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The Problem with Levinas


The Problem with Levinas


in conversation with Simon Critchley and Alexis Dianda

What is the drama of Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy? Philosophers Simon Critchley and Alexis Dianda talk to four by three about their latest book The Problem with Levinas, reading Levinas in dramatic terms, his troubled relationship with Martin Heidegger and the patriarchal character of his work.

Emmanuel Levinas was one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century. A Jewish philosopher, who was imprisoned by the Nazi’s during the Second World War, Levinas was nonetheless profoundly influenced by the work of Martin Heidegger, even after his public allegiance to the national socialists. Rather than rejecting Heidegger’s phenomenology, he instead transformed Heidegger’s thought to correct what he saw as its tainted character. The result is an enigmatic and powerful ethical philosophy, which would profoundly influence the work of many thinkers from the latter half of the twentieth century to the present day including Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida and Luce Irigaray.

In their recent book, The Problem with Levinas (Oxford University Press, 2015), Simon Critchley and Alexis Dianda present a new account of Levinas’ work. Challenging the current ways of reading Levinas philosophically, they argue that he is best understood by approaching his philosophy as drama. We spoke to Alexis and Simon to find out how this approach to Levinas’ work provides a new account of the self, ethical responsibility and a critique of liberalism, whilst also being at risk from its patriarchal character and the over-demandingness of its conception of moral responsibility.


Simon, the work of Emmanuel Levinas has been a central preoccupation in your work from your first book The Ethics of Deconstruction to your most recent The Problem with Levinas. What is it that drew you to Levinas in the first place? And what was the motivation behind the lectures that the current book is based on?

Simon Critchley: My first interest in Levinas came from buying a copy of Totality and Infinity in a book sale at the university of Essex in 1983 and then reading it on the train from Colchester to London. At the time I didn’t know much about philosophy and I remember thinking that this was how I’d like to do it. However, Levinas divides opinion: either people think he’s saying things as they should be said, thereby saying the truth, or people have no idea what he’s saying. You’ve got sceptics and converts, but it’s very hard to persuade the sceptics and to de-persuade the converts!

As for the lectures, I was doing a lecture course on Levinas at The New School and I realised that I had some new things I wanted to say that went back to some very old thoughts I had when I was a graduate student at Essex. These were thoughts about the question of sexual difference in relation to Levinas and Luce Irigaray’s critique of him, which had led me, back in ’86 or ’87, to the Song of Songs. One thing on my mental list of things to do before I die was to go back to the Song of Songs. So that was really it, having something new to say about Levinas after a long time and trying to link that to the Song of Songs.


One of the distinctive suggestions of The Problem with Levinas is the recommendation that we read Levinas’ work as ‘drama’ rather than as philosophy. Why do you think we should read his work in this way?

SC: The problem is that by Anglo-American standards Levinas is a very bad philosopher, in the sense that there are no arguments and certainly no attempts to deal with objections or anything like that. So at one level Levinas is a poor philosopher who’s simply obsessed with a series of images and figures that keep recurring in his writing. That’s one way of thinking about his work, but that would be unfair to him.

Another way to approach Levinas would be to insert his thought into mainstream debates, such as in moral philosophy. For instance, you can see him as a Kantian at some level, taking the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative – respect for persons – and developing a phenomenological version with his claims that ethics is the first philosophy, consisting of having an infinite responsibility to the other person. Then there’s a moral perfectionist reading, which is pretty interesting and gives you a connection to the work of Hilary Putnam and Stanley Cavell.  

Even though these are fine, they don’t give you a sense of what it is to read Levinas, what his prose does and the texture of it. For that reason, and also because these readings obscure other interesting things he’s saying, I think it makes much more sense to approach his work dramatically rather than propositionally. But this approach is also linked to a larger project I’ve been developing over the years on drama and philosophy, namely trying to rethink philosophy and its emergence out of drama, particularly Greek tragedy. In this context I’m trying to think about philosophy, particularly Socratic dialogue, as different forms of dramatic invention. Once I had that link I kept noticing references to drama in Levinas, particularly tragedy and comedy, and it began to add up to quite an interesting case.

Alexis Dianda: It’s also worth emphasizing that Levinas’ phenomenology, the things he wants to describe and make sense of, are dramatic. If you think about the topics that Levinas hones in on, in terms of the nature of our being-in-the-world, you’ve got nausea, you’ve got insomnia and so on. Can you imagine what sort of philosophical description of insomnia there could possibly be?! Maybe something like: ‘One can’t sleep’. That’s obviously true, but it goes nowhere in terms of telling us what that’s like experientially. These are my favourite parts of Levinas. To my mind at least, it would be kind of empty to render it in a non-dramatic form.

SC: I agree with Alexis, the really powerful phenomenological descriptions are in the early work on escape, existence and existents and through to the discussion of Eros in Totality and Infinity. Those are the parts that are literary, whatever literary means. In that respect he’s much closer to someone like Maurice Blanchot or Georges Bataille, than he is to Galen Strawson or Timothy Williamson.

Freedom in Heidegger is consumed by fate and contained within the nets of facticity. So Heidegger’s comedy of authenticity turns into a tragedy of existence.

In your view the main problem that Levinas is addressing is the ‘tragedy of existence’, which you also refer to as ‘facticity’. Could you explain a bit about what that means and why, for Levinas, existence is in some way ‘tragic’?

SC: The drama of Levinas’ existence is that he was a Heideggerian and, moreover, one who was writing the first book on Heidegger in any language when Heidegger declared his commitment to the National Socialists during 1932. In many ways the drama of his philosophical life is how those two things can be thought together. Levinas doesn’t stop being a Heideggerian because of this. He accepts a lot of Heidegger’s philosophical positions, such as his critique of intellectualism or ‘theoreticism’, the move towards the primacy of ‘being-in-the-world’, as well as ‘facticity’ and other concepts you find in his fundamental ontology. But the problem that Levinas faced was how to prevent the move to that paradigm from having the social and political outcome that it had for Heidegger, given that his political commitment to Nazism was not accidental, but structurally connected to his philosophical view. So the drama of Levinas is how to refigure that.

Then there is the way in which Levinas will describe Heidegger’s work in terms of tragedy. On the one hand, you read Being and Time or indeed Being and Nothingness, and it seems to be this affirmation of finitude, freedom and becoming who you are. And this seems to be a wonderful thing –  a kind of liberating move. On the other hand, you are simply trapped within the prison of facticity. There’s nowhere else to go. Freedom in Heidegger is simply a freedom, which is consumed by fate and contained within the nets of facticity. So Heidegger’s comedy of authenticity, as it were, turns into a tragedy of existence.


What it is that Levinas finds to be ethically dubious in Heidegger’s work? You mentioned the problem of being trapped by finitude, but what’s so bad about that?

SC: One way I like to think about it is that Heidegger is the thinker of the One in different forms. So you have inauthentic existence, which is understood in terms of the One of the many, what he calls ‘Das Mann’. The escape from that is towards a notion of the self’s authenticity. Hence, you get the One of the self, which is the individual. And then you get the idea of whether there can be a collective experience of authenticity. This turns into the idea of ‘The People’, which is also the One, ‘Das Volk’. You can already find it in Being and Time, but it is historically present in a much more grotesque and strident form in 1933 in Germany. And then everything seems to be governed by the One of Being. Whereas Heidegger is always about the One, Levinas, at least for me, is a thinker of the two or a thinker of the one-to-one, in the relationship to the other. In many ways, Levinas’ point against Heidegger is to try and get Heidegger to count to two, rather than to keep counting to one.

Levinas, at least for me, is a thinker of the two or a thinker of the one-to-one, in the relationship to the other. In many ways, Levinas’ point against Heidegger is to try and get Heidegger to count to two, rather than to keep counting to one.

Levinas conceives of subjectivity as something that is constituted through the Other, or the other person. But this isn’t the Hegelian sense of requiring an other person for self-recognition; coming to recognize and know yourself in and through the eyes of the other. Could you explain what this sense in which the subject comes to be a subject through the other in Levinas’ thought is? Is the experience of guilt a part of this process?

AD: When you first encounter Levinas’ work what you encounter is the capitalized Other and it’s terrifying! At least it’s one way to read Levinas and certainly in some sense also the dominant way to read him. But I find that profoundly unappealing. Firstly, in a sense I don’t really know what it means. Secondly, I can’t connect it to any concrete experience. To come back to the earliest phenomenological descriptions, I just don’t see it as having the same force. Relationships aren’t always ones of awe, which they tend to be presented as in the quasi-divine descriptions that you hear from readers of Levinas.

SC: There is a part of Levinas that’s never really emphasised because people stick to the headline, which goes: ‘ethics is a relationship to the other’. But then the question is: ‘who’s the other?’. As Alexis says, the Other quickly begins to look like God, even if God is shown with a human face. What people leave out is that Levinas’ work is a savage critique of intersubjectivity in its Husserlian, Hegelian and Heideggerian modes: I do not need the other to be myself. This is what he argues – or let’s say describes – at length in section two of Totality and Infinity. The ego is an ego, which constitutes itself in atheist separation. Levinas argues that it constitutes itself ‘alimentally’ through food, through good soup, the elements, the dwelling and all these stages. He very carefully lays out a kind of genetic phenomenological structure of different elements in the structure of selfhood. It’s that self, which doesn’t need the Other, that is called into question by the presence of the Other. That’s the thought in Levinas, whereas the Hegelian thought is that of self-recognition in absolute otherness. It’s the idea that, in order to be a subject at the level of spirit, you need recognition from the Other. But Levinas is trying to think the subject without recognition. It’s an idea of subjectivity which is almost monadic in a phenomenological way. But it’s that subject which can be called into question by the Other and this calling into question is not nice.

AD: It’s violent.

SC: But it doesn’t induce guilt in me; that would be Heidegger. Guilt would then be an experience of ontological indebtedness, which I can take over. Levinas is a thinker of shame, but not a thinker of guilt. Shame is phenomenologically different from guilt. If guilt is the interior affect that accompanies my sense of lacking, my sense of not making up a whole, then shame is what comes over me externally. Shame is, as it were, on the surface of the skin. Obviously the context for that is biblical, as shame is something, which comes from the outside and which I feel in relation to the way in which my body is seen simply as a body. So Levinas is a thinker of shame, like many others, such as Bernard Williams in Shame and Necessity. Most of our discussions in moral philosophy turn on questions of guilt, whereas for Levinas it is about shame.

“Levinas is a thinker of shame. Shame is, as it were, on the surface of the skin. Shame is something, which comes from the outside and which I feel in relation to the way in which my body is seen simply as a body.”


On Levinas’ chronology of what we are as subjects we begin as an ego, which is self-reliant. As you say, it doesn’t require the Other in order to be at home with the world, to engage with the exterior world and enjoy itself. But when the Other comes along and calls me into question it is an ethical experience. What happens then? Would the Other be constituting who I am permanently after that initial encounter?

SC: I’ve developed a very idiosyncratic reading of Levinas over the years, in order to fill in the gaps within his work, so I’m not sure how much I can speak for him. The way I see it is that my subjectivity is violently threatened by the Other. But that’s not a permanent state, as it is something that goes away; I can go back and watch Netflix and go to sleep or listen to music and go to sleep or just stay asleep forever! In this case the other wouldn’t bother me at all. I can be comfortable in my skin, walking through the street, but then something happens, which calls me into question again, a kind of address. But the address isn’t permanent, you remember it, but you desperately want to forget it and through a variety of means we can.

The other thing is that the ultimate structure of the subject that’s given to us in Totality and Infinity is the structure of fecundity, which is about the relationship to the child and which passes through Eros or desire. Again, it isn’t a guarantee, but the only way in which a Heideggerian view can be superseded by Levinas, is by describing a future form of subjectivity that is not the future of the individual self. The answer he gives is that it’s a future subjectivity, which is not my future, but the future of the child. If you reverse that thought, it also means that we, by definition, are children too. So that subjective, atheist ego that we are, is also something which is defined genetically by layers of dependence upon the past, in this case our fathers. So I guess what Levinas is trying to do is to come up with a phenomenological picture, which relates the self to an experience of the past and one of the future which lies outside its control. I don’t find that an entirely hopeful thought, but still an interesting line of thought to develop.

AD: This is where desire becomes so important in the sense of the address, a very immediate present form of that address. Presumably what’s at stake in something, such as an erotic relationship, is precisely the confrontation with the Other, how it fails and how it succeeds. Where Levinas becomes particularly interesting to me is precisely in that moment and that opening.

SC: This also ties in with the question of the male signature of Levinas.


What do you make of the idea that Levinas’ work has an inextricably male signature? What implications, if any, can his work have for someone with a non-male sexuality? It seems quite problematic to me.

AD: The history of philosophy is, by and large, a history of male signatures. To call it one sided doesn’t really capture why that’s so much of a problem. In the context of Levinas’ thought, it’s right to say that his work has a male signature. However, I also think it’s right in broader terms, given that philosophy as a whole has a signature, which you can look at through the question of gender. But you could also think about it through other kinds of questions, such as race.

Regarding the second part of your question, I’d like to pick up on the phrase ‘non-male sexuality’. Presumably what you mean by that is feminine sexuality or anything other than hetero-normative male sexuality, which opens up the question of what this prefix “non-” is signifying. Phrased this way, I don’t think it’s an interesting question! However, it’s the right question, given the sort of materials and history that we have to work with. We don’t really understand what “non-male” forms of sexuality could even begin to look like, so we attach the ‘non-’ to it in a model of privation. This, however, already assumes that anything that isn’t male suffers a lack and so becomes something of a locus of ambiguity. Given the misogyny that marks the history of philosophy, of culture, and so on, the model of female or “non-male” sexuality goes no further than castration. I see philosophy as in particularly rough shape here; this is why people like Lacan, Porete, Carson and Irigaray, show up at the end of The Problem with Levinas. But the problem runs much deeper than simply a set of texts.

So much of the history of philosophy is a sort of Hemingway like fantasy: it’s Men without Women. And part of the way to deal with this is to try and define moments in history that complicate that story. Oddly enough, despite the misogyny that is present in Levinas’ work, I think his work is one of those places.

But in Totality and Infinity there is an emphasis on desire, fecundity and siring a son – it is all phrased in patriarchal terms like these. If Levinas is supposed to be taken as telling us how we should think about our own lives, our own being, then his insight seems only to apply to men and an exclusively hetero-normative male sexuality. That doesn’t seem very satisfactory. If you don’t accept this picture, how can his philosophy say anything at all?

SC: The peculiar thing about is it that it’s paradoxical. This goes back to Luce Irigaray and her texts on Levinas ‘The Fecundity of the Caress’ and ‘Questions to Emmanuel Levinas’, which she gave at the University of Essex many years ago. What she used in Levinas’ phenomenology of Eros is an acceptance of the male signature in his work and this is a good thing insofar as – unlike almost all other philosophers, maybe with the exception of a handful like Rousseau – Levinas does not imagine that his male signature is disguised under the guise of neutrality; the neutrality of the concept. The usual way of doing philosophy, at least when I was studying it in Britain and until decades afterwards, would be to treat concepts as neutral and un-gendered. You know, philosophy is philosophy, good arguments are good arguments and bad arguments are bad arguments. Now that’s a very comforting view, but it overlooks the signature of the addressee and the person who addresses, the addressor in philosophical discourse. If you begin to take seriously Irigaray’s gesture that there is a gendered signature to writing then that unravels the standard philosophical view. However, the next line of critique is going to be that Irigaray is criticizing neutrality, identifying the male signature, but then wanting to include a female signature, which is still an essentialist gesture resting on the male/female dichotomy. I can understand why people make that critique, but what’s also offered by someone like Irigaray is the possibility that there could be any other number of gendered signatures to philosophical texts. If that sounds like a crazy idea then one needs to go back to the history of philosophy and look at places where such views might fall through, such as in the Greek tragedies, the Platonic dialogues, the correspondence between Elizabeth and Descartes, the correspondence between Damaris Cudworth Masham and John Locke. This is equally true in relation to questions of race, the racial signature of the philosophical addressor. This line of thought opens up another second set of possibilities.

AD: The point is that, because the gendered nature of the signature is explicit in Levinas, you can work with it. It becomes something you can take up, critique and not sound like a hysteric, because the issue is placed on the table. So much of the history of philosophy, so much thinking about sexuality, desire or Eros, is a sort of Hemingway like fantasy: it’s Men without Women. And part of the way to deal with this is to try and define spaces or moments in history that complicate that story and disrupt it. Oddly enough, despite the misogyny that is present in Levinas’ work at times, I think his work is one of those places.


Turning to some of the political issues in Levinas’ relation to Heidegger, you’ve argued that Levinas saw National Socialism not only as horrifying and fundamentally evil, but also as offering a point of critique of the still present political formation of Liberalism. What did Levinas see as ‘truth’ in National Socialism and what was the problem with Liberalism?

SC: In many ways there’s a strange political geography in Levinas, which turns on a distinction he makes in an essay, the only essay we think he wrote in Lithuanian, on French and German ideas of spirituality. It’s an embarrassing piece in many ways, but he identifies Liberalism with the founding ideals of the French Revolution or a certain commitment to universality, abstraction, rationality and so on and so forth. These are, let’s say, nice things to subscribe to, but they’re incapable of withstanding the onslaught of National Socialism when it is understood in terms of the gravity of the body, of identity and of home. All of that turns on, I think, a fascistic bodily fantasy of the homeland, which has to be protected against the incursions and infections of the refugee or asylum seeker.

The problem with Liberalism is that its force is its universality and its rationality, whereas its weakness is its inability to translate those thoughts into something embedded and lived. It’s in this respect that the force of populism and fascism will always win. This raises the question, which I think is a question for our times and the question that Georges Bataille was raising in the 30’s and 40’s, of how can there be an anti-fascist politics which doesn’t fall into the kind of motivational deficit of Liberalism? What would that look like? Well, Marxism is possibly the beginning of an answer to that, but it’s still not enough. I think Levinas raises all those questions and at the end of his career he ends up in a much more comfortable liberal position, which is the way he was picked up by people like Bernard Henri-Levy and French Liberal leftists. But what’s so interesting in his early work is that there is a much more agonized relationship to these political questions. You know that fascism is horrible, but it draws upon resources which really have to be grappled with and thought through, as those things, such as nationalism, place, language, location, custom and blood, aren’t nothing. It’s worth adding in this respect that the problem with Levinas’ own politics is his attachment to the State, both the French State and the State of Israel. These are blind spots in his thinking, particularly for the latter.

I believe that great humour is maybe the best thing for bearing really difficult and complex patterns of thought.

In an earlier book of yours, Infinitely Demanding, you are also interpreting Levinas’ thought in relation to political and moral obligation. But you introduce humour as a necessary relief to undercut the weight of these obligations. What do you think Levinas would have thought about that?

SC: I think he was a laugh a minute! No, there are jokes in Levinas, one or two, but not much. He suffered from a French humour deficit and his discourse is marked by something overbearing, not quite pomposity, which is too much at times. On some level humour is important for life. On another level there’s a whole story, which for me goes back to my attempt to reconstruct Levinas in psychoanalytic terms, where the question raised is that of sublimation. If Levinas’ ethics is read in a psychoanalytic register, then it is an attempt to think about the subject at the level of desire, a question that is always raised by people like Lacan, but also by Freud, namely how does one bear desire, how does one sustain that? The question here is about humour as a form of minimal sublimation, which is an idea I’m still rather attached to. In some alternative ideal universe I can imagine a blending of Levinas with Stewart Lee. Stewart Lee’s stand up could be an exemplification of Levinasian ethical responsibility, fed through the lens of the minimal sublimation of comedy. I believe that great humour is maybe the best thing for bearing really difficult and complex patterns of thought. It’s a way of both communicating that and at the same time alleviating the moral burden. So the problem with Levinas is that his work is at one level just too extreme in its demand, it’s just too infinitely demanding. There needs to be more alleviation and letting up, in order for his points to really hit home.

AD: Simon, without humour I think you would be insufferable. On one of the first times that I met Simon in a semi-formal setting, the first words out of his mouth were ‘the future is a disaster’. I think we both suffer from this a little bit – this incredibly dark sense of humour – without which life would be utterly miserable. The will to live would go away without it, for exactly the reasons Simon was talking about. What’s needed is a sort of ironic distance from yourself, from your own predicament to see it and laugh at it, as opposed to crying and letting it overwhelm you.

SC: You’ve got to laugh; you know humour is the best medicine. Well, morphine is the best, humour the second best.


Alexis Dianda is a lecturer in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research who works on pragmatism and 19th and 20th century continental philosophy.  Her publications include The Problem with Levinas (OUP, 2015).

Simon Critchley is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research.  He has published numerous books and articles including, most recently, Notes on Suicide (Fitzcarraldo, 2015) and The Problem with Levinas (OUP, 2015).  On Bowie is published by Serpent's Tail in April 2016.