The ethics of language

Chapter 4

The ethics of language

The ethics of language has been a recurring topic in this study, and it is certainly one of its main themes. The question of legal interpretation, as posed at the beginning, brought us to the problem of what to base an interpretation on and further to the question of the interpreter’s choice and responsibility. These issues have been discussed in connection to Wittgenstein’s theory of language as well as hermeneutics and deconstruction. The idea of law’s tragic failure and the crisis of legal interpretation can be distinguished in the background of these discussions.

When studying Wittgenstein’s views on language, ethical features were already discerned. The ethical nature of interpretation was clearly seen in Gadamer’s hermeneutics as well and in another form in Eco’s idea of interpretation compared to use. Through the discussion of Derrida and deconstruction, the question of the ethical became problematic. Now that a picture of language and interpretation is starting to take shape, it is time to concentrate on ethics in order to understand more thoroughly what significance ethics can have for a theory of legal interpretation.

Levinas’s work is important for the question at hand, for even though it is a theory in which ethics is the main subject, it contains interesting insights into language as well. His thinking has been influential, and of the theories already discussed both hermeneutics and deconstruction can be understood to engage in a conversation with him. Levinas is a phenomenologist and the roots of his thinking lie in Husserl and Heidegger. He is interested in being and especially in the being of man, with the main focus on ethics. He asks questions like: ‘What makes ethics possible?’ ‘Is there something without which there would be no ethics?’ and ‘What makes us ethical?’ Levinas’s thinking contains a certainty that ethics is possible and occupies a fundamental role in our lives. This is what he tries to convince us of. Ethics is famously ‘first philosophy’: it precedes ontology as well as epistemology.

Language is a substantial issue for Levinas. His work can be interpreted as building alongside a theory of ethics, which is a kind of metaethics, also a theory of language and perhaps even a theory of meaning. Language and ethics go together and belong together. To study the way Levinas understands language can be fruitful, first of all, from the point of view of the philosophy of language because Levinas offers us an intriguing view of communication. Besides, language is such a central theme for him that by studying it we can understand his thinking better. Another reason for concentrating on language is that language and the question of justice are intertwined in Levinas’s work, which is highly relevant for the issues discussed here.

Central themes in Levinasian ethics: responsibility for the other

Levinas’s thinking did not go through very radical changes after his breakthrough work Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (1969). Here he presents his ethical theory. His other major work, Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence (1998), continues to study the same topics but sheds some new light on them as well. In this book the question of language is discussed at length because it had become clear that his previous work included some problems concerning the limits of language and what can be said and talked about.

At the core of Levinas’s theory stands the infinite responsibility for the other.1 It is the other person that makes us ethical. Ethics arises from our meeting with the other because through this meeting ethics is awakened in us. We are given the responsibility for the other, whether we like it or not. Ethics is something completely foreign to our egoistic and totalising attempts to take control of everything around us, to reduce everything to the sphere of sameness, to take hold of it by conceptualising and understanding it. Thus it is ethical to let the other be other, not to try to control alterity, to own it or even to know it.

Levinas’s idea is that I exist in a world surrounded by things that are alien to me and different from me. At a very primary level, I have experiences which lead me to distinguish between myself and other things. I learn to live with these things, to play with them, to control them, to use them. I can enjoy the things at my pleasure. According to Levinas, we have a strong inclination to treat other things as either extensions of ourselves or as alien objects that can be manipulated. This is a primordial egocentrism that we find in ourselves. However, this picture is not applicable to the way we experience other persons. Levinas explains this basic idea of his theory in Totality and Infinity.

The absolutely other is the Other. He [sic] and I do not form a number. The collectivity in which I say ‘you’ or ‘we’ is not a plural of the ‘I’. I, you – these are not individuals of a common concept. Neither possession nor the unity of number nor the unity of concepts link me to the Stranger.

(Levinas 1969: 39)

1 ‘Other’ of ‘the other’ (autrui) sometimes takes an initial capital (the Other) and sometimes not. Levinas uses both versions rather unsystematically. Commentators have used different ways of translating Levinas’s vocabulary. For instance, Llewelyn usually translates Levinas’s Autruias Other, les Autres as Others, autre as other and les autres as others (see Llewelyn 2002a: xiii). The problem is that Levinas is not fully consistent in his own use of the terms.

The other person is not experienced as a thing or an object. When I meet the other for the first time, they are a stranger. I do not know them, I cannot be sure who he or she is or what he or she is like. They inhabit an alien world of their own. I can try to treat them as an object and to place them under my categories, but this means that I would reduce him or her (see Wild 1969). The other person resists the ways in which I take hold of the world. He or she ‘escapes my grasp’ (Levinas 1969: 39).

How, then, is a relation to the other person possible? According to Levinas, this relation is language. In language a relationship is possible between me and the other, in which the other can be other and is not reduced. In language, despite the relation to the same, the other stays transcendent to the same. This relation is enacted in conversation (Levinas 1969: 39). In conversation, the same and the other do not form a totality. Levinas describes it as a face-to-face relationship.

A relation whose terms do not form a totality can hence be produced within the general economy of being only as proceeding from the I to the other, as a face to face, as delineating a distance in depth – that of conversation, of goodness, of Desire – irreducible to the distance the synthetic activity of understanding establishes between the diverse terms, other with respect to one another, that lend themselves to its synoptic operation.

(Levinas 1969: 39, emphasis in original)

For Levinas, knowledge necessarily possesses a kind of controlling quality. The idea is that when we know something we take control over what we know, and thus the object is not allowed to stay other. The ethical attitude to somebody is neither intellectual nor intentional. An ethical relationship or an ethical way of approaching someone is by not trying to know and control them but to let them stay other. Conversation is the way for the self and the other to be face to face in such a way that the other is not egoistically reduced to sameness. Conversation maintains a distance between me and the other person. In it, the transcendence of the other is possible. Egoism does not vanish in conversation, but the very fact of being in conversation consists of recognising in the other a right over this egoism (Levinas 1969: 40). The idea is that when encountering the other person face to face in conversation we cannot fully know or control them.

Levinas defines ethics in his own way. An ethical approach is a non-totalising approach to the other. It is a relation between me and the other that calls me into question.

A calling into question of the same – which cannot occur within the egoist spontaneity of the same – is brought about by the other. We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his [sic] irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics.

(Levinas 1969: 43)

The other person is a disruption of my egoism: I cannot know them and I cannot possess them. Levinas continues:

Metaphysics, transcendence, the welcoming of the other by the same, of the Other by me, is concretely produced as the calling into question of the same by the other, that is, as the ethics that accomplishes the critical essence of knowledge. And as critique precedes dogmatism, metaphysics precedes ontology.

(Levinas 1969: 43)

This rich quotation includes some central ideas in Totality and Infinity. Metaphysics, the transcendence of the other, is a welcoming of the other by the same. This means that the other is not reduced to a sum, a unity, or a ‘we’. This transcendence is concretely produced. It happens through the calling into question of the same by the other. This is an ethics that produces the critical essence of knowledge. And because critique precedes dogmatism, this metaphysics also precedes ontology. According to Levinas, ontology actually presupposes metaphysics. Before ontology, there is the ultimate relation in being, the saying to the other, which is a relation with an existent, a singular existing somebody (see Levinas 1969: 48). This way metaphysics not only precedes knowledge, it also precedes ontology.

Western philosophy has often been ontology in which the other plays a secondary role. This has included a suppression and possession of the other. Possession affirms the other but strips it of its independence. Levinas goes as far as to say that ontology as first philosophy is a philosophy of power (Levinas 1969: 46). This egoism of ontology Levinas recognises in Socratic philosophy as well as in Heidegger’s thinking. Levinas defines his own position as an aim to sketch how a non-allergic relation with alterity can be found in discourse (Levinas 1969: 46–47). This relation with alterity, in which the other person’s otherness stays intact, is located in the face-to-face relationship of two people.

We encounter the other person in an ethical way, in a way that is not totalising, when we encounter the face. The face is for Levinas something abstract and also something that cannot be described but at the same time something very concrete: another human being. The face represents what is most human in humans, it marks an aspect of the person that is significant. Understandably, Levinas’s use of the expression ‘the face’ has inspired some debate as to what he really means. It is a difficult concept in many ways. He defines it mostly in negative terms: the face is not something we can see or touch, it has no plastic form, it has no adequate idea, etc. (see, for example, Waldenfels 2002: 67). The face reveals the human being to me. It is what resists my totalising attempts. Another human being can never be completely and fully known, something always stays a mystery. Thus the face, which is the basis for an ethical relationship, is something that cannot be completely understood, otherwise it would not be able to refute totalising sameness. The face does not belong to the sphere of ontology or epistemology but to something more profound.

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 approaching 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 [sic], exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face.

(Levinas 1969: 50)

The face should not be understood as a picture that we see. The face of the other overflows the plastic images it leaves. It does not manifest itself in this way but by expressing itself in conversation, that is, through language. And what does it say? The first content of expression is the expression itself. To approach the other in conversation is to welcome their expression. It means to receive something that is beyond the capacities of the I. This is the idea of infinity (Levinas 1969: 51). It is, contrary to totality, the way in which the other can transcend. Conversation is a non-allergic relation, which for Levinas means an ethical relation.

Levinas also explains the face like this: the face resists our cognitive power; it cannot be known but felt. Here he opposes Husserl, who discusses the idea of intentional consciousness as the primary way of a person to relate to other things. For Levinas an important level exists before intentionality. Intentional consciousness is conditioned by life. Life is sentience, enjoyment and nourishment (see Critchley 2002: 20–21). Before the level of the conscious and self-conscious subject there is the level of a living subject, the self of enjoyment. It is this self of enjoyment that is claimed ethically by the other. The ethical subject is a sensible subject, not a thinking subject. The ethical subject is a subject who lives, eats, drinks, enjoys and needs.

Only a subject that eats can be for the other, or can signify. Signification, the-one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood. Sensibility can be a vulnerability, an exposedness to the other or a saying only because it is an enjoyment. The passivity of wounds, the ‘hemorrhage’ of the for-the-other, is the tearing away of the mouthful of bread from the mouth that tastes in full enjoyment.

(Levinas 1998: 74)

Ethics derives from the moment when we discover the face of the other. We realise that the face says, ‘you shall not commit murder’. This is the primordial expression, according to Levinas. It is an epiphany. The resistance of the other ‘gleams in the face of the Other, in the total nudity of his [sic] defenceless eyes’ (Levinas 1969: 199). The way the other resists murder is ethical, not real. It is a resistance of that which has no resistance (the defenceless other). It is not resistance by struggle. The relation between the same and the other can turn into a struggle, but the primary relationship is with a defenceless other. This way war presupposes peace (Levinas 1969: 199).

I have a responsibility towards the other, and there is no way out of this responsibility. I am the other’s servant. In meeting the face of the other, I engage in a conversation with the actual human being in front of me, and my attitude is more that of sharing than grasping, of exchanging rather than taking hold of something.

The other (autrui) is not an object of comprehension first and an interlocutor second. The two relations are intertwined. In other words, the comprehension of the other (autrui) is inseparable from his [sic] invocation. To comprehend a person is already to speak with him.

(Levinas 1996a: 6)

The face is the way the other presents himself or herself to me. And the face manifests itself by expressing itself. Thus language is more fundamental than being and ontology, and also more fundamental than truth. According to Levinas, in order for there to be any truth, knowledge or being, there already has to be the expression of the other. The first content of expression is the expression itself.

The ethical relation is asymmetrical

We cannot choose our ethical responsibility because it precedes our choices. We are responsible regardless of whether we want to be or not, even if we neither do anything to deserve it nor do anything wrong. This responsibility is fundamental; it is what makes us human. ‘To be an I means then not to be able to escape responsibility, as though the whole edifice of creation rested on my shoulders […]. The uniqueness of the I is the fact that no one can answer for me’ (Levinas 1996a: 55). Levinas describes responsibility as the fundamental structure of subjectivity. It is not strictly speaking responsibility on the level of norms and commands, that is, on the level of good and bad; it is a responsibility that precedes commands and rules.

It is important to notice that the ethical relationship is asymmetrical. The same owes more to the other than to itself; it must respect the other even more than itself. Responsibility for the other person is not reciprocal. According to Levinas, I am responsible for the other but their responsibility for me is their affair. The ethical relation is by definition the face-to-face relationship with the other wherein I am responsible for the other. This may be one of the most original features in Levinas’s theory, but it also makes that theory quite challenging. The practical consequences of it are difficult, and attempts to import Levinasian thinking into the philosophy of law also face many problems, as we see below.

Levinas’s ethics is situated on two different levels. Deep down is the face-toface relationship that is ethical and that forms the foundation for everything. But there is also another level, the level of morals and our everyday ethical choices, the level of normativity. We are responsible for the other regardless of our actions and intentions. But how we carry out this responsibility is a complicated matter. This is the level of the good and the bad: it is the moral, political and juridical level. It is the level of the actual choices we make, but ethics is something else. It cannot itself legislate for society or produce rules on how people should act (see Levinas 1984: 65). So Levinas does require of us to take infinite responsibility for the other, but at the ethical level this is no request because we already have this responsibility even if we did not want to take it. Nevertheless, his theory is also a normative statement on how we should act: we should respect the life of the other even more than our own. ‘To be for the Other is to be good’ (Levinas 1969: 261). The ethical and the normative come together at the moment when the face asks us not to hurt it. The face asks, demands, or begs us not to kill. Language stands at the centre of chiasmus of the two levels; one can also say that language combines the two levels: the ethical-metaphysical and the normative.

The saying and the said

As we see, ethics and language are very much intertwined in Levinas’s thinking. The conversation with the other is the ethical relation. However, the way ethics and language come together is not simple. I will now turn to discussing language in more detail.

As noted above, for Levinas the ethical calling into question of the same comes first. It preceded everything, even intentionality and conceptualisation. But how can language be the happening of the ethical relation, when the ethical relation is something that happens before, or on a deeper level, than our conceptual way of taking hold of the world? What kind of language or conversation is Levinas thinking of when he says that the face-to-face relationship is conversation? He says that the profound essence of language is the irreversibility of the relation between me and the other in which the other is exterior and master. The other is an interlocutor and remains beyond the system of language. They are not on the same plane as I. Language can be spoken only if the interlocutor is the commencement of their discourse. Thus the communication of ideas and the reciprocity of dialogue, that is, what we normally understand as language and discourse, have their roots in the asymmetrical relation between the same and the other (Levinas 1969: 101, 195). The idea is that the face-to-face relationship takes place in a language that is a special kind of conversation. In it, the infinity and the alterity of the other are maintained. This conversation is the commencement of ordinary reciprocal language as dialogue. Levinas says that discourse founds signification.

The language of the other is not ordinary language. It is the signification of the face of the one who speaks and something other than their verbal signs. But the language of the other also founds signification, that is, ordinary language. Meaning is founded in the primordial language of the other. ‘Meaning is the face of the Other, and all recourse to words takes place already within the primordial face to face of language’ (Levinas 1969: 206).

One of the most important critiques of Levinas’s thinking was put forward by Derrida in his essay ‘Violence and Metaphysics – An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas’, which is included in Writing and Difference. Here Derrida makes some very interesting remarks about language. First, he points out that there are problems in Levinas’s method. He tries to study and explain something that is not ontology, something that is outside ontology as we usually understand it, but the only language he can do this with is the language of Western philosophy, which is thoroughly infiltrated by ontology. For instance, the critique that Levinas directs at Heidegger does not fully work, because Levinas operates within the same language and uses the same concepts as Heidegger. Levinas is not able to philosophise otherwise, because he is confined to the language he uses and all the tradition that this language brings with it (see Derrida 1978: 145–153). Levinas’s thinking succumbs to the same totalising ways of conceptualising as Heidegger’s does. To this kind of criticism Levinas says that:

Thus Levinas agrees that there is a paradox in trying to overcome the very language one uses and the very tradition that one is in. But he sees it as an opportunity.

Another theme of Derrida’s criticism concerns the face-to-face relationship and the role language plays in it. According to Derrida, there seems to be no way of conceptualising the encounter of the face.

The infinitely-other cannot be bound by a concept, cannot be thought on the basis of a horizon; for a horizon is always a horizon of the same, the elementary unity within which eruptions and surprises are always welcomed by understanding and recognized. Thus we are obliged to think in opposition to the truisms which we believed – which we still cannot not believe – to be the very ether of our thought and language.

(Derrida 1978: 95, 147–148)

The face escapes all ways of categorising. The other has to be beyond or before language, otherwise it would not have the sort of irreducible alterity that Levinas means. How, then, is it possible for ethics to reside in language? And how is it possible for us, and for Levinas, to talk about the other, or to describe the face using language? Is it so that the face speaks but cannot actually say anything, cannot use words, because this would mean a shift from the pure non-totalising relation to something else? Levinas seems to propose a language without phrase. Derrida thus asks if this non-violent language, this silent intention, is language at all. It seems that the non-violent, non-totalising, non-conceptualising language can only exist as a silent language, and it exists only on the level of the face to face and thus before Being (see Critchley 1999).

Levinas tries to solve some of these difficulties in his later work Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1998) by separating the saying and the said. Saying means the fact that somebody speaks, it is the happening of speech. What somebody says and means when they speak is the said. There are thus two important and meaningful features to language: that something is said and the content of what is said (Levinas 1998: 46).3 It is in the realm of saying that the face appears to the same. The ethical relation is characterised by saying, that is speaking, conversation. The face is expressed in the saying, and what is important here is not what the face says but the fact that it speaks. The content of saying itself cannot be expressed in language, for the meaning of the speaking face is in that it speaks. The said, on the other hand, is more or less what we usually call language: utterances consisting of words that usually have some content. This is something other than saying, which is the purely ethical aspect of language. The origin of all meaning and signification is saying, that is, the fact that something is said.

Levinas presents the distinction between saying and the said in the first chapter of Otherwise than Being, entitled ‘The Argument’. Here, he says that saying precedes language like a foreword.

Saying is not a game. Antecedent to the verbal signs it conjugates, to the linguistic systems and the semantic glimmerings, a foreword preceding languages, it is the proximity of one to the other, the commitment of an approach, the one for the other, the very signifyingness of signification.

(Levinas 1998: 5)

Saying is the proximity of the one to the other. It is a commitment that gives rise to signification itself. But the commitment does turn into language. The foreword and what is said are connected. The saying and the said are correlative to one another (Levinas 1998: 6).

Saying has different aspects. It founds signification and sign systems, but according to Levinas, it is also understanding and listening. In a difficult passage he says: ‘A word is a nomination, as much as a denomination, a consecrating of the “this as this” or “this as that” by a saying which is also understanding and listening, absorbed in the said’ (Levinas 1998: 36, emphasis in original). Saying, in being the signifyingness of signification, includes understanding and listening. In the face-to-face relationship, saying that is the foundation of language consists not only of saying but listening and understanding too. But how does saying appear? The signification of this saying must be distinguished from the way the said, that is, language as signs, signifies. The signification of saying occurs in proximity. Thus it signifies otherwise than the said. Whereas the said is meaning through naming and through words, the meaning of saying is responsible proximity.

Levinas argues that to engage in a conversation with another person is to approach them. What happens here is not exhausted in what is said. Saying, the fact that one says something to somebody, has meaning that is irrelative of the particular signs used. There is something else or something more to mere communication of signs from one person to the other and a deciphering of these signs by the receiver. What precedes is an exposure of the ego to another, a non-indifference to the other person. This non-indifference is not mere intentionality to address a message, he says; it is proximity, exposure, vulnerability (Levinas 1998: 48). Language always includes that the egoism of the I is compromised in proximity to the other person.

What is interesting here is that saying does not operate through signs such as words, but it is nevertheless meaningful. Saying means a radical vulnerability.

The one is exposed to the other as a skin is exposed to what wounds it, as a cheek is offered to the smiter. On the hither side of the ambiguity of being and entities, prior to the said, saying uncovers the one that speaks, not as an object disclosed by theory, but in the sense that one discloses oneself by neglecting one’s defenses, leaving a shelter, exposing oneself to outrage, to insults and wounding.

(Levinas 1998: 49)

This can be read as a radical openness to the other (see Levinas 1998: 119), an openness that means exposure to that which is unknown, a stranger, something unpredictable. Here we encounter also the idea of the risks included in communication that was emphasised by Gadamer as well. Communication is not safe as one makes oneself vulnerable to the other person by engaging in a dialogue with her. Saying uncovers the one who speaks and leaves him defenceless. Here the theme of the needy and vulnerable human being appears again.

What is the relationship between the saying and the said? This is one of the difficult points in Levinas’s thinking. He explains the relationship so that the saying and the said correspond. It is necessary that the saying and the said go together. The one could not exist without the other. The two components of language, the saying and the said, together form what language is. Nevertheless, Levinas argues that saying is primary: it is more important than what is said. Language is born in the face-to-face relationship through the welcoming of the other, and the ethical approach to the other is manifested exactly in that we expose ourselves to the other in communication. This involves uncertainty, a risk, even a sacrifice (Levinas 1998: 120). The human encounter comes first, and only this encounter founds language. And because the human encounter and the welcoming of the other is the seed of all language, it means that language always has at least some ethical quality to it, even if at the same time it is also totalising. Levinas says in Totality and Infinity that the essence of language is goodness, friendship and hospitality (Levinas 1969: 305). This way his theory can be read as holding on to the ethical in language no matter what is said and how. Saying can never be fully betrayed by the said.

According to Critchley, ethics is possible on the level of the said as a just said, that is, a said that contains a trace of saying. He reads the argument in Otherwise than Being in the following way: the first moment of the argument is an exposition on the level of the said, of entities and their essence and the domination of totality. The second moment is the move from the said to the saying. In the third moment the exposition moves back from the saying to the said in order to discuss questions of justice, politics, community, ontology and philosophy, which belong to the sphere of entities. The question then is whether this third moment is necessarily caught in the logic of totality and the said. Critchley argues that the said of the third moment is different from the said of the first moment, or rather, it is the same said but the said in the third moment includes a trace of saying in it. In the third moment ethics radiates to the levels of politics, justice and ontology. The said in the third moment is a justified said. ‘The originality of Otherwise than Being perhaps consists in its recognition of the need for an account of the justified Said – that is, of a political language of philosophical questioning that does not reduce ethical transcendence’ (Critchley 1999: 229).