Phenomenology of the Face
  • Martin C. Srajek
Part of the Contributions To Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 32)


In chapter 1, I already discussed the difficulties inherent in the traditional phenomenological approach as practiced by Husserl, and, to some degree, by Heidegger. Despite their initial commitment to a philosophy that goes back to the things themselves, a philosophy that concerns itself with the world as it shows itself, all phenomenologists finally retreated to a phenomenology of the structures of consciousness. Levinas believes that ethics can only succeed if it is able to account for the other in her radical difference from the self; for him, the problematic of traditional phenomenology lies in its failure to ground alterity epistemologically. However, the term “epistemological” has to be applied with care, since it already invokes the problem of knowledge and hence the problem of the subject. Levinas attempts to construct an epistemology in such a way that knowledge neither thematizes,1 nor gathers nor assembles the aspects of alterity into the sphere of the self-same. The result is that alterity cannot be treated as a fact anymore, since facts are pieces of information that come to be known by the subject. It is instead an epistemology that radically displaces the subject and prioritizes the other. 2


Social World Actual Face Ethical Obligation Shared Sense Traditional Phenomenology 
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  1. 1.
    The etymology of the word “theme” might clarify what Levinas means. “Theme” derives from the Greek verb “”, and the Greek root word “θ∈-”. The verb form generally means “to order” or “to put in a certain position.” As a noun the words “” means just “the holy order” and in most cases “the holy order instituted by God.” It is just this sense of an ordering coming about through the subject that thematizes that Levinas criticizes and attempts to circumvent through an epiphanic phenomenology (more about that later in this chapter).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    It would be justified to categorize Levinas as a post-enlightenment philosopher whose goal it is to break through the tradition of Spinoza, Leibniz and Hegel that emphasized an absolute consciousness constitutive of the world. Levinas instead reiterates the Kantian problem of a thing-in-itself, “something out there,” that cannot be captured and that instead captures the subject. Yet, different from Kant, Levinas attempts to capture exactly that thing-in-itself as the other, instead of relegating it to the realm that pure reason cannot broach. Kant himself, of course, realized the importance of the thing-in-itself as an asymptotic (regulative) concept for reason itself and treats of it quite extensively under the guise of the theory of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment, trsl. by J.H. Bernard.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The Greek words are “ I” and “”.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Dagobert d. Runes, New York: Philosophical Library, 1960.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    On the relationship between Levinas work and that of Husserl’s and Heidegger, see Adrian Peperzak,”Phenomenology—Ontology—Metaphysics: Levinas’ Perspective on Husserl and Heidegger,” Man and World 16: 113-127. Peperzak shows how Levinas moves from an earlier, very critical analysis of Husserl’s work to a much more appreciative reading, particularly vis-a-vis Heidegger. Whereas at first Levinas critiques Husserl for his concept of intentionality as the presence of consciousness to the object and thus the primacy of theory, he later gives more emphasis to Husserl’s concept of the horizon, which seems to indicate a certain non-objectifiable part of any “Sachverhalt” (theory). In the end, however, the problem with Husserl remains the omniscient and omnipotent position of the transcendental ego which is copresent to being and whose relationship to being can only be defined through knowledge. Although Levinas takes a stand along with Heidegger against Husserl in these first essays, he later also opposes Heidegger precisely because the latter, although opposing Husserl, did not manage to avoid Husserl’s emphasis on knowledge. For Heidegger it resurfaces as “Seinsverständnis.”Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    A very complex and insightful study about the question of intersubjective relationships was written by Marco M. Olivetti, “Philosophische Fragen an das Werk von Emmanuel Levinas,” Verantwortung fiir den Anderen un die Frage nach Gott: Zum Werk von Emmanuel Levinas, pp. 42-70. Olivetti observes that most of the modern attempts in philosophy to think through the problems of the intersubjective (Fichte, Husserl, Heidegger) are based on Kant’s formulation of the unity of transcendental apperception. Since this notion suggests the unity of subject and object, an intersubjective relationship cannot be thought otherwise than as one that is postulated by the subject. Such a relationship, however, minimizes the significance of the other in his/her alterity. Olivetti, thus, understands Levinas as a philosopher who is trying to transcend the condition of the unity of transcendental apperception.Google Scholar
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    Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy.Google Scholar
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    Quentin Lauer, Phenomenology: Its Genesis and Prospect, p. 152. The term “empathy”, of course, has had major importance since Kant, in order to assure the possibility of universal standards for the recognition of art, introduced it into his aesthetic theory in the Critique of Judgment. It later became a most important term for the romantic movement and its attempt to ground humanity in some type of universally shared characteristic (cp. Charles Taylor, Hegell).Google Scholar
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    Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trsl. by Dorion Cairns, p. 112–13. A good discussion of this problematic can also be found in Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, pp. 221-2. “The other person is first apprehended as an object of perception, which then, through empathy, becomes a ‘Thou.’ In Husserl this concept of empathy has no doubt a purely transcendental meaning, but is still oriented to the inferiority of self-consciousness and fails to achieve the orientation towards the functional circle of life, which goes far beyond consciousness, to which, however, it claims to return.”Google Scholar
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    See for example Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, translated by Richard A. Cohen, p. 85.Google Scholar
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    My friend and colleague Uwe Ritter reminded me of the long history of the concept of expression. During the “Sturm and Drang” in Europe it came to designate creative, subjective activity issuing from an existent but formless coagulation of ideas. Rousseau, and especially Herder, regarded language as the primary vehicle of such creative form-giving. More about this era can be read in Charles Taylor, Hegel, part I.Google Scholar
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    Edmund Husserl, Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, 1950; Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trsl. by W. R. Boyce Gibson, henceforth referred to as “Ideas, pp. German/English.”Google Scholar
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    Ideas, p. 308/323.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 310/325.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 310/325.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 312/327.Google Scholar
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    The word “as” makes all the difference for Levinas in his essay “Language and Proximity,” (pp. 109-26) where he characterizes the function of the “as” as kerygmatic, i.e., as announcing the meaning of an object. In the word “as” Levinas sees thus indicated the arbitrariness inherent in the constitution of meaning that, rather than being empirically established by the object, is assigned by the subject.Google Scholar
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    Ideas, p. 122.Google Scholar
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    Ideas, p. 122Ibid.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 103/127.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 162/182.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 76/105.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 79/107.Google Scholar
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    Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et Infini: Essai sur l’extériorité, p. 224; translated by Alphonso Lingis, Totality and Infinity, p. 205. (Henceforth referred to as “Totalité, ” p. French/English.)Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    In order to clarify the significance and difference between the concepts of language and speech, Levinas employs the Saussurian distinction between “parole” and “langage.” Whereas the former designates communication itself, i.e. talks, conversations, prayers, etc., the latter designates the potential for communication, i.e. the fact that we have language.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, trsl. by Annette Aronowicz, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, p. 21.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    The emphasis on language and speech can be paralleled if one looks at Franz Rosenzweig’s introduction of grammar as revelation’s organon in part II of, op. cit. Prior to creation, there exists a language that is prior to language. It is a logical language of archetypal words “which lie hidden under each and every manifest (“offenbaren”) word as secret bases and which rise to the light in it” (p. 121/109). What was mute before and only palpable through an ideal language (“Sprache”), now turns into reality (“Wirklichkeit”) through grammar, and thus creates the human community in which the individual (“das einzelne”) remains a reality as well. For Rosenzweig redemption comes through liturgy with the suspension of language (“Sprache”) in favor of the gesture (“Gebärde”) where the individual will be taken up completely into the community of worshippers (326-30). Rosenzweig and Levinas go different ways at this point, most likely because Levinas has a very different concept of redemption in his philosophy.Google Scholar
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    Totalité, pp. 212/194-5.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Ibid. A good example for this is the silence of the psychoanalyst which the patient often feels to be overwhelming, since the former (through his or her reticence to speak, while simultaneously paying visual attention, i.e., by looking at the patient) gives the impression of silently judging the patient.Google Scholar
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    For the appropriateness of this term cf note 1 in chapter 3 and the literature there cited.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Levinas gets his notion of desire from Hegel’s Phenomenology. Here desire is the ever-active force which compels consciousness to go through different stages of selfidentification and simultaneous transformations of its surrounding world. The difference for Levinas is that he attempts to circumvent the quality of struggle that Hegel’s concept of desire implies. Levinas asserts, for example, that the other who imposes herself on me through that desire does so without any implication of violence. “The ethical presence is both other and imposes itself without violence” (Totalité, 242/219). “It is desire, teaching received, and the pacific opposition of discourse” (Totalité, p. 215/197). However, there can be no doubt that from the perspective of the “me” the struggle is not over. How else would one explain Levinas’ references to the face’s resistance to my powers, the idea of infinity as exceeding my powers (p. 213/196) and to the fact that “ the other is the sole being I can wish to kill” (p. 216/198). These passages are examples for the dialectic relationship that exists between desire on the one and language on the other hand. Desire can only be there, because there already is a difference between the other and me which, as Levinas says, is established by language (i.e., language here refers to the more primordial sense still present in the French “langage”). Yet, in Levinas’ words, it is in the face that this struggle can potentially come to an end: “The epiphany of the face is ethical. The face threatens the eventuality of a struggle (“lutte”)” (p. 218/199).Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Richard A. Cohen, “Absolute Positivity and Ultra-Positivity,” The Question of the Other: Essays in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, ed. by Arlene B. Dallery and Charles E. Scott, pp. 35–47. Cohen’s essay is generally good. However, he seems to emphasize the priority of the ethical as if that in itself already was ethics. He thus overlooks the fact that for Levinas the ethical is an epistemological category with a potential for ethics. In other words, nothing is won for the domain of ethics by the discovery that human beings are fundamentally directed towards the other. That by itself can only explain why we perceive the world around us without necessarily being part of it. The “more” of the face can only acquire practical ethical significance the moment we let it speak to us.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Totalité, pp. 218–219/200.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Ibid, p. 219/200.Google Scholar
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    Concerning the questions about the word “come” cf. chapter 6 of the second part of this book.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Totalité.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    In Autrement, Levinas also refers to the relationship between phenomenology and the face. Here, however, he says that phenomenology defects into the face (“defectio” [lat]: trash, reduction, disappearance, exhaustion). Although this seems to undermine my point that Levinas’ epi-phenomenology of the face is the only real kind of phenomenology, I think that it is evident from everything that has been said so far that Levinas’ position vis-a-vis phenomenology can by no means be understood as total rejection, but must be seen under the premise of re-formulation.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    An interesting discussion of the priority of the face-to-face encounter can be found in Alphonso Lingis’ essay “The Elemental Imperative”, Research in Phenomenology, vol. 18, 1988, pp. 3-21. Lingis’ contention is that, in order to perceive the command that issues from the other, one already has to be in a sensuous relationship with the world. There has to be a more elemental imperative that simply reaches out for the world. Whereas Levinas attempts to transcend this sphere of the elemental towards something exterior to it, as Lingis points out it is precisely this elemental form of the imperative that first creates an “eddy of subjectivity [which] first stirs in the night of the there-is” (p. 16).Google Scholar
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    Totalité, p. 230/209.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    This can be taken to indicate the phenomenal background for Levinas’ theory of the text, especially Scripture, as I develop it in chapter 1. It is precisely infinite perspectivalness inherent in the text but actualized through interpretation by the readers that makes revelation an infinite project.Google Scholar
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    Totalité, p. 240/218.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Ibid, p. 236/214.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary: A Linear Translation into English by Rabbi Abraham Ben Isaiah and Rabbi Benjamin Sharfman, Exodus 33, pp. 413–424.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Rashi’s interpretation of this section goes even further in eliding the sense of impertinence that seems attached to Moses’ second request and interprets God’s answer to be something along the lines of “Glad you asked Moses, I needed to teach you the order of prayer anyway.”Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    possibly because the Hebrew word for “veil”, “” comes from the Hebrew “” “temptation.”Google Scholar
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    Interesting here that the Hebrew uses the preposition “.” rather than’.”Maybe this expresses already part of the mediated encounter that the Israelites had with God.Google Scholar
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    Tamra Wright, et al, p. 173.Google Scholar
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    Tamra Wright, et al., p. 176.Google Scholar
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    Emmanuel Levinas, “From Existence to Ethics”, Levinas Reader, pp. 82–83.Google Scholar
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    Richard A. Cohen, “Absolute Positivity and Ultra-Positivity,” p. 39.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Note that both terms, “face” and “beholder,” are metaphorical. The Face is not material and the beholder is not a subject.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Chapter 2.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Schütz was born in Vienna in 1899. He studied with Weber and Husserl and left Austria to escape from the Nazis in 1939. He went to Paris for a year and from there came to the U.S. where he accepted a position at the New School for Social Research. Schutz’ work54is of interest for us, because his concern with the problematic of the other parallels Levinas’ discussion. Furthermore, he focuses more than Levinas does on the consequent social applicability of his theory.Google Scholar
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    Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, p. 89.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Husserl, p. 114-115.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Alfred Schütz, The Phenomenology of the Social World, p. 98.Google Scholar
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    Cp. Schütz, p. 103, 140, 163, 165.Google Scholar
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  60. 60.
    Phenomenology, p. 103.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 106–107.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 113.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 140.Google Scholar
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    Ibid, p. 143.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Ibid, p. 163.Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    Ibid, p. 163.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Schütz concedes that such an understanding is itself an idealization, since in everyday life such understanding would always be mediated by our actual understanding of the other’s action and thoughts. But as an ideal limit such thouorientation has to be presupposed.Google Scholar
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    Phenomenology, p. 164.Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    Ibid, p. 167.Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    Ibid, p. 168.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    Ibid, p. 178.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin C. Srajek
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignIllinoisUSA

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