I begin my comparison by situating Buber and
Levinas in relation to Feuerbach, as it was Feuerbach who provided the
initial impetus for Buber's elaboration of the "I-Thou" relation.
I will then explore some of Levinas' criticisms of Buber, considering
Levinas' distance from Buber to be best illustrated by Levinas' concept
of illeity - the divine Other as the "third" - which
brings us to the heart of the relation between ethics, justice, the
divine, and community, and which I find to be the most interesting aspect
of Levinas' thought. After exploring Levinas' concept of illeity
at length, I will then test the distance between Levinas and Buber on
the matter by comparison with the thought of Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi
is another thinker to whom Levinas has been compared, and who on the
issue of the relation between religion and society, also had cause for
disagreement with Buber. I turn now the passage by Feuerbach.
The essence of man 4
In contrast, both Buber and Levinas attempt to establish the priority to the other as not appropriable to the subject. But if we take Feuerbach's formula as our axis, we find that Buber, like Feuerbach, seeks the essence of man in the "the unity of man and man" to the extent that Buber also privileges a mutuality of relation that will eventually elide the difference between the I and thou. Levinas, on the other hand, while agreeing - even insisting - that such unity is founded upon "difference" remains suspicious of any such reciprocity in the relation to the extent that Levinas considers it to be ultimately destructive of the difference that he seeks to preserve and elevate. The reciprocity of the relation, Levinas fears, will ultimately only serve re-establish the other as an alter ego. To preserve the "reality of the difference between the `I' and `thou'," Levinas conceives dialogue as a radical asymmetry. It could be said that in order to achieve this, Levinas describes a "thou-me" rather than an "I-thou" relation. Consequently, one could wonder whether Levinas is really talking about dialogue at all, to the extent that what he describes is more like a reversal of the monologue of the autarchic universal subject. In short, I suggest that Levinas would consider Feuerbach's axiom to be fundamentally correct if it were not for the emphasis on "the essence of man" that elides the difference between the I and thou. Levinas, in contrast, posits that man's origin lies beyond essence.
A question of orientation
However, Levinas' emphasis on orientation
does not seem that far from Buber's position when considered in
the light of the observation that Buber's original relation refers not
to the "I-Thou" but to longing for relation.10 Both Buber and Levinas are concerned with the priority
of sociality. Buber locates the basis for sociality within the "I-thou"
relation itself, where for Levinas it has yet to be established. For
Levinas, the symmetry of sociality is founded upon the asymmetry of
the "face to face", the reciprocity of equality upon the prior
establishment of difference.
The sociality that for Buber finds its truest
expression in the "I-Thou" leads Buber to think of that basic
relation in terms of an intimacy that Levinas will not consider appropriate.
The "I-Thou", for Levinas is not a relation with the interlocutor
but a relation with a feminine or maternal alterity that is pre-ethical.11
The relation is characterised by access to the other rather than the
excess of the other. In that this relation withdraws from society it
is not an adequate model for the founding of sociality. One may be naked
before the face of the other but this nakedness does not allow us to
make the claim of intimacy with the other. "The interlocutor is
not a Thou, he is a You [. . . pas un Toi, il est un Vous.]; he reveals
himself in his lordship."12
Other than the Other
For Buber, this is achieved by the eternal Thou who is invoked in every authentic relation with the "thou". Levinas makes a similar move, though once again, the difference between Buber and Levinas is best characterised by the status accorded to difference
Levinas' original aim in Totality and Infinity was to establish the priority of ethics over and against ontology and the play of immanence, to establish the priority - or at least a space for - infinity over totality. It's critical intention . . . leads beyond theory and ontology: critique does not reduce the other to the same as does ontology, but calls into question the exercise of the same. A calling into question of the same - which cannot occur within the egoist spontaneity of the same - is brought about by the other. We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics.16
Levinas is here concerned to establish a site of radical exteriority and transcendence in order to rupture what he considers to be the play of immanence within western culture which Levinas considers primarily as an "egology". To do this Levinas turns to the question of the other. Traditional philosophical approaches to the question of the other have failed to the extent that they both presuppose the pre-existence of the self and reduce the question to a matter of knowledge. Consequently the other is an other at the disposal of the self. Initially, Levinas situated this exteriority phenomenally, in the "face" of the other that "resists my powers", 17 that "introduces into me what was not in me."18 However, Levinas came to realise that his project as conceived in Totality and Inifinity was still too caught up within the language of ontology in which the transcendence of the other was not considered on its own terms but as a means of overcoming the play of immanence in interiority and totality. As Derrida expressed, "Levinas is resigned to betraying his own intentions in his philosophical discourse." 19
One way in which Levinas addresses this concern in his second great work - Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence - is by the distinction that he makes between the "saying" and the "said". The saying is the space where my exposure to the other takes place prior to its thematisation in the said. Levinas considers that "the saying involved in dialogue would not be one of the possible forms of transcendence but its original mode."20 In other words, the other always precedes the existence of the self. The condition of dialogue is the original situation of the subject who is constituted through the encounter with - or proximity to - the other. Subjectivity is first and foremost a response to the other. Consequently, dialogue, is not so much a meeting of equals as it is a call to responsibility.
Rather than seeking to rupture an immanent subjectivity through the phenomenon of the face, Levinas now brings exteriority to bear upon the very constitution of subjectivity itself. It is because the encounter with the other is constitutive of subjectivity that the subject is not "for-itself" but always for-the-other, and responsible for the other. The increased emphasis on the priority of the other and its role in the constitution of subjectivity is also accompanied by an intensification in the role of God who "is the very nonphenomenal force of the other . . . God `exists' in his voice which speaks the ethical imperative."21 God is the absent condition of the encounter with the other.
Initially, it would seem that Levinas has
moved closer to the position espoused by Buber who asserts that in "every
You we address the eternal You".22 But although Buber says that, "The Thou encounters
me by grace"23 and that "grace concerns us insofar as we proceed
toward it and await its presence; it is not our object,"24
Buber, nonetheless, maintains a reciprocity in the relation by proceeding
to declare that the relationship is both active and passive.25
Levinas, on the other hand, insists on the absolute passivity of the
subject. He insists that God is not addressed in the other so much as
God commands through the other. Even my response does not have its source
in me. This means that my responses cannot be considered active. "The
word I means here I am."26
To the extent that the other stands in the trace of illeity, he or she is unable to be reduced to a "thou". Levinas clearly seems to ascribe to the "thou" the status that Buber ascribes to the "it". Levinas objects to the formal symmetry between the "I" and the "thou" which he considers to constitute the "thou" to an alter ego. Reduced to the parameters of the same, the "thou" is unable to disturb the complacency of the "I". What is important for Levinas is that the relation with the other is maintained in its asymmetry. Furthermore, by bringing this third to bear upon the face to face, Levinas also establishes the asymmetry of the face to face as the foundation of community and society. "This means that nothing is outside of the control of the responsibility of the one for the other."29 Ethics is consequently established as the appropriate foundation for justice that prevents the State from "integrating him into a we, which congeals both me and the neighbour."30
The term illeity can do all this because `illeity . . .makes the word God be pronounced, without letting "divinity" be said, 31 without letting divinity be reduced to a theme in the play of being in which immanence always triumphs or by turning God into an ideological construct and champion of egoism. "The relation which goes from the face to the Absent is outside every relation and dissimulation, a third way excluded by these contradictories."32 It is a third way representing neither individualism nor collectivism. "The personal `order' to which the face obliges us is beyond being. Beyond being is a Third Person that is not definable by the Self."33 As third person, God cannot be appropriated in exclusivity but is somehow constitutive of sociality. The beyond being signifies the irreducibility of the divine other that is beyond any possible synthesis and which is not merely other, but which remains "other than the otherness of others,"34 allowing God to remain equidistant from both the other and the same.
Justice can now be provided with a firm foundation, in which the entry of the human third person standing in the trace of illeity brings something new to the relationship. Between those who have traditionally been identified with the dominant "one" and those, who at the service of the identity of this one have been cast as "other," Levinas posits a reciprocal "othering" that is guaranteed by the other than the other. Unless there is other than the other, no transcendence is possible to the extent that the relation of the two finds itself caught within relations of either opposition or identity. With the entry of the third I also become other for the other and my responsibility for the other now comes to include care of myself. It is with the entry of the third that I am established therefore in community. The third is also the face of the world, language and culture, in whose womb I am formed as a social being. Echoing Heidegger, one might say that it appropriates us "by the command of difference."35 We speak, in so far as we respond.36 The relationship with language therefore resembles the responsibility for the other signified by the "here I am."
It is not the reversibility of the relationship with alterity that establishes myself also as other, the care of whom is also my responsibility but "its multiplication to the second power."38 The community has a double structure; it is a commonality among equals which is at the same time based on the asymmetrical and inegalitarian moment of the ethical relation. Without founding justice on the prior ethical relation we would have "a justification of the State delivered over to its own necessities."39 With the other who is like me, an alter ego sharing a common essence, I cannot establish community, only a bland collectivity of the same. As a species, neither I nor you are established in our uniqueness. A non-violent justice then cannot be established upon equality. But in approaching the other, the face of the other signifies the more, the irreducible. God is signified in the face of the other only as "an order signified to me."40 Calling the same "to responsibility, it founds it and justifies it."41 Without reducing divinity to a theme, we are sent back instead to our sisters and brothers. "A God invisible", Levinas argues, "means not only a God unimaginable, but a God accessible in justice."42 It is the "illeity of God who sends me to serve my neighbour, to responsibility for him. God is personal insofar as He brings about interpersonal relations between myself and my neighbours."43
Although Levinas considers that God is only ever found in community, amongst and between us, God is never a Thou. God is not a partner in dialogue but the ground or condition of possibility of dialogue. The third term is not something to be established in clearing or creating a common ground but the condition of possibility of the encounter itself. "The relationship with man in which contact with the Divine is established is not a kind of spiritual friendship but the sort that is manifested, tested and accomplished in a just economy and for which each man is fully responsible."44 Consciousness of self coincides with the consciousness of justice and injustice.45 Consciousness, for Levinas, has not yet arisen with the dawning of the thou but "is born as the presence of a third party."46 Thirdness itself, however, remains ambiguous, referring to the neighbour of my neighbour, as well as invoking the divine as illeity. The third comes to express that for Levinas the question of the transcendence of God and of subjectivity, go together. According to Levinas, "The fact that the relationship with the Divine crosses the relationship with men and coincides with social justice is therefore what epitomizes the entire spirit of the Jewish Bible."47
In attempting to safeguard the transcendence of God, Levinas also seeks a space in which justice may be established without violence. Such justice is only accessible through the trace or withdrawal of the divine. Luce Irigaray - herself profoundly influenced by Levinas - considers the paradigmatic ethical relation to be characterised by withdrawal. It is a relation whose exemplary gesture is the caress.48 In my withdrawal, I allow a space for the other to become. The nature of love, Irigaray argues, is not just to give love but to create a space for its reception.49 The exigencies of non-violent justice require that the divine be freed from what Jean-Luc Marion describes as conceptual idolatry. The idol settles the gaze, the icon unsettles it, and provokes the gaze to contemplate its own inadequacy and look beyond itself. In Levinasian terms the icon could be considered to stand in the trace of the divine. In this sense, the face of the other in Levinas' thought functions as an icon.
In attempting to find a feasible concept of
the divine that resists the fall into the anthropomorphic same, Jean-Luc
Marion following tradition proposes God as Love. Love escapes idolatry
in that it never rests content in its achievement. "Love does not
suffer from the unthinkable or from the absence of conditions, but is
reinforced by them."50 In trinitarian theology,
the third person of the trinity is conventionally designated by love;
proceeding from the mutual regard of the first and second person; proceeding
as it were from the face to face and at the same time founding it. Some
liberation theologians, on the other hand, prefer "justice"
as the most suitable name for God. Their reasons for doing so are pragmatic.
The problem is rhetorical. Justice places us under obligation. But when
love is equated with supererogation, the field of obligation is narrowed.
Levinas would agree. Accordingly, he argues that "the concern for
justice . . . is the spirit in society. . . The foundation of consciousness
Facing the Political Other
What might be the implication of these difference of emphasis within the social relation? For Levinas, as we have seen, "a God invisible means not only a God unimaginable, but a God accessible in justice."54 We might presume therefore that a visible God, reduced to being, becomes an idol and the protector of egoisms. In so far as Buber's God is more accessible than Levinas', what then might be the relation between Buber's eternal thou and justice? Buber begins from a presumption of commensurability, that Levinas refuses. Whereas Buber considers the intimacy of the "I-Thou" relation to be paradigmatic of ethics and religion, Levinas considers such intimacy inappropriate. In that intimacy precedes the separation that constitutes the social relation in the face of the world, Buber will situate the religious sensibility prior to this separation, whereas for Levinas, the religious sensibility is constituted by the separation. It is this separation that is constitutive of their respective understandings of the relation between religion and politics.
Levinas echoes Gandhi when he suggests that "communication with the other can be transcendent only as a dangerous life, a fine risk to be run."57 Genuine openness to the other involves the risk of death. To practice Satyagraha is also to be responsible for the other, a responsibility that mere opposition denies. Non-violence, Levinas states, "instead of offending my freedom, calls it to responsibility and founds it. As non-violence it nonetheless maintains the plurality of the same and the other."58 The Satyagrahi could be considered to hold himself as hostage for another. For Levinas, "to be oneself, the state of being a hostage, is always to have one degree of responsibility more, the responsibility for the responsibility of the other."59
Gandhi's thought arose out of the field of conflict in which he tried to preserve a basic dignity and even priority of the other without compromising his own position. Gandhi considered that to "hold on to the truth" entailed putting oneself in question. Likewise, Levinas asks: "can the Same welcome the Other, not by giving the Other to itself as a theme . . . but by putting itself in question?"60 Both Levinas and Gandhi shared an anxiety in the face of the other which they considered to be an ethical necessity. It is this anxiety that Buber criticises in Levinas.
The epiphany of the other need not cause anxiety for Buber. "If will and grace are joined," any object can be revealed as a Thou, even a tree.62 Even in the "severest conflict," Buber presupposes a common situation, even if that situation is one of opposition. If Buber considers that the essence of "man" consists in the "unity of man and man," then it follows that his hermeneutic will be one that presupposes understanding rather than misunderstanding. As a result, Buber's Thou need not necessarily put me into question. Perhaps Levinas would reply that to presume a common field of conflict is still to reduce the encounter to a single theme. Michael Theunissen expresses a similar suspicion with regards to Buber when he states that: "the world, however, no matter whether It-world or Thou-world, surrounds the actual I in concentric circles. Thereby, however, the I - despite all Buber's assurances to the contrary - assumes precedence over the Thou."63 If, as Michael Theunissen argues, in Buber's work "speaking to never flows into being spoken to,"64 Buber's other remains but an alter ego, whose presence remains reassuring to the same.
This judgement would seem to be justified if one considers Buber's position on the importance of ethical purity; a position that Hegel considered to be symptomatic of a "failure of recognition" of the other. Hegel argued that the person of action makes compromises that are, of necessity, impure.65 The so called "beautiful soul" on the other hand is too fine to commit himself to anything. For action is always particular, and so actions inevitably fall short when measured against their corresponding universal. However, the subject in confessing his or her compromises as impure seeks a vision of itself in the eyes of the other. The subject seeks recognition. In the act of reconciliation and forgiveness that follows there is "a reciprocal recognition which is absolute Spirit."66 It is in the acknowledgment of the gap between particularity and universality that Geist manifests itself. In as far as Geist is "a unity of the particular and the universal,"67 it is a mediated unity and not an immediate presence of one to the other. The ethical purist on the other hand, refuses such a confession. In seeking to maintain the self certainty and self containment of his alleged "universal" moral purity, the purist disdains the universality which the other represents and shows himself to be a stubborn particular. The moralist's hypocritical condemnation of action turns out to be "a failure of recognition."68 Consequently, the ethical subject is one that stands open to correction from the other. He or she forgoes the claim to immediacy and consents to mediation. Such a subject stands under the authority of an other that is not reducible to the self. The ethical subject is primarily a social subject who finds his or herself outside of oneself. Such a subject recognises themself in the other and knows that the other precedes him or her. What obscures this apparent precedence of the other in Hegel is both his presumption of mutuality that reduces the other to the same and his sublation of difference in the synthesis.
Like the ethical purist, Buber thinks that "religion never enters into historical consummation." Buber argues that where religion appears to succeed, in worldly terms, it is no longer religion that prevails but "the politics of religion." When politics becomes a part of religion, religion is corrupted. "Religion means goal and way, politics implies ends and means."69 They belong to distinct spheres that cannot be reconciled so easily. Gandhi's blend of religion and political activism fascinated Buber, but he was suspicious of the apparent contradiction that it involved and warned Gandhi of self deception. It was, in Buber's view, a "contradiction between the unconditionality of a spirit and the conditionality of a situation."70 Buber is adamant; "that one cannot serve God and Mammon is an entirely true saying."71 Is one to assume, therefore, following Buber, that "the unconditionality of the spirit" occurs in no situation, due to its nature as pure spirit? Does Buber secretly yearn to be numbered amongst the angels?72 Levinas also has good reason to be suspicious of the political, but his suspicion leads him to insist upon responsibility for the other as its only satisfactory foundation.
Buber betrays a privileging of a private experience
in which love, friendship and intimacy are paradigmatic of the encounter
with the other. But, the other who is like me, met in the "unity
of man and man," is the other of the same and not truly welcoming
of the other precisely as other. Jacques Derrida warns that, "the
privilege granted to unity, to totality, to organic ensembles, to community
as a homogenised whole - this is a danger for responsibility, for decision,
for ethics, for politics."76 This means that
an ethical society will not be founded upon what is held in common but
upon a multiplicity of irreducible subjects. Justice should not look for
its justification in universal principles applied equally to all but upon
the priority of the other in their incommensurability and for whom I am
responsible.77 It is for them that I demand justice.
Levinas, in giving priority to the other, privileges difference as the
condition of possibility for the non-violent relation with the other.
The other who is met in their difference cannot be easily appropriated
as a mirror of the ego. In signifying beyond the same, Levinas' other
signifies beyond the relation, towards the divine Other, who establishes
us in difference, community and justice. Just as the Biblical accounts
of creation describe divine creativity in terms of differentiation, Levinas'
emphasis on the difference of the other leads us back to the source of
difference and unity itself.
1 Bernasconi, Robert, "`Failure of Communication' as a Surplus: Dialogue and Lack of Dialogue between Buber and Levinas" in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, eds. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (London: Routledge, 1988), 100.
2 Kelly, Andrew, "Reciprocity and the Height of God: A defence of Buber against Levinas" Sophia, 34. 1 (1995), 65.
3 I had considered exploring Buber's position in more detail. But since Levinas does not always represent Buber's position fairly, the task appeared to expand to the point that my principle purpose in writing this article would be obscured. In any case, Levinas' representation of the basic orientation of Buber's thought would seem to be correct, even if Buber's thought has more nuance than Levinas would seem to attribute to him.
4 My use of the exclusive term "man" throughout this essay should not be seen as an uncritical acceptance of exclusive language. Rather, it reflects the language use of the authors as translated.
5 Feuerbach, Ludwig, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, tr. Manfred H. Vogel (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1986), para. 59.
6 Buber, Martin, Between Man and Man (London: Collins, 1961), 182.
7 Buber, Martin, I and Thou tr. Walter Kaufmann (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1970), 69.
8 Levinas, Emmanuel. "Martin Buber and the theory of knowledge" in The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 72.
9 Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 215.
10 Bernasconi, R. " `Failure of Communication' as a Surplus: Dialogue and Lack of Dialogue between Buber and Levinas," 101.
11 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 155. From a feminist perspective this assertion is problematic. According to Luce Irigaray, "The function of the other sex as an alterity irreducible to myself eludes Levinas." "Questions to Emmanuel Levinas" in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 180. Levinas excludes the relation with the feminine from the dignity of the relation with the other, whereas for Buber the sexual relation often appears as the paradigmatic dialogical relation.
12 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 101.
13 Ibid., 213.
14 Derrida, Jacques. "Violence and Metaphysics. An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas" in Writing and Difference, tr. A. Bass (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978) 314. n.37.
16 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 43.
17 Ibid., 197.
18 Ibid., 203.
19 Derrida, "Violence and Metaphysics," 151.
20 Levinas, "Dialogue: Self-Consciousness and Proximity of the Neighbour" in Of God who comes to mind, tr. Bettina Bergo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 147.
21 Lingis, Alphonso. "Translator's Introduction," in Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, (Dordrecht, Boston and London: Klewer Academic Publishers, 1991), xxxiii.
22 Buber, I and Thou, 57. "Extended, the lines of relationship intersect in the eternal You." Ibid., 123.
23 Ibid., 62.
24 Ibid., 124.
25 Ibid., 124-5.
26 Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, 114. The French term - me voici - expresses this more clearly to the extent that the pronoun is in the accusative.
27 I am thinking, primarily, of what Lacanian psychoanalysis would call an imaginary relation. The structure of the imaginary is governed by the metaphor of the mirror in which the other functions as an alter ego supporting the identity of the ego through either identity or opposition. Although Levinas was primarily suspicious of psychoanalysis, the structure Levinas' thought has invited frequent comparison with that of his contemporary, the "French Freud", Jacques Lacan. Levinas must have been aware of Lacan's ideas given their currency in France at the time. Consequently, Tina Chanter asks, "Could the same be said of Levinas and Lacan as Derrida says of Heidegger and Freud - that they spent all their time not reading one another?" Chanter, "Reading Hegel as a Mediating Master: Lacan and Levinas," Levinas and Lacan. The missed encounter. Ed. Sarah Harasym, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) 15.
28 Levinas, Otherwise than Being or beyond Essence, 12-13.
29 Ibid., 159.
30 Ibid., 161.
31 Levinas, E. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence,162.
"The word God is an overwhelming semantic event that subdues the subversion worked by illeity. The glory of the Infinite shuts itself up in a word and becomes a being." Ibid., 151
32 Levinas, "Meaning and Sense" in Basic Philosophical Writings, eds. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 60.
33 Ibid., 61.
"In being, a transcendence revealed is inverted into an immanence, the extra-ordinary is inserted into an order, the Other is absorbed into the Same.' Ibid., 60.
34 In `God and Philosophy,' Levinas states that in the,
strange mission that orders the approach
to the other (autrui), God is drawn out of objectivity,
presence, and being. He is neither an object nor an interlocutor.
His absolute remoteness, his transcendence, turns into my responsibility
. . . for the other (autrui). And this analysis implies
that God is not simply the `first other (autrui),' the
other (autrui) par excellence, or the `absolutely other
(autrui),' but other than the other (autre qu'autrui),
other otherwise, other with an otherness prior to the otherness
of the other (autrui) and different from every neighbour,
transcendent to the point of absence, to the point of a possible
confusion with the stirring of the there is.
"God and Philosophy," Basic
Philosophical Writings, 141.