Friday, March 9, 2007

Meaning of "The Face of the Other"

Since I'm not quite ready to get back to Groundhog Day, I thought I'd throw in an explanation of the title of this blog site. "The face of the Other" is a phrase used by Emmanuel Levinas, an important twentieth-century philosopher who has won my deep interest and admiration. I'll make two clarifying points and then give some quotations from Levinas:

(1) “Other” (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) usually translates the French word autrui, which means “the other person,” “someone else” (other than oneself). It is thus the personal other, the other person, whoever it is, that each of us encounters directly, or experiences the traces of, every day. Of course, we encounter a multiplicity of others, but Levinas more often uses the singular “other” to emphasize that we encounter others one at a time, face to face.

(2) By “face” Levinas means the human face (or in French, visage), but not thought of or experienced as a physical or aesthetic object. Rather, the first, usual, unreflective encounter with the face is as the living presence of another person. Thus, when we come "face to face" with another person, the experience is a social and ethical one (rather than intellectual, aesthetic, or merely physical). “Living presence,” for Levinas, would imply that the other person (as someone genuinely other than myself) is exposed to me--that is, is vulnerably present--and expresses him or herself simply by being there as an undeniable reality that I cannot reduce to images or ideas in my head. This impossibility of capturing the other conceptually or otherwise reveals the other’s “infinity” (i.e., irreducibility to a finite [bounded] entity over which I can have power). The other person is, of course, exposed and expressive in other ways than through the literal face (e.g., through speech, gesture, action, and bodily presence generally), but the face is the most exposed, most vulnerable, and most expressive aspect of the other’s presence.

Some quotations from Levinas:

The face is a living presence; it is expression. . . . The face speaks. (Totality and Infinity 66)

. . . the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation . . . (Totality and Infinity 198)

The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation. (Totality and Infinity 201)

. . . the face presents itself, and demands justice. (Totality and Infinity 294)

In front of the face, I always demand more of myself. (“Signature” 294 in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism)

[I am] not free to ignore the meaningful world into which the face of the Other has introduced [me]. (Totality and Infinity 219)

For many more quotations concerning "the face," see or And for more on Levinas, see


Garry Wilmore said...

I've never read any Levinas, so I would not have guessed the source of that quote in ten years. But it did remind me of one of the most significant lines in Canto XXVI of Dante's Inferno: "Com' altrui piacque" -- "as pleased Another."

Bruce Young said...

Yes--Levinas would have liked that connection. For Levinas, the "absolute Other," as he sometimes puts it, is God. (For reasons I won't go into here, Levinas would not have accepted the corporeality of God or Christ as God incarnate--but Levinas, who was Jewish, knew and valued much in the New Testament, even quoting or alluding to it occasionally.)

What's the connection between God as the Other and other people? Levinas's view reminds me a bit of "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." According to Levinas, God reveals himself to us in three ways: through other people (the face of the other, the infinite responsibility to which we are called in our encounters with others, etc.), through scripture, and through what he calls "testimony," which is our own inward response of "Here I am" as we are called to goodness and responsibility.

Alisa said...

I hope that this question on the self isn't too off topic: I've often wondered if the alterity we have from the other can also be used for one's own benefit, rather than the other's? When another has wronged us, can we use the knowledge that we are other to separate ourselves from what has occurred and allow a healing process to commence?

Levinas has taught me to be more focused on others, so I wonder if it's in the spirit of his theory to use it to benefit myself, recognizing and celebrating the infinite nature of my own soul and its separateness from the other.

older singer said...

How would Levinas approach the idea of community, or the possibilities of communal worship, politics, etc.?

Bruce Young said...

Since I'm totally out of time, I'll only use a little of the time I don't have to make a couple of comments, hoping to expand on them later.

(1) on the "self" as separate and whether that reality can be used for one's own benefit:

Levinas would say first that our separation is an undeniable reality and a necessary condition for relation with others and for ethical responsibility. He even suggests that we need to be capable of "atheism" in a sense (separating ourselves even from God) in order to have a true relationship with God.

He also suggests (I'd have to look to see how explicitly) that we need to preserve and care for ourselves in certain ways in order to be able to serve others.

As far as I know Levinas does NOT say that we can appropriately seek our own welfare and happiness simply for our own sake (though it's conceivable he says something like that or that the idea could somehow be fitted into a Levinasian framework). But whatever Levinas thinks, I think the idea is a true and in fact truly Christian one. NOT that we should seek our own welfare and happiness above that of others--simply that, just as we should love our neighbors as ourselves, we should also love ourselves as we love our neighbors. God desires our happiness and welfare; if our will is aligned with his we will also desire and rejoice in our own progress and happiness.

Joseph Smith said something roughly like this (I get this from Truman Madsen): "Some people entirely denounce the principle of self-aggrandizement, but it is a true principle. But it can only be exercised upon one plan or principle, and that is that we seek
to elevate and ennoble others also. If a man will seek to elevate others, the very work itself will tend to elevate him. Upon no other principle can a man justly and permanently aggrandize himself."

That's another way of saying what Jesus said: "He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it."

(2) on community, etc.: Yes, actually Levinas has a lot to say about that--under the rubric of "the third party." The quick version (more later, maybe) is that, as I encounter the Other, I encounter another who is already iin relation to other others, and thus the whole social world is opened to me. Also, since I am infinitely responsible to a potentially infinite number of others, I HAVE to think, compare, make decisions, etc.--and that is where consciousness and rational thought come from. It's also where institutions and laws come from--at least in part. They are ways of trying to handle the impossible task of being infinitely responsible to all others.

older singer said...

Boy, I wish I could say that much and that articulately when I'm "totally out of time." You're amazing, Bruce Young. I think I love you.

Garry Wilmore said...

Canto XXVI of Inferno, which I have read many times, is among my favorites in the entire Comedy. It is, of course, the story of Ulysses. Not long ago I told one of my Iranian friends, a lover of English poetry, that my favorite poem in any language was the Divine Comedy, but that my favorite in English was Tennyson's "Ulysses," which is based on the same tale. (I understand that Tennyson was a Dantista -- am I right?)

Bruce Young said...

Yes, I believe Tennyson was much interested in Dante. And I believe his poem "Ulysses" has something to do with Dante's presentation of Ulysses in the Inferno--with some differences, though. For instance, Dante puts Ulysses in hell, while Tennyson (though not getting into the heaven, hell, or purgatory issue) presents Ulysses as heroic and inspiring.

I'd love to see a more careful comparison of the two portraits of Ulysses, dealing with issues such as WHY Dante puts Ulysses in hell, whether he thought the final voyage was a good or bad thing, where that story of the final voyage came from, etc.

Neil Victor Tapay said...

i have a question , what does it mean by this statement: Levinas says, "it is seeing or not seeing which defines the seeing or not seeing of good or the seeing or not seeing of evil"