Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Emmanuel Lévinas , originally Emanuelis Lévinas

Lithuanian-born French Philosopher, Ontologist, Ethicist and Talmudic Commentator

"The fundamental experience which objective experience itself presumes is the fundamental experience of the Other... Moral consciousness is not an experience of values, but access to exterior Being: exterior being par excellence is the Other."

"Philosophy is inseparable from scepticism, which follows it like a shadow that it chases away by refuting it, only to find it once again under its feet."

"The best thing about philosophy is that it fails. It is better that philosophy fail to totalize meaning for it thereby remains open to the irreducible otherness of transcendence."

"Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable."

"To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught. The relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation; but inasmuch as it is welcomed this conversation is a teaching. Teaching is not reducible to maieutics; it comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain. In its non-violent transitivity the very epiphany of the face is produced."

"Politics is opposed to morality, as philosophy to naïveté."

"To affirm the priority of Being over existents is to already decide the essence of philosophy; it is to subordinate the relation with someone, who is an existent, (the ethical relation) to a relation with the Being of existents, which, impernsonal, permits the apprehension, the domination of existents (a relationship of knowing), subordinates justice to freedom. "

"I think’ comes down to ‘I can’—to an appropriation of what is, to an exploitation of reality. Ontology as first philosophy is a philosophy of power."

"A material thing refers t o a double relativity. On the one hand, a thing is relative to consciousness - to say that it exists is to say that it meets consciousness. On the other hand, since the sequence of subjective phenomena is never completed, existence remains relative to the degree of completion of the sequence of 'phenomena', and further experience may, in principle, falsify and reduce to a hallucination what had seemed to be acquired by a preceding perception."

"All generous thought is threatened by its own Stalinism."

"As long as the naturalistic ontology is accepted, existence, including the existence of nature, is not determined by the meaning of life. Rather, life itself must, in order to exist, be conceived on the model of nature. That is, life must be integrated in causal chains and granted reality only inasmuch as it belongs to them."

"But anarchy is not disorder as opposed to order, as the eclipse of themes is not, as js said, a return to a diffuse 'field of consciousness' prior to attention. Disorder is but another order, and what is diffuse is thematizable. Anarchy troubles being over and beyond these alternatives."

"But how to consider, the finite and the infinite in the fact of positing [se poser]? Is there a more or less perfect way of positing? What is, is. That there be birth and death in no way affects the absolute character of an affirmation that refers only to itself."

"Concretely, the relationship of identification is the encumbrance of the ego by the self, the care that the ego takes of itself, or materiality. The subject - an abstraction from every relationship with a future or with a past - is thrust upon itself, and is so in the very freedom of its present. Its solitude is not initially the fact that it is without succor, but it’s being thrown into feeding upon itself, its being mixed in itself. This is materiality."

"Death in Heidegger is an event of freedom, whereas for me the subject seems to reach the limit of the possible in suffering. It finds itself enchained, overwhelmed, and in some way passive. Death is in this sense the limit of idealism."

"All enjoyment is also sensation - that is, knowledge and light. It is not just the disappearance of the self, but self-forgetfulness, as a first abnegation."

"Expression does not impose itself as a true representation or as an action…The being that expresses itself imposes itself, but does so precisely by appealing to me with its destitution and nudity—its hunger—without my being able to be deaf to that appeal. Thus in expression the being that imposes itself does not limit but promotes my freedom, by arousing my goodness."

"For the insecurity does not come from the things of the day world which the night, conceals; it is due just to the fact that nothing approaches, nothing comes, nothing threatens; this silence, this tranquility, this void of sensations constitutes a mute, absolutely indeterminate menace."

"Freedom is not to deny, but to be forgiven by his being the very otherness of others."

"I will say this quite plainly, what truly human is -and don't be afraid of this word- love. And I mean it even with everything that burdens love or, i could say it better, responsibility is actually love, as Pascal said: 'without concupiscence' [without lust]... love exists without worrying being loved."

"If every pure character in the Old Testament announces the Messiah, if every unworthy person is his torturer and every woman his Mother, does not the Book of Books lose all life with this obsessive theme?"

"If to be means to exist the way nature does, then everything which is given as refractory to the categories and to the mode of existence of nature will, as such, have no objectivity and will be, a priori and unavoidably, reduced to something natural."

"In summary, the existence of an unperceived material thing can only be its capability of being perceived. This capability is not an empty possibility in the sense that everything that is not contradictory is possible; rather, it is a possibility which belongs to the very essence of consciousness."

"In the I [moi], the identity of Being reveals its nature as enchainment, for it appears in the form of suffering and invites us to escape. Thus escape is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and most unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I is the oneself [soi-même]."

"In the background of conscious life there is a multitude of cogitations. This background is not a vagueness beyond the reaches of analysis, a sort of fog within consciousness; it is a field already differentiated. One can distinguish in it various types of acts: acts of belief (the dawning of a genuine belief, a belief that precedes knowledge etc.) of pleasure or displeasure, of desire, etc."

"In work - meaning, in effort, in its pain and sorrow - the subject finds the weight of the existence which involves its existent freedom itself. Pain and sorrow are' the phenomena to which the solitude of the existent is finally reduced."

"It is as though subjective life in the form of consciousness consisted in being itself losing itself and finding itself again so as to possess itself by showing itself, proposing itself as a theme, exposing itself in truth."

"It is necessary to dig deeper, down to the very meaning of the notion of being, and to show that the origin of all being, including that of nature, is determined by the intrinsic meaning of conscious life and not the other way around."

"It is not by chance that Plato teaches us that matter is eternal, and that for Aristotle matter is a cause; such is the truth for the order of things. Western philosophy, which perhaps is reification itself, remains faithful to the order of things and does not know the absolute passivity, beneath the level of activity and passivity, which is contributed by the idea of creation."

"It is the very transcending characteristic of this beyond that is signification. Signification is the contradictory trope of the-one-for-the-other. The-one-for-the-other is not a lack of intuition, but the surplus of responsibility. My responsibility for the other is the for of the relationship, the very signifyingness of signification, which signifies in saying before showing itself in the said."

"Just when everything is lost, everything is possible."

"Love is not a possibility, not due to our initiative, without reason, invades us and hurts us, and yet the self survives him. A phenomenology of pleasure-the pleasure not a pleasure either, because there is a solitary pleasure as eating or drinking-, seems to confirm our views on the role and place exceptional represented by the feminine, and the absence of any merger in eroticism."

"Love remains a relation with the Other that turns into need, transcendent exteriority of the other, of the beloved. But love goes beyond the beloved... The possibility of the Other appearing as an object of a need while retaining his alterity, or again, the possibility of enjoying the Other... this simultaneity of need and desire, or concupiscence and transcendence... constitutes the originality of the erotic which, in this sense, is the equivocal par excellence."

"Nothing responds to us, but this silence; the voice of this silence is understood and frightens like the silence of those infinite spaces Pascal speaks of."

"Obsession is irreducible to consciousness, even if it overwhelms it. In consciousness it is betrayed, but thematized by a said in which it is manifested. Obsession traverses consciousness counter-current-wise, is inscribed in consciousness as something foreign, a disequilibrium, a delirium."

"Otherwise than Being. It is a matter of stating the breaking apart of a destiny that reigns in essence whose fragments and modalities—despite their diversity—belong the ones to the others, that is…do not escape Order, as though the ends of the thread cut by the Parque were tied up again after being cut. It is a matter of thinking the possibility of being torn out of essence. To go where? To go into what region? To stand on what ontological plane? But to be torn out of essence contests the unconditional privilege of the question: where?…[This is a] uniqueness for which the out-of-self, the difference relative to self, is non-indifference itself in the extra-ordinary recurrence of the pronominal."

"Reason is alone. And in this sense knowledge never encounters anything truly other in the world. This is the profound truth of idealism. It betokens a radical difference between spatial exteriority and the exteriority of instants in relation to one another."

"Recurrence is more past than any rememberable past , any past convertible into a present. The oneself is a creature, but an orphan by birth or an atheist no doubt ignorant of its Creator, for if it knew it it would again be taking up its commencement . The recurrence of the oneself refers to the hither side of the present in which every identity identified in the said is constituted."

"Someone may object that material things extend beyond the realm of our present perception. It belongs to their very essence to be more than what is intimated or revealed in a continuum of subjective aspects at the moment of perception. They are also there when we do not perceive them: they exist in themselves."

"Spectres, ghosts, sorceresses are not only a tribute Shakespeare pays to his time, or vestiges of the original material he composed with; they allow him to move constantly toward this limit between being and nothingness where being insinuates itself even in nothingness, like bubbles of the earth..."

"The anonymous current of being invades, submerges every subject, person or thing. The subject-object distinction by which we approach existents is not the starting point for a meditation which broaches being in general."

"The comprehension of God taken as a participation in his sacred life, an allegedly direct comprehension, is impossible, because participation is a denial of the divine, and because nothing is more direct than the face to face, which is straightforwardness itself."

"The expression 'in one's skin' is not a metaphor for the in-itself; it refers to a recurrence in the dead time or the meanwhile which separates inspiration and expiration, the diastole and systole of the heart beating dully against the walls of one's skin."

"The exterior - if one insists on this term - remains uncorrelated with an interior. It is no longer given. It is no longer a world. What we call the I is itself submerged by the night, invaded, depersonalized, stifled by it."

"The idea of infinity… is an overflowing of… new powers to the soul…- powers of welcome, of gift, of full hands, of hospitality."

"The light that permits encountering something other than the self, makes it encountered as if this thing came from the ego. The light, brightness, is intelligibility itself; making everything come from me, it reduces every experience to an element of reminiscence. Reason is alone. And in this sense knowledge never encounters anything truly other in the world. This is the profound truth of idealism. It betokens a radical differ­ence between spatial exteriority and the exteriority of instants in relation to one another. In the concreteness of need, the space that keeps us away from ourselves is always to be conquered. One must cross it and take hold of an object – that is, one must work with one’s hands. In this sense, ‘the one who works not, eats not’ is an analytic proposition. Tools and the manufacture of tools pursue the chimerical ideal of the suppression of distances. In the perspec­tive that opens upon the tool, beginning with the modern tool – the machine – one is much more struck by its function which consists in suppressing work, than by its instrumental function, which Heidegger exclusively considered. In work – meaning, in effort, in its pain and sorrow – the subject finds the weight of the existence which involves its existent freedom itself. Pain and sorrow are the phenomena to which the solitude of the existent is finally reduced."

"The moral consciousness can sustain the mocking gaze of the political man only if the certitude of peace dominates the evidence of war. Such a certitude is not obtained by a simple play of antitheses. The peace of empires issued from war rests on war. It does not restore to the alienated beings their lost identity. For that a primordial and original relation with being is needed."

"The oneself does not rest in peace under its identity, and yet its restlessness is not a dialectical scission, nor a process equalizing difference. Its unity is not just added on to some content of ipseity, like the indefinite article which substantifies even verbs, 'nominalizing' and thematizing them. Here the unity precedes every article and every process; it is somehow itself the content."

"The relation with the other will always be offering and gift, never an approach with ‘empty hands’."

"The sensible qualities of the sacred are incommensurable with the emotional power it emits and with the very nature of this emotion, but their function as bearers of 'collective representations' accounts for this disproportion and inadequateness."