Asymmetry and Normativity: Levinas Reading Dostoyevsky on Desire, Responsibility, and Suffering

  • William Edelglass
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 85)


Moral Standard Page Number Ethical Relation Responsibi Lity Levinasian Ethic 
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  1. 1.
    For a discussion of the distinction between Levinas’s ethics and traditional conceptions of normative ethics see Robert Bernasconi, “The Ethics of Suspicion,” Research in Phenomenology, 20 (1990): 3–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Levinas is especially fond of citing Isaiah, 58:9. According to Isaiah, God’s commandment is “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: Revised Standard Version (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 895. For a discussion of these prescriptions, see Jill Robbins, Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. xxiii. Hereafter cited in the text as AR, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Because Levinas’s ethics cannot be understood as straightforward moral philosophy much Levinas scholarship is concerned with understanding the status of Levinas’s propositions as prescriptions of moral obligation, descriptions of moral phenomena, or some other speech act. See for example Jean-François Lyotard, “Levinas’ Logic,” in Face to Face With Levinas, Richard A. Cohen (ed.) (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), pp. 117–158; David Michael Levin, “Tracework: Myself and Others in the Moral Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 6:3 (1998): 345–392; Robert Bernasconi, “The Violence of the Face: Peace and Language in the Thought of Levinas,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, 23:6 (1997): 81–93; D. H. Brody, “Emmanuel Levinas: The Logic of Ethical Ambiguity in Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence,” Research in Phenomenology, 25 (1995): 172–205; Peter Atterton, “Levinas and the Language of Peace: A Response to Derrida,” Philosophy Today, 36:1 (1992): 59–70; Krzysztof Ziarek, “Semantics of Proximity: Language and the Other in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas,” Research in Phenomenology, 19 (1989): 213–247; Peter Kemp, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 23:6 (1997): 5–28; and Tina Chanter, “The Betrayal of Philosophy: Emmanuel Levinas’s Otherwise Than Being,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, 3:6 (1997): 65–79.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, Richard A. Cohen (trans.) (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), p. 90. Hereafter cited in the text as EI, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Contemporary analytic philosophers typically distinguish three fields of ethics: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics is the study of the source and nature of moral principles. Grounded in metaethical accounts, normative ethics seeks to distinguish between moral and immoral conduct, demonstrating the moral value of particular virtues, duties, or consequences. Applied ethics employs the results of metaethics and normative ethics to particular areas of ethical concern, including the environment, poverty, war, etc. If Levinasian ethics were to be situated against this analytic template it would be characterized as metaethics. As Derrida writes in “Violence and Metaphysics,” Levinasian ethics is an “Ethics of Ethics.” Moreover, Derrida adds, “this Ethics of Ethics can occasion neither a determined ethics nor determined laws without negating and forgetting itself.” Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics,” in Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (trans.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 111.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Emmanuel Levinas, “Ideology and Idealism,” in The Levinas Reader, Sanford Ames and Arthur Lesley (trans.), Sean Hand (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), p. 247. Levinas was dubious of programs of moral improvement generally, and added, “It is likely, in any case, that sermons have no power to raise the level of morals.”Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Emmanuel Levinas, “Useless Suffering,” in Entre Nous, Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 94. Hereafter cited in the text as US, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
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    See Robert Gibbs’s discussion of this passage in “Unjustifiable Suffering,” in Suffering Religion, Robert Gibbs and Elliot R. Wolfson (eds.) (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 26.Google Scholar
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    Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, Alphonso Lingis (trans.) (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), p. 94. Hereafter cited in the text as OB, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
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    Edith Wyshogrod, “Interview with Emmanuel Levinas: December 31st, 1982,” Philosophy and Theology, 4 (1989): 110. Hereafter cited in the text as IEL, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
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    Some of Levinas’s critics, such as Paul Ricoeur, argue that in ethics normativity arises with sociality. Levinas does not deny normativity, but identifies a sociality that precedes normativity, an asymmetrical sociality of ethical responsibility. See Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another, and Richard Cohen’s response to Ricoeur’s critique, “Moral Selfhood: A Levinasian Response to Ricoeur on Levinas,” in Ricoeur as Another: The Ethics of Subjectivity, Richard A. Cohen and James L. Marsh (eds.) (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), pp. 27–160.Google Scholar
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    See Emmanuel Levinas, “Philosophy, Justice, and Love,” in Entre Nous, pp. 103–121.Google Scholar
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    Emmanuel Levinas, Is It Righteous To Be? Interviews With Emmanuel Levinas, Jill Robbins (ed.) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 161. Hereafter cited in the text as IR, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
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    For the most systematic and subtle discussion of Levinas’s complex relationship to literature, see Robbins, Altered Reading. See also Sean Hand, “Shadowing Ethics: Levinas’s View of Art and Aesthetics,” in Facing the Other: The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, Seán Hand (ed.) (Surrey: Curzon, 1996), pp. 63–89; Seán Hand, “The Other Voice: Ethics and Expression in Emmanuel Levinas,” History of the Human Sciences, 10:3 (1997): 56–68; Nadine Chapman, “Poetry and the Ethical Moment,” Bridges, 6:3/4 (1999): 135–145; and Travis Anderson, “Drawing upon Levinas to Sketch out a Heterotopic Poetics of Art and Tragedy,” Research in Phenomenology 24 (1994): 69–96.Google Scholar
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    See for example Levinas’s essays collected in Proper Names, Michael B. Smith (trans.) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996); and Outside the Subject, Michael B. Smith (trans.) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).Google Scholar
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    Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, Richard A. Cohen (trans.) (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987), p. 72. Hereafter cited in the text as TO, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
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    See for example Levinas’s 1948 essay, “Reality and Its Shadow,” in Collected Philosophical Papers, Alphonso Lingis (trans.) (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), pp. 1–13.Google Scholar
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    See Jacques Rolland, Dostoïevski: La Question de l’Autre (Paris: Verdier, 1983).Google Scholar
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    See for example Emmanuel Levinas, “A Conversation with Andre Dalmas,” in Proper Names, p. 154.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    Feodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, George Gibian (ed.), Jessie Coulson (trans.) (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1964), p. 303. Hereafter cited in the text as CP, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
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    Emmanuel Levinas, “The Trace of the Other,” in Deconstruction in Context, Mark C. Taylor (ed.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 351. Hereafter cited in the text as Tr, followed by the page number. The following year, in “Meaning and Sense” (1964), Levinas employs this same passage, virtually word for word, again in the context of a discussion of metaphysical desire. See Emmanuel Levinas, “Meaning and Sense,” in Basic Philosophical Writings, Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (eds.) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 52. It appears that Levinas did not carefully attend to the details of Dostoyevsky’s text, for in Levinas’s account Sonia’s ‘insatiable compassion’ is oriented towards Raskolnikov. But in the particular scene where Dostoyevsky employs the term ‘insatiable compassion,’ it seems to be a compassion for Sonia’s stepmother, Katerina Ivanovna. [In her discussion of this passage Jill Robbins follows Levinas’s misreading, and mistakenly identifies the scene as the confession scene of the following day. Admittedly, the confession scene manifests the more remarkable compassion on Sonia’s part, but it is not the scene in which Dostoyevsky employs the term’ insatiable compassion’ (AR148).] The next day, when Raskolnikov returns to Sonia’s room to confess his murder she is indeed compassionate. After his confession she throws her arms around his neck, crying, “What have you done, what have you done to yourself?” (CP394). “There is no one, she adds, “no one unhappier than you in the whole world” (CP394–395). Perhaps Levinas confused the two scenes, the first, when Dostoyevsky describes Sonia’s compassion as ‘insatiable,’ and the second, when Sonia feels compassion for Raskolnikov. The confusion between the two scenes, however, does not diminish Levinas’s point, that Sonia exhibits an insatiable compassion, an exemplification of metaphysical desire for the other.Google Scholar
  22. 23.
    Robbins, Altered Reading, p. 149.Google Scholar
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  24. 25.
    See Ernest J. Simmon’s discussion of Sonia in “The Art of Crime and Punishment,” in Dostoyevsky op. cit. Simmons characterizes Sonia as “a kind of living universal symbol of crushed and suffering humanity that bears within itself the undying seed of joyous humanity” (CP569).Google Scholar
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    Rolland is especially interested in the weakness of the other. See the discussion of weakness, the meek, and the pathetic in Dostoyevsky’s novels, in Rolland op. cit., pp. 53–66.Google Scholar
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    It is important to emphasize that while Sonia provides an image of a’ constructive’ ethics, Levinas himself rejects any attempt to make an image of the ethical as such. For Levinas’s critique of the image see “Reality and Its Shadow,” and “Expression and Image” in Totality and Infinity, Alphonso Lingis (trans.) (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), pp. 297–298. Hereafter cited in the text as TI, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
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    Derrida, op. cit., p. 92.Google Scholar
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    Emmanuel Levinas, “Totality and Infinity. Preface to the German Edition,” in Entre Nous, p. 200.Google Scholar
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    See for example the interviews with François Poirié, Myriam Anissimov, Salomon Malka, Emmanuel Hirsch, Florian Rötzer, Christian Descamps, R. Fornetand and A. Gomez, and Augusto Ponzio collected in Is It Righteous To Be?; with Philippe Nemo in Ethics and Infinity; with Richard Kearney, “Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas,” in Face to Face With Levinas, pp. 13–33; and with Edith Wyshogrod, “Interview with Emmanuel Levinas.” See also Levinas’s “The Truth of Disclosure and the Truth of Testimony,” “God and Philosophy,” “Apropos of Buber: Some Notes,” and Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence.Google Scholar
  30. 36.
    See Rolland’s discussion of responsibility and guilt in his Levinasian reading of Dostoyevsky, in Rolland op. cit., 75–89.Google Scholar
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    Levinas, “Apropos of Buber: Some Notes,” in Outside the Subject, p. 44.Google Scholar
  32. 39.
    Feodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Constance Gamett (trans.) (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), p. 344. Hereafter cited in the text as BK, followed by the page number.Google Scholar
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    See Robert V. Wharton, “Evil in an Earthly Paradise: Ivan Karamazov’s ‘Dialectic’ Against God and Zossima’s ‘Euclidean’ Response,” Thomist, 41 (1977): 567–584, especially 567–569.Google Scholar
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    Levinas, “Dialogue,” in Face to Face With Levinas, p. 31.Google Scholar
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  36. 43.
    Feodor Dostoyevsky, “Dostoyevsky’s Notebooks,” in Crime and Punlshment, p. 536.Google Scholar
  37. 44.
    See Joyce Carol Oates “The Double Vision of the Brothers Karamazov,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 7 (1968): 203–13, especially 204. Oates argues that Dostoyevsky’s creativity undermines the narrative structure of the novel that supports his understanding of Orthodox spirituality, suffering, and transformation.Google Scholar
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    George F. Sefler, “Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky on the Meaning of Suffering,” Religious Humanism, 4 (1970): 150.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 150.Google Scholar
  40. 47.
    For a discussion of Ivan’s criticism of these four types of theodicy, and a Dostoevskian response, see Wharton op. cit., especially pp. 570–571.Google Scholar
  41. 48.
    For a review of this literature see Wharton, op. cit., pp. 567–569. For an interpretation that problematizes the traditional understanding of The Brothers Karamazov, see Oates, op. cit. Google Scholar
  42. 49.
    For a discussion of whether Dostoyevsky’s theodicy is rational or antirational see Wharton, op. cit. 567–569Google Scholar
  43. 50.
    Ibid., p. 571.Google Scholar
  44. 51.
    As Y. A. Kang observes of Levinas, “suffering is not one of several themes which could be approached from an ethical perspective. Suffering is precisely the opening of the ethical perspective.” Young Ahn Kang, “Levinas on Suffering and Solidarity,” Tijdshrift voor Filosofie, 59 (1997): 498.Google Scholar
  45. 52.
    See Richard A. Cohen, “What Good is the Holocaust? On Suffering and Evil,” Philosophy Today, 43:2 (1999): 176–183.Google Scholar
  46. 53.
    Bailhache writes “suffering cannot be forgotten, and this is no doubt the greater reproach, never truly formulated, that Levinas addresses to his predecessors. It cannot be forgotten, and it is even primary; it indicates an original and singular position before being and one that will mark the entry into being. The indelible trace inscribed by suffering’ creates’ a bottomless passivity that cannot be assumed by some sort of activity.” Gérard Bailhache, “Excess: Toward the Outside, or Humanity,” in Levinas’s Contribution to Contemporary Philosophy, Bettina Bergo (trans.), p. 130.Google Scholar
  47. 54.
    Emmanuel Levinas, “Enigma and Phenomenon,” in Basic Philosophical Writings, p. 76.Google Scholar

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© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • William Edelglass
    • 1
  1. 1.Colby CollegeWatervilleUSA

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