Levinas evolved directly from the influences of both Husserl and Heidegger but he also began to eventually criticize how their phenomenology and fundamental ontology did not recognize the importance of otherness, otherwise called alterity, and its demand for ethics. Throughout his entire career, Levinas often referred to the Other as 'the face' and even loftily claims that "the way to God passes through the face of the other." As Bernhard Waldenfels mentions, "We are living in the face of the other, seeking or fleeting it, running the risk of losing our own face." The face is a vague term and Waldenfels can only conclude that it is "not something or somebody we can grasp" and we are "able only to say what it is not, or more precisely: we can only show that it is not something at all." Levinas probably focused on the term 'the face' because the face is a primary portal in which we, as social beings, have access to our experience of another person. The face is the most defenseless, naked, and exposed aspect of all of us and it is how we address eachother as manifestations of an infinitely complex being. Prior to making any conclusions, however, Levinas warns "before we speak about the face, 'the face speaks.'" Basically, it is through the face in which we speak, hear, see, and are seen by another person. Visage, which is simply 'face' in Levinas' French writing, originally "refers to seeing and being seen." However, Levinas downplays the visual aspect because the face is uncontainable and "vision, to the contrary, is a search for adequation." When one presents themself they are automatically signifying something and, consequently, they are already communicating before they verbally speak. In other words, "the face is meaning all by itself. You are you. In this sense one can say that the face is not 'seen.'" The face and discourse are synonymous and subsequently "the face is not something seen" as much as "somebody responded to." Levinas puts it bluntly when he tells us "Speech cuts across vision."

Philippe Nemo sums up "The Other is face; but the Other, equally, speaks to me and I speak to him." Levinas puts the importance of the saying into everyday perspective when he tells us "It is necessary to speak of something, of the rain and fine weather, no matter what, but to speak, to respond to him and already to answer for him. But the saying is the fact that before the face I do not simply remain there by contemplating it, I respond to it. The saying is a way of greeting the Other, but to greet the Other is already to answer for him. It is difficult to be silent in someones presence." The face is immediately a language and Levinas even suggests "The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the color of his eyes! When one observes the color of the eyes one is not in the social relationship with the Other." Edith Wyschograd explicates "Such an excess is the human face whose exposure is prior to thematization, to phenomenological description. Although beyond discursive formulation, the face discloses itself as language." She continues that language is "not the regrettable traducing of alterity, a violation of transcendence, but a gift, an offering of that which is thematized to the other. To thematize is to offer the world to the other in speech." Responsibility in discourse finds our authentic relationship in the world. Waldenfels puts it into more biblical terms when he tells us "At this point we assist the birth of the other out of the Word and the birth of the Word out of the other. The Logos does not just become flesh, it becomes face."

One major aspect of the relationship with the other, which is not a relation of knowledge, is what Levinas coins as 'the feminine.' This was probably the most controversial feature of Levinas' philosophy in which he referred to the "erotic relation face-to-face with alterity itself - the feminine." Waldenfels quotes Levinas when he roughly defines the "special femininite of the loved face. 'The feminine presents a face that goes beyond the face' by sinking into 'the equivocation of the voluptuous.'" Levinas was focusing on the assymetry found in sexual difference. In an article by Stella Sanford, she writes "'In Existence and Existents' the relation with the other - or intersubjectivity as he calls it there is revealed to us in eros." Sanford goes on to explain that 'the feminine' can be conceived as "the gentle other" but she notes that "As this is a story told by a man, alterity will be the feminine; the feminine - concretely will be the other." Because of the assymetry inherient to 'the feminine,' Levinas was forced to build his argument from his onesided perspective. The resulting controversy that 'the feminine' caused was a hotbed for feminists who both rejected it and assimilated it into their dialogue. Adrian Pepperzak attempts to read Levinas terminology more postively as "'the feminine' presence by which a building becomes a home is a metaphor for the discreet and silent presence of human beings for one another that creates a climate of intimacy indespensible with dwelling." Feminists were conflicted over the term, just as Levinas was himself.

Levinas acknowledges Kant's central position in philosophy as "the basis of philosophy, if philosophy is ontology." But as Levinas continually reminds us, ethics is not an ontology and it should always be the primary focus. "The alterity of the other raises the subject in a severe responsibility which bears all the weight of the world's seriousness in a non-indifferent - with no ontological basis - for the other." Levinas was searching for another option to the loneliness associated with existentialism and found "Sociality will be a way of escaping being." The social realm results in moving beyond ontotology and transcending into the spirtual. "Radical alterity figures in Levinas' thought," Richard Cohen tells us, "as the non-thematizable charge through which ethics commands." Waldenfels says this is precisely because "the other's otherness eludes every qualification we may apply." Both Kant and Levinas are similar in how both strived to build a philosophy of ethics which stemmed from and supported their Judeo-Christian values that they had both been brought up in. Both were successful, albeit, through different means. Kant's answer was his categorical imperative which basically paraphrased Jesus' motto of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Waldenfels notes "so in the end every order goes back to a law I have given by myself. Since Kant we call this autonomy." The essence of Levinas' alterity is its obligation to and for the other, above and beyond any referal to the self. Responsibility is always asymmetrical and is focused solely on the other. Even though they both may achieve similar goals, Levinas' notion of responsibity and its emphasis on asymmetry is therefore radically different from Kant's categorical imperative. When he refers to applying the judicial laws of a society, however, Levinas remarks "The interpersonal relation I establish with the Other, I must also establish with other men" but he goes on to say "from whence comes justice. Justice, excercised through institutions, which are inevitable, must always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation." Where institutions have to apply universal laws on individuals, they inevitably must always refer back to the original relationship with the other.


Thomas Cummins art philosophy