Levinas and Two Ways of Approaching the World

Emmanuel Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew who lived from 1906 to 1995, and studied under some of the most influential thinkers in Europe. He later moved to France and authored one of the most exciting and original philosophies of the 20th Century. He lived for a time as a prisoner of war during World War 2. After the war he responded with force against what he saw as the movement of western philosophy.

In Contrast with Western Philosophy

What is Western philosophy? Western philosophy traces its ancestry to ancient Europe, to countries such as Greece and Rome. It is the philosophy that you and I are already familiar with. It permeates our thoughts, ideas, and even how we make sense of the world. In Western philosophy, truth is generally considered to be the unchanging, foundational principles of the Universe. Philosophy itself is thought to be the method of reducing the flux of everyday experience to a set of static principles. For Western philosophy, there is no loss in this “reduction,” because we are making the world intelligible, or reducing the chaos we find in experience to unchanging unity.

In simple terms, in order to be truth, it has to be true everywhere, all of the time. Mathematical abstractions are the perfect example of Western truth. The equation c2 = a2 + b2 seems to be true everywhere and everytime, regardless of the particular circumstances, and thus Pythagoras and subsequent Greek philosophers regarded it as truth. Thus, for Western thinking, all things that are dynamic, that are in motion, and that change can be accounted for by the few things that fundamentally do not change. The few things that are always the same govern or explain the many things that are in flux.

A perfect example of this Western way of thinking is in the scientific discipline. Scientists observe change in the world—be it objects falling or creatures evolving—and attempt to discover the unchanging principle to account for that change. For example, they develop a law of gravity to explain why things fall, and thus all the many instances of falling objects can be explained by the one law of gravity. They also formulate the law of natural selection to explain why creatures evolve. Both these laws are considered unchanging and static. Because these principles never change, scientists assume that they are more fundamental than what does change.

We can see that this idea of truth is everywhere in our society. Of course, this does not perfectly capture the thoughts of all Western philosophers. There are many variants and deviations from this worldview. We have summarized enough, however, to see what it is that Levinas responds to in his writings.

Reducing the Other to a Totality

Levinas claimed that there are two ways to know the world, or two ways that we can approach a phenomenon. Another way to say this is that there are two ways that we can know what is Other. The first way of knowing the world is the way that Western philosophy has adopted since its beginning. In order to describe this way of knowing the world, it may be best to use a metaphor. Consider a fruit, like an apple. The apple, upon first encounter, is not part of me; it is something other than me. However, when I eat the apple, it then becomes a part of me. When we consume food, we make it part of us, or part of the Same.

According to Levinas, Western philosophy does the same thing when it encounters the Other. It makes sense of the Other in a way that turns it into the Same. It destroys the otherness of the Other by reducing it to the Same. When we describe the Other in words or abstractions, we turn it into something that we can grasp, understand, encapsulate in words, and remake it in our own image. We use the idiomatic phrase, “I get it!” or, “I’ve got it!” to describe the way we know the phenomenon we’ve encountered. We thus take possession of the Other, and it thus becomes part of us. We become masters of the Other, because the Other has surrendered to us and has lost its alterity. The word alterity means “the state of being other, or different.” “Percieved in this way,” said Levinas, “philosophy would be engaged in reducing to the Same all that is opposed to it as other.” In essence, the goal of Western philosophy is to turn that which is alien into that which is familiar. Levinas continued, “Western philosophy coincides with the unveiling of the other in which the Other … loses its alterity. Philosophy is afflicted, from its childhood, with an insurmountable allergy: a horror of the Other which remains Other.”

There are many experiences that are perfectly compatible with this way of knowing the world. For example, descriptions of how things fall, mathematical principles, even bacterial infections are encounters with the world that are not distorted when enframed into a Totality.

Approaching the Other as the Infinite

However, there are many experiences where this process of subsuming the Other does distort the reality of the Other. For example, people are foremost and always an irreducible Other that must be approached differently. The second way Levinas said that we can know the world can be illustrated with another metaphor. Like the apple, when we drink from a spring, that which we drink becomes a part of us. But unlike the apple, we cannot drink all of the water that flows from the spring. Not only is there more to the phenomenon than we can consume, but there will always be more than we can consume, because it is an inexhaustible source. Thus, the Other is not something that we can encapsulate in words, take possession of, or make part of ourselves. There will always be something genuinely and irreducibly Other about it.

Levinas said, “The relation with infinity cannot, to be sure, be stated in terms of experience, for infinity overflows the thought that thinks it.” Let’s consider another example: when we think of the ocean, we have an idea what the ocean is and what it is like. However, there is always more about the ocean that we do not know. There will likely always be more in the ocean than what we know. Perhaps an even better metaphor is an idea of the cosmos: no matter what is contained in our idea, the reality of the cosmos is inexhaustible. It can never be fully encapsulated into words. The reality of the infinite will always be able to shatter whatever conceptions we make about it. We can never make the Infinite into a Totality. It can never be fully consumed, tamed, mastered, or made a part of us. In this mode of approaching the Other, we cannot make the Other into the Same. The Other is always in flux, because of its inexhaustible nature.

Because people are foremost and always an irreducible Other, they escape any attempt to reduce them into a totality or to make them into the Same. C. S. Lewis wrote that when his wife died, he would remake the images and memories he had of her in his own image. He said, “Although ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real Helen would correct all this, the rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness [was] gone. … The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real Helen so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.” This experience shows that there is something about the Other that is always in flux, that will always shatter whatever conceptions we form about it, that is inexhaustible in its presence as a spring of water. C. S. Lewis described God in a similar way: “My idea of God … has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?” Levinas described this shattering as the other’s face: “The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face. … The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me.” In other words, the Otherness of the Other cannot be made perfectly familiar without destroying its alterity.

When we make the Other into a Totality, the Other surrenders to us, and we take possession of it. When we approach the Other as the Infinite, something different happens; the Other inevitably pulls us into a relationship of obligation. “The face resists possession, resists my powers.” When we totalize another person, we do violence to that person. Only when we approach the Other as Infinite can we reduce the violence we do to them.


Human beings are inescapably an Infinity, not a totality. We see this in the way we approach others. Even when we are in a position to treat another person as an object, we inevitably acknowledge their humanity. For example, if a scientist wants to see what is inside a fruit, he simply slices it open and looks inside. However, few people would simply slice a living human being merely to satisfy a scientific curiosity. Even when we mistreat another person and treat them as objects, we acknowledge their humanity. We may laugh maliciously when we mischievously trip our friend, but no one laughs when a chair falls.

We see here a contrast between two different approaches: The reducing of the Other into a Totality, and the reverent approaching of the Other as the Infinite. Emmanuel Levinas worked to rupture the way we make sense of the world, to question the assumptions we make, and to create space for the second way of approaching the Other. According to Levinas, the reduction of what is infinite and Other to a totality and the Same is sometimes, if not often, a lesser and destructive method that mangles the phenomena we seek to understand. When we approach people as a totality, we can mask the genuine Otherness of those around us.

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15 Responses

  1. This reminds me of Orson Scott Card’s discussion of otherness labelled “verelse” in his book, Speaker for the Dead. His opinion seemed to be that unless we can come to some way to understand others through empathy, war and conflict with eventual genocide will always be the result.

  2. In simple terms, in order to be truth, it has to be true everywhere, all of the time.

    This is somewhat ambiguous. It would be more accurate to say that for something to be true it must represent the facts and nothing but the facts. Fidelity to reality in other words.

    Alternatively, take the D&C 93 definition:

    truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come

  3. By the way, the inability to reduce an infinity into a known totality does not conflict with the Western conception of truth in the slightest.

    I would also say that any conception of truth that doesn’t include both objectivity and non-contradiction is a translation error, i.e. not truth-like at all. “Subjective truth” is an oxymoron.

  4. Mark,

    “Subjective truth” is an oxymoron.

    Why is this the case? You’ll have to explain.

  5. Doc,

    I think I see what your saying. I think, from a Levinasian perspective, the inability to be encapsulated, predicted, or boxed in an explanation is what makes us human. In other words, what makes someone a human, and what brings us into ethical obligation to them, is their ability to always surprise us, to shatter whatever assumptions we’ve made about them. They are an infinity in their essence, and therefore, rather than surrendering to our understanding, they pull us into a relationship of obligation, reverence, and awe.

    I suspect that violence, genocide, and cruelty are often the product of attempts to totalize the Other. For example, racism boxes, stereotypes, encapsulates others in assumptions and beliefs that they may not actually hold. Rather than letting the Otherness of the Other speak for itself, we remake the Other in the image we wish them to appear, to justify our cruelty towards them.

  6. Let me quote from the Random House Dictionary:

    truth –noun, plural truths  
    1. the true or actual state of a matter: He tried to find out the truth.
    2. conformity with fact or reality; verity: the truth of a statement.
    3. a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like: mathematical truths.
    4. the state or character of being true.
    5. actuality or actual existence.
    6. an obvious or accepted fact; truism; platitude.
    7. honesty; integrity; truthfulness.
    8. (often initial capital letter) ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience: the basic truths of life.
    9. agreement with a standard or original.
    10. accuracy, as of position or adjustment.
    11. Archaic. fidelity or constancy.
    12. in truth, in reality; in fact; actually: In truth, moral decay hastened the decline of the Roman Empire.

    In short, truth is “the way it is”, not “what I believe”.

  7. Mark D,

    I think I see where you’re coming from. But, as with many questions relevant to the gospel, it is not automatically the case that dictionary definitions pertain to scriptural and doctrinal meanings of terms.

    I don’t envision a productive conversation coming from this without you reading a substantive and credible reading of an alternative construction of truth from a Latter-day Saint perspective. And fortunately, there is one! Check out this entry on “Truth” by the philosopher Terry Warner in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Truth

    Teaser of the opening lines of Warner’s entry: “The LDS conception of truth does not fit any of the categories in which it has been discussed in the Western philosophical tradition. For Latter-day Saints, truth is found in living the type of life exemplified by Jesus Christ.”

    Read this brief entry, then we can talk further.

  8. Terry Warner is wrong. He claims that D&C 93 is not a statement of the correspondence theory of truth (and an _exceedingly_ explicit statement at that), but doesn’t offer a shred of evidence in favor of that assertion. Encyclopedias are supposed to represent a neutral point of view, which the gospel according to Terry Warner is most decidedly not. In fact most of his article is not even about Mormonism, but a rather slanted take on the philosophy of the subject.

    Where he is making more than a series of “just so” statements, Warner tries to base on argument on the meaning of the word “true”. “true” as it happens is not the same thing as “truth”, it is a practical synonym for being faithful or exhibiting fidelity.

    “Truth” on the other hand is means “faithful to reality”. Warner’s entire article is basically a denial that there is such a thing as objective truth, because he obviously doesn’t believe reality exists. The only definition he offers is truth is a fluid that we receive when we keep God’s commandments. And that is where he isn’t citing dozens of scriptures that contradict his position, such as the scriptural assertion that those who receive truth and light come to be “glorified in truth and know all things”. Striking coincidence, that.

  9. By the way, I don’t think that D&C 93 is a precise statement of the correspondence “theory” of truth, but it is certainly closely related. D&C 93 uses “truth” in the nominative sense of “knowledge”, which is not, generally speaking, a property of propositions, as held by the correspondence “theory”.

    The important thing is that D&C 93:24 is a resounding affirmation of realism, the primacy of objectivity, and a resounding rejection of all alternatives, and most particularly the idea that truth (especially in the religious sense of the term) is subjective.

    Think about it, if relgious truth were subjective, than certainly our claim to be “the Church of Jesus Christ” has no foundation whatsoever. There would be no truth about the question, just whatever belief crosses one’s mind. Wickedness never was happiness? In some people’s minds maybe. But casino living and prostitution are just as true in the minds of some. So the argument goes.

    Even worse, suppose truth was a fluid (like the spirit) that had no knowledge content, but which we received by being faithful to divine instruction. So suppose we are having a discussion in Sunday School about the calling and mission of Jesus Christ. Clearly we can make no assumption that the “truth” we receive is any indication of whether Jesus Christ was more than a figment of Paul’s imagination. Because “truth” has no knowledge content, has nothing to do with whether any historical event ever happened or with whether any event in the future ever will.

    Keep the commandments, keep the commandments. In this there is safety, in this there is peace. What is the fidelity of this statement? Apparently none whatsoever, because it contains two statements about reality. It’s a matter of opinion after all – “whether” there “is” safety, “whether” there “is” peace, “whether” there “are” commandments, which commandments there “are”, and what the “nature” of those commandments “is”.

  10. Mark,

    I’m not sure I know how to respond.

    I will say that “personal opinion” is not the only alternative to Western truth. We would agree that we should put our faith in something reliable.

    Jesus Christ is the Truth. When asked about the Truth, He didn’t say He knows the Truth, He declared Himself to be the Truth. In other words, Truth is someone with whom we can have a relationship. Someone whom we can trust. Someone who can approach us, and invite us into fidelity to Him.

    This is far removed from the Western notion of truth. The Western notion of truth forbids truth from having two legs and two arms, from eating an drinking with His believers. The Western notion of truth describes truth as statements that correspond with a physical reality, or as abstract principles that don’t change from one context to another. The embodied Jesus Christ certainly can’t qualify.

    I feel like you are saying, “There is no viable alternative to the Western notion of truth, because none of them meet the criteria of the Western notion of truth.” Any logician would recognize the fallacy in that.

  11. Jeff T., I recognize that on occasion a secondary sense of a term can be adopted and used without too much confusion. Where I would disagree is with the proposition that the scriptures at large (especially the D&C) use this “Jesus = Truth” sense as a rule. For example, would the following make sense?

    And Jesus is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come…
    The Spirit of Jesus is of God. I am the Spirit of Jesus, and John bore record of me, saying: He received a fulness of Jesus, yea, even of all Jesus;…
    The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and Jesus. Light and Jesus forsake that evil one.


    And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and Jesus…
    For the law was given by Moses, but grace and Jesus came by Jesus Christ.

    In short, with regard to the John 14:6, I suggest that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, in other words that the fulness of truth comes by him, rather than being identical to him.

    Otherwise the verse becomes a tautology:

    I am the Jesus, the Jesus, and the Jesus

  12. I feel like you are saying, “There is no viable alternative to the Western notion of truth, because none of them meet the criteria of the Western notion of truth.” Any logician would recognize the fallacy in that.

    That is not what I am saying at all. What I am saying is generally speaking using the term “truth” to refer to something radically different than the Western sense of the term is a translation error.

    It doesn’t mean that such things do not have value in and of themselves, just that hijacking the term “truth” creates more confusion than light when something entirely different (faithfulness, belief, righteousness, etc.) is intended.

  13. What I am saying is generally speaking using the term “truth” to refer to something radically different than the Western sense of the term is a translation error.

    I have no desire to be combative, but this is exactly what I’m talking about. Says who? The only criteria you have to make this claim are the criteria of Western truth. This assertion is rooted in Western philosophy, the same Western philosophy that I am presenting an alternative to.

    So, I repeat my claim: I feel like you are saying, “There is no viable alternative to the Western notion of truth, because none of them meet the criteria of the Western notion of truth.”

  14. Also, introducing oneself as the Truth doesn’t result in a tautology the way you describe. I believe that verse is quite literal. There is no philosophical problem with it, unless you tenaciously hold to Western philosophy.

  15. “When we approach people as a totality, we can mask the genuine Otherness of those around us.”

    Other than the one written by Beavers, this is the best introduction to the thoughts of Emmanuel Levinas I have stumbled upon so far. Thank you!

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