Levinas, Benevolent Father ?


Part 2

The richness of Levinas’s prose allows for numerous possible interpretations. Levinas is an author who is very careful with his words. This is the consideration that has led a number of commentators to try retrieving the sources of Levinas’s more or less controversial statements on the feminine. Diane Perpich is one of them. In “From the Caress to the Word,” 1 she follows Levinas as he goes from early discussions of the eros in the late 1940s, to the first full-fledged account of the feminine with Totality and Infinity in 1961.

Perpich starts her attempt at clarifying the situation by looking at one contentious statement: the opposition of women with consciousness. In Time and the Other, Levinas claims that the feminine is “on the same level as, but in meaning opposed to, consciousness.” 2 There is no argument, here, that women are void of consciousness (that was de Beauvoir’s critique); it is a reference to the initial influence of Levinas: Husserl. For Husserl, as already discussed, an empty consciousness is impossible: any consciousness must be of something. This applies also to other movements like representation (representing something), desire (desiring something), etc. The feminine is opposed to consciousness precisely because being conscious of a woman is not an intentional access to its object, and then a return from it towards the self, but rather a failed access to it: “The transcendence of the feminine consists in withdrawing elsewhere, which is a movement opposed to the movement of consciousness.” 3 Through this discussion of the feminine, Levinas is not denigrating women, but finding the first motif for his realization of the inaccessibility of the Other. There is no view, therefore, of the feminine as inaccessible because of what would be its alleged irrationality, self-contradictoriness, etc. Through the instance of the feminine, Levinas realizes that the Other can be known, but that this knowledge does not exhaust the extent of this relation. It is here that Levinas relies upon the illustration of the caress to give an instance of the other withdrawing from my access to it. I discussed this above.

Another controversial statement of Levinas calls for clarification. In Totality and Infinity, the philosopher associates the feminine with the habitat, with the home. The slippery slope is very near, to try justifying through some ontological discourse, the “relegated” position of the woman onto the world of the private and of domestic activities. On the contrary, Levinas’s argumentation is, by surprise, almost an odd ode to women. In Totality and Infinity, he contends that the feminine is what makes possible a refuge from the world, to “recollect” oneself and to allow for the development of an “inner life.” 4 A number of commentators have attempted psychoanalytic interpretations of Levinas, 5 and even though Levinas has kept his general distanced with psychoanalysis, it is evident here that at least partly, his association of women with the habitat comes from a universal trope. For both male and female individuals know, literally, the feminine as the first, and fundamental habitat of one’s life: the womb is the first house of a human being. And when Levinas explains that the feminine is ‘pre-ethical,’ he is not arguing that women are not ethical, or in a state of animality prior to that of the ethical human, but rather, that it is only through and after this refuge, through this ‘recollection’ of oneself, that an individual can ‘come out’ to the world and turn towards the Other.

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It is this quest of a ‘transcendence’ of oneself that leads Levinas to look at eros. In Existents and Existence, his hopes are still high: “It is in eros that transcendence can be conceived as something radical, which brings to the ego caught up in being, ineluctably returning to itself, something else than this return.”

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In Totality and Infinity, Levinas does not discuss anymore the feminine as the “other par excellence,” but through a new term: the feminine is a figure of equivocation or ambiguity. Such words could again lead to paternalizing interpretations: they invite to believe that Levinas thinks of women as unsure, illogical and self-contradictory individuals. It is not what is meant here. To understand such a statement, we must return even prior to the late 1940s writings. In De l’évasion [On Evasion] (1935), 6 Levinas already attempts to conceptualize, and to find potential ways of exiting, or liberating oneself from the “weight of being.” The experience described here is certainly universal: whatever I may do in life, I always remain myself, I cannot escape myself, my past, my present, and the future unfolding before me. This theme of ‘weight’ is further expanded in Time and the Other and Existents and Existence. In the former, he writes: “Identity is not an inoffensive relationship with itself, but an enchainment to itself; it is the necessity of being occupied with itself.” 7 In what is perhaps a response to Sartre, Levinas, in Existents and Existence, adds the following: “this freedom does not save me from the definitive character of my very existence, from the fact that I am forever stuck with myself.” 8 There is a sense in Levinas, already, that the self is limited to a relation to the world that is always self-mediated and brought back to the self. It is this quest of a ‘transcendence’ of oneself that leads Levinas to look at eros. In Existents and Existence, his hopes are still high: “It is in eros that transcendence can be conceived as something radical, which brings to the ego caught up in being, ineluctably returning to itself, something else than this return.” 9 But, as we know, Levinas would soon leave the hope behind eros, as well as the trope of the caress, to assert that, even in carnal love, I ultimately return to my self. This is where the association of feminity and ambiguity is to be located. The feeling of love that I may feel, as an heterosexual, masculine subject, towards a woman, is ambiguous, because it is meant as an enjoyment of the transcendental other, who is beyond my self, thus giving me the impression of a departure from my self… but precisely because she is an Other, she is also out of reach. This means that I find enjoyment in being in contact with something always out of my reach. In other words, carnal love would be, from the stakes of ethics, only an illusion. It is also here that Perpich recalls one central point: when Levinas talks of the feminine, he does not discuss an actual, existing group of individuals who are females. Levinas insists that the feminine must not be defined in relation, that is, in dependence upon, the masculine, or any other concept. Perpich insists: Levinas’s feminine is not a typology: “the feminine is nowhere identified by Levinas with concrete, really existing beings.” 10

Other pro-Levinas commentaries, either feminist or sympathetic with feminist concerns, must also be mentioned. Bernard Forthomme, for instance, acknowledges the masculine assumption of subjectivity in Totality and Infinity. Maternity appears as secondary to paternity. But Forthomme contends that Levinas understands maternity as beyond the masculine and the feminine, as a step towards the positing of the subject facing a neutral ethics transcending sexual differences. 11 In her commentary, Sandford suggests that this feminine root of the ethical is “a femininity that can (and ought) to be assumed by the male as well as the female.” 12 Stemming from such interpretations is an understanding of the maternal, meaningful “beyond any biological reference.” 13 As Levinas progresses from a belief of transcendence through love (Existents and Existents), its corresponding disbelief but a possibility of “Other in the self” through fecundity (Totality and Infinity) and finally an opening of this fertility towards the construction of a general community of ‘fraternity’ (Otherwise Than Being), Levinas slowly separates all the gendered tropes from any biology-related fact. In Otherwise Than Being, Levinas conceives of the kinship relation as “outside of all biology.” 14 As Sandford notes, one recognizes a shift from paternity (fatherhood) to the gender-neutral parenté (kinship or parenthood). 15 Underlying this turn to a gender-less relation to one’s descendant is the proto-political claim that appears implicitly in Otherwise Than Being. As Critchley suggests: “the relation to the face is always already a relation to humanity as a whole.” 16

Another implication from interpretations such as Forthomme’s, is possibility of seeing maternity as only a label, one of Levinas’s cultural references-turned-concepts. Maternity, as the ultimate sense of responsibility of a mother for a child, would only be a trope of reference for the intuition Levinas attempted to express: maternity would be “a particularity that expresses the uniqueness of one’s responsibility for the Other, the impossibility of interchanging responsibilities with another of one’s kind.” 17 Throughout all these controversial uses of specific terms, one can unveil a distinct, and generally respectful approach in Levinas’s intention. We can still debate whether it was a smart choice of his to use feminine-related tropes for certain meanings which, obviously, Levinas did not mean in a manner reduced to actual women alone. But his intention, and the actual content of the message, seem recoverable.

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It is almost a militant Levinas that appears here, through his insistence that, against Freud, agape, or the universal love is not a by-product of eros, or the carnal, sexual love. “It is not, despite the earlier reference to Lucifer, that eros is bad in itself, but that it is not primary.” (Stella Sandford)

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Finally, to further explore non-androcentric interpretations of Levinas, we must look at the author’s retrospective comments on his earlier works. The disapproval of eros, for instance, appears as a very anti-modern, traditional, patriarchal and patronizing stance. Commenting upon what he sees as the ‘misunderstanding of psychoanalysis’, Levinas contends: “What is challenged here is the revolution which thinks it has achieved the ultimate by destroying the family so as to liberate imprisoned sexuality.” 18 It is almost a militant Levinas that appears here, through his insistence that, against Freud, agape, or the universal love is not a by-product of eros, or the carnal, sexual love. “It is not, despite the earlier reference to Lucifer, that eros is bad in itself, but that it is not primary.” 19 In 1982, by then properly set behind the revised version of his philosophy in Otherwise Than Being, Levinas recognized his lack of comfort in using the term love, “a worn-out and ambiguous word.” 20 But the solemn aspect of love, already present in Otherwise Then Being, is also reasserted: “Justice comes from love. … Love must always watch over justice.” 21 A few pages later, Levinas condenses the evolution of his perspective:

“I used to think that otherness began in the feminine. That is, in fact, a very strange otherness: woman is neither the contradictory nor the opposite of man, nor like other differences. It is not like the opposition between light and darkness. It is a distinction that is not contingent, and whose place must be sought in relation to love.

I can say no more about it now; I think in any case that Eros is definitely not Agape, that Agape is neither a derivative nor the extinction of love-Eros. Before Eros there was the Face; Eros itself is possible only between Faces. The problem of Eros is philosophical and concerns otherness.” 22

Thus, through certain commentaries, and various additions brought by the author himself, we can attempt to retrieve, at least partly, insights from some of Levinas’ contentious statements, towards an interpretation more respectful of the otherness of the feminine. Remaining complex, plurisemic and charged in meanings, these passages and concepts are bound to continue agitating debates. But the defence can go even further. Before closing this essay, I shall try to explore one more possible direction for a new understanding of Levinas, a particularly creative one, aimed at profoundly transcending the feminist critiques.


Critchley, Simon. “Das Ding: Lacan and Levinas.” In Ethics – Politics – Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, 198-216. London & New York: Verso, 1999.

Critchley, Simon. “Five Problems in Levinas’s View of Politics and the Sketch of a Solution to Them.” Political Theory 32, no. 4 (April 2004): 172-185.

Critchley, Simon. “The Original Traumatism: Levinas and Psychoanalysis.” In Ethics – Politics – Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, 183-197. London & New York: Verso, 1999.

Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction. Second Edition. Edimburgh: Edimburgh University Press, 1999.

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. H.M. Parshey, London: Picador, 1988.

Forthomme, Bernard. Une philosophie de la transcendance: la metaphysique d’Emmanuel Levinas. Paris: Vrin, 1979.

Irigaray, Luce. “The fecundity of the caress: a reading of Levinas, Totality and Infinity, section IV, B, ‘The Phenomenology of Eros’.” In Claire Katz & Lara Trout, Eds. Emmanuel Levinas: Critical Assessment of Leading Philosophers – Volume 1: Levinas, Phenomenology and His Critics, 227-248. London & New York: Routledge, 2005.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “And God Created Woman.” In Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz, 161-177. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “Philosophy, Justice and Love.” In Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-other, 88-104. London: Continuum, 2007.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Existence and Existents. Trans. A. Lingis. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1978.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “De l’évasion.” Recherches Philosophiques, Vol. 5 (1935-1936): 373-392.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. Trans. A. Lingis, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1987.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority. Trans. A. Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA:  Duquesne University Press, 1992.

Perpich, Diane. “From the Caress to the Word: Transcendence and the Feminine in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.” In Tina Chanter, Ed. Feminist Interpretations of Emmanuel Levinas, 28-52. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2001.

Sandford, Stella. “A Maternal Alternative? Levinas and Plato on Love.” In The Metaphysics of Love: Gender and Transcendence in Levinas, 82-109. New Brunswick, NJ: The Athlone Press, 2000.

Verter, Mitchell. “Levinas, Perverter.” n.d. Accessed November 22, 2013. www.waste.org/~roadrunner/writing/Levinas/LevinasPerverter_20_1.htm#_edn3.

Image courtesy: Louis Parsons



  1. Diane Perpich, “From the Caress to the Word: Transcendence and the Feminine in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas,” in Tina Chanter, Ed., Feminist Interpretations of Emmanuel Levinas (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2001).
  2. Levinas, Time and the Other, 88.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 54, 58.
  5. See for instance Simon Critchley, “The Original Traumatism: Levinas and Psychoanalysis,” In Ethics – Politics – Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought (London & New York: Verso, 1999), as well as his “Das Ding: Lacan and Levinas” in the same volume).
  6. Emmanuel Levinas, “De l’évasion,” Recherches Philosophiques, Vol. 5 (1935-1936): 373-392. This text, till date, has not been translated to English.
  7. Levinas, Time and the Other, 55.
  8. Levinas, Existence and Existents, 84.
  9. Ibid., 96.
  10. Perpich, “From the Caress to the Word,” 47.
  11. Bernard Forthomme, Une philosophie de la transcendance: la metaphysique d'Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: Vrin, 1979).
  12. Sandford, “A Maternal Alternative?,” 87.
  13. Ibid, 88.
  14. Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, 87.
  15. Sandford, “A Maternal Alternative?,” 88.
  16. Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction, Second Edition. (Edimburgh: Edimburgh University Press, 1999), 226.
  17. Sandford, “A Maternal Alternative?,” 90.
  18. Emmanuel Levinas, “And God Created Woman” in Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 172.
  19. Sandford, “A Maternal Alternative?,” 93.
  20. Emmanuel Levinas, “Philosophy, Justice and Love,” in Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-other (London: Continuum, 2007), 92.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 97.