Hospitality : Ethics meets Culture




Part 1

Beyond the individual : the collective, the community, its practices and customs – the human cultures. Practices, indeed : the Greek ethos, in the plural form, stands for a community’s customs. Here, the connection seems self-evident : ethics is the name given to the principles validated by a community in the usage and economy of its customs. Levinas makes a quick mention of this turn : “A sociality that, although utopian, commands all the humanity in us, and in which the Greeks saw the ethical.” 1 Before becoming a set of philosophically elaborated systems, ethics would have been the age-old, pragmatic do’s-and-don’ts that made each community. Making the community : the group’s ethos is what allows its sustenance and that which prevents its self-destruction ; but the ethos is also that which differentiates a community from the neighbouring ones, in the very concrete terms of the practices of governance, traditions, the arts, food, dressing, etc. The neighbour : the disrupter of a community’s ethos ? The initiator of an external difference causing internal division ? The threat of the possibility of a bridge with the neighbouring community, of the commensurability of two sets of ethos, of customs ? These anthropological hypotheses would require elaborations, and it is not at this level that our reconstruction of foreignness within ethics and culture will take place. It is also with regard to the trajectory of the present study that we must adopt an angle that does not negate but transcend each of the previous stages. It may not be organically compatible to insert in an anthropological frame an existentialist angle. Another path exists. It is a path not only presented to us, but one that is already explored, including with regards to the very specific question of the foreigner.

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“A Word of Welcome” shines for the expertise Derrida demonstrates over the œuvre of Levinas. The text is, simply said, Derrida’s final, ultimate and complete reading of Levinas – if, at all, with Levinas, a complete interpretation could be undertaken.

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Through the various ethical scandals that came to surround his works in the 1980s (Paul de Man, Heidegger, etc.), Jacques Derrida attempted a ‘turn’ in his thought, undertaking a clarification of the political and ethical implications of what was thought by many as only theoretical and abstract positions. This gave rise to a vast set of studies, most of them written in view of special lectures, and later elaborated as monographs proper. Facing the contemporary debates on immigration in the European Union, Derrida signs in 1997 a text on cosmopolitanism 2 and another on hospitality 3. But nowhere does he enter this subject more than in a particularly contextual and solemn text : “A Word of Welcome.” 4 The text was published in 1997 in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, starting with the eponymous eulogy, which Derrida delivered upon the death of Levinas, over his dead body, at the cemetery Pantin on December 27, 1995. If the latter is a rich, emotional take on the heritage of Levinas, “A Word of Welcome” shines for the expertise Derrida demonstrates over the œuvre of Levinas. The text is, simply said, Derrida’s final, ultimate and complete reading of Levinas – if, at all, with Levinas, a complete interpretation could be undertaken. Derrida quotes generously and variously from the multiple texts of Levinas, stemming from the angles of phenomenology, existentialism, theology, history of religion, and, throughout, the concern for ethics. And most importantly, Derrida decides to offer this last word, this lasting reading, by inflecting all that Levinas left us with, onto the question of the foreigner. This question takes a particular shape : hospitality, or the cultural, ethical and inter-subjective layers of one’s interaction with the foreigner. The text is incredibly rich, revealing at once the depth and creativity of Levinas’s prose, and the intimidating scope of Derrida’s knowledge. Of all the texts mentioned in the present study, this is certainly the most exciting and frightening to cover, every page of Derrida’s creative interpretations calling its own, renewed commentary. This is nonetheless the absurd task we shall attempt here, but the spatial and temporal limits dedicated to this section will allow us only to have a brief look at the central claims, while any serious undertaking, for such a text, should be at once much more ambitious and scrupulous.

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In “A Word of Welcome,” Derrida credits Benveniste for one discovery : the hostipet-s, or the ancestral ambiguous position of the main term used for the foreigner, stuck between the pole of the favourable visitor (our modern hospitality) and that of the straightforward enemy (our hostility).

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When it comes to Derrida, one biblical truth withstands : first was the word. Derrida always starts with the term, its past, its associations, its architectures. In his works, Derrida often praises Emile Benveniste, author of the encyclopaedic Vocabulary of Indo-European Institutions, 5 a key reference for etymological study across tens of ancient and modern languages. In “A Word of Welcome,” Derrida credits Benveniste for one discovery : the hostipet-s, or the ancestral ambiguous position of the main term used for the foreigner, stuck between the pole of the favourable visitor (our modern hospitality) and that of the straightforward enemy (our hostility). Benveniste suggests that hosti and related terms emerged to refer to the trans-community visitor with whom the local population establishes a sort of contract, setting between them a duty of ‘compensation’ (aequare). 6 This rapport, described by the author as a sort of soft potlatch, came to an end at a particular historical turn, and Benveniste locates this juncture with the emergence of the nation:

“When an ancient society becomes a nation, the relations between man and man, clan and clan, are abolished. All that persists is the distinction between what is inside and outside the civitas. By a development of which we do not know the exact conditions, the word hostis assumed a ‘hostile’ flavour and henceforward it is only applied to the ‘enemy’.” 7

Derrida refers again to Benveniste, in Of Hospitality, when looking, this time, at the Greek term xenos. Xenos is not the word for the foreigner alone : it refers indiscriminately to the received and the receiving parts in the process of hospitality. 8 All the way down to modern French, the bivalence is perpetuated, with the term hôte standing for both sides: “… the hôte, be he the one welcoming (host) or the one being welcomed (guest).” 9 The hosti and the xenos are thus not just the ancestors of our words for the stranger. Fundamentally, the words refer to a process, to a phenomenon, to an event more than to an individual : hospitality. Behind the foreigner, there is a cultural and historical moment : the welcoming of the stranger – hospitality.

“A Word of Welcome” is introduced by Derrida as an hypothesis very close to our present argument: “It would concern, on first view, the relationships between an ethics of hospitality (an ethics as hospitality) and a law or a politics of hospitality, for example, in the tradition of what Kant calls the conditions of universal hospitality in cosmopolitical law.” 10 As we shall see, the ambitious, and concession-less ideal of a universal hospitality, for Kant in particular, will encounter unavoidable contradictions. Instead, Derrida will shift to questioning the possibility of an ethics of hospitality, or even of an ethics as hospitality, that is, the unveiling of the historico-cultural figure of the foreigner  as playing a central role in the ancestral narratives that have founded western ethics. Emmanuel Levinas appears as the key interpreter for this task, inasmuch his elaboration of an innovative understanding of ethics referred extensively from the classical texts and the commentarial traditions of Judaism.

Does Levinas speak of hospitality ? In passing only, or as a symbol, but his phenomenological description of the relation to the Other operates as a hint towards what might have been the oldest customs of the Jewish traditions. Levinas’s ethics locates one’s relation to the other in the immediate event of the face-to-face, the subject’s realisation that in her encounter of the Other’s face there is more than a relation of utility, or of indifference. In her apparition before me, the Other’s face is naked, vulnerable, waiting of me for my acceptance of her. Here, Levinas talks at a phenomenological level, that is, as what fundamentally takes place in the encounter of the Other, at a level forgotten under our everyday habituation of the event. Derrida sees in this the shadows of a process of welcoming : “the yes to the other will already be responding to the welcoming of the other …, to the yes of the other. … This responsible response is surely a yes, but a yes to preceded by the yes of the other.” 11 What happens in the course of this welcoming? In Totality and Infinity, Levinas provides an intriguing answer : “to welcome the Other is to put in question my freedom.” 12 The phenomenological existentialist angle adopted by Levinas is clear : through the face-to-face, the Other pulls me out of my self-contented ego, of my ipseity ; she reminds me of my intrinsic vulnerability, and thus of my subjectivity to the Other. But this statement can also be read in the lights of the aforementioned ancient practices of hospitality, when the hosti was understood as a full-fledged contract, the institution of a rapport establishing the guest’s and the host’s rights, but also their duties. The first guaranteed their freedom, while the second defined it by giving it limits. Around the foreigner, revolve rights and duties, privileges and responsibility. 13 But it is, perhaps, at an even deeper level that Levinas accounts for an interpretation of an ethics as foreignness. Paraphrasing Levinas, Derrida writes:

“the hôte who receives (the host), the one who welcomes the invited or received hôte (the guest), the welcoming hôte who considers himself the owner of the place, is in truth a hôte received in his own home. He receives the hospitality that he offers in his own home ; he receives it from his own home—which, in the end, does not belong to him. The hôte as host is guest. The dwelling opens itself to itself, to its “essence” without essence, as a “land of asylum or refuge”.” 14

The key here is Levinas’s notion of the home, understood as an extension of what Heidegger meant by dwelling. It refers to the thrownness of the human individual not only in an undecided society, culture and historical context, but also, precisely, in a specific home as the house, the demeure, the place of one’s dwelling par excellence. 15 His description is strikingly powerful : “The possibility for the home to open to the Other is as essential to the essence of the home as closed doors and windows.” 16 The symbolic order goes even beyond, when Levinas elaborates his controversial concept of the feminine. Levinas and his commentators desperately tried, afterwards, to insist that the feminine is a phenomenological state, and not referring to an actual, empirical woman. It is an allusion to the undeniably universal phenomenological experience of one’s encounter with “the feminine being.” And this encounter, fundamentally, initially, foundationally, takes place in the form of an event of welcoming. Coming to life, as a human, it is being welcomed, before the familial home, in the organic dwelling of the feminine. Coming to be, it is being granted the right to stay. Being alive, it is experiencing the hospitality given to a stranger.

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This is not just any person – this is a guest, a stranger, an individual looking for a shelter in a moment of life-or-death. Clearly, for Kant, “it is better to break with the duty of hospitality rather than break with the absolute duty of veracity, fundamental to humanity and to human sociality in general.” (Derrida)

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It is also vis-à-vis the more classical trends of western ethics that Derrida’s reformulation of Levinas around hospitality brings a refreshing critique. This critique is addressed primarily to Kant, as arguably the most influential philosopher of morality in the modern age, but also as a major inspiration in our understanding of cosmopolitanism. Cleverly, Derrida finds in one of Kant’s most famous examples a situation of hospitality. Kant’s categorical imperative implies that if a murderer knocks at my door to confirm whether the person he is looking for is inside, the imperative of saying the truth forces me to contribute to the quest of the murderer. Here, the death of the person is less important than the utterance of a lie. But this is not just any person – this is a guest, a stranger, an individual looking for a shelter in a moment of life-or-death. Clearly, for Kant, “it is better to break with the duty of hospitality rather than break with the absolute duty of veracity, fundamental to humanity and to human sociality in general.” 17 In other words, Kant’s move towards a universal ethics also implies that no one is given any preferential treatment, even the stranger who had been, historically and culturally, the exception. The new reference is the law:

“The Kantian host treats the foreigner as a human being, but he sets up his relationship to the one who is in his house as a matter of the law, in the same way as he also does the relationships linking him to murderers, the police, or judges. From the point of view of the law, the guest, even when he is well received, is first of all a foreigner, he must remain a foreigner. Hospitality is due to the foreigner, certainly, but remains, like the law, conditional, and thus conditioned in its dependence on the unconditionality that is the basis of the law.” 18

Here, it is the notion of conditionality/unconditionality that serves as the central aporia of Kant’s position, for the deconstructive critique of Derrida. Derrida aims, here, at showing how Kant’s claims contradict their assumed principle. Kant’s “Third Definitive Article for a Perpetual Peace” states that “The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality.” Law, limits and conditions, but universality. Derrida is soon to unveil the actual limits of Kant’s project, and they are more numerous than what was announced :

“universal hospitality is here only juridical and political ; it grants only the right of temporary sojourn and not the right of residence ; it concerns only the citizens of States ; and, in spite of its institutional character, it is founded on a natural right, the common possession of the round and finite surface of the earth, across which humans cannot spread ad infinitum.” 19

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For Levinas, the aim of peace is not a part of a political project. When Kant aims at peace through the ideal of universal hospitality, he hopes to extinguish its twin concept, hostility, but it is a denial of difference for the stranger, taken as yet just another subject of the law. On the other hand, Levinas reasserts the event of hospitality as the original setting of peace that must be rediscovered.

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It is in this axis that the general Kantian project is criticised, by contrast with the ethics of Levinas, wilfully asymmetrical and therefore more at par with the age-old traditions of hospitality. But would not Levinas’s vision of the Other as the infinite, as that which calls upon me, asking for my responsibility, be a version of the demand for an unconditional hospitality ? Derrida asks the question, 20 but it is through the larger implications of these two competing ethics that Levinas’s advantage appears. This is so, because for Levinas, the aim of peace is not a part of a political project. When Kant aims at peace through the ideal of universal hospitality, he hopes to extinguish its twin concept, hostility, but it is a denial of difference for the stranger, taken as yet just another subject of the law. On the other hand, Levinas reasserts the event of hospitality as the original setting of peace that must be rediscovered. Levinas tells us that there is a way to reach peace, and it is in the foundational event of the encounter of the Other as Other. 21 This peace is not just a primary, an imagined historical beginning ; it can be found in the present and prepared for the future ; but it occurs at a level different from that of concrete politics : “Of peace there can be only an eschatology.” 22 It is a peace that “does not take place in the objective history disclosed by war, as the end of that war or as the end of history.” 23

War and peace : it is indeed what is in debate between Kant and Levinas. According to Derrida, Kant’s perspective on peace is always one anxious of its backdrop of hostility, of the possible return of conflicts : “The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state : the natural state is one of war. This does not always mean open hostilities, but at least an unceasing threat of war.” 24 For Levinas, the situation is reversed : even war is marked by the past and possibilities of a welcoming of the face. “One can make war only against a face ; one can kill, or give oneself the prohibition not to kill, only where the epiphany of the face has taken place, even if one rejects, forgets, or denies it in an allergic reaction.” 25 Levinas, in echo of the etymological discovery of Benveniste, locates hospitality before hostility, and hostility as being in dependence upon hospitality. Derrida comments:

“War or allergy, the inhospitable rejection, is still derived from hospitality. Hostility manifests hospitality ; it remains in spite of itself a phenomenon of hospitality, with the frightful consequence that war might be interpreted as the continuation of peace by other means, or at least as the non-interruption of peace or hospitality.” 26

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Levinas, in echo of the etymological discovery of Benveniste, locates hospitality before hostility, and hostility as being in dependence upon hospitality.

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Benveniste, indeed, as we return to the words themselves. Beyond hospitality, beyond ethics and culture, in other words, beyond the political, there is a more fundamental level, unarguably, for both Levinas and Derrida : language. In the next section, we shall see how foreignness can be found in the very phenomenology of language.


Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979.

Atkinson, Geoffroy. Les Nouveaux Horizons de la Renaissance. Geneva: Droz, 1935.

Diderot, Denis. Rameau’s Nephew and Other Works. Translated by Jacques Barzun and Ralph H. Bowen. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956.

Baslez, Marie-Françoise. L’Etranger dans la Grèce antique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1984.

Benveniste, Emile. Indo-European Language and Society. Translated by Elizabeth Palmer. Miami: University of Miami Press, 1973.

Bernadete, Seth G., trans. The Complete Greek Tragedies, vol. I, Aeschylus. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1959.

Coward, Harold. Derrida and Indian Philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Critchley, Simon, Reiner Schürmann. On Heidegger’s Being and Time. London, New York: Routledge, 2008.

de Ferrière, Jean. Dictionnaire de droit et de pratique. Paris: Brunet, 1740.

de Monbron, Fougeret. Le Cosmopolite ou le Citoyen du monde, suivi de La Capitale des Gaules ou la Nouvelle Babylone. Bordeaux: Ducros, 1970.

Delain, Pierre. “Le visage ne signifie pas, il s’exprime, il est derrière le signe, il se donne en personne, comme la parole vive ou la voix.” Idixa. Accessed November 25th, 2013.

Derrida, Elsewhere. DVD. Directed by Safaa Fathy. New York: Icarus Films, 2001.

Derrida, Jacques and Anne Dufourmantelle. Of Hospitality. Translated by Rachel Bowlby. Stanford University Press, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques and Geoffrey Bennington. Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques and Safaa Fathy. Tourner les mots. Paris: Galilée, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford University Press, 1999.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. Sussex, UK: The Harvester Press, 1982.

Derrida, Jacques. Monolingualism of the Other or the Prosthesis of Origin. Translated by Patrick Mensah. Stanford University Press, 1998.

Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Translated by Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London, UK: Routledge. 2012.

Frame, Donald M., trans. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Translated by James Stratchey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1955.

Ganguly, Debjani. Caste, Colonialism and Counter-Modernity. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Mind. Translated by J. B. Baillie. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie, and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Kant, Immanuel. On History. Translated by Lewis White Beck. New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1963.

Kant, Immanuel. Perpetual Peace. Translated by Lewis White Beck. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1957.

Kostecke, Steve trans. Plato’s Apology of Socrates. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011.

Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Entre Nous. Translated by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav. London: Continuum, 2007.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Existence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Dordrecht, Netherlands, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.

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.

Levinas, Emmanuel.Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures. Translated by Gary D. Mole. London: The Athlone Press, 1994.

Lord, Carnes, trans. Aristotle’s Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Madison, Greg. “Existential Migration.” Existential Analysis, 17.2 (2006): 238-60.

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Wiktionary contributors. “there.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Accessed May 1, 2014.

Wiktionary contributors. “ξένος.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary,ξένος#Ancient_Greek. Accessed May 1, 2014.

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence. New York: Picador, 2008.

Supplementary References

Appiah, Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006.

Beck, Ulrich. The Cosmopolitan Vision. Translated by Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity, 2006.

Critchley, Simon. Ethics-politics-subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas and Contemporary French Thought. London & New York: Verso, 2009.

Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction. Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass Publishers, 2007.

Davis, Colin. Critical Excess: Overreading in Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas, Žižek and Cavell. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Davis, Colin. Levinas: an Introduction. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death & Literature in Secret. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Derrida, Jacques. The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Glendinning, Simon. In the Name of Phenomenology. Oxford & New York: Routledge, 2007.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1978.

Peeters, Benoit. Derrida: a Biography. Translated by Andrew Brown. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.

Image courtesy: Helaine Chardon



  1. Emmanuel Levinas, “Totality and Infinity: Preface to the German Edition,” in Entre Nous, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (London: Continuum, 2007), 171.
  2. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).
  3. Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford University Press, 2000).
  4. Jacques Derrida, “A Word of Welcome,” in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford University Press, 1999).
  5. Emile Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society, trans. Elizabeth Palmer (Miami: University of Miami Press, 1973). Vocabulary of Indo-European Institutions is the literal translation of the French title.
  6. Ibid., 76.
  7. Ibid., 78.
  8. Wiktionary contributors, “ξένος,” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary,ξένος#Ancient_Greek (accessed May 1, 2014).
  9. Derrida, “A Word of Welcome,” 18.
  10. Derrida, “A Word of Welcome,” 19-20.
  11. Ibid., 23.
  12. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority, trans. A. Lingis. (Pittsburgh, PA: Dusquesne University Press, 1992), 85.T
  13. If at all the present essay would dare entering the realm of political concerns and policy suggestions, it would certainly be at this level : to maintain hospitality against the model of the supposedly cosmopolitan Western society. It would be insisting that it is not just a matter of rights – for the locals, and for the foreigners – but especially of duty. There would be specific duties expected from the citizens of a country, precisely for and only for their foreigners. Kristeva hints at that : “On the contrary, if the nation-states were still to survive a long time… it would then become necessary to institute a statute for foreigners, to be protected from abuses on both sides and to specify the rights and obligations of all concerned. Such a statute would have to be temporary, progressive, and adapt itself to changes in social needs and attitudes” (Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 99). We can radicalise Kristeva’s claim, and suggest that here the stakes are towards the possibility of the individual accessing ethics actively, through her own participation in duty, rather than passively, by expecting from the State a set of unquestionable rights. Perpetuating foreignness against the Kantian reduction of cosmopolitanism, it is perpetuating hospitality as the possibility for an asymmetrical ethics of the exception.
  14. Derrida, “A Word of Welcome,” 41-42.
  15. His discussion of the demeure (Totality and Infinity, 152-174) is nonetheless potentially controversial, as Levinas posits the home as a place of peaceful recollection, away from the immediate challenge of the Other’s face. Would such an idealistic conception of the house as peaceful dwelling stand across societies, for instance for women in many countries ?
  16. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 172-173.
  17. Derrida and Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, 71.
  18. Ibid., 71-73.
  19. Derrida, “A Word of Welcome,” 87.
  20. Ibid., 48.
  21. Ibid., 49.
  22. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 22.
  23. Ibid. 24.
  24. Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1957), 10.
  25. Derrida, “A Word of Welcome,” 90.
  26. Ibid., 95.