Response to Friedman, Rosenbaum, and Minister

Megan Craig
SUNY Stony Brook

In what follows, I highlight complexities I think are the most productive, as well as the questions I find the most difficult, in the three responses to my book, Levinas and James: Toward a Pragmatic Phenomenology. [1] It is a great honor to have such sharp and generous commentators, and I regret that I cannot address all of the points they have raised. I am struck, initially, by the degree to which they respond to each other. For instance, Randy Friedman and Stuart Rosenbaum ask about and quote significant portions of poetry in their remarks, while Rosenbaum raises a question about Levinas’ relationship to art that Steven Minister beautifully addresses in his paper. All of them exhibit a healthy skepticism about bringing Levinas and James together, and they each suggest points of tension that might provide breaking points for the connections described in my book. I love Friedman’s opening image of James and Levinas sitting down to produce the most awkward dinner party imaginable. But if James (rather than Edmund Husserl) is the grandfather who arrives late, then I imagine him sauntering down to become the life of the party—while Levinas might be gracious and good mannered at first but would end up being joyfully swept up in the clamor.


Let me begin with Friedman’s response. He poses two central questions about the viability of reading Levinas and James together. The first has to do with what he terms “the metaphysics of a wider self” underpinning James’ philosophy. Embedded in this question are other inquiries concerning Levinas’ and James’ conceptions of the ego or self, how Jamesian pluralism fits with Levinasian asymmetry, and the extent to which Levinas might be (or might not be) pluralistic and James is (or is not) communal.

As all of my commentators noted, I am not suggesting that Levinas and James are the same or reducible to one another. In fact, it is precisely in their differences that they expand on one another. While writing the book, I was struck by Levinas’ invocation of and use of James’ concept of “indolence” in Existence and Existents, a text I read as crucial for Levinas’ philosophical project. In this book, Levinas invokes James by name. Despite the fact that this is a unique reference in Levinas’ philosophy, I found it significant in part because it was a book written while in captivity, where Levinas recalled texts and figures without having recourse to his books. James stood out for me as an unusual, but crucial, addition to a now familiar cast that includes Husserl, Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Dostoyevsky, and others. It is also significant insofar as James gives Levinas the initial resources for thinking about wakefulness and insomnia, two concepts that remain central to all of Levinas’s subsequent thought. The resonances between Levinas and James point to blind spots in each of them, while simultaneously opening up a philosophical terrain irreducible to American or French philosophy and beyond the scope of either Pragmatism or Phenomenology. Reading them together is one way of stressing their strengths, while simultaneously being honest about their weaknesses, and moving philosophy toward a more creative, pluralistic future.

Friedman has rightfully pointed out several differences between James and Levinas. The most striking, I think, is the degree to which Levinas stresses asymmetry while James’ pluralism seems inherently resistant to hierarchies. James gives us the image of a stream, and it is difficult to reconcile this metaphor with the angular sense of the other’s height in Levinas. It becomes a difference of philosophical geography—as if James’ philosophy takes place in a riverbed whereas Levinas’ philosophical conversations occur in the mountains (to use Celan’s expression).

Both of them, however, conceive of life and of subjectivity as fluid or plastic (in James’ terminology). While it is true that James’ conception of the self is much more distinct and seemingly self-sufficient (especially in The Principles of Psychology)—like Levinas—he envisions a self-in-the-making, never entirely made. For instance, James’ “radical empiricism” describes the plural, fallible, and always shifting aspects of experience.

As Friedman so elegantly describes, Levinas posits the self (le soi) as called forth by the face of the other. James, particularly the early James, is more concerned with choosing oneself, finding inner strength, cultivating the will, and being attentive to the ennobling and corrosive forces of habit. However, James advances a profound sense of community insofar as he stresses the role of other lives in moving the Ego beyond the bounds of its necessarily limited and secluded point of view. While this aspect of James’ thought comes through most forcefully in his essay “A Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” I traced the social/ethical emphases found throughout his work. His radical empiricism entails a commitment to incessant interruption and revision definitive of what it means to be a subject and to have any experience. Although he does not elaborate such interruption in the starkly ethical terms Levinas favors, James’ radical empiricism is indicative of his ethical writings on the plurality of ideals and the inevitability of difficult realities that require something more complex, personal, and obscure than the internalization or memorization of any golden rule. His is not as radical an account of passivity as Levinas’, but he does elaborate the soul’s being carried away, inspired, and transformed by being called forth at the beckoning of some enigmatic, exterior urgency–particularly in his accounts of conversion and grace in the Varieties of Religious Experience . Levinas actively questions the myth of the Ego and points out that le Moi is a fiction, a crutch, or a mask. James’ project is not about showing the inadequacy of the Ego (though he expresses deep skepticism about the term “Ego” in The Principles and beyond), but it does entail describing the self as plural and relational, and conceiving ethics as an ongoing attunement to the lives of others. [2]

I may have an idiosyncratic sense of the metaphysical in James, but I think he gives us resources for thinking about the community of life in broader terms than Levinas might like. James remains indiscriminately open to multiple sources of significance, including a line of poetry, a painting, a dog, a landscape and myriad other others. This is one area where James’ philosophy radicalizes Levinas’ work, and it is one reason why reading Levinas and James together helps us to envision more creative, experimental forms of being together than either of them conceived by themselves. James’ sense of “more” described in The Varieties of Religious Experience expresses the excessive quality of the living: more surprise, more adventure, more mystery. Levinas is not as radically pluralistic as James. His sense of a face is decidedly the human face (despite moments of hesitation about this), and his discourse is disciplined around this central point in a way that James’ is not. All the while, both of them point us toward the entanglement of lives and the hope and risk made possible by the surplus of life beyond any singular instantiation of life. In this way, I see how their work remains attuned to a fluid, plural self, even if their mechanisms of articulation are different. Both defend an ethics that rests upon ongoing receptivity to ever-new demands.

Perhaps some of this begins to address Friedman’s second major concern, which is about my claim that Levinas renders James’ fringes visceral in the embodied form of the other. By suggesting this, I mean that James sees consciousness itself (insofar as he uses the term at all) fringed by an obscure excessiveness that extends ever beyond it. As Friedman and Minister rightly point out, Levinas contests the very language of consciousness–as does James in his essay “Does Consciousness Exist?” in Essays on Radical Empiricism . James’ short answer to the question posed in his title is “no.” Levinas sees the subject as fringed by others who extend infinitely beyond view; the face registers as enigmatic sense insofar as it exceeds the bounds of consciousness. I think Levinas takes up a Jamesian notion of “fringe” in a way that shows it has another lineage than that leading back to Husserl’s notion of intentionality. I think that Levinas can and should be read in other ways than as a direct descendent of Husserl and Heidegger. The face is nonintentional; yet, it inspires the subject by its very excess—showing her life more widely and variably fringed than she could have imagined.

A final, somewhat oblique, question that Friedman posed near the beginning of his remarks was about my use of a Dylan Thomas quotation from Under Milk Wood on the opening page of the book. He claims, in part, that this and other quotations I used at the opening of each chapter “push [me] away from [my readers].” The line in question reads: “Time passes. Listen. Time Passes. Come closer now.” Under Milk Wood is subtitled “A Play for Voices,” and it begins with the pre-dawn dreams and sounds of a small Welsh seaside town awakening to a new day. There is something utterly mundane and yet extraordinary in the rising of each creature according to its own rhythms and routines: “Dust the china, feed the canary, sweep the dining-room floor….” I stressed the value of this kind of ordinary, ongoing awakening in my discussion of indolence in the third chapter of the book. It is found also in my defense of what I termed “ethical minimalism”: an ethics rooted in the repetition of singular, small acts like holding the door and saying hello.

My book remains centered on the ways in which Levinas and James point us toward the cacophony of life being lived in multiple registers and how we might reorient ourselves to live in closer intimacy with others. This requires a capacity to listen, to be close, and to be still. Listening to the passage of time might be another way of hearing the call of a face. It would entail listening for passages that may or may not be measurable according to one’s own sense of history or time. Listening to works like Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood is another way of being reminded that life unfolds at variable paces, under conditions, and according to devotions that may be invisible or unsayable.


Let me turn now to Stuart Rosenbaum’s essay. Rosenbaum poses three interrelated questions: (1) would Levinas be tolerant of scientific and artistic elaborations or confirmations of the face; (2) is Levinas a deconstructionist, a relativist, or a nihilist; and (3) is it not the case that James is concerned with constructing while Levinas is concerned with deconstructing-and is this not the difference that makes the real difference between the two philosophers?

I doubt that Levinas would endorse psychological research about the face and facial recognition or the blurring of fields as Rosenbaum suggests. Like James, I remain more open to this kind of discussion and collaboration. From a Levinasian perspective, the note of caution would be that research into the face-whether conceived as Oliver’s poem or Eckman’s studies-risk presuming the face as an object of investigation, or treating faces as quantifiable or solvable. I think this is less the case with Oliver’s poetic engagement, which bears comparison to Levinas’ own linguistic acrobatics as he attempts to evoke the face without reducing it to any definitive description. Levinas’ term “face” is the most deceptively simple word in his philosophy. Rather than signify a face in any ordinary understanding of the word, it stands for the gripping quality of another’s vulnerability, nudity, or humanity. As Levinas points out in several passages, the face may be the nape of a neck. Its enigmatic quality is central to its arresting power, which always overwhelms the subject and exceeds her powers of understanding. Scientific research into facial recognition would have a hard time dealing with this kind of enigma, since the very “object” of study is nonobjective and essentially obscure. Levinas was deeply worried about the dangers and temptations of explaining the face away, and so the face refuses to solidify as a concept in his writing. It must be encountered, and even then it evades intelligibility. I think we can be sensitive to this worry but, at the same time, embrace multiple methods of description and investigation. James achieved this in his work, and so long as we follow his mantra that no word is final, no image absolute, then I think we enrich our work by reaching out beyond the borders of any one discipline.

Stephen Minister provides a lovely reflection concerning Levinas’ relationship to art, which begins to answer some of Rosenbaum’s worry that Levinas and James break apart along the fault line of their respective relationships to art. James was a painter, and openly reveled in the arts and artistic examples (so much so that his Talks to Teachers and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals are almost entirely comprised of images from literature and poetry). Levinas has a much more fraught relationship to imagery. However, from Existence and Existents onwards, his work is riddled with references to poetry. Moreover, his philosophy remains deeply imagistic. For example, the face-to-face, is one of the most emblematic images of twentieth century ethical philosophy. Reading Levinas as simplistically hostile to art would miss the aesthetic dimension of his prose; it also neglects the degree to which his thought leans on Rimbaud, Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, and a host of other writers.

I am very sympathetic to Rosenbaum’s sense that Levinas is deconstructive (and potentially relativistic or nihilistic), while James seems more overtly constructive. This worry is shared among many Pragmatists, and it is part of the reason why some American philosophers feel allergic to Levinas. The question is what does Levinas leave us with if he is so intent on dismantling the Ego? He gives us resources for moving amidst an essentially broken world. I read James as very much concerned with the same problem: things do not fit into neat or whole pictures, and given the complexity and sheer messiness of life, we had better find ways of navigating without maps or discover ways of drawing provisional maps as we go. In identifying Levinas’ ethics as lacking definitive overarching principles and rooted in simple acts of decency (hold the door, say hello), there is a very practical upshot of his philosophy-a mandate to take incremental, ongoing action and to begin where one is, with those among whom one lives and moves every day. These acts will never coalesce into an ethical edifice, or a final, ethical universe, but they are the footholds of local goodness. Compared to a robust ethical ideal, such acts may seem like very little. However, in a world where ethical ideals and norms cannot suffice, such acts are silent witnesses to the possibility of being humane even in the darkest times.

Nonetheless, Levinas’ picture remains much more fragmentary and deconstructionist than James’-and perhaps this is inevitable given the disparate historical contexts of each of them. Reading them together may be helpful in alerting us to the spirits of different times and shifting senses of what is desirable or possible. Our own time demands new thinking. Contemporary philosophy would benefit from relinquishing the old either/or paradigm between construction and deconstruction, as if the former represents something optimistic and edifying while the latter represents something nihilistic and dismantling. We need more nuanced accounts, ones that admit the fact that much, if not all, of experience escapes or exceeds neat categorization. Construction and deconstruction are always processes enmeshed with each other.


In addition to his observations and elaborations about art, Stephen Minister raises questions concerning (1) emotion and ethics, (2) my notion of “ethical minimalism,” and (3) plurality in Levinas’ and James’ philosophies.

Minister is right to point out that “emotion” (as a term) does not figure centrally across Levinas’ major works. In my chapter titled “Emotion,” I drew primarily from Existence and Existents -again emphasizing this text over others such as Totality and Infinity. “Emotion” becomes a critical term in Levinas’ 1975-1976 lecture course “Death and Time,” where he associates death with overwhelming, excessive emotion; he differentiates this from the kind of emotion that Heidegger called Angst. In other texts, Levinas explicitly relates emotion to il y a, and by extension to art. This means, on the one hand, that emotion is not something strictly or merely psychological; potentially, it is at odds with ethics. On the other hand, in Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence , emotion is linked to “saying” and “the seeds of poetry that overwhelm language,” which suggests that emotion describes a force of destabilization that may bring it together with the non-totalizing impact of a face. This suggestion relates to the link between emotion and movement that Levinas stresses in his meditations on death and time. Elsewhere, Levinas invokes the “obscurity of feeling” and draws on Jean Wahl’s account of “blind bare contact,” as well as sensibility to indicate that the subject cannot be reduced to consciousness.

Levinas conceives the subject as radically embodied and exposed to the transformative forces of emotion that are ambiguously psychological/physical. He contests the supposed dichotomy between reason and emotion, urging us to think of subjectivity in terms of a sensibility that is supremely meaningful, even as it remains irreducible to any articulate reason. [3] In his own writing, he employs emotive terms (“obsession” perhaps foremost among them) as the “barbarisms” that disrupt philosophical prose and as cues for his readers to experience the grip of his imagery–to be overwhelmed by the encounter he describes. Emotion is not normative–there are no good or bad emotions in and of themselves. There is a spasm, a shiver, a heat, which only later is named and classified in an act of reflective consciousness. Levinas never prescribes certain ethical feelings (like the feeling of respect Kant champions). Instead, he realigns subjectivity along the axes of vulnerability and susceptibility to impact of multiple kinds. On this reading, emotion is not any definitive feeling or state, but the sheer pre-conceptual activation of the subject. Emotion becomes another name for the subjection and passivity at the heart of ethical subjectivity.

Minister also asks about the proliferation of principles across Levinas’ work, particularly the “thou shall not kill,” which figures so centrally in Levinas’ discussion of the face. He suggests that Levinas is engaged in a “reconceptualization of the very notion of a norm” and relates this to Aristotle’s project in the Ethics and his elaboration of the mean. The “principles” in Levinas, insofar as there are such things, seem to me to arise in the face of an other, as pleas. This serves as a reminder of the precariousness of life, the way the eyes of the hungry plead for bread or the back of the victim pleads for mercy. I read these instances as reminders of the expressions of destitution and how they call out to us, even as we ignore them or actively silence them.

Perhaps such “principles” are norms of a vague and abstract nature-ways of simply registering “there is life here,” but they are also empty without the singular instances of articulation and the responses they provoke. This is the crucial point. If Levinas’ philosophy were reducible to the principle “thou shall not kill,” his ethics would be entirely abstract and empty, an even less compelling than Kant’s moral law. It would also fail to address the question Levinas poses in the preface to Totality and Infinity : namely, whether we are not duped by morality in the wake of the Holocaust. The radical aspect of Levinas’ ethics lies in the degree to which the very few ethical acts he underscores are entirely mundane, ordinary gestures (saying after you, holding the door). They are terribly possible-and thereby put a tremendous responsibility on us and disallow recourse to the excuse that ethics is just too hard, too remote, or too complicated. The concurrence of holding a door with the mandate “thou shall not kill” also serves as a reminder that killing can be pedestrian, pervasive, and routine. It can be something drawn out and uncertain; it can take many forms. This is a profoundly unsettling but ethically urgent thought. We are asked to reflect upon the ways our own aversions and evasions implicate us in a violence we would rather assign to others. What is radical about the responsibility to the face in Levinas is that it never ends: there is always another face, another door to hold open. Therefore, while I employ the expression “ethical minimalism” to describe Levinas’ ethics, I do not downplay radical responsibility within his moral reasoning. Rather, I show that his ethics is “radical” because it demands a vigilance of which we are capable.

James, too, was committed to a vision of the world in terms of the importance of incremental acts and enlarging the subject through openness to others. While the tone, emphases, and style of Levinas’ and James’ philosophies are markedly different from one another, the “ethical republic here below” that they describe and defend remains in need of ongoing, incremental responsiveness.

In bringing these two thinkers together we might broaden the conversation about ethics and what it means to dwell together and forge communities. At the same time, we might dislodge the suspicions and entrenched interpretations surrounding Levinas’ and James’ work. This entails re-imagining the lineage of American and French philosophy and surrendering old battles between Pragmatism and Phenomenology. As evidenced in this special issue on Levinas and pragmatism, this work is underway with a new generation of philosophers who are increasingly committed to experimentation, collaboration, and dialogue. [4]


[1] Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
[2] For example, in the Principles, James writes “I do not wish just yet ‘to commit myself’ about the existence or nonexistence of the Ego…” (William James, The Principles of Psychology,  Volume 1 (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1980), 278).
[3] Ultimately, I have argued that emotion, art, il y a , and face are terms that cannot be disentangled in Levinas’ work: they require one another even as they challenge each other.
[4] Thank you to the organizers of the 2011 North American Levinas Society conference at Texas A&M University, and to Jacob Lynn Goodson for organizing the panel. Special thanks to Randy, Stuart, and Stephen. It was such an honor to have this session and to have such sharp, focused and generous commentators on my book.