Can Ethics be the First Philosophy?

Published March 23, 2017 - Updated November 29, 2020

Emmanuel Levinas is a unique philosopher in the 20th century. He redefines traditional philosophy by radically re-thinking it from the point of view of justice, which in his understanding originates in the encounter with the other. For Aristotle, the “first philosophy” is metaphysics: what is the meaning of the verb “to be.” This leads to a whole system of ontology that serves as the background to 2500 years of metaphysical thought. Throughout the centuries, philosophers have tried to reinterpret this definition of metaphysics or to break away from it. The last philosopher who challenged the Aristotelian foundation was Heidegger: He claimed that “being” is always the being of a subject, it is “existence,” and therefore we can approach metaphysics through an analysis of “Dasein.”

Levinas is not satisfied with Heidegger’s analysis because the dimension of ethics is strangely missing in Heidegger’s approach. Levinas takes the next step and systematically interprets existence and transcendence in light of the birth of ethical meaning. By “ethics” he does not mean rationalist self-legislation, the freedom of choice (deontology), the calculation of good outcomes (utilitarianism), or the cultivation of virtues (virtue ethics). Levinas is not an ethicist, he develops a philosophy of consciousness that arises only in relation to the primary being of other subjects. In the course of this analysis, he also develops a theory of non-intentional consciousness. In the following, I will summarize his arguments based on his 1984 essay entitled “Ethics as First Philosophy.”

The essay concludes with these words: “This is the question of the meaning of being: not the ontology of the understanding of that extraordinary verb, but the ethics of its justice. The question ‘par excellence’ or the question of philosophy. Not ‘Why being rather than nothing?’, but how being justifies itself.” (p.86)

This quote summarizes Levinas’ break from first philosophy as an ontological question of being to an ethical inquiry into the justification of the being of others. In ‘Ethics as first philosophy‘, Emanuel Levinas establishes an entirely new framework: he goes beyond Heidegger’s notion of being and borrows from Sartre’s’ conception of the Other. Levinas parts with the phenomenological legacy of Heidegger in Section I of the essay by ruling out intentionality as the requisite for knowledge. Prior to consciousness and its structure of intentionality, there exists a non-intentionality in the human mind, that passively subsists beneath our cogito.

Being is intelligibility. Being and knowledge correlate, and “knowing” is free from otherness. Insofar as being is intelligible, it can always be apprehended by a subject. “Knowing” is an act of “grasping,” it appropriates the otherness of “things” throughout the world. Knowledge is only unique in that it has a dependent relation to the ego. The “I” separates itself from others through the creation of this knowledge-relation. It gains independence as a result of the uniqueness derived from this creation: The being of the ego is already a construction.

In Section I of the text, Levinas refers to the idea of grasping for things as a metaphor for acquiring knowledge. This activity of grasping for things involves a desire for the satisfaction that they provide. The whole of human lived experience has been expressed in terms of experience – relationally. Intentionality is linked to the lived experience which contributes to the identification of being and knowledge.

In Section II Levinas explores the possibility of going beyond the notion of thought understood as knowledge, and he brings a new term into the play: wisdom. Drawing from Husserl, Levinas examines his theory of representation in the phenomenological analysis of the object. The object as such is already constituted through a relationship. Levinas says “within consciousness… knowledge is, by the same token, a relation to an other of consciousness and almost the aim or the will of that other which is an object (78).” Here, intentionality is introduced and establishes the I as the foundation for all other differences. This self-consciousness establishes itself as an absolute being through its identification of nature and the powers of knowledge acquisition. This intentionality of consciousness acts to sharpen and hone its powers of illumination and science, but it fails when it begins to reflect upon itself. As a result, consciousness falls back into a state of aimlessness; it “knows” something outside the structure of intentionality (which always requires an object,) but this knowledge is indirect and operates in a non-objectifying manner. (p.79). This non-intentional consciousness passively subsists beneath all reflection. “The question is what exactly happens, then, in this non-reflective consciousness considered merely to be pre-reflective and the implicit partner of an intentional consciousness which, in reflection, intentionally aims for the thinking self, as if the thinking ego appeared in the world and belonged to it?” (p.81)

In Section III Levinas addresses the question of whether the knowledge of the non-intentional, non-reflective, consciousness can possibly be considered “knowledge.” Because non-intentionality contains no willful aim, it is not an act, according to Levinas, but pure passivity and therefore exists and endures implicitly outside of time.

Where intentionality is accompanied by the ego, non-intentionality is accompanied by the pre-reflective consciousness and produces the passive “bad conscience” (mauvaise conscience), restless and devoid of any willfulness. This timid bad conscience exists anterior to the ego; it is unable to sufficiently assert itself, and it creates a form of awareness which the self-affirming ego hates. Levinas says that non-intentionality produces the restless and passive “bad conscience” that creates the need to assert itself with intentional thought. At the same time, this assertion of intentional thought needs to be examined from the place of non-intentionality. It triggers a response that attempts to justify one’s right to be, and in this response, the language of ethics is born. “It is in the passivity of the non-intentional, in the way it is spontaneous and precedes the formulation of any metaphysical ideas on the subject, that the very justice of the position within being is questioned, a position which asserts itself with intentional thought, knowledge and a grasp of the here and now. What one sees in this questioning is being as mauvaise conscience; to be open to question, but also to questioning, to have to respond. Language is born in responsibility. One has to speak, to say I, to be in the first person, precisely to be me (moi). But, from that point, in affirming this me being, one has to respond to one’s right to be. It is necessary to think through to this point Pascal’s phrase, ‘the I (moi) is hateful.’ (p.82)

In Section IV of the essay, Levinas introduces Sartre’s’ notion of the Other. The justification of one’s right to exist does not come from an abstract and anonymous law, or some judicial entity or cultural system, but because of one’s concrete fear for the Other. Levinas argues (against Heidegger) that the idea of being at home, a place that rightfully belongs to you and constitutes your “Dasein”, is a profound utopia. You cannot derive your right to be from this natural belonging, from an identity given to you by your culture. “My being-in-the-world or my ‘place in the sun’ (Pascal), my being at home, have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man whom I have already oppressed or starved, or driven out into a third world; are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing? Pascal’s ‘my place in the sun’ marks the beginning of the image of the usurpation of the whole earth.”

Because this is so, our relation to others is driven by fear. It is not Hobbes’ fear of what the Other can do to me, it is the fear of what I have (innocently) already done to the Other. It is the fear emanating from all the violence and murder implicit in my existence, in spite of its conscious and intentional innocence. This fear reaches deeper than our ‘self-consciousness,’ in spite of whatever moves are made towards a smoothing or harmonizing of our sense of existence.

Levinas says that people wear masks. Nevertheless, meaning arises from the “proximity of the other,” not from any particular metaphysical system of ideas. This happens because we are affected by the “face of the other,” by the “nakedness and destitution of the expression as such,” by the extreme exposure, defenselessness, and vulnerability of this other, which expresses itself underneath any particular expression: “From the beginning there is a face to face steadfast in its exposure to invisible death, to a mysterious forsakenness. Beyond the visibility of whatever is unveiled, and prior to any knowledge of death, mortality lies in the Other.”

The face-to-face relation ruptures the ego’s space; it is incongruent with the sameness that permeates the relation between subject and world. It calls me into responsibility and puts my being into question. This relation with the Other is archaic and binds me more rigorously than any other form of causality or ontological order will do.

In Section V, Levinas further explores the reversal that takes place through the encounter with the other. He states that the responsibility created through the encounter destroys the “formulas of generality by which my knowledge (savoir) or acquaintance (connaissance) of the other man represents him to me as my fellow man.” I become “unique and the chosen one” through this encounter. There is something “non-interchangeable” in this experience, and it sets us free because we recognize that we cannot be reduced to the masks we wear, or to the features that constitute individual beings in the social order, or to the characters we become in the mirror of our own self-consciousness.

Levinas resonates with Buddhist thinking when he says that the path of ethics and spirituality can only be found when the ego lays down its sovereignty (its ‘hateful’ modality). This is the path that will also bring us to the question of the meaning of “being,” because we are beginning to grasp the difference between the face and the mask. First philosophy, understood in this way, recognizes the ambiguity of the self-identity of consciousness. It sees the fragility in the move that creates the ego with its autonomy and sovereignty, rising above its environment. Levinas also says that precisely at the height of this unconditional identity, the ego recognizes that it is hateful.

The conclusion, then, is clear: “The ego is the very crisis of the being of a being in the human domain. A crisis of being, not because the sense of this verb might still need to be understood in its semantic secret and might call on the powers of ontology, but because I begin to ask myself if my being is justified, if the Da of my Dasein is not already the usurpation of somebody else’s place.”

In the final section of the text, Levinas states that the question ‘To be or not to be?’ (Heidegger’s why is there something rather than nothing?) is not a good starting point, because it forces us to assume a position of identity in being and forecloses the possibility to investigate the vagueness of our bad conscience. “Humans prefer that which justifies being to that which assures it.” Levinas insists that the first philosophy will begin here, in the darkness of the mauvaise conscience. It begins with the instability of our passive non-intentional consciousness, which is also different from the consciousness of my own death and suffering. The first question of philosophy can be stated in this way: How do I justify my being in the light of my responsibility for the death of the Other, which interrupts the carefree spontaneity of my own naive perseverance?

Ethics as first philosophy is the prime example of a ‘reversal’ in philosophical thinking. Levinas successfully creates a first philosophy that goes beyond the ontological question of being. Relying to some degree on Heidegger, Sartre, and Nietzsche, Levinas outlines a new paradigm for the understanding of Being. He does this by circumventing the concept of intentionality in the structure of consciousness that reveals knowledge through contact with concrete reality. Instead, he brings into light a layer of consciousness that is non-intentional and non-objectifying. This allows him to reflect on the meaning of the encounter with the other, who is a reality in his or her own right, and who is unassimilable to the self.

The philosophy of Levinas has some resemblance to the theory of Lacan, and also to the Christian doctrine of original sin. To start with Lacan: Both thinkers proceed from the idea that the subject is not primarily defined by its relationships to objects, but rather by the relationship to an “Other”, which could be a structural place in the topology of the subject (Lacan) or the concrete face of the other in its vulnerability. These dialogic philosophies pick up age-old themes from theology, where the Other was understood to be God. It is interesting that with the beginning of modern philosophy, the question of the sinfulness of human nature has not been pursued until Kierkegaard brought it back into the focus of existentialism. Levinas, in his deep humanity and without saying it clearly, reflects on the universal feelings of guilt for our failures to treat each other with dignity and love.