Aesthetics and the Face in Levinas and James

Stuart Rosenbaum
Baylor University

Megan Craig has done a wonderful job of seeking constructive interaction between what appear two disparate traditions—American pragmatism and European phenomenology. Here I concentrate principally on two dimensions of Craig’s effort to bring thematic unity to the philosophical work of William James and Emmanuel Levinas. One dimension is motivated by Levinas’s use of the face; the other is motivated by his attitude toward art. I also remark that where Levinas focuses almost exclusively on deconstructing intellectual ambitions of philosophy, James focuses more broadly on turning the intellectual concerns of philosophy toward constructing a more desirable human world.

Levinas’s concern with the face does seem to bring into focus significant harmony between his phenomenology and James’s pragmatism; Levinas’s attitude toward art, however, is a source of doubt about the possibility of bringing them to harmony across the full range of their philosophical work. Their disagreement about art also brings into focus their disagreement about the intellectual work of philosophy; where Levinas chooses to give a new “twist” to the deconstructive work of philosophy, James offers a philosophy that provides new and constructive resources that had previously little power in the Western intellectual world. Consider first Levinas’s face.

The Face

“The face scrambles every category” (Craig, 45). In so saying, Craig captures the heart of Levinas’s use of the face. And as Craig further emphasizes, Levinas’s face need not be literally a face; it might be rather the arm of Rodin’s The Thinker or the nape of the neck of the person just in front of me in the line we are waiting in; and it might be other things as well. The point of the face in Levinas is to bring phenomenology fully into the human world, the world in which one may always be unsettled by an encounter with a face—or with a metaphorical face. Our efforts to bring clarity through theorizing to the world of our experience are indefinitely and perpetually confounded by our experience of the face. As Craig puts this point, “Both il y a and ‘face’ work as reminders of the banality of everyday speech and as ‘barbarisms,’ deconstructing philosophical language (and the very possibility of phenomenological description) from within” (Craig 42). And on this issue of getting a fully humanizing perspective into our understanding of the possible results of our theorizing, James is fully sympathetic with Levinas. Here is one example of James’s approximation of the same, or at least a similar, point taken from his chapter on Bergson in A Pluralistic Universe:

But if, as metaphysicians, we are more curious about the inner nature of reality or about what really makes it go, we must turn our backs upon our winged concepts altogether, and bury ourselves in the thickness of those passing moments over the surface of which they fly, and on particular points on which they occasionally rest and perch. (103)

Although James himself does not have recourse specifically to the face, as does Levinas, his concern with particularity in preference to abstraction is evident throughout his life and work. Beyond their mutual concern with particularity, a concern reinforced by different intellectual strategies, I believe there is an important difference between Levinas and James. Before I point to this difference, let me mention some sources outside the world of philosophy that seem to confirm the propriety of Levinas’s focus on the face.

The Poetry of the Face

Mary Oliver’s Pulitzer-Prize winning poetry collection, American Primitive, contains a poem, “Flying,” that captures poignantly Levinas’s use of the face to unsettle preconceptions and expectations that pervade ordinary life. This Mary Oliver poem, as one might say, “hits the nail on the head.”


on a plane,
you see a stranger.
He is so beautiful!
His nose
Going down in the
old Greek way,
or his smile
a wild Mexican fiesta.
You want to say:
do you know how beautiful you are?
You leap up
into the aisle,
you can’t let him go
until he has touched you
shyly, until you have rubbed him,
oh, lightly,
like a coin
you find on the earth somewhere
shining and unexpected and,
without thinking,
reach for. You stand there
by the strangeness,
the splash of his touch.
When he’s gone
you stare like an animal into
the blinding clouds
with the snapped chain of your life,
the life you know:
the deeply affectionate earth,
the familiar landscapes
slowly turning
thousands of feet below. [1]

The experience of a face Mary Oliver captures here may be what Levinas has in mind in his philosophical recourse to the face. A face might at any moment unsettle, renew, disrupt or complexify any fixity, expectation or habit. Faces defy and challenge all efforts at “totalizing” thought; they make manifest what Levinas sees as the failure of phenomenology as an expression of philosophical technique. Another item:

The Science of the Face

Paul Eckman is a clinical psychologist who has done extensive research on faces and emotions. Eckman has published a dozen books and received many awards, including the William James Fellow Award given by the American Psychological Society. In reporting on Eckman’s research in Blink, a national bestseller, Malcolm Gladwell puts its significance thus:

What Eckman is saying is that the face is an enormously rich source of information about emotion. In fact, he makes an even bolder claim . . . that the information on our face is not just a signal of what is going on inside our mind. In a certain sense, it is what is going on inside our mind. (Gladwell, 206)

Eckman’s psychological research confirms scientifically, in a way that Levinas might not appreciate, the subtle and wide-ranging expressiveness of faces, and thus (perhaps) the accuracy of Levinas’s philosophical claims about the face. Faces convey responses and subtle possibilities of response, as well as much unexpected information, well beyond our anticipations of what visual experience of a human face might yield. Part of Eckman’s work in psychology is to uncover the emotional content of facial expressions. In Eckman’s view, the myriad possibilities of facial expression are biologically universal; faces in vastly different cultures have biologically similar possibilities for expressing attitudes and emotions.

Poetry, Science-Philosophy?

But an important question comes here, one intimated by my suggestion that Levinas might or might not appreciate scientific confirmation for his focus on the face; the question is also implicit in my taking Mary Oliver’s poem to capture the point of Levinas’s focus on the face. The question is this: Does Levinas regard philosophy and/or phenomenology as autonomous in relation to other areas of intellectual culture? Does Levinas think it possible for his phenomenological, philosophical use of the face to be captured by a scientist or by a poet? This question is difficult, and it is so partly because in Levinas the face need not be a face, but it must always be a means of confounding expectations and undermining efforts to achieve conclusive, formulated results.

In a section of her chapter on Poetry titled “The Face of Words,” Craig focuses the confounding and undermining role of the face with a remark about Levinas’s ethics:

Levinas’s ethics reorganizes with every interruption of a face. If there is any way of writing ethically about ethics, it will have to be one that resists a final interpretation or reiteration that might take the place of the ongoing engagement with particular faces. The text must remain open. Ensuring this openness involves exploiting the aesthetic dimension of language as an interruptive countercurrent to propositional meaning. (Craig, 149)

Poetry in Levinas’s understanding is a “face” for phenomenological or philosophical analysis; its role is to keep the text open; it must undermine or interrupt efforts to express propositional meaning. The aesthetic dimension of language, in poetry, is the face in its interruption of efforts to achieve the fixity of a defensible, justifiable proposition. Philosophy, as ethics, must fail because it must constantly encounter the face of poetry. In the same way, ethics is an “ongoing engagement with particular faces” and always escapes formulas that might be applied to problems of living.

The face confounds propositional meaning; it confounds results of theorizing; and it confounds philosophical or phenomenological analysis. But can any philosophy or phenomenology co-exist with a concurrent, omnipresent source of “confoundation” for whatever it might yield? I gather that the answer to this question for Levinas is negative. But this negative answer yields two results: the first is that Levinas does regard philosophy or phenomenology as autonomous by contrast with other parts of intellectual culture, including poetry and science; that poets and scientists are interested in faces is irrelevant to Levinas’s use of the face. The second result is that philosophy or phenomenology must fail at all of its traditional, primary tasks, and this remains so no matter how interesting or important faces are to poets or scientists. (For poets and scientists, faces are not sources of confoundation; they are a source of endless possibilities and challenges for creatively engaging our world.) [2]

If this representation of Levinas’s view is viable, then Levinas looks to be straightforwardly a deconstructionist, the sort of thinker many of my colleagues quickly dismiss as a relativist, even a nihilist. (I hasten to add parenthetically, however, that these same colleagues dismiss James and his fellow pragmatists as equally relativists or nihilists.) If Levinas ventures nothing that enables getting analytical or phenomenological purchase on his view -if there is always a face to confound any result—then there is no possibility of expressing or contesting his results intellectually. The face becomes its own face.


In their attitudes toward art, Levinas and James appear to differ significantly. In Levinas, art is a problem, though it surely yields faces to confound the discursive tasks of philosophy and of phenomenological description. In James, however, art is not a problem; art is rather multi-faceted possibilities for constructive engagement with the human world in all of its aspects, including the scientific.

Levinas may be suspicious of art; at least he remains ambivalent about it, and regards it more skeptically than do many other philosophers, including, beyond James and Dewey, perhaps Heidegger and Gadamer. The ethical and the aesthetic remain for Levinas independent genres of life that may sometimes overlap; or sometimes the aesthetic may “point” in the direction of the ethical; or sometimes the aesthetic may give affective power to the ethical it might otherwise lack. Here is Craig’s way of putting the point:

To find oneself opened or made vulnerable by a work of art is not to discover the ethical basis of the self, but it is a reminder that vulnerability takes many forms, that the self comes undone and awakens multiple times in many ways. Levinas is highly sensitive to the dangers of making ethics aesthetic-as if ethics were something from which one might disengage, or gawk at from a distance. But there is an even greater danger in leaving ethics without any emotional impact…[and] producing a theory that bears no connection with the living feel and unsystematic complexity of life. (Craig, 182)

One upshot of Levinas’s way of thinking about ethics and art is that they are qualitatively different genres of human culture, and that art as the genre it is need not contribute anything especially relevant to ethics or to the moral life, though it may do so through some fortuitous relevance of its engaging power. The power of art-its “seductive lure”-coupled with its merely accidental relevance to ethics justifies Levinas’s ambivalence about art and his distrust of it. Another way of putting this point is to say that Craig’s treatment makes clear the resonance between Levinas’s and Plato’s attitude toward art.

In James, there is no ambivalence about art of the sort evident in Levinas. James’s art includes human activity in all of its forms, including all those activities that make up the domain of ethics. James’s idea of art includes all goal-oriented activity that requires intentional engagement, meaning almost all activity that is not rote or habitual. Art is any engaged and creative use of intelligence toward any desired end. [3]

When it comes to ethics, James is not a systematic, or Enlightenment-style, thinker, and in this way he does serve as antecedent for and confirmation of Levinas’s wariness of attempts at theory without connection to the living feel and unsystematic complexity of life. James does not seek system in his ethical thought; rather he seeks satisfaction of demand, desire, hope and need among all the present diversity of humanity. Philosophers’ responsibility as philosophers and as humans is to seek, apart from system or theory, as much satisfaction of and harmony among the vast varieties of need that confront them in their own “thrownness.” As James puts this point in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” moral philosophers are “statesmen” whose primary tools are novels and dramas of the deeper sort, … sermons, … books on statecraft and philanthropy and social and economical reform” (James, 210). [4] And although James does not explicitly mention poetry in this passage, he makes clear his policy of non-discrimination toward useful modes of creativity. (As I write this, I recall James’s use of Whitman’s poetry, but a flood of equally relevant poetry comes also to mind, including works by Keats, Browning, Frost, Auden and Dylan Thomas; much poetry opens, reveals, surprises and even shocks, and is thus important for moral thinking and acting.) Philosophers in James’s view are omnivorous consumers of culture in the service of human ends, in the service of ethics.

James’s omnivorous attitude toward apparently discrete parts of culture, evident in his thought about ethics, is simply one more expression of his orientation toward practice as the key to understanding every part of culture. Theory, in whatever guise or context it might appear—perhaps as physics or as ethical theory or as phenomenology—is a mode of practice. Here is one of James’s ways of putting this point, again from the chapter on Bergson in A Pluralistic Universe:

What we do in fact is to harness up reality in our conceptual systems in order to drive it the better. This process is practical because all the termini to which we drive are particular termini, even when they are facts of the mental order. … [The] original and still surviving function of our intellectual life is to guide us in the practical adaptation of our expectancies and activities. (100)

Human culture, including intellectual culture, is qualitatively seamless in that it is always one or another mode of practice. Standards of good practice are of course localized in specific practices—are “internal to” practices as Alasdair McIntyre would say—but no standards are independent of successful practice.

Theory, in whatever guise it may appear, is subordinate to and a function of practice. This commitment, evident in James, is a cardinal tenet of pragmatism, and it stands Platonism on its head. No longer need philosophers be “footnotes to Plato;” they might instead be pragmatists. I suspect, however, that Levinas’s need for the deconstructive power of the face marks him as a footnote to Plato, as one who is not willing to cease from the striving engendered by a Platonist need to wrestle transcendence into “transdescendence.” And another mark of what may be the Platonist “dark side” in Levinas’s work is his apparent need to negotiate about the legitimacy of poetry and art, to be suspicious of those things in a way reminiscent of Plato’s attitude toward them in The Republic.

Final Word

The general tenor of my remarks sets a kind of countercurrent to Craig’s primary focus on Levinas. I find in her presentation of Levinas his consistent and ongoing concern to deconstruct descriptive phenomenology, to bring philosophy to its conceptual knees. This understanding of Levinas provides a definitive contrast with James’s primary concern to turn philosophy toward construction. Deconstruction is a good when one must struggle with intractable tendencies to theorize toward fixities, but leaving behind that tendency—surely an intractable one among philosophers of all sorts—brings a need to construct, to build, to create and take responsibility for the substantive content of the human world. James’s insistence on the subservience of theory to practice enables focus on construction of the human world in a way Levinas’s deconstructive efforts to disable philosophical theorizing do not.

Works Cited

Craig, Megan, Levinas and James (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010).

Gladwell, Malcolm, Blink (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2007).

James, William, A Pluralistic Universe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977).

James, William, Works, Vol 5: Essays in Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Levinas, Emmanuel, Otherwise Than Being (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998).

Oliver, Mary, American Primitive (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1983).


[1] Oliver, Mary, American Primitive (New York: Back Bay Books, 1983), 34-35. Quoted from:
[2] For confirmation of this claim about Levinas, see, for example, Otherwise than Being , 89-97, especially 95-97.James’s perspective about art becomes clear in many sources, but see, for example this passage from volume 5 of James’s collected works: “Art changes things for our vision; religion for our vital tone and hope; science tells us how to change the course of nature and our conduct towards it; …Tristan and Isolde, Paradise, Atoms, Substance, neither of them copies anything real; all are creations placed above reality, to transform, build out and interpret it in the interests of human need or passion” (147).
[3] The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1956), 210.
[4] I realize that Plato himself may well not have been a Platonist, at least in the sense I am assuming is intended by Whitehead’s remark about Western philosophy. Platonism in the sense I intend may be a caricature of Plato’s own views as some scholars have argued; the failure of any of Plato’s dialogues to achieve the goal of analysis that was an explicit goal of all of them should be a warning to all philosophers not to presume too quickly that being a footnote to Plato is any accurate representation of Plato’s own intellectual goals.