One of the greatest defects that plague the contemporary human society is the brutal indifference to the plight of others. Pope Francis did not mince his words when he called indifference a ‘virus’, which we must fight with. He says,” I do not grow tired of repeating, that indifference is a virus that is dangerously contagious in our time, a time when we are ever more connected with others, but are increasingly less attentive to others.” Indifference paralyzes and impedes us from doing what is right even when we know that it is right. Who is to be blamed for the proliferation of this culture of cold indifference? Perhaps the traditional western philosophy with its over-emphasis on the primacy of reason may have forgotten to pay sufficient attention to the plea of the downtrodden.
However, we have in the person of Emmanuel Levinas a man who sought to reconnect philosophy with the real life situations of the common man. He posited a new understanding of Other, which has a direct bearing on the lives of our less-privileged brethren. In this article, I would like to explicate the concept of other in the Levinasian approach and its implications for our contemporary society.
Critique of Western Philosophy
Levinas had strong reservations against the traditional western philosophy. He argued that the traditional philosophy with its overemphasis on reason was far removed from the life of common. Philosophy, according to him, nurtured nostalgia for totalising. It also sought to divide everything in terms of categories; human relations being no exception to this totalising tendency. Metaphysics was given prime importance in the philosophical circles and it was also considered the ‘first philosophy.’ Therefore, Levinas proposed ethics as the ‘first philosophy.’ For Levinas, human relations were of greater importance than metaphysical speculations.
What compounded his disillusionment with the traditional philosophy is his experience during the Second World War. Being a Jew, Levinas saw for himself the plight of thousands of hapless victims of Nazi brutality. He disagreed strongly with his mentor Heidegger for his overt support to Nazism. Levinas sensed the need to reconnect philosophy with the stark realities of life and thus we have the Levinasian ethical project, which is primarily based on human interactions.
Levinas believed that the aim of philosophy is not to make us better thinkers or to understand better, at least not for its own sake. It is to get us to live better lives, to act with greater generosity and goodness, to be a better parent, a better friend, a better lover, a better statesman, a better teacher- all by acting towards other with more responsibility and concern than we do. Our goal should be to see, and to act because we see that caring for others is the whole point of our lives at all; it is to respond to the “secret tears” of the other.
Levinasian scholars would undoubtedly agree that his upbringing as a practising Jew has had tremendous influence in his philosophical explorations. Levinas was a practising Jew and was well versed in Talmudic Hebrew. He has written extensive commentaries on Talmud. Some of the terms that one comes across works like ‘face’, ‘height’ and ‘epiphany’ and clearly of Talmudic origin. Levinas’ call for responding to the plea of the other, who is the poor, the orphan and the widow, is a clear indication of the Talmudic origin of his philosophy. He attempts to make the biblical love for the stranger a philosophically intelligible thesis. Hence, Levinasian approach is radically different from other schools of ethics propagated by philosophers like Kant, J Bentham or J S Mill. For Levinas, ethics is not a set of rules or moral codes. Ethics, for him, is basically an optics. Ethics happens, literally before our eyes, as the face before us calls us into question. Ethics is ‘an optics’ as it begins as a vision, through which we intuit our ethical responsibility. It is all about relating oneself with the human ‘other’. Essentially, Levinas uses the word ‘ethics’ to refer to the face-to-face’, or ethical relation to the human Other. It is in the context of the human relation involved in ethics, he brings the idea of face-to-face relation. The ‘face’ of the ‘Other’ impels me, calls me to reach out to him or her. The face of the Other impels me to be ethical and responsible.
Now, the terms ‘face’ and ‘Other’, which are used extensively in the Levinasian discourse require further explanation. It may be noted that these terms are not used as they understood in the normal sense. Levinas employs the word “face” with the greatest care. The face of the other person is not the appearance of the other person; it is not a collection of features given to visual perception. It has no parts, no components. The face means what it is: imploring, a plea of the weak to the powerful or the poor to the rich. The face is the way the other person presents herself to me.
Who then is the ‘Other’?
The Other, Levinas contends, is not a member of any human species. It is neither a concept nor a substance. The Other is also not defined by properties nor by its character. It is neither a social position nor a place in history. The Other is not an object of knowledge or comprehension as well. Nor it is an object of description. The Other is the one that we ought not kill. The Other is absolutely other than the self. The other is other oneself.
The way the Other appears in the face is described by Levinas as ‘epiphany’, which in turn is a visitation. The term visitation understood in its etymological meaning, underlines the act of coming from outside toward someone. Levinas also argues that the relation between the self and the ‘Other’ (whose face impels me to be ethical) is not symmetrical. It is an asymmetrical relation, wherein the ethical command to be responsible proceeds from the Other. If this relation were to be symmetrical, the Other becomes merely another me and it becomes no longer a stranger. The face of the Other makes a singular command because of this asymmetrical relation.
Levinas contends that in the face of the Other, there is an elevation, a height. The Other is higher than I. Height does not mean heavens, might, riches, etc. but the fact that the other person’s demand transcends my ‘being-at-home’. The Other is a stranger, widow and orphan because he is from beyond the familiar world of the ‘I’ The other is always the poor one, poverty defines the poor person as the Other, and the relation with the other will always be an offering and a gift, not an ‘empty-handed’ approach.
Responsibility for the ‘Other’
The pinnacle of the Levinas’ approach is the notion of responsibility for the ‘Other’. Levinas acquired the concept of responsibility from the Judaic tradition. He takes this concept of responsibility from the Torah and gives it a philosophical explanation. Philosophically speaking, responsibility is a situation prior to any conceptualization. It is an obligation to respond to the Other, a responsibility to and for the other person.
What is the nature of this responsibility? Normally to be responsible means to be accountable for our actions and work. However, such a responsibility is a limited one; it is founded on freedom. It has no value beyond free choice .We cannot be held responsible for what is beyond our freedom. Levinas disagrees with the priority of freedom over responsibility. He argues that man is invested with responsibility even when he does not want to be. Man does not choose to be responsible; he belongs to responsibility. It is not a result of free choice. Everybody is responsible for everyone. In short, I am responsible for my brethren when they are in distress.
Before the ‘I’ could choose to be responsible, it is made responsible. Levinas says that this responsibility conditions the structure of the subject itself. The face awakens the ‘I’ to responsibility, puts it in a ‘restless unrest’, an ‘ethical insomnia’. The ‘I’ cannot escape this. The ‘I’ collides with the Other, and the Other becomes the ‘spirit’ or ‘spirituality’ that animates and inspires the ‘I’. Thus the ‘I’ realizes its responsibility for the Other, through the Other.
The concept of Other in Levinas is practical because it is connected with our day-to-day life. In ordinary life situations we make choices. We make choices as to how to act, who to spend time with, who to share one’s energy and resources with others. Our answers to such apparently trivial questions chart the direction of our life. The rise of populist leaders, the rise of majoritarianism, the continuing plight of refugees and other displaced people, the unabating violence against women and children and the indifference of the rich to the poor deface the ethical landscape of humankind. In these challenging times, a philosophy which gives heed to the cry of the poor, the orphan and the widow stands out a beacon of light at the end of the tunnel.