The Face of the Other (selections from Totality and Infinity) By Emmanuel Levinas

Transcendence as the Idea of Infinity[*]

The schema of theory in which metaphysics was found distinguished
theory from all ecstatic behavior.    Theory excludes the implantation
of the knowing being in the known being, the entering into the Beyond
by ecstasy.   It remains knowledge, relationship.   To be sure, representa-
tion does not constitute the primordial relation with being.   It is none-
the less privileged, precisely as the possibility of recalling the separation
of the I.   And to have substituted for the magical communion of species
and the confusion of distinct orders a spiritual relation in which beings
remain at their post but communicate among themselves will have
been the imperishable merit of the "admirable Greek people," and the
very institution of philosophy.   In condemning suicide, at the beginning
of the Phaedoj Socrates refuses the false spiritualism of the pure and
simple and immediate union with the Divine, characterized as desertion;
he proclaims ineluctable the difficult itinerary of knowledge starting
from the here below.    The knowing being remains separated from the
known being.    The ambiguity of Descartes's first evidence, revealing
the I and God in turn without merging them, revealing them as two
distinct moments of evidence mutually founding one another, charac-
terizes the very meaning of separation.   The separation of the I is thus
affirmed to be non-contingent, non-provisional.    The distance between
me and God, radical and necessary, is produced in being itself. Philo-
sophical transcendence thereby differs from the transcendence of religions
(in the current thaumaturgic and generally lived sense of this term),
from the transcendence that is already   (or still)   participation, sub-
mergence in the being toward which it goes, which holds the transcend-
ing being in its invisible meshes, as to do it violence.

This relation of the same with the other, where the transcendence of
the relation does not cut the bonds a relation implies, yet where these
bonds do not unite the same and the other into a Whole, is in fact fixed
in the situation described by Descartes in which the "I think" maintains
with the Infinite it can nowise contain and from which it is separated a
relation called "idea of infinity."   To be sure, things, mathematical and

moral notions are also, according to Descartes, presented to us through
their ideas, and are distinct from them. But the idea of infinity is
exceptional in that its ideatum surpasses its idea, whereas for the things
the total coincidence of their "objective" and "formal" realities is not
precluded; we could conceivably have accounted for all the ideas, other
than that of Infinity, by ourselves. Without deciding anything for
the moment as to the veritable significance of the presence of the ideas of
things in us, without holding to the Cartesian argumentation that
proves the separated existence of the Infinite by the finitude of the being
having an idea of infinity (for there perhaps is not much sense to proving
an existence by describing a situation prior to proof and to the problems
of existence), it is of importance to emphasize that the transcendence of
the Infinite with respect to the I which is separated from it and which
thinks it measures (so to speak) its very infinitude. The distance that
separates ideatum and idea here constitutes the content of the ideatum
itself. Infinity is characteristic of a transcendent being as transcendent;
the infinite is the absolutely other. The transcendent is the sole ideatum
of which there can be only an idea in us; it is infinitely removed from its
idea, that is, exterior, because it is infinite.

To think the infinite, the transcendent, the Stranger, is hence not
to think an object. But to think what does not have the lineaments of an
object is in reality to do more or better than think. The distance of tran-
scendence is not equivalent to that which separates the mental act from
its object in all our representations, since the distance at which the object
stands does not exclude, and in reality implies, the possession of the
object, that is, the suspension of its being. The "intentionality" of tran-
scendence is unique in its kind; the difference between objectivity and
transcendence will serve as a general guideline for all the analyses of this
We find that this presence in thought of an idea whose ideatum
overflows the capacity of thought is given expression not only in Aris-
totle's theory of the agent intellect, but also, very often, in Plato.
Against a thought that proceeds from him who "has his own head to
himself,"8 he affirms the value of the delirium that comes from God,
winged thought."7 Delirium here does not have an irrationalist signifi-
cance; it is only a "divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and
convention."8   The fourth type of delirium is reason itself, rising to the

6        Phaedrus, 244a.

7        Phaedrus, 249a.

8        Phaedrus, 265a.



ideas, thought in the highest sense. Possession by a god, enthusiasm, is
not the irrational, but the end of the solitary (and which we will later
call "economic") or inward thought, the beginning of a true experience
the new and of the noumenon—already Desire.

The Cartesian notion of the idea of the Infinite designates a relation
with a being that maintains its total exteriority with respect to him who
thinks it. It designates the contact with the intangible, a contact that
does not compromise the integrity of what is touched. To affirm the
presence in us of the idea of infinity is to deem purely abstract and formal
the contradiction the idea of metaphysics is said to harbor, which Plato
brings up in the Parmenides9—that the relation with the Absolute would
render the Absolute relative. The absolute exteriority of the exterior
being is not purely and simply lost as a result of its manifestation; it
"absolves" itself from the relation in which it presents itself. But the
infinite distance of the Stranger despite the proximity achieved by the
idea of infinity, the complex structure of the unparalleled relation desig-
nated by this idea, has to be described; it is not enough to distinguish
it formally from objectification.

We must now indicate the terms which will state the deformalization
or the concretization of the idea of infinity, this apparently wholly empty
notion. The infinite in the finite, the more in the less, which is ac-
complished by the idea of Infinity, is produced as Desire—not a Desire
that the possession of the Desirable slakes, but the Desire for the
Infinite which the desirable arouses rather than satisfies. A Desire
perfectly disinterested—goodness. But Desire and goodness concretely
presuppose a relationship in which the Desirable arrests the "negativity"
of the I that holds sway in the Same—puts an end to power and emprise.
This is positively produced as the possession of a world I can bestow as a
gift on the Other—that is, as a presence before a face. For the presence
before a face, my orientation toward the Other, can lose the avidity
proper to the gaze only by turning into generosity, incapable of approach-
ing the other with empty hands. This relationship established over the
things henceforth possibly common, that is, susceptible of being said, is
the relationship of conversation. The way in which the other presents
himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face. This
mode does not consist in figuring as a theme under my gaze, in spreading
itself forth as a set of qualities forming an image.   The face of the

9 Parmenides, 133b-135c, 141e-142b.


Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves
me, the idea existing to my own measure and to the measure of its
ideatum—the adequate idea. It does not manifest itself by these
qualities, but Kad'abrb. It expresses itself. The face brings a notion
of truth which, in contradistinction to contemporary ontology, is not the
disclosure of an impersonal Neuter, but expression: the existent breaks
through all the envelopings and generalities of Being to spread out in
its "form" the totality of its "content," finally abolishing the distinc-
tion between form and content. This is not achieved by some sort of
modification of the knowledge that thematizes, but precisely by "themat-
ization" turning into conversation. The condition for theoretical truth
and error is the word of the other, his expression, which every lie already
presupposes. But the first content of expression is the expression itself.
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 [enseignement]. 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. The Aristotelian analysis of the intellect, which discovers
the agent intellect coming in by the gates, absolutely exterior, and yet con-
stituting, nowise compromising, the sovereign activity of reason, already
substitutes for maieutics a transitive action of the master, since reason,
without abdicating, is found to be in a position to receive.

Finally, infinity, overflowing the idea of infinity, puts the spontaneous
freedom within us into question. It commands and judges it and brings
it to its truth. The analysis of the idea of Infinity, to which we gain
access only starting from an I, will be terminated with the surpassing of
the subjective.

The notion of the face, to which we will refer throughout this work,
opens other perspectives: it brings us to a notion of meaning prior to
my Sinngebung and thus independent of my initiative and my power. It
signifies the philosophical priority of the existent over Being, an exterior-
ity that does not call for power or possession, an exteriority that is
not reducible, as with Plato, to the interiority of memory, and yet
the I who welcomes it.   It finally makes possible the descrip-




tion of the notion of the immediate. The philosophy of the immediate is
realized neither in Berkeley's idealism nor in modern ontology. To
say that the existent is disclosed only in the openness of Being is to
say that we are never directly with the existent as such. The immediate
is the interpellation and, if we may speak thus, the imperative of lan-
guage. The idea of contact does not represent the primordial mode of
the immediate. Contact is already a thematization and a reference to a
horizon.   The immediate is the face to face.

Between a philosophy of transcendence that situates elsewhere the true
life to which man, escaping from here, would gain access in the privi-
leged moments of liturgical, mystical elevation, or in dying—and a
philosophy of immanence in which we would truly come into possession of
being when every "other" (cause for war), encompassed by the same,
would vanish at the end of history—we propose to describe, within the
unfolding of terrestrial existence, of economic existence (as we shall call
it), a relationship with the other that does not result in a divine or
human totality, that is not a totalization of history but the idea of infinity.
Such a relationship is metaphysics itself. History would not he the
privileged plane where Being disengaged from the particularism of
points of view (with which reflection would still be affected) is mani-
fested. If it claims to integrate myself and the other within an imper-
sonal spirit this alleged integration is cruelty and injustice, that is, ignores
the Other. History as a relationship between men ignores a position of
the I before the other in which the other remains transcendent with
respect to me. Though of myself I am not exterior to history, I do find
in the Other a point that is absolute with regard to history—not by amal-
gamating with the Other, but in speaking with him. History is worked
over by the ruptures of history, in which a judgment is borne upon it.
When man truly approaches the Other he is uprooted from history.



Ethics and the Face[†]

The face resists possession, resists my powers. In its epiphany, in
expression, the sensible, still graspable, turns into total resistance to the
grasp. This mutation can occur only by the opening of a new dimension.
For the resistance to the grasp is not produced as an insurmountable
resistance, like the hardness of the rock against which the effort of the


hand comes to naught, like the remoteness of a star in the immensity of
space. The expression the face introduces into the world does not defy
the feebleness of my powers, but my ability for power.* The face, still a
thing among things, breaks through the form that nevertheless delimits
it. This means concretely: the face speaks to me and thereby invites me
to a relation incommensurate with a power exercised, be it enjoyment or

And yet this new dimension opens in the sensible appearance of the
face. The permanent openness of the contours of its form in expression
imprisons this openness which breaks up form in a caricature. The face
at the limit of holiness and caricature is thus still in a sense exposed to
powers. In a sense only: the depth that opens in this sensibility modifies
the very nature of power, which henceforth can no longer take, but can
kill. Murder still aims at a sensible datum, and yet it finds itself before
a datum whose being can not be suspended by an appropriation. It finds
itself before a datum absolutely non-neutralizable. The "negation"
effected by appropriation and usage remained always partial. The grasp
that contests the independence of the thing preserves it "for me."
Neither the destruction of things, nor the hunt, nor the extermination of
living beings aims at the face, which is not of the world. They still
belong to labor, have a finality, and answer to a need. Murder alone
lays claim to total negation. Negation by labor and usage, like negation
by representation, effect a grasp or a comprehension, rest on or aim at
affirmation; they can. To kill is not to dominate but to annihilate; it is
to renounce comprehension absolutely. Murder exercises a power over
what escapes power. It is still a power, for the face expresses itself in the
sensible, but already impotency, because the face rends the sensible. The
alterity that is expressed in the face provides the unique "matter" possible
for total negation. I can wish to kill only an existent absolutely inde-
pendent, which exceeds my powers infinitely, and therefore does not op-
pose them but paralyzes the very power of power. The Other is the sole
being I can wish to kill.

But how does this disproportion between infinity and my powers differ
from that which separates a very great obstacle from a force applied to
it? It would be pointless to insist on the banality of murder, which
reveals the quasi-null resistance of the obstacle. This most banal inci-
dent of human history corresponds to an exceptional possibility—since it

* "Mem pouvoir de pouvoir."


claims the total negation of a being. It does not concern the force that
this being may possess as a part of the world. The Other who can
sovereignly say no to me is exposed to the point of the sword or the
revolver's bullet, and the whole unshakeable firmness of his "for itself"
with that intransigent no he opposes is obliterated because the sword or
the bullet has touched the ventricles or auricles of his heart. In the
contexture of the world he is a quasi-nothing. But he can oppose to me a
struggle, that is, oppose to the force that strikes him not a force of
resistance, but the very unforeseeableness of his reaction. He thus
opposes to me not a greater force, an energy assessable and consequently
presenting itself as though it were part of a whole, but the very tran-
scendence of his being by relation to that whole; not some superlative of
power, but precisely the infinity of his transcendence. This infinity,
stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, is his face, is the
primordial expression, is the first word: "you shall not commit murder."
The infinite paralyses power by its infinite resistance to murder, which,
firm and insurmountable, gleams in the face of the Other, in the total
nudity of his defenceless eyes, in the nudity of the absolute openness of
the Transcendent. There is here a relation not with a very great
resistance, but with something absolutely other: the resistance of what
has no resistance—the ethical resistance. The epiphany of the face
brings forth the possibility of gauging the infinity of the temptation
to murder, not only as a temptation to total destruction, but also as the
purely ethical impossibility of this temptation and attempt. If the resist-
ance to murder were not ethical but real, we would have a percep-
tion of it, with all that reverts to the subjective in perception. We
would remain within the idealism of a consciousness of struggle, and not
in relationship with the Other, a relationship that can turn into struggle,
but already overflows the consciousness of struggle. The epiphany of
the face is ethical. The struggle this face can threaten presupposes the
transcendence of expression. The face threatens the eventuality of a
struggle, but this threat does not exhaust the epiphany of infinity, does
not formulate its first word. War presupposes peace, the antecedent and
non-allergic presence of the Other; it does not represent the first event of
the encounter.

The impossibility of killing does not have a simply negative and formal
signification; the relation with infinity, the idea of infinity in us, condi-
tions it positively. Infinity presents itself as a face in the ethical resist-
ance that paralyses my powers and from the depths of defenceless eyes


rises firm and absolute in its nudity and destitution. The comprehension
of this destitution and this hunger establishes the very proximity of the
other. But thus the epiphany of infinity is expression and discourse.
The primordial essence of expression and discourse does not reside in the
information they would supply concerning an interior and hidden world.
In expression a being presents itself; the being that manifests itself
attends its manifestation and consequently appeals to me. This attend-
ance is not the neutrality [le neutre] of an image, but a solicitation that
concerns me by its destitution and its Height. To speak to me is at each
moment to surmount what is necessarily plastic in manifestation. To
manifest oneself as a face is to impose onself above and beyond the mani-
fested and purely phenomenal form, to present oneself in a mode irreduci-
ble to manifestation, the very straightforwardness of the face to face,
without the intermediary of any image, in one's nudity, that is, in one's
destitution and hunger. In Desire are conjoined the movements unto the
Height and unto the Humility of the Other.

Expression does not radiate as a splendor that spreads unbeknown to
the radiating being—which is perhaps the definition of beauty. To
manifest oneself in attending one's own manifestation is to invoke the
interlocutor and expose oneself to his response and his questioning.
Expression does not impose itself as a true representation or as an
action. The being offered in true representation remains a possibility
of appearance. The world which invades me when I engage myself in it
is powerless against the "free thought" that suspends that engagement, or
even refuses it interiorly, being capable of living hidden. 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. The
order of responsibility, where the gravity of ineluctable being freezes all
laughter, is also the order where freedom is ineluctably invoked. It is
thus the irremissible weight of being that gives rise to my freedom. The
ineluctable has no longer the inhumanity of the fateful, but the severe
seriousness of goodness.

This bond between expression and responsibility, this ethical condition
or essence of language, this function of language prior to all disclosure of
being and its cold splendor, permits us to extract language from subjec-
tion to a preexistent thought, where it would have but the servile
function of translating that preexistent thought on the outside, or of


universalizing its interior movements. The presentation of the face is
not true, for the true refers to the non-true, its eternal contemporary,
and ineluctably meets with the smile and silence of the skeptic. The
presentation of being in the face does not leave any logical place for its
contradictory. Thus I cannot evade by silence the discourse which
the epiphany that occurs as a face opens, as Thrasymachus, irritated, tries
to do, in the first book of the Republic (moreover without succeeding).
"To leave men without food is a fault that no circumstance attenuates;
the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary does not apply
here," says Rabbi Yochanan.1 Before the hunger of men responsibility is
measured only "objectively"; it is irrecusable. The face opens the
primordial discourse
whose first word is obligation, which no "interior-
ity" permits avoiding. It is that discourse that obliges the entering into
discourse, the commencement of discourse rationalism prays for, a
"force" that convinces even "the people who do not wish to listen"2 and
thus founds the true universality of reason.

Preexisting the disclosure of being in general taken as basis of knowl-
edge and as meaning of being is the relation with the existent that
expresses himself; preexisting the plane of ontology is the ethical plane.

[*] From Totality and Infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne U. Press, pp. 48-52.

[†] From Totality and Infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne U. Press, pp. 197-201.