Emmanuel Levinas on Peace

(Written 2016)

The entry on Carl Schmitt reflects on the implications of a realpolitik where the sovereign state is necessary to protect us from the hatred that can erupt so easily in human relationships. On one extreme end of this spectrum is war as the ultimate option to defend collective interests against enemies. What is on the other end? Can we find a viable political philosophy driven by a vision of peace?

The Root of Ethics in the Encounter with the Other.

This entry is dedicated to Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), another European thinker who lived at the same time as Schmitt, but who developed very different ideas. Levinas was a student of Husserl and thus a colleague of Heidegger, but the basic impulse of his thinking is more in line with other Jewish thinkers like Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber. Levinas emphasizes ethics as foundational for philosophy. Ethics for Levinas arises from the proximity to the Other, from the face-to-face encounter, which summons the subject by saying “don’t hurt me.” Encountering the Other puts me under the obligation to do justice toward her or him. This creates an unconditional responsibility before I think of myself; it preserves the alterity of the Other and calls on me not to suppress the difference. I am responsible to the Other without any mediation, only via this face-to-face encounter. This responsibility is prior to my own freedom; it exists before I have done anything in particular. Levinas' position is a critique of the idea that the subject is responsible only for the consequences of its own actions. The responsibility to the Other comes first; it is outside my will and when I grasp it, it becomes an absolute obligation.

How can this ethical condition function in a society that overflows with stereotypes of others? Before we even encounter anyone, others appear in so many shades of representations, and in deeply objectified forms. This is not just done to them: people also objectify themselves, because it creates meaning, value, and income in a world ruled by commodity fetishism. People are often not themselves: they are products of identifications, they get judged by their resumes or their possessions, and they strive to express status by owning objects that are valuable in the eyes of others. A face-to-face encounter is rare in a world where social categories determine our identity and where people have a hard time facing themselves.

Peace or War?

How does the philosophy of Levinas relate to Hegel's master-slave dialectic that serves as the basis of Marx' idea of class struggle? Are these two thinkers not telling us very different stories about the primordial relation between self and Other? For Hegel, the relation with the Other is a confrontational dialectic: it is a struggle for superiority where the subject engages in a battle and tries to destroy the otherness of the other, but at the same time it needs the other in order to be recognized as superior. The master needs a slave in order to be the master. Hegel offers an analysis of the subject-other relation that cannot be reconciled easily, because it cannot escape from its antagonistic origins. In Levinas, the relation between subject and other is not a struggle for recognition, but a welcoming of the otherness of the other, which demands from me not to do violence. For Levinas, the idea that I may have to kill the other is more terrifying than my own death, and when I truly see the other, I recognize myself as guilty and failing in my responsibilities, before I have done anything.

What are the implications of a shift from Hegel to Levinas, from a negative to a positive perception of the relation with the Other? How does it change the idea of peace and the anticipation of a common future?

Levinas asks whether politics works against a background of war, or if it contains the real possibility of peace. In his 1984 essay “Peace and Proximity” (published 1995, see summary below), Levinas favors the liberal state because it creates more space for real difference between the actors, but he also sees the danger of liberalism understood as indifference. He writes:

“It is not without importance to know—and this is perhaps the European experience of the twentieth century—whether the egalitarian and just State in which the European is fulfilled—and which it is a matter…above all of preserving—proceeds from a war of all against all—or from the irreducible responsibility of the one for the other.”

It seems to me that the answer he gives in the article summarized below is twofold: First, Europe is built on a network of nation states which have their foundation in a common rationality originating in the philosophies of ancient Greece. This leads to the European creation of social systems built on democracy and justice, and they also defend themselves well. But anchoring social systems firmly in a relationship to truth is not enough: the real peace only comes when these systems also acknowledge the extreme precariousness of the other. Against Schmitt, Levinas would say: The problem is not to define sovereignty based on who can decide about the exception, or who is our enemy. Instead, Walter Benjamin was right, and the problem is that we do not recognize enough that "states of emergency" are the norm rather than the exception for so many of our fellow human beings. The rule of law is a first step and it is good for the state, but the ethical dimension needs to be addressed differently, as a inclusion of being-for-the-other. We need to aim for the peace that comes from a recognition of proximity to our neighbors.

For Levinas, politics as a totalizing form of power play is problematic because it can easily exclude the ethical dimension, even if this kind of politics pursues liberal ideas like “all individuals are free.” Power discourses carry the danger of eliminating differences because they push ideas against people. Both totalitarian and liberal political regimes carry a potential for violence, and the idea of equality can easily be used against its own intention to oppress or ignore people in various ways.

Considerations of politics and justice become relevant for the analysis of Levinas when a third party affects the relation two people have with each other. Eventually I realize that in my face-to face relationship to the other, this other has relationships to third parties, and now the question arises: who are they to me? And what is my obligation for the relationship they have with each other? What am I to do when my neighbor quarrels with other neighbors? Which side will I take, or what is my responsibility in this situation? These are the scenarios that open the door for considerations of politics and justice in the thought of Levinas How do we constitute a just order where claims of each party remain intelligible and equal before the law, without suppressing their differences? For Schmitt, the law itself is seen as an application of politics, and there exists a political dynamic before states come into existence. Whereas Schmitt acknowledges the friend/enemy distinction, Levinas traces justice back to the family, which is common to all of humanity. He argues that our intuition of justice is much more determined by the institution of the family than by the justice of the State. Our sense of justice is strongly determined by face-to-face responsibilities that arise from our encounters with parents, siblings, children, spouses, and friends. This inspires Levinas to write a phenomenology of the family ("beyond the face") in Totality and Infinity (1961).

The question still remains, how does he see the relation between ethics and politics? What kind of political order can preserve the otherness of the other without eroding it into sameness? Does he imagine a form of multiculturalism, or a pluralist politics that takes into account the asymmetrical relations between people? Another question is how Levinas perceives the role of law (either universal, local, or customary) in establishing justice? How can the law be general and anonymous, but at the same time preserve the unique ethical relation to the other? Moreover, if justice is based on proximity to the other, then it is not a response to the past. What about the demands that result from past injustices and histories of suffering? What does he think of reparative justice? How does the idea of ethics as proximity to the other produce a justice-based approach to history? Can we reach any kind of peace without first creating a society that is truly just?

Summary of "Peace and Proximity"

(This summary is based on a montage of quotes from the text. I am not marking each quote separately. See the full text here. I have strongly simplified his difficult language, which means many nuances are lost.)

Part I: The problem in European identity.

  • What unifies the separate European entities?

    • Europe is build on the peace of a humanity which, European within us, has already decided in favor of Greek wisdom such that human peace is awaited on the basis of the Truth. Peace on the basis of the Truth - on the basis of the truth of a knowledge where, instead of opposing itself, the diverse agrees with itself and unites; where the stranger is assimilated; where the other is reconciled with the identity of the identical in everyone.

    • This unification is in conformity with the Platonic or Neoplatonic idea of the One.

    • Peace on the basis of the state, which would be a gathering of humans participating in the same ideal truths. Peace which is savored as tranquility that guarantees a solidarity with all.

  • Recognition that the effects of this unity are lacking:

    • The conscience of the European is guilty because of the contradiction that haunts it at the height of its achievements. The history of peace, freedom, and well-being promised on the basis of a light projected by a universal knowledge on the world and on human society - and even on religious teachings that seek justification in the truths of knowledge - this history does not recognize itself in its millennia of fratricidal, political, and bloody struggles, of imperialism, of human hatred and exploitation, up to our century of world wars, genocides, the Holocaust, and terrorism.

  • European self-doubt; antagonism between truth (science) and being.

    • And thus, the contestation of the centrality of Europe from Europe itself. But perhaps, precisely in this way, a testimony to a Europe that is not simply Hellenic!

    • Explosion of the earth itself by an energy that the search for truth - become modern science - released from being. It is here that truth threatens being itself, it is here that truth threatens, we might say, being as being, and disqualifies the Europe that discovered these forces, and left them uncovered.

Part II: Analysis of the reasons for guilty conscience.

  • Anxiety and responsibility.

    • There is an anxiety of responsibility that is incumbent on everyone in the death or suffering of the other (autrui).The fear of everyone for themselves, for instance in our mortality, does not absorb the gravity of murder committed and the scandal of indifference to the suffering of the other.

    • What is even more frightening than your own death is the situation in which you participate to kill someone else.

  • Is there a relationship between peace and truth? Yes: Peace informs truth, not the other way around.

    • You can ask if peace does not respond to a call more urgent than that of truth and initially distinct from the call of truth. You can ask if the very idea of truth should not be understood already in terms of an idea of peace which only comes to open itself to the call of truth. You can ask if knowledge itself and the politics ruling history do not come into their own only when they respond to the demand of peace, and let themselves be guided by this demand.

  • Peace aims at acceptance of alterity, not just truth. Peace always has a social dimension.

    • We must question any conception of a society that acknowledges human diversity but nevertheless reduces the ego to a part of the whole.

    • It is necessary to ask if peace, instead of being the result of an absorption or disappearance of alterity, would not on the contrary be the fraternal mode of a proximity to the other, which would not simply be the failure to coincide with the other but would signify precisely the surplus of sociality over every solitude - the surplus of sociality and of love.

  • What is peace?

    • Ethical Dimension to alterity:

      • Peace as a relation with an alterity, irreducible to a common genus where, already in a logical community; it would only have a relative alterity. Peace independent, then, of any belonging to a system, irreducible to a totality and refractory to any synthesis.

    • A peace project of this kind is different from the political peace implied above. An ethical relation which, thus, would not be a simple deficiency or privation of the unity of the One reduced to the multiplicity of individuals in the extension of a genus!

    • The unique alone is irreducible and absolutely other!

  • Peace and Love, proximity, neighbor.

    • There is a unity between the recognition of the unique and the recognition of one's love for it. The unicity of the unique signifies in love. Hence peace is love.

    • Proximity is different from "short distance," measured in geometrical space, and separating the one from the others. Peace is different from the simple unity of the diverse integrated by a kind of synthesis.

  • Peace is the defense of difference, it is the other side of labeling and hatred.

    • Peace as a relation with the other in its logically indiscernible alterity, in its alterity irreducible to the logical identity of a final difference attaching to a genus. Peace as an incessant watch over this alterity and this unicity. Proximity as the impossible assumption of difference, impos­sible definition, impossible integration.

    • Indeed, it is evident that in the knowledge of the other as a simple individual - individual of a genus, class, or race - that peace with the other has the potential to turn into hatred; it is the approach of the other as "such and such a type" that reverses the relationship.

Part III: Peace originates in the relation to the other.

  • Peace originates in a different mode of relating.

    • Levinas conducts the analysis of peace - as the relation with the unique and the other, a relation characterized by the general term love - by attempting to deformalize these structures and rediscover them in their concreteness, that is, without a phenomenology. He thinks that the unicity and alterity of the unique is concretely the face of the other human, and the original epiphany lies not in the visibility of a plastic form, but in "appre­sentation." The thought that is awake to the face of the other human is not a thought of ..., a representation, but straightaway a thought for ...., a non-indifference for the other, upsetting the equilibrium of the steady and impassive march of pure knowledge.

    • "Face before any particular expression and beneath any expression, which is already a countenance given to the self, hiding the nudity of the face. Face which is not dis-closure, but the pure denuding of exposure without defense."

  • Consciousness and Mortality.

    • Exposure as such is extreme expo­sure to death, to mortality itself. Extreme precariousness of the unique, precariousness of the stranger. The nudity of pure exposure, which is not simply the emphaticalness of the known, of the disclosed in truth: exposure which is expression, first language, call and assignation.

    • The face is thus not exclusively a human face. "She had never thought that the human back could be so expressive, and could convey states of mind in such a penetrating way. Persons approaching the counter had a particular way of craning their neck and their back, their raised shoulders with shoulder blades tense like springs, which seemed to cry, sob, and scream."

    • The face is thus the extreme precariousness of the other. Peace is awakeness to the precariousness of the other.

    • In this extreme straightforwardness of the face and its expression there is assignation and demand that concern me. This extreme straightforwardness has rights over me, as if the invisible death which the face of the other expresses were my affair, as if this death faced by the other also affects me. In this call to the ego to be responsible, in this face which summons the ego, which demands it and claims it, the other is the neighbor.

    • By starting with the extreme straightforwardness of the face of the other, the face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness entices me at once towards the temptation to kill and to the call for peace, the "You shall not kill."

  • The rights of humans originate in their vulnerability.

    • The right of the human is here, in this straightforwardness of exposition, of commandment and of assignation, a right more ancient than all conferment of dignity and every merit. The proximity of the neighbor - the peace of proximity is the responsi­bility of the ego for an other, the impossibility of letting the other alone face the mystery of death.

    • Very important: Peace as love of the neighbor is not a matter of peace that confirms one's identity, but of always placing in question this very identity, its limitless freedom and its power.

Part IV: Integration: Truth, Knowledge, and Proximity.

  • Hellenistic and biblical roots merge.

    • The order of truth and knowledge has a role to play in this peace of proximity and in the ethical order it signifies. To a great extent, it is the ethical order of human proximity that gives rise to or calls for the order of objectivity, truth, and knowledge. Which is extremely important for the very sense of Europe: its biblical heritage implies the necessity of the Greek heritage. Europe is not a simple confluence of two cultural currents. It is the concreteness where theoretical and biblical wisdom do better than converge. The relation with the other and the unique that is peace comes to demand a reason that thematizes, synchronizes and synthesizes, that thinks a world and reflects on being, concepts necessary for the peace of humanity.

  • The Question of justice emerges as the question how a third party inters into the relationship subject-other.

    • How does responsibility obligate you if a third party troubles this exteriority of two where the subjection of the subject is subjection to the neighbor? The third party is other than the neighbor but also another neighbor, and also a neighbor of the other, and not simply their equal. What am I to do? What have they already done to one another? Who passes before the other in my sense of responsibility? What is the relationship, then, between the other and the third party with respect .to one another, and with respect to me? This is the moment where the question of justice is born. The first question in the field of inter-personal relationships is the question of justice.

  • This question leads to the need for consciousness, and to the need for the State.

    • The political structure of society is of extreme importance for the ordering of human multiplicity. It should be based on laws and institutions which allow the ego (the for-the-other of subjectivity) to enter the realm of law with the dignity of a citizen. The political order of society should be egalitarian or encouraged to become so.

  • What is the form of this state?

    • "It is not without importance to know - and this is perhaps the European experience of the twentieth century - if the egalitarian and just State in which the European is accomplished - and which it is a matter of founding and, above all, preserving - proceeds from a war of all against all - or from the irreducible responsibility of the one for the other, and if it can ignore the unicity of the face and love."

  • Is war an institution? Is it an integral part of history? What about Just War theory? Levinas argues against Hobbes, that justice precedes consciousness.

    • "Consciousness is born as the presence of the third party in the proximity of the one for the other and, consequently, it is to the extent that it proceeds from this that it can become dis-interestedness. The foundation of consciousness is justice and not the reverse."


  • Levinas starts with the face of the other, he then superimposes a reasonable order. Philosophy explicates the infinity of this relationship, which is the wisdom of love, not just love for wisdom.

  • To the generosity of the for-the-other is superimposed a reasonable order of justice through knowledge, and philosophy here is a measure brought to the infinity of the being-for-the-other of peace and proximity, and is like the wisdom of love. How do you bring into balance the totality of philosophical thought with the infinity of the face-to-face encounter?

© 2016 Jurgen Braungardt. All rights reserved