance against organizing and organization. This can manifest itself as job-refusal, melancholy or less articulated resistance. In all cases there is an amount of suffering by the employee in the organization.

Can we now, on the basis of what has been said above about the genesis of the subject and about organizations, say more about what the other looks like in the context of organizations? I propose to consider the individual who suffers from the blindness and meaninglessness of organizational rationality as Levinas’ Other, transposed to the context of organizations. This description implies a certain measure of incompatability of the other with organizations. Given the self-evidence for organizations of their own existence and given the pretentions of rationality and justified order that organizations have, the suffering of the other, the repugnance and the weariness appear as incomprehensible and unreasonable. The one who confronts the organization with that repugnance and weariness really stands outside.

Something of this description is to be found in the story below about Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville.

is the story about a clerk of a lawyersfirm at Wallstreet in the middle of the 19th century. Bartleby has been hired by the firm, together with two other clerks, to copy legal documents. This is a very dry and husky sort of business, but Bartleby surprises everybody by his fervour, accurateness and productivity. That ´s why the lawyer, as the boss of the firm, is very pleased with this new worker, even if to him a more cheerful character than the pallid, withdrawn figure of Bartleby would have been welcome. His enthousiasm however gets tempered when, on the third day, Bartleby refuses to do a job that for this type of business is very common. Copies of documents have to be compared with the originals and everyone of the clerks is regularly being asked to do that. So also Bartleby, but he tells his boss that he doesn´t want to, or, in his words: ‘I would prefer not to’. The lawyer is completely taken aback for a moment, but business calls. He concludes to come back to it at a later time.

But this scene repeats itself and every time Bartleby uses the same formula: I would prefer not to. The boss starts brooding. Normally he would not have any problem with firing one who refuses his job, but some way he is being disarmed by the performance of Bartleby. The formula he uses to express his refusal has much to do with that. The boss has been touched and seeks to talk with Bartleby but that appears to be impossible. On the request to be at least a bit reasonable comes the answer that at this moment he prefers not to be a bit reasonable. This situation brings the lawyer into a clew of contradictory feelings and thoughts, ranging from decided rejection of Bartleby to melancholy and solidarity with a lost person.

The affair escalates when, at a certain moment, Bartleby announces that he prefers not to copy anymore. It must come to dismissal now,Bartleby is being told to have left in six days. When on the seventh day the boss finds him at the office it takes him great effort not to get into a black temper. At the same time he feels unable to be cruel to Bartleby. He wonders what his conscience would prescribe him at this moment. The lawyer chooses as solution to self abandon the building: he moves his office, leaving Bartleby behind. In a cleared out room the boss once more says goodbye. He has to tear himself away from Bartleby, the man he wanted to get rid of. The landlord finally does what the lawyer could not: call the police to remove Bartleby. When the lawyer hears about this his reaction is ambivalent: ‘At first I was indignant; but at last almost approved. I do not think I would have decided upon this course myself; and yet, under such peculiar circumstances, it seemed the only plan’. Bartleby dies in custody with the police.

In this story Bartleby functions as does Levinas’ other. He confronts his boss and makes him baffled and unfit for action against Bartleby. Of course the boss does have, fysically and juridically, the means for action, but some kind of mysterious incapability takes him in its grip. And that seems to have to do with his perception of a deep seated repugnance with Bartleby, which does not lead to agression or explanation, but to a kind of charming melancholia. The boss’s self-evident course of action has been broken through. “[The face] involves a calling into question of oneself, a critical attitude which is itself produced in face of the other and under his authority” (TI: 81). Here takes place at the level of the organization what Levinas wanted to describe for philosophy: “It is this resistance, this point of exteriority to the appropriative movement of philosophical conceptuality, that Levinas seeks to describe in his work” (Critchley 2002: 17).





Levinas, E. Existence and Existents.


Levinas, E. Le temps et l’autre.


Levinas, E. Totality and Infinity




Cooper, R. (1992) Formal Organization as Representation: Remote Control, Displacement and Abbreviation. In: Reed, M. (1992) Rethinking Organization. London: Sage.

Critchley, S. (2002) Introduction. In: Critchley, S. en Bernasconi, R. (eds.) (2002) The Cambridge Companion to Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinas, E. (1983) [1947] Le temps et l’autre. Parijs: Presses Universitaires de France.


Levinas, E. (1991) [1961] Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority. English translation by Alphonso Lingis of Totalité et Infini. Dordrecht: Kluwer.


Levinas, E. (2001) [1947] Existence and Existents. English translation by Alphonso Lingis of De l´existence à l´existant. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

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