Emotions, Ethical Norms, and Pluralism

Stephen Minister
Augustana College

Megan Craig’s Levinas and James is a joy to read, in no small part because Craig is one of the rare philosophers who also excels at writing. She presents her arguments and analyses in clear, descriptive language, enhanced with excellent metaphors and examples that both deepen her analyses and drive home their significance. In terms of content, Craig offers one of the few extended, close readings of Levinas’s important early work Existence and Existents. Her attention to the conditions of its writing and the intellectual currents Levinas is wading through at the time results in a very insightful reading of the work and some of its key concepts, such as the il y a and insomnia, which remain important throughout Levinas’s corpus. The final two chapters of the book offer the most sophisticated and sensitive examination of the relation of Levinas’s work to art that I have encountered. These chapters helped correct some of my own misunderstandings, as I had taken Levinas’s well-known criticisms of art to be the whole story. These criticisms largely appear in the essay “Reality and Its Shadow,” which has received disproportionate attention, perhaps because it appears alongside many other very important essays in the volume Collected Philosophical Papers. As Craig points out, Levinas’s approach in this essay is decidedly critical, not necessarily of art per se, but of the philosophical views of art dominant at the time, namely the Heideggerian view of art as an illuminating source of truth and the Sartrean view of art as political engagement. Add to this Levinas’s clear conviction that a living person is infinitely more significant than any work of art and it is easy to draw the conclusion that Levinas is simply an anti-aesthetic, seeing art as a distraction from our more important ethical responsibilities.

As Craig makes plain, this conclusion misses out on both the significance of Levinas’s references to art as well as Levinas’s use of poetic language and imagery in his own philosophical writing. Craig draws on the rarely cited collection Proper Names , which contains numerous essays and interviews in which Levinas is thoughtfully engaged with specific artists, especially poets and authors. It is clear from these essays that so far from dismissing art as a distraction, Levinas finds it worth discussing and praising. Craig also calls our attention to Levinas’s references to close-ups in film and Rodin’s body-less hands as examples of one of his most important ideas, namely signification without context, the “possibility of the human of signifying in its uniqueness.” [1] Levinas also praises poetry as effecting a “rupture of immanence,” breaking out of the static, rigid structures which normally limit prosaic language (152). As Craig points out, it is precisely to effect such a rupture that Levinas punctuates his own philosophical prose with poetic language, especially in Otherwise than Being. As she nicely sums up, the “aesthetic dimension of Levinas’s prose ensures the openness of his ethics. That is, poetry keeps his words alive” (160). In the final chapter, Craig points to the capacity for painting to similarly effect such a rupture by turning our attention away from abstract, impersonal universals and to concrete, embodied particulars in all their messiness. Painting reminds us that concrete, embodied life is not consistent, thematic, or monochromatic, but is, as she writes, “sometimes goofy, comic, sad, tragic, boring, sweet, still, black, red, pink” (176). The final two chapters of this book must be regarded as essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between Levinas and art. As its title indicates, however, the central thrust of this work is the possibility of a philosophical rapprochement between Levinas and William James. Taking as clues Levinas’s mention of James in Existence and Existents and the connection they both have to Bergson, Craig aptly uncovers the overlap in their philosophical projects. Both thinkers are attempting to develop a more open-ended, embodied, and multivocal philosophy, and so both argue strongly against the traditional metaphysical systems that close off this possibility: mechanistic materialism, Cartesian dualism, the traditional Christian God inhabiting a transcendent world behind the scenes, and a monistic rationalism seeking, even if only at the end of a long inquiry, the final answers to the universe. This significant overlap leads Craig to claim that, “Ultimately, [Levinas’s] focus on pluralism and his quest for a more vital phenomenology positions [him] farther from Husserl and Heidegger and closer to James’s radical empiricism” (35).

Craig recognizes that there are real differences between the work of Levinas and James, and so does not in any way recommend a conflation of the two. Nonetheless, she thinks that there is value in bringing them into dialogue since their differing emphases complement each other, helping fill out parts of their accounts that on their own are underdeveloped. So, on the one hand, Levinas helps spell out the ethical implications of James’s work, while on the other, James’s radical empiricism helps bring Levinas’s lofty rhetoric down to earth, thereby undercutting the accusations that Levinas is engaged in mysticism, theology, or dogmatism. While I think Craig does an excellent job demonstrating the value of bringing these two original and important thinkers into a productive dialogue, her account of this dialogue has left me with a few questions like I would like to pursue here. These questions are in no way meant as a rejection of this project, but instead will, I hope, help continue to develop this dialogue. The questions I will raise center around three issues: the relationship between emotions and ethics, Levinas’s “ethical minimalism” and the place of ethical rules, and finally the notion of plurality in James and Levinas.

Emotions and Ethics

The fourth chapter of the book explores the role of emotion in the two thinkers’ work. Therein, Craig writes: “Levinas follows James in arguing for the centrality of emotion and feeling in any account of what it means to be human, and moreover, in an account of what it means to be ethical” (98). While I appreciate the criticism of modern moral rationalism and the emphasis on the ethical importance of emotional sensitivity, I must admit that I find the role of emotion in Levinas’s account of ethics rather puzzling. On the one hand, Levinas frequently employs emotive terms, such as shame or obsession, in describing the ethical relation to the other, but on the other hand, he seems to shy away from the interpretation of these terms as (merely) felt affects. So, for example, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas writes that “My substitution for another is a trope of the sense that does not belong to the empirical order of psychological events, [of] an Einfühlung [empathy] or [of] a compassion which signify by virtue of this sense.” [2] If substitution and sense do not refer to psychologically-experienced emotions, then what is the significance of the emotive terms Levinas also uses to describe the ethical relation?

Craig’s text seems aware of this ambiguity in Levinas. So, in the context of analyzing Existence and Existents, she notes that while emotions break-up our attempts to be self-possessed, autonomous individuals, thereby signifying the inevitable failure of the dominant conception of the self in modern philosophy, they do not put one “in touch with another person” (117). When reading Levinas’s notion of “obsession,” Craig distances it from the notion of “pity” one finds in Rousseau, suggesting that it “is not just another name for an innate impulse or natural instinct at the root of moral sensibility” (120). However, she preserves for it some emotive reference as she concludes that “obsession describes the way something takes up all of one’s emotional and physical time and space” (120). A few pages later we seem to get the stronger connection between emotions and ethics that Levinas sometimes suggests, when Craig writes that the ethical is “an order of overwhelming, emotional entanglement,” experienced initially as “just an overwhelming feeling” (122, 123). “Ethics,” she writes “stands for the disorganized, bodily, emotional impact that prefigures any value and complicates every rule” (123). While all of these claims may be consistent with Levinas’s work, I remain a little confused about the relationship between emotions and ethics for Levinas. Is this overwhelming emotional impact the source of normative force? If so, is there something that distinguishes it from other strong, non-ethical emotions (e.g., jealousy or rage), something that gives it more authority or significance? Or are certain emotions the reflection of a normativity that has a different, perhaps transcendental, source? If so, does this move Levinas farther away from James’s radical empiricism? [3]

Ethical Norms

This leads to my second question regarding ethical rules and “ethical minimalism.” Craig points to the centrality of emotions in Levinas’s account as a reason his work cannot generate the sort of norms that modern moral philosophy has trained us to expect. “If one is looking for rules, Levinas will disappoint” (93; cf. 122-3). In making this point, Craig seems to be following the interpretations of Levinas’s work as lacking “moral legislation” and offering only “a normativity without norms.” [4] If by rules or norms, these commentators mean something like a “supreme moral principle” that, in Kant’s words, “determines quite precisely what is to be done with regard to all duty in general,” [5] then without doubt, Levinas rejects the very possibility of such norms. However, these interpretations sometimes seem to go beyond this Kantian view of norms to include any general ethical rules or principles. This always seems to me to make for a somewhat unhappy fit with the proliferation of such principles in Levinas’s own work. In Levinas’s work, when the face speaks it says, “Thou shall not kill.” [6] Levinas goes on to spin out a variety of other imperatives that seem to be some sort of general ethical rule: “thou shalt not leave me alone in my dying;” “you shall defend the life of the other;” “Love thy neighbor;” “you are responsible for the life of this absolutely other other;” “Thou shalt cause thy neighbor to live;” and, work for “Social justice.” [7] What are we to make of this? Given Levinas’s apparent endorsement of these commands, can we really say that he doesn’t offer us any rules or norms?

I wonder if we are better off understanding Levinas’s work as implying not a complete rejection of ethical norms, but instead a reconceptualization of the very notion of a norm, a reconceptualization that distances it from Kant’s understanding, but might move it closer to Aristotle’s. Aristotle rejects any universal, indubitable account of ethics and argues that ethical action always requires attention to contingent particulars, [8] but nonetheless formulates an account of ethical life that provides some general guidance. Could the commands of the face be some sort of Aristotelian generalizations? After all, the rejection of an ultimate, universal “supreme moral principle” could lead, not to the abandonment of all ethical norms, but rather to an invitation to the construction of a plurality of norms, as Levinas seems to offer. Once we have freed norms from the demand for universal, necessary truth, can’t we be open to the proliferation of such contingent, tentative, non-universal norms? Understanding norms in this way would make sense of some of the rules Craig herself seems to suggest: that we should hold the door for others, that we should listen, and that we should seek to be physically and not just virtually present to others.

These rules are part of what Craig calls the “ethical minimalism” that Levinas’s work should inspire. She is keen to reject, and rightly so in my view, a reading of Levinas that would call us to be literal insomniacs, up all night wracked with guilt over suffering others throughout the world. Instead, Craig admirably and crucially presents Levinas as a thinker who is practical and relevant to everyday life. So, in contrast to martyrdom for the other, she points to Levinas’s examples of ethical action in such banalities as holding the door for another and being polite, ultimately concluding that Levinas suggests an “ethical minimalism” and “a commitment to incremental, ongoing interaction” (110). Such a minimal ethics requires “paying ongoing attention to the present moment in all its complexity and conflicting demands… it does not ask for heroic self-sacrifice or ultimate decisions that will instantaneously alter or affect the course of one’s own life or the lives of others” (193). As Craig notes, this emphasis on the importance of the everyday, the present moment and the present persons, is a welcome alternative to the focus in much contemporary ethical philosophy on implausible and unlikely scenarios involving trolley cars or time bombs. While I appreciate this emphasis and have no interest in arguing for heroic self-sacrifice, ultimate decisions, or revolutionary action, I wonder whether this notion of “ethical minimalism” downplays the radicality of responsibility for Levinas. After all, Levinas also uses the examples of giving the other bread from one’s own mouth or the coat from one’s own shoulders, [9] as well as claiming that we are responsible “for the life of this absolutely other other,” including her responsibility and faults, [10] and should work for social justice. Does the notion of “ethical minimalism” adequately capture the unbounded responsibility these claims seem to suggest? Could there be some middle ground between a guilt-ridden insomnia and an ethical minimalism?


My last question centers on the understandings of pluralism at work in James and Levinas. According to Craig, one of the key commonalities that brings Levinas and James together is that they both “have nothing to say about a definitive worldview beyond saying that in principle there can be no such thing, no ultimate coherence bringing all the pieces together” (195). For James, this is rooted in the notion that our experience ultimately presents us only multiplicity. “The universe, James insisted, is essentially pluralistic and ‘chaotic’: ‘no single type of relation runs through all the experiences that compose it'” (171). When reading this description, I was reminded of Levinas’s account of the “Antiplatonism of the Contemporary Philosophy of Meaning,” which he presents and criticizes in “Meaning and Sense.” [11] In that essay, Levinas suggests that the death of God has led to a belief in the “multivocity of the meaning of being” which is disorienting and absurd. [12] While embracing multivocity on the level of meaning, Levinas rejects it as an ultimate account of the universe, rooting the multivocity of meaning in a deeper univocal sense, the sens unique of responsibility to the other. “Must we not then distinguish the meanings, in their cultural pluralism, from the sense, orientation and unity of being—a primordial event in which all the other steps of thought and the whole historical life of being is situated?” [13] Here the chaotic multivocity of meaning is at best penultimate, presupposing as it does, a type of relation that runs through all of our experience, namely the ethical relation. Even if this relation does not bring “all the pieces together,” it does seem to suggest a definitive and ultimate orientation. Is this something that James also ultimately accepts or is there an important difference here between them?

This tension between a definitive orientation and irreducible multiplicity also seems to show up in Craig’s consideration of the subject. She writes: “Plurality gives the subject unique chances for being otherwise, for emerging in a new way and for not having any single experience or identity become definitive for the whole of one’s life” (114). This claim accords with my limited knowledge of James since he argues that we inhabit a plurality of selves dependent on our social context and this gives us the capacity to choose among them the self with which we identify as our deepest, truest self. [14] However I am not sure how this claim, at least in the meaning it seems to have for James, fits Levinas’s account of the subject. For Levinas, we do not choose among our selves, but rather are chosen, find ourselves invested with ethical responsibility despite ourselves. Doesn’t the ethical relation give the subject an identity that is in fact definitive of it? [15] Perhaps I have just misunderstood Craig or James at this point, but it seems to be another place in Levinas’s work where plurality is penultimate, rooted more deeply in a definitive account of the subject.

In the end, I suspect that the “pragmatic phenomenology” Craig offers is really a new construction, wholly faithful to neither James, nor Levinas. But unless we’re intent on being mindless disciples, this suspicion does not amount to a criticism. Perhaps it simply underscores Craig’s point that we always find a plurality of voices, not only within the world, but within our very selves. As she persuasively argues, Levinas’s and James’s are two voices worth listening to, with practical relevance for us here and now. Perhaps it is precisely through listening to both of them, in their unity and plurality, that makes possible the sort of original, creative, and valuable thinking that Craig offers us in this book.


[1] Levinas, Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 231; cited in Megan Craig’s Levinas and James (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 141. All intratextual citations with only a page number refer to Craig’s Levinas and James.
[2] Levinas, Otherwise than Being, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquense University Press, 1998), 125.
[3] In the chapter on emotion, Craig suggests that Levinas is attempting to rehabilitate certain “terms of infinity,” that is, terms “Levinas thinks have been overlooked and undervalued in the history of philosophy” (112). Alongside the Levinasian mainstays ” il y a ” and “saying,” Craig includes the term “emotion.” I was surprised to see this word on the list and initially assumed that I had been overlooking the significance of this term in Levinas’s corpus. However, having looked into it a bit, I find myself questioning whether this concept is really as important as this listing suggests. A text search indicated that the word “emotion” only appears a combined five times in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being. With only one exception, Levinas uses this word in connection with Husserl’s phenomenology as he is setting it up for criticism. According to the text search, “emotion” also only appears twice in Existence and Existents.
[4] Simon Critchley, “Introduction” to Cambridge Companion to Levinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 28, and Diane Perpich, The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 126, respectively.
[5] Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 5:8.
[6] See, among others, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 199, and Difficult Freedom, trans. Seán Hand (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 8.
[7] These are found in, respectively, Is it Righteous to Be?: Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, ed. Jill Robbins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 145, 192, 132; Entre Nous, 168; Alterity and Transcendence, trans. Michael B. Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 127; and, Difficult Freedom, 8-9.
[8] Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I.3 and VI.5-7, respectively.
[9] Otherwise than Being, 55, et al.
[10] Otherwise than Being, 117; Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 123; and, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), 99.
[11] See Collected Philosophical Papers , 83ff.
[12] Ibid., 86.
[13] Ibid., 88.
[14] James, Principles of Psychology , vol. 1 (New York: Henry Holt, 1890), 294ff.
[15] Levinas tells us that Totality and Infinity “presents subjectivity as welcoming the Other, as hospitality” (27). Otherwise than Being introduces more complexity into this account, replacing the triumphal, overwhelming face of Totality and Infinity with a subtle, ambiguous trace-the mark of an effacement of a mark, a quiet whisper that, after all, was maybe just the rustling of some leaves. Nonetheless, even if the epistemic status of the claim is troubled, I don’t see in Levinas’s later work any weakening of the conviction that subjectivity is defined by ethical responsibility for others.