Seeing Beginnings: Buber, Levinas, and the Original Encounter

Seeing Beginnings: Buber, Levinas, and the Original Encounter

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Here and only here are we “We”. Here we are actively familiar with the cosmos through our co-operation, for it is a cosmos only to the degree in which we experience it together.
Martin Buber


Martin Buber argues for the irreducible relational character of the cosmos and the profound implications it has on our moral understanding. The moral meaning of the human cosmos, its axiological reality, he suggests, is contained in the very mystery of creation itself. His position rejects the metaphysical position that started with Plato’s view of epistemic privacy and culminated with RenÈ Descartes’ celebrated philosophical puzzle regarding knowledge of other minds. Here the existence of the Other is not contained in the original encounter but is inferred, or projected onto the other, from the privacy of one’s own ego. Buber’s position, on the other hand, is that the existence of the Other is given in the immediacy of being, and in fact, is responsible for one’s own identity as a human being; what is revealed in the moment of being is the Other’s existence and our innate responsibility towards the latter. Modernism paints the cosmos as coldly separated and objective in which an epistemic chain of logical bridges must be artificially constructed in order to acknowledge the Other’s existence and moral worth. Buber avoids such counter intuitive epistemic complications and argues that the relationships to the Other is the original state that constitutes the cosmos. The cosmos exists “only to the degree in which we experience it together,” and therefore, are responsible to each other and to creation as such. To see the We in the self contribute to the cosmic process “which is just a human cosmos recognizable as the cosmos of man as man.”1   

Martin Buber’s Organicism:

Responding to the events of the Second World War, the existentialist philosopher, Martin Buber, described the period as one in which God covered His face; when the light of heaven was eclipsed. Indeed, this period displayed the worse in human conduct as citizens of the world rushed to imprison each other, to destroy filial loyalty, to violate bodies, and to gas its minorities in industrial death factories. “Such indeed is the character of the historic hour through which the world is passing,” correctly observed Martin Buber.2

The eclipse of God and the violations that are associated with its reality have their source in the monadic character of daily life. Here the idea of the person as the relational animal par-excellence was phenomenologically shattered and replaced with a model and minimal self, off on his own hook, lost without a living community, and without a real sense of its history or the educative value of accrued wisdom. Such radical subjectivism, argued Buber, inevitably blocks our access to the original character of creation and to the transcendent as such. This is to say, we became blind to the irreducible relational foundation of existence, or as Buber brilliantly expressed it by rewriting the first line of Genesis: “In the beginning is the relation.”3 The latter underscores the pre-epistemic and organic character of existence which, not surprisingly, reveals an extraordinary affinity between the elastic nature of the world and the twofold possibilities of human behavior. As Buber put it, “the world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.”4

To overcome the eclipse, therefore, a metaphysical re-examination and commitment to and celebration of the pedagogical value of relations are required. In other words, a “backward return” to the relational reality that is revealed to us in the original encounter is necessary. Only in the original encounter can one truly hear and recognize herself when she is addressed by God (as creation itself); only through that which is revealed in the original encounter can one become fully human and recognize the humanity in others, the genuine We.

The genuine We is to be recognized in its objective existence, through the fact that in whatever of its parts it is regarded, an essential relation between person and person, between I and Thou, is always evident as actually or potentially existing. For the word always arises only between an I and a Thou, and the element from which the We receives its life is speech, the communal speaking that begins in the midst of speaking to one another.5 

An organically relational world contains, according to Buber, two basic modalities of relations that are open to all persons in their relations with individuals and with the environment. The two modalities of relations are captured by the combined words I – It and I-Thou which all individuals are capable of speaking.6 In such a non-Newtonian universe, the question of whether or not we enter into relationships with others is not open to us, as modern “social contract” theorists have erroneously suggested. The relational priory of creation is not subject to intellectual affirmation or cancelation since relations is our lot. The only genuine question before us is what type of a relational modality we choose to enter into. The choice is of the utmost importance since “the primary words are not isolated words, but combined words … For the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It.”7 Each modality, therefore, will shape the world as well as the self in radically different ways. For Buber, of course, one choice opens access to Divinity since, “in every Thou we address the eternal Thou,”8 while the other eclipses the light of heaven; one leads to peace and understanding, the other to irresolvable conflicts and violence.

The origin of the world and the annulment of the world are not in me; neither are they outside of me … they occur, and their occurrence is also connected with me, with my life, my decisions, my work, my service. But what it depends on is not whether I “affirm” or “negate” the world in my soul, but how I let the attitude of my soul towards the world come to life, life that affects the world, actual life …9

Most significantly, then, is the implication such a relational world has on our sense of personal and collective responsibilities. An open-ended universe requires special attentiveness on our part since such a universe is subject to continuous re-creation and amelioration. As such, our choices carry with them the ultimate responsibility for the lived conditions of daily life.

The flight from the common cosmos into a special sphere that is understood as the true being is, in all its stages … a flight from the existential claim on the person who must verify himself in We. It is flight from the authentic spokenness of speech in whose realm a response is demanded, and response is responsibility.10

In the case of contemporary conflicts, they are the direct cause for the contemporary eclipse. A long standing conflict, from Buber’s perspective, is reflective of the choices we make and not of the permanent conditions of creation.  Each modality creates a “field of relations” which either establishes the world as an ameliorative, creative, and healing space, or as a space empty of good will and grace. Each choice is creative in a different manner and produces different spaces for our lives. The I-Thou relational modality leads to a rich social life in which individuals are humanized and respected, or as Buber puts it:

When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no longer among things nor does he consist of things … 11

And in the same way it applies to the physical environment:

… it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate a tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It … What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.12

The I-It relational modality, on the other hand, leads to the objectification of persons and the environment, and consequently, to the appearance of evil, ignorance, and conflict. The former establishes a universal model for humanity; the latter establishes a model of violation and relational starvation. In an I-It space, knowledge, the environment, and persons become mere intellectual objects, or “objects of general experience,”13 as Buber called them. Ordinary men and women get dehumanized; animals and physical resources get used and objectified, and ideas become ineffective and unlived. Here the other is seen through the language and imagery of ideology, history, power relations, or other pre-reflective veils of cognitive intentionality. Here we “experience” the world rather than stand in a living relation with it.

True community does not come into being because people have feelings for each other [since feelings are cognitive experiences] … but rather on two accounts: all of them have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to a single living center, and they have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to one other. The second event has its source in the first but is not immediately given with it … A community is built upon a living, reciprocal relationship, but the builder is the living, active center … human life … is created only by a third element: The central presence of the Thou, or rather, to speak more truthfully, the central Thou that is received in the presence.14

Conflicts between individuals and collectives most frequently are the result of falsification in which the other is seen through the language and categories of ideation, or through what Buber called, “experience.” Here the other becomes the ‘Zionist Jew’; the Arab Terrorist’; or the ‘White Colonist’, and quickly loses his/her humanity. Here one does not know the other directly as a human being but only knows her through the cognitive experiences that are “within them.” In Buber’s language: “Those who experience do not participate in the world. For the experience is “in them” and not between them and the world.”15 By turning others into intellectual objects we block access to the humanity of the other and to the true purpose of creation. Interacting with others through experience alone robs the former of its lived presence in our lives; the space is rendered sterile and ineffective and “all images are illusions and self-deception.”16 The other can no longer be the live creature who is my brother or sister and without whom my life has no independent meaning; the other becomes an object of experiential “having” or “owning.” Only in such a space, killing or violating others becomes possible and common place. It is a life of relational blindness that fails to grasp the inter-connectivity and mutual reciprocity of the actual encounter, of life redeemed.

What is missing from the I-It relation, according to Buber, is the existential moment of meeting the other in his/her concreteness, prior to ideology. In their phenomenological nakedness, the ‘White Colonist’, the ‘Aryan Nazi’, the Persecuted Jew’, or the ‘Humiliated Arab’ are all identical; they all seek peace with the world, meaning for their predicament, safety in their personal journeys, trust in their causes, the love of a man or a woman, and hope for the afterlife. They are all equal partners in God’s ongoing act of creation. The existential moment in an I-Thou relation involves the leap into a moral reality that is independent of our own cognitive operation. Buber refers to such a leap as the act of “living in relationship to Being ‘believed-in,’ that is, unconditionally affirmed, absolute Being.”17 Here one stands as “a whole person” in a deep existential and primitive relational space and meets the other through openness, directness, mutuality, and sense of equality. This space consists of, Buber argues, “what cannot consist in any feeling – the equality of all lovers.”18  As a result, both partners are positively ameliorated and genuinely transformed.

What is revealed to us in the original encounter, according to Buber, is six-fold: First, that access to truth and meaning is through life’s concrete struggles and not in the escape into cognition and experience. Second, that in one’s firm actions in the world, one confirms with his/her life the meaning that was attained. Third, that through the original encounter one realizes that there is an independent purpose to creation, one that we did not create ourselves. Fourth, one realizes that the purpose of creation is Yihud (unity) and the building of peace, not the creation of division and separation. Fifth, that the world of humanity was meant to become a single body, for only an entire collective can demonstrate a life of unity and peace, of righteousness and justice. Sixth, that those who stand in the encounter, perhaps more than anyone else, experience the world’s lack of redemption against their skin and taste on their tongue the burden of the unredeemed world.

Finally, what is necessary for the overcoming of contemporary conflicts, according to Buber, is a return backwards to the space and presence that were revealed to us in the original encounter. For Buber, the act of return is associated with the Jewish and mystical conception of Te-shuvah. It is an act of total faith that marks a decisive turning point in one’s life; a renewal and total reversal in the midst of one’s normal course of existence. Short of such a return, access to the living spirit of God and to others’ humanity will forever remain blocked. The same is true for the illusive scientific knowledge about the origin of the cosmos. To do justice to the universe one must start the task by internalizing the mystery contained in the reality that “time springs from eternity and world comes from that which is not world.” So central are these questions that “compare to this, every attempt to explain cosmology scientifically, to supply a logical foundation for the origin of all things, is bound to fail.”19    


Emmanuel Levinas

Yet the invincible concern for the other . . . in his destitution and his homelessness ‒ in his nakedness ‒ in his condition or noncondition of a proletarian, this concern escapes the suspect finality of ideologies; the search for the other . . . who is still far away is already the relationship with this other . . . , a relationship in all its rectitude ‒ a trope specific to the approach of the neighbor, which is already proximity.
                                                Emmanuel Levinas


Emmanuel Levinas’ ethic is closely related to that of Martin Buber, but rather than making the Judaic/Christian argument for creation’s original relation, Levinas combines a Greek phenomenology with his Hebrew understanding of things and thus produces a more universal explanation of the original encounter that he understands in non-theological terms. Levinas, a postmodernist philosopher, saw the Western world he faced as conflicted, grounded in nebulous theories about natural rights that perpetuate this conflicted existence. In this world possessive individuals are isolated from all genuine relation. They are swallowed up in the materialism that unconditionally ties them to competition, and sunk in a homelessness they are unable to explain to themselves. It is a world where the political and the ethical are not just separated but stand in opposition, Levinas argues. Hence it is a world grounded in conflict, war and violence, where we relate manipulatively to the world of things to make it fit our self-interests. Levinas laments over how we have transferred this egological relation with objective things to our relation with the Other human being and suggests a different approach. Whether capitalism or technology is at bottom to blame for our relational poverty, our societies and our personal lives are lacerated with conflicts which originate in the monadic character of daily life.

Standing against this tragic picture of Western experience, Levinas argues that we must return to origins in order to arrive at a better compass position than the one that now directs our lives. Materialism has only resulted in an existence characterized by homelessness due to constant conflicts that have made us competitive beings always wanting for more. But that understanding of human experience translates poorly into a harmonious life. Instead, Levinas urges a return to beginnings, to our relational origins, for in those beginnings lie the ethical secret that is part of everyone of us, almost like an anthropological condition of what it means to be human.  Seeing beginnings means we gain the capacity to see who we truly are, namely responsible beings before all else. Once accepted, once this ethical comportment breaches the economy of worldly existence, or totality as Levinas calls it, homelessness and alienation disappear in the face to face encounter with the Other whose presence no longer constitutes a threat. It is responsibility that not only characterizes beginnings, the original relation is responsibility, and so it is with us for whom this immemorial past is undeniable and irreducible. It is an ethic that is prior to all differentiation gender or racial; it is prior to the a priori which relies on knowledge, it is prior to, as Plato would say, the source of being, but it is essentially unknowable. Nevertheless this relational origin understands the human condition as in a state of belonging where the Other is no more seen as a rival threatening yet disinterested but rather as a possibility for ethical performativity. Seeing these beginnings, characterized by an infinite peace that knows not war, thus enter our worldly experience with the Other demanding that we live accordingly. That is to say, we are always already responsible to the Other, and not in conflict with her. It is this understanding of beginnings that Levinas envisions must breach totality, for totality is in serious need.


Asking about beginnings is a natural endeavor for anyone wanting to know who they are. This is different from all the so called identity theories floating around these days. Knowing who you are means to go back to beginnings, to really see beginnings in order to fully understand the human  make-up. Self-knowledge was the ground of Socrates’ constant questioning; he too went back to origins in order to understand himself and his relationship to others, and to learn how to live his life.20  Levinas sees no difference between a modern human being and Socrates except to say the latter was a great deal wiser than most modern individuals. In other words, seeing beginnings and taking them seriously will necessarily affect one’s comportment. “There is an ethical awakening and vigilance in this affective disturbance,”21  inasmuch as this comportment is grounded in the good that is beyond being embedded in what Levinas sometimes calls the infinite and sometimes exteriority. It is a comportment that suggests a proximity to the Other the response to which must be (il faut) responsibility as a response to the face-to-face encounter, not as cognitive knowledge but as a command.

This nostalgia, or this piety or gathering of oneself, going beyond and above the intelligible that is present to the intelligence ‒ is philosophy, aspiration to a wisdom, that is not knowledge, that is not representation, that is love. Love of a wisdom other than the intelligible giving itself to knowledge. Philosophy that would thus be transcendence itself.22

Levinas’ ethical metaphysics is a kind of messianism in Derrida’s sense of the term that heralds “a future that will never arrive but whose advent is the object of an intense desire.”23 To a doubtful academy Levinas politely asks, “Cannot thought approach the absolute otherwise than by knowledge and in knowledge and excel by that approach, better than the return to the One and coincidence with unity?”24

Levinas takes his first understanding of the infinite from Descartes’ Idea of the Infinite.  “He argues that for Descartes the self who thinks maintains a relation with the infinite, [but] it  differs radically from other objects of consciousness in that the ‘ideatum’ exceeds any idea we can have of it. . . . The infinite is not grasped by the idea of the infinite since it is necessarily beyond the grasp of thought. . . . It is experience in the most radical sense since we can never bring to it a structure of intentionality adequate to it. It is therefore a genuine relation with what is other than ourselves.”25

However, Levinas distances himself from Descartes’ epistemology as well as the troublesome “I” of the cogito that has preoccupied Western thought, and turns it on its head so to speak. Thus he argues, “being myself, I already ask myself whether my being is justified, whether the Da of my Dasein  is not already the usurpation of someone’s place.”26 And he summarizes the human condition as a

return to the interiority of non-intentional consciousness, to bad conscience, to the possibility of its fearing injustice more than death, of preferring injustice suffered to injustice committed, and what justifies being to what ensures it.”27 

Thus with Socrates Levinas pronounces that justice is another’s good.28 The Western philosophical tradition has not aided in this project. Being grounded in Enlightenment thought that provoked a rigid individualism that posed people against each other, philosophy has concentrated on the self negating altogether the presence of the Other. That to Levinas is entirely unrealistic inasmuch as the concreteness of the Other is always already there demanding my attention. How are we to understand this revolutionary turn in our understanding of the human condition?

We are to understand it in terms of the original relation, that is to say, we have to see beginnings as they truly are, for it is a “past irreducible to the present.”29 To grasp this event is not a cognitive matter. Rather it is a matter of transcendence, a transcendence to what we with Plato can call the source of being but not itself being “exceeding it in dignity and power.”30  Thus Levinas operates in a realm that is prior to ontology, prior to the a priori of cognition, an undertaking he realizes is daring. “But to approach philosophy by such questioning is, at least, to return to its source, beyond literature and its problems of pathos.”31 

Levinas reaches far back in order to separate his thinking from contemporary ontology inasmuch as it is not “accomplished in the triumph of human beings over their condition, but in the very tension whereby this condition is assumed.”32  While contemporary ontology understands the other in terms of letting be,33 for Levinas the Other is not an object of comprehension. Comprehension means one has already spoken to her, acknowledged her existence, all of which belongs to ontological language. The language Levinas has in mind is prior to comprehension, prior to any acknowledgement of existence. It is the language of the “institution of sociality” that Levinas relies on, the language of responsibility. It is not really an accessible language as such. It is a secret, in Levinas’ language, or a saying that defies even the possibility of the said until it expresses itself in the ‘Hello’ that announces the encounter with the Other, and in that ‘Hello,’ there can be no claim to knowledge of the Other. It is, one might say, a completely innocent greeting, it is the ground of the face-to-face encounter, it is what Levinas understands by religion. “Religion is the relation with a being as a being.”34 

The ethical performative

Levinas, who died only a few years ago, lost his entire family in the concentration camps while he himself observed and suffered an exaggeration of this conflicted condition during his time in a WWII prisoner of war camp where the everyday was dominated by brutal violence.  Levinas learned much during these dark times, and he came to the profound conclusion that brutality hears nothing but its own force, sees nothing but its own force. Violence does not allow one to see “the face in the other; one [only] sees the other freedom as a force, savage; one identifies the absolute character of the other with his force,”35  all the while being locked up within oneself.  Only the dog Bobby recognized the prisoners as human beings.36  It was not a world of reason and proper discourse, for reason and language are external to violence, Levinas insists, they belong to another realm, to an exteriority that “overflows thought in a wholly different sense than does opinion.”37  If morality has to be entirely free of violence, Levinas continues, then “a profound link must join reason, language and morality.”38  What is needed is an understanding of a self that questions its own freedom, questions a typical thinking that is cognitive and aimed at self-interests in order to reach another kind of thinking “which constitutes probably the very pulsation of  the Self.”39  Thus Levinas reaches beyond intentionality to a transcendence of the finite arguing it constitutes the irruption of the infinite into the finite. The ethical significance is the meaning to be found in the proximity of the Other who may be a stranger, perhaps naked, perhaps destitute and undesirable.40  As Simon Critchley interprets,

[t]he ethical relation begins when I experience being placed in question by the face of the other, an experience that happens both when I respond generously to what Levinas . . . calls the widow, the orphan, the stranger, but also when I pass them by on the street, silently wishing they were somehow invisible and wincing internally at my callousness.”41

In other words, only when I raise the Other above myself, only then is the Other no longer considered a rival whose power must be overcome. Now the Other is valued as a dignified person with a “right to recognition, and treatment as Other.”42

In view of this radical observation, Levinas first and foremost de-emphasizes the notion of individual rights and its institutionalized manifestations. “The right of man, absolutely and originally, takes on meaning only in the other, as the right of the other man. A right with respect to which I am never released!”43  Instead he appeals to a justice that has its origin in the primordial relation with the infinite or exteriority. This justice is exterior to the totality within which existence takes place; it is a place where the ethical rules, so to speak, where there can be only peace, never war or violence, only justice. It is from this perspective that we can finally begin to understand peace from the perspective of peace and not from the perspective of war as we have hitherto done. It is, profoundly so, an appeal to the good that exceeds any idea of the good, but is itself, as already mentioned, something that is altogether other than what we might think it to be.

As is obvious, Plato plays a significant role in Levinas’ philosophy when he is thinking the ethical or a justice that is prior to ontology, prior to knowledge and indeed prior to language and reason, dependent only on existential experience. But precisely because exteriority is a matter of experience it therefore constitutes a horizontal transcendence removed from all traditional metaphysics. Instead this transcendence is to be understood as a rupture of our participation in the totality of worldly events within which we actually live and assert itself in our dealings with the Other toward whom I am absolutely responsible “without having to worry about their responsibility in my regard,” as Levinas insists, focusing on repetition and not on reciprocity.  And he asks earnestly “if in this way the Other Person is not a value?”44  Here Levinas echoes Kierkegaard when he adds that this responsibility is also the serious name of love without lust.45 

This kind of transformed comportment lends itself to a deeper understanding of human experience, helps us to see its true content, and allows for an entirely different approach to it. Why is this so? Because now singularity sees the Other in a completely different light. Now it is possible to see that the otherness of this Other is as radically other as the origin of the primordial relation where justice is grounded in the Good. It is a justice that calls for absolute responsibility toward the Other precisely because of the Other’s otherness, an otherness that we cannot know anything about and therefore cannot form any predispositions about.  Rather, “this strangeness underlies the way in which he thrusts himself upon my responsibility, the way in which he places me under his command.”46  It is a face that summons me to a justice grounded in pure peace, and for Levinas, such alterity inhabits its own authority that commands respect precisely because we can have no cognitive knowledge of it. Edith Wyschogrod explains: “[M]eaning can exhibit itself as the strangeness of the Other’s face. It inheres in the human countenance not as a form apprehended in perception but as an ethical datum exuded, as it were, from the exposure and defenselessness of the Other.”47 Thus Levinas understands metaphysics as a horizontal transcendence, not as a way of doing philosophy.

He identifies the diachronic relation in favor of the Other as the ethical relation; it is the concrete relation of transcendence. Here we need to interject that unlike Kierkegaard, Levinas does not differentiate between the infinite Other (autrui) and the Other human being thereby maintaining the emphasis on the otherness of the Other to whom I am absolutely obliged. As Bernasconi interprets, “it is accomplished as service of the Other, so that metaphysical thought is attention to speech or welcome of the face, hospitality and not thematization.”48  For Levinas, then, justice precedes all other considerations, ethical and cognitive. It is an ethic before ethics! How is it different from a traditional understanding of ethics?

Traditionally, the ethical has always been burdened by its ontological origin, as Levinas argues; it has always been subjected to ontological determinations, at times presupposed by the cognitive as in Aristotle who argues we are capable of morality because we are rational and have language. Moreover, the ethical has always been located in the constituted subject, existing in and for herself, from Socrates’ definition of justice as another’s good to Kant’s categorical imperative. Thus Levinas can claim that “the ethical significance of the Other challenges the fundamental status of ontology.”49  In contemporary times, the ethical has been reduced to its applied format, as if we could take it off and put it on like an overcoat. This kind of “applied ethics” is today a common course in most philosophy departments, where it is not attached to an ought, not attach to a must or an il faut, as Derrida would say, not attached to any conception of a responsible self. Rather it is often understood analogically with disinterested and disembodied historical and cognitive precepts, as a matter of strict rational/logical thought.

Levinas, in stark contrast, declares the ethical before ethics has its non-origin in alterity, in the altogether other which is not capable of representation. It is part of our human make-up, a first characteristic of what we call human being in a philosophical/anthropological sense. “The ethical relation is anterior to the oppositions of freedoms, the war which, in Hegel’s view inaugurates History,” meaning the alterity of the face is not allergic but opens up the beyond,50  opens up to the Other through the trace which awakens the me to its responsibility. In this sense, Levinas’ face to face encounter is not unlike Martin Buber’s conception of the original relation from which being now embodies something more “of which he did not know before and whose origin he is not rightly able to indicate.”51  The conclusion we must draw is that this justice that has its ground in the Good, precedes all ontology, indeed precedes all existence in totality. It simply is in exteriority before any other considerations of human existence, it is given. “I am therefore necessary for justice, as responsible beyond every limit fixed by an objective law. The I is a privilege and an election,”52  Levinas declares. As we have seen, then, justice is an anteriority that is ‘older’ than the a priori.” As Mark C. Taylor explains,

Since reason is, for Levinas, always thematic, alterity cannot appear to consciousness as such. Alterity, which eludes the binary opposites of being and nonbeing, neither becomes conscious or remains unconscious. Just as nonbeing is bound in a dialectic relation to being, so the unconscious, when understood as the complement of consciousness, is a negativity defined by the polar relation of opposites. Alterity, by contrast, is das ganz Andere, which is other than the otherness of the unconscious. . . . Consciousness, however, is not indifferent to this strange other. The Other, alterity, “interrupts” consciousness and self-consciousness.53

If this is true, how are we to understand Levinas’ ethic as first philosophy?  In what way is it possible to give justice priority over all other considerations?54  It all begins with the face to face encounter: we have something between us, like a table that both relates us and separates us, an inter-esse, as Hannah Arendt would say.55  But do we not already face the Other across the table, do we not already face the conflict in this sense? We may be face to face with the Other, but we are not seeing the Other, for we form all kinds of presuppositions about the Other, pre-suppositions that keep us from seeing the humanity in the face of the Other. To see this humanity in the Other, we have to acknowledge the Other as other, we have to not rely on any knowledge we may have or think we have about the Other, for it is precisely that kind of opposition that separates us from the Other and induces us to reduce the Other to the same. But the Other is nothing like myself. The Other is entirely other about whom I can say nothing. It is a strangeness that “coincides with a non-in-difference in myself with regard to the Other.” And Levinas asks:

Is this not the very meaning of the face, of the primordial speaking that summons me, stirs me, provokes my response or my responsibility, which . . .      would be the for-the-other, whereby the psychic life of humanity would be brought down to earth, and to a break with Heideggerian Jemeinikeit?56

Through that Other the trace of the ethical before ethics reaches the egological I concerned only with its rights and transform her into the obliged me without in any way subjectifying the me. In such an encounter the Other commands me, and I become absolutely responsible for the Other’s welfare. In other words, I am called upon to engage in what Levinas calls the participatory act. What are the Other’s needs? What are his concerns? What are his wants and desires? These are the concerns that occupy me, and only when we face the Other in this sense can there be resolution. In other words, seeing the humanity in the face of the Other, seeing the vulnerability and nakedness in the face of the Other, renders me incapable of harming him.

But what about the I?  What about my freedom against this all demanding command to be for the Other?  Here Levinas again draws on Plato when he argues the Other’s command is in my self-interest.

The apparent heteronomy of a command is in reality but an autonomy, for the freedom to command is not a blind force but a rational act of thought. A will can accept the order of another only because it finds that order in  itself. The exteriority of the command is but inwardness. If the order is contrary to reason, it will come up against the absolute resistance of reason.57

As Plato would say and Levinas ethical philosophy claims, “To command is . . . to do the will of the one who obeys.”58

Hard to swallow, perhaps. But do we not in fact, in history, have just such an example of a face to face encounter that prohibited any more violence? I am thinking of the extraordinary circumstance of World War I, the Christmas armistice, when sworn enemies, who had been bombarding and shooting at each other for months, people who had never met face to face, but had accidentally been thrown together in each their trenches and told to kill those in the other trenches. Suddenly, on Christmas Eve, all the parties decided to lay down their arms and celebrate Christmas, and not celebrate it by themselves but together. They came out of the trenches, slowly, they came face to face with each other, and they uttered the “Hello.” Together they sang Christmas songs, they exchanged small gifts, and they discoursed with each other. They came face to face with each other’s humanity, and they all met up with their ethical responsibility.  The Christmas truce finally ended, everyone went back to their respective trenches, and suddenly they were awakened to their responsibility, and no one fired his rifle against the Other. It had become impossible to harm the Other; his humanity had manifested itself in their face to face encounter. Thus from neither trench a sound was heard, and apparently this went on for a while until the various military commands became aware of the situation. As it were, they had other ideas. The soldiers involved in the Christmas armistice were all ordered to shoot and kill, but none did. Instead the various military commands finally removed them from this particular front and sent them to other fronts with their respective armies where they would not be faced with an enemy with whom they had experienced a face to face encounter. From authentic reports, we know some French soldiers were punished by the military authorities while the German soldiers were all shipped to the Eastern front where they continued the violence and presumably died.

Primordial justice has spoken its silent language and reason concurs as dialogue begins with the “Hello.” From this perspective peace rules, violence and war become impossible. The trace in the Other points at me and at me specifically. There can be no substitution. I am responsible to the Other. However, “[t]he order that orders me to the Other does not show itself to me, save through the trace of its reclusion, as a face of a neighbor.”59  Thus Levinas locates the trace of the ethical in the Other who, so to speak, commands me to not kill him. “It is already an assignation, an extremely urgent assignation – an obligation, anachronously prior to any commitment.” It is a formula that “expresses a way of being affected which can in no way be invested by spontaneity; the subject is affected without the source of the affection becoming a theme of representation.”60  Or as Levinas characterizes the ethical in Difficult Freedom,

For equality to make its entry into the world, beings must be able to demand more of themselves than of the Other, feel responsibilities on which the fate of humanity hangs, and in this sense pose themselves problems outside humanity.61

This is how seeing beginnings can manifest itself. This is how we envision Levinas’ philosophy asserting itself in conflicted situations. Coming to discourse without mistrust and without the egological asserting only the needs of the Other, understanding and resolution suddenly becomes possible. The face to face encounter happens – we utter the “Hello” to each other and we see in the face of the Other what calls upon our responsibility. The point is, we may have many face to face encounters that end in antagonism where taking precedes giving. But a true face-to-face encounter can only happen when we stop thinking that proper discourse can include mistrust. The true face-to-face encounter happens when we see the humanity in the face of the Other, and in seeing that humanity in the Other awakens my responsibility, awakens my generosity, awakens the ethics of the original relation within me. As Levinas claims, the self “is not a being that always remains the same, but is the being whose existence consists in identifying itself, in recovering its identity throughout all that happens to it. It is the primal identity, the primordial work of identification.”62  “To think the infinite, the transcendent, the Stranger, is hence not to think an object.”63  Approaching the Other in discourse begins with a “hello.” And, as Jacques Derrida continues, “Hospitality becomes the very name of what opens itself to the face, or, more precisely, of what welcomes it.”64  It is the trace —that disturbs the order of the world — the expression of the face, countenance, “the absolute epiphany of the absolutely other . . . where the Other calls out to me and signifies for me an order on behalf of his nudity and of his destitution — a summons to reply.”  Thus Levinas can say:

Fraternity is precisely the relation across the abyss that is itself unbridgeable by mere knowledge of human otherness, and which, as responsibility, is neith   er a diminished knowledge nor a consequence of knowledge. I am responsible for others whether or not we share a common present. I am responsible for others above and beyond anything I may or may not have done in their regard, beyond anything that may or may not concern my own acts.65

This is my authentic stand – I am responsible before all else. That is Levinas’ lesson.


As we have shown, both Buber and Levinas wanted to bring humanity back to the original encounter and its relational priority, so our collective lives can become a genuine human community.  Both rejected the vulgar and extreme form of individualism, nationalism, and capitalism that emerged out of modernity and lacerated our lives with continuous conflicts and violations. The outcome, as observed by Buber, was a radical form of subjectivism that blocked our personal and collective access to the transcendence which finds its meaning in the living presence of our daily lives. The meaning that is revealed in the original encounter,

… is not that of ‘another life,’ but that of this life of ours, not one of world ‘yonder’ but that of this world of ours, and it desires this confirmation in this life and in relation with this world … The assurance I have of it does not wish to be sealed within me, but it wishes to be torn by me into the world.66

Thus, our relational failure is not grounded in psychological dissonance, as some understand Kierkegaard’s self to be separated from its true origin; neither Kierkegaard nor Buber or Levinas were talking about psychology. Rather, they all identify the problem with the lack of a true self, a philosophical anthropological problematic best characterized by Socrates when in Plato’s Gorgias he argued:

It would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with disorder, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict myself.67

Buber and Levinas ask us to find this moral part within ourselves and in so doing recognize the necessary relation to the Other and that we are always already responsible to that Other. What we need to remember is that,

In reality murder is possible, but it is possible only when one has not looked the Other in the face. The impossibility of killing is not real, but moral. The fact that the vision of the face is not an experience, but a moving out of oneself, a contact with another being and not simply a sensation of self, is attested to by the “purely moral” character of this impossibility . . . The infinite is given only to the moral view [regard]: it is not known, but is in Society with us.68

As it is, we have mistakenly believed that we as individuals (egos) should be in harmony with the world (as institutions or external objects), ignoring the objective relational nature of existence that ought to dictate our conduct. Buber and Levinas ask us to find harmony within ourselves (to speak as a whole person) and in so doing recognize the necessary being for the Other and that we are responsible to that Other. Only when we start from the inevitability of relations can we begin to approach a resolution of our contemporary conflicts, only then can we hope for the end of violence and war, only then can we truly know what justice is, only then can we begin to understand peace from the perspective of peace.



1 Martin Buber, Martin Buber on Psychology and Psychotherapy (New York: Syracuse University press, 1999), 90.

2 Martin Buber, Eclipse of God (New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1988), 23. Buber exact words are: “Eclipse of the light of heaven, eclipse of God – such indeed is the character of the historic hour through which the world is passing.”

3 Martin Buber, I and Thou, tr. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: A Touchstone Book, 1970), 69.

4 Ibid, 53.

5 Martin Buber, Martin Buber on Psychology and Psychotherapy (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 106.

6 Ibid, 3. “To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude. The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he can speak.” Buber’s usage of the term “speak” is in its mystical sense, as the ultimate act of creation. It was God, we should remember, that created the world through the act of speech – “And God said, Let there be light.”

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 57.

9 Ibid., 142.

10 Martin Buber, Martin Buber on Psychology and Psychotherapy (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 108.

11 Ibid., 59.

12 Ibid., 58.

13 Ibid., 53.

14 Ibid., 94-95.

15 Ibid., 56.

16 Martin Buber, Eclipse of God, 17.

17 Ibid., 3.

18 Martin Buber, I and Thou, 66.

19 Martin Buber, On the Bible, 11.

20 See Plato’s, Apology, in passim and especially around 29a-30e.

21 Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Difference, tr. Michael B. Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 26.

22 Ibid, 8.

23 Edith Wyschogrod, Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), ix-x.

24 Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, 16.

25 Wyschogrod, 100.

26 Ibid, 28.

27 Ibid, 29.

28 See Plato’s Republic 343c and 347d; also Gorgias 475.

29 Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, 32.

30 Plato, Republic, 509b-c.

31 Emmanuel Levinas, “Is Ontology Fundamental?” Philosophy Today, no. 33 (Summer 1989), 121.

32 Ibid.

33 I am thinking of Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit.

34 Levinas, “Is Ontology Fundamental?”, 126.

35 Emmanuel Levinas, “Freedom and Command,” Collected Philosophical Papers, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishing, 1993), 19.

36 Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom, tr. Se·n Hand (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 153.

37 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 25.

38 Levinas, Difficult Freedom, 7.

39 Levinas, “Beyond Intentionality,” Philosophy in France Today, ed. Alan Montefiore (London: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 112.

40 Plato, Gorgias, 482b.

41 Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding (London: Verso, 2007), 56.

42 Roger Burggraeve, The Wisdom of Love in the Service of Love, tr. Jeffrey Bloechl (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2007), 105.

43 Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, 127. See also Totality and Infinity, 40.  It is interesting to note that in 1990 Levinas found a 1934 article in the progressive catholic journal Esprit written just after Hitler took power. The writer questions whether “Liberalism is all we need to achieve an authentic dignity for the human subject. Does the subject arrive at the human condition prior to assuming responsibility for the other man in the act of election that raises him up to this height?” Quoted in Difficult Justice: Commentaries on Levinas and Politics, eds. Ashers Horowitz and Gad Horowitz (University of Toronto Press, 2006), 3.

44 Levinas, “The Contemporary Criticism of the Idea of Value and the Prospects for Humanism,” Value and Values in Evolution (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1979),187.

45 Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, 129. See my “Text and the Performative Act: Kierkegaard’s (impossible) direct Communication,” Philosophy Today vol. 45:2 (Summer 2001): 121-131.

46 Levinas, “Beyond Intentionality,” 111.

47 Wyschogrod, The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics, xi.

48 Robert Bernasconi, “Levinas: Philosophy and Beyond,” Continental Philosophy I: Philosophy and Non-Philosophy since Merleau-Ponty, ed. Hugh Silverman (London: Routledge, 1988), 235.

49 Ibid.

50 Levinas, Difficult Freedom, 18.

51 Martin Buber, I and Thou, second edition, tr. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 109.

52 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 245.

53 Mark C. Taylor, Alterity (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1987), 194.

54 See my forthcoming A Questioning of Justice – Continental Concerns, where I show why it is Europeans think so differently about justice than do the Americans by presenting Dewey and Rawls as continuing the Lockean tradition of placing rights before justice while Continental philosophy, from Kierkegaard to Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe, all place justice as prior to individual rights, something that has manifested itself to various degrees in Western European countries since World War II.

55 See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 182.

56 Levinas, “Beyond Intentionality,” 111-112.

57 Levinas, “Freedom and Command,” 15.

58 Ibid. See also Plato, Republic, 347d.

59 Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, tr. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1981), 140.

60 Ibid, 101.

61 Levinas, Difficult Freedom, 22.

62 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 36

63 Ibid, 49.

64 Jacques Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, tr. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford University Press, 1999), 21.

65 Levinas, “Beyond Intentionality,” 110.

66 Martin Buber, I and Thou, second edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 110-111.

67 Plato, Gorgias, 482. Translation taken from Hanna Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 151.

68 Levinas, Difficult Freedom, 10.