You are on page 1of 15

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 293

A reciprocal asymmetry?
Levinass ethics reconsidered
Toms Tatransky
Graduate School for Social Research
Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw
ABSTRACT. The conception of the unconditional, irreducible, and irreversible
asymmetry of the relationship between I and the Other is one of the crucial issues
of Levinass ethical metaphysics. Since it is precisely in the name of the asymmetry that reciprocity as an ethics-founding principle is excluded from Levinass
conceptual framework (in spite of Levinass enigmatic expression in Otherwise
than Being: thanks be to God, I am the Other for the others), many scholars
have judged his ethics as unfeasible. This article aims to examine the key points
of the debate about the Levinasian conception of asymmetry, to go, eventually,
beyond Levinas, in an attempt to re-address the following questions: Is there a
transcendental symmetry (Derrida) as a basis of the ethical asymmetry? Can
we reconcile asymmetry and reciprocity? Does the requirement of mutual recognition touch the Others asymmetrical transcendence, as Ricoeur suggests?
Finally, the article presents a conception of asymmetrical reciprocity that
focuses notably on the reality of friendship and of gift, a conception seen as the
basis of the relationship characterized by gratitude, generosity, and desire for
communion.
KEYWORDS. Levinas, ethics, asymmetry, reciprocity, friendship, gift
Grce Dieu je suis autrui pour les autres.
Emmanuel Levinas1

he very title of this article suggests that the strategy I am going to


pursue here is a kind of reading of Levinas that would attempt to go
beyond him: that is, to pose Levinasian questions to Levinas to develop
his thought in a way different from what can be found in his writings.
I shall do so by focusing attention on Levinass account of ethical asymmetry, which will be reconsidered in the light of what Ricoeur called the
most profound ethical request (1999, 46): the claim for the reciprocity.

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES 15, no. 3 (2008): 293-307.


2008 by European Centre for Ethics, K.U.Leuven. All rights reserved.

doi: 10.2143/EP.15.3.2033153

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 294

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES SEPTEMBER

2008

I would argue that what is at stake here is the very feasibility of


Levinass ethical metaphysics today. Why? On the one hand, Levinas challenged any kind of totalitarianism and this remains, no doubt, his major
achievement. Yet on the other hand, he did so by asserting an irreconcilable contrast between asymmetry and reciprocity, and thus by sacrificing
the possibility of building ethics on a reciprocal kind of relationship
between me and the other. Now, it seems to me that in an age when
global dialogue has become a necessity rather than an option Levinass
approach proves quite risky, as phenomena related to various forms of
interdependence of human beings impose themselves perhaps more
urgently than ever before.
In this essay, I will initially report Levinass argumentation in favour
of the Others asymmetry (or, to be more precise, of the asymmetry of
the Others ethical appeal), which is a synonym of his or her absolute
transcendence. It will be shown, then, that the very core of Levinass
ethics is the paradoxical intersection of the Others incommensurable
superiority on one hand and of his or her ethical proximity on the other.
In Levinass view, I perceive the Others order (which is even independent from the Others initiative) to take on his or her suffering or even
guilt, but he or she simultaneously remains a stranger who does not enter
the relationship of reciprocity with me. Moreover, in Levinas the primordial ethical experience is that of trauma or obsession, since the Other is
also (or even originally) my enemy and persecutor. Even though Levinas
himself tried to moderate those claims by introducing the accounts of
fraternity and justice, he never definitively admitted that the asymmetrical relation of ethics could be in any way inverted, so to speak, in my
favour. Secondly, I shall briefly turn to Derrida and Ricoeur, whose efforts
aimed to think ethics after Levinas, that is to do justice to the Levinasian
ethical requirements and at the same time to the epistemological necessity to perceive and recognize the other in his or her specificity and
uniqueness. Finally, I will develop the concept of an asymmetrical reciprocity or reciprocal asymmetry, which will challenge some of the basic

294
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 295

TATRANSKY A RECIPROCAL ASYMMETRY ? LEVINAS S ETHICS RECONSIDERED

assumptions of Levinas. To do so, I shall focus attention notably on the


reality of friendship and that of gift, which will be seen as the basis of the
relationship characterized by gratitude, generosity, and desire for communion.

1. THE ACCOUNT

OF

ASYMMETRY

IN

LEVINAS

AND ITS

CORRECTION

First of all, let us recall briefly how Levinas justifies his concept of asymmetry. In Totality and Infinity we read:
What I permit to require from myself is not comparable to what I have
the right to require from the Other [Autrui]. This moral experience, so
banal, indicates a metaphysical asymmetry: the radical impossibility to
see myself from outside and to speak in the same sense of myself and
of the others; in consequence, also the impossibility of totalization
(2000c, 46).

Further, this basic phenomenological observation leads Levinas to declare


that [t]o be myself is always to have an extra responsibility (1998, 71).
Then from a more metaphysical standpoint, Levinas asserts that goodness [la bont] consists in placing myself in being in such a way that the
Other [Autrui] would count more than me (2000c, 277). But the Others
superiority is not, in Levinass view, only relative to my ethical solicitude
for him or her it is rather an expression of his or her absolute transcendence, which excludes the possibility of equivalence between me and the
Other, as any possibility of comparison is precluded, despite the absolute
ethical proximity of the Other at the same time. The Other, according to
Levinas, towers over me, obliging me to responsibility from [t]he dimension of the height [hauteur] (ibid., 86).
Significantly, Levinas locates the Other beyond the very horizon of
the phenomenological field: even granting his or her ethical proximity, the
Other is never within the reach of my intentionality, as if he or she were

295
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 296

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES SEPTEMBER

2008

an alter ego in the Husserlian sense. The Other is not present to me in the
same sense in which I am present to myself; instead, he or she is given
precisely as a face, or as Levinas also puts it, as a trace which is not a phenomenon, but rather an enigmatic epiphany of the infinite ethical demand
of the Other. The Other remains, therefore, always a separate being,
whose transcendence prevents me from establishing a direct relationship
with him or her, as [t]he significance of the trace places us in a lateral
relation, inconvertible to rightness [rectitude] (Levinas 2000b, 64). As
Chalier points out, there is in Levinas an insurmountable distance
between the self and the Other, an irreducible duality, even in love, which
we should guard as a precious good (1993, 104).
Another important feature of Levinass ethics is my uniqueness,
which makes it impossible to any other to substitute for me in my
ethical commitment for the Other (see Levinas 1986, 148), while I am
called and even elected to a truly Messianic task to substitute all (see
Levinas 2001, 200). I am called to sacrifice myself to expiate the others
guilt, whereas the claim that the Other should do the same is, in
Levinass view, absolutely illegitimate, because it would mean to preach
the human sacrifice! (ibid., 201). Levinass ethics is hence not an ethics
of sacrifice in general, but an ethics of exclusively and inalienably my
sacrifice. I am responsible for the Other says Levinas without waiting for reciprocity, were I to die for it. Reciprocity is his affair (2000a,
94-5). Ultimately, in this perspective the true name of such an ethics of
infinite responsibility leading as far as to my expiation for the Other
is Messianism, understood as my power to support the suffering of all
(Levinas 1976, 120).2
Moreover, in Levinass view (notably if we consider his analysis in
Otherwise than Being) the Other is seen basically as a stranger, or even as
my persecutor, thus as an enemy (again, even independently from the
Others actual intentions). Levinas does not hesitate to suggest that only
the persecuted subject can be responsible for the Other (see Levinas 2001,
162), and he insists that the Other is the one who hurts, traumatizes, and

296
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 297

TATRANSKY A RECIPROCAL ASYMMETRY ? LEVINAS S ETHICS RECONSIDERED

obsesses me, whereas my attitude faced with the Other can be defined
perhaps most aptly as the passivity of the Passion (see ibid., 162 et
passim). In other words, Levinass ethics of the face-to-face relationship is
ultimately that of pure self-sacrifice with no return or communion. It is
a radical ethics of unilateral non-reciprocity, of the irreversible one-forthe-other, hence an ethics without or before friendship and eros (see
ibid., 143 n.1). These would threaten to reduce the absolute alterity of the
Other, perceived rather as an alien than as my neighbour and likeness, or
even partner. Importantly, thus, pure ethics precedes dialogue, which is
always associated, in Levinas, with reciprocal exchange that would only
confirm the subject in his egoism or imperialism (ibid., 183).
However, Levinas was aware that such a radicalization of his ethics
needed some mitigation. While maintaining the radical impossibility of
the equalization between me and the Other, he nonetheless employed the
notion of fraternity as a basis of the unity of the human race (see ibid.,
258). Importantly, in Levinas the idea of the human race is not rooted in
a biological genus, but rather in the reality of common paternity, offered
by monotheism. We are not equal, but we are still brothers because we
are all children of one Father, suggests Levinas. In a debate with Ricoeur,
Levinas was very straightforward as to this point: [w]hen I speak of
non-reciprocity, I privilege fraternity over equality (Levinas and Ricoeur
1998, 19).3
In addition, Levinas tried to develop his own conception of justice
(and hence politics), which would be established with the arrival of the
third (or with the latent presence of the third in the face of the Other),
who revokes the incommensurability of the Other. Even though justice
in Levinas is apparently an ambiguous and shifting term since Levinas
seems to maintain a certain tension between ethics based on a face-to-face
relation on one hand, and politics as a realm of justice, required by the
third, on the other it is worth noticing that according to him [t]he relationship with the third party [le tiers] is an incessant correction of the asymmetry of proximity (2001, 246; my emphasis).4

297
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 298

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES SEPTEMBER

2008

Does this correction mean a simple neutralization of the Others


asymmetry, or does it imply the reversibility or even the inversion of the
relation between me and the Other? Although Levinas did face this question, the answer he gives is very equivocal and cautious. Already in Totality and Infinity he concedes that I can feel like the Other [Autre] of the
Other [Autre] (2000c, 83), but he fails to follow this path. In Otherwise than
Being, instead, Levinas seems to go further, when he says that [t]hanks
be to God I am the Other [autrui] for the others (2001, 247). Does it
mean that reciprocity can be established between me and the Other?
According to Levinas it tends not to: indeed, just a few lines below he
explains that [t]he passage of God is precisely the return of the
incomparable subject as member of society (ibid.). Yet on the other
hand, one could read those quite enigmatic assertions by interpreting the
expression thanks be to God as an allusion to the primordial love of
God that precedes my ethical commitment to the Other Levinas himself seems to allow such a reading, when he writes that [t]he Good
[le Bien, which is here used as a synonym of Infinity] loves me before
I have loved him. By this anteriority love is love (ibid., 25 n.1).
Admittedly, what we have here is neither the reversibility nor the
inversion of the relation between me and the other human being. At best,
the surplus of my responsibility over that of the Other can be justified and
explained by Gods prior love towards me, whilst I can become the Other
not for the Other (in a situation of inverse dyadic relationship, or of double asymmetry), but always for the others (in plural): that is, in a situation
when the third has already counterbalanced and thus somehow neutralized my original ethical assignment by placing the Other before the necessity to do justice to me. Only with the arrival of the third can law and
equality appear (see ibid., 202), but Levinas carefully remarks that the
equality of all is borne by my inequality, by the surplus of my duties over
my rights (ibid., 248).
In any case, Levinas sees justice as a kind of corruption (although
necessary) of the genuine ethics of unilateral relationship, where all the

298
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 299

TATRANSKY A RECIPROCAL ASYMMETRY ? LEVINAS S ETHICS RECONSIDERED

forms of social relations should be ideally rooted (and by which they may
and should be unceasingly questioned). Indeed, while on the one hand,
as Levinas claims, dissymmetry precedes reciprocity (Levinas and
Ricoeur 1998, 15), on the other hand the reciprocity is always present
(ibid.) in a society arranged by justice, law, and institutions. In other
words, reciprocity in Levinas is a matter of politics, not ethics; reciprocity is a result of ethical compromise,5 not an encounter of two human
beings who freely love one another. Levinas, when questioned about this
troublesome issue, was always extremely insistent on his principles, stressing the inevitable link between reciprocity and contractual exchange or
even expediency. The expectation of the Others ethical commitment
would contaminate the pure gratuity of my solicitude; therefore, the ethical asymmetry must remain unconditional, irreducible, and irreversible
so as to preserve the Others original alterity and transcendence.
But does the fact that I should not expect the Other to treat me as his
or her Other imply that the Other cannot or even should not approach me
with the same ethical solicitude as that obliging me? This is already a question going beyond the Levinasian conceptual framework, a question exploring precisely the possibility of what we shall call a reciprocal asymmetry.

2. SOME SEMINAL CRITIQUES: DERRIDA

AND

RICOEUR

The first philosopher who expressed perplexity when confronted with


Levinass account of asymmetry was Derrida. He did so in his outstanding essay Violence and metaphysics (first published in 1964, ten years before
Otherwise than Being appeared), in which Derrida claims that the alterity of
the Other does not preclude the fact that I perceive the other as Other
only because I still perceive him or her necessarily as my alter ego. Drawing on a Husserlian vocabulary, Derrida sets forth the notion of transcendental symmetry [that of the other as my alter ego] of two empirical asymmetries [those of the Others alterity and of my alterity seen as such from

299
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 300

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES SEPTEMBER

2008

the others standpoint] (2005, 135). To put it more simply, using


Ricoeurs words, this transcendental symmetry institutes the other as my
likeness and myself as the likeness of the other (Ricoeur 1999, 46).
Within this basically phenomenological framework, symmetry is conceived
of as reversibility based on the similitude between me and the other. If
the other were not my likeness, I would fail to recognize him or her as
my neighbour, that is to say as another human being I am responsible to.
That I am also essentially the others other Derrida concludes , and
that I know I am, is the evidence of a strange symmetry whose trace
appears nowhere in Levinass descriptions. Without this evidence, I
could not desire (or) respect the other in ethical dissymmetry (2005,
137).

There seems to be therefore a sort of fundamental or transcendental reciprocity of cognition, which would represent the very condition of possibility of the ethical recognition of the Other. The Other must be given
as a phenomenon to me, otherwise it would be impossible to perceive his
or her ethical summons. Without reciprocity Ricoeur says or without recognition, alterity would not be a matter of one other than myself,
but the expression of a distance indistinguishable from absence (1999,
46). In Ricoeurs view, only reciprocity can guarantee the possibility of the
very relationship, while, in contrast, the Levinasian emphasis on the
incommensurability of the Other makes him or her absolutely indeterminable, hence absent.
Elsewhere in a dialogue with Levinas we have already quoted from
Ricoeur separates the epistemological and ethical levels of analysis: [i]n
sum there is a sort of epistemological primacy of I and an ethical primacy
of you. Therefore, it seems to me that we need to maintain the equivalence of those two dissymmetries (Levinas and Ricoeur 1998, 14). Here
Ricoeur seems however to concede to Levinas the primacy of asymmetry
within the realm of ethics, as also Derrida does in his later writings on
self-giving, where he claims that there is a primacy of my responsibility

300
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 301

TATRANSKY A RECIPROCAL ASYMMETRY ? LEVINAS S ETHICS RECONSIDERED

established in the abyssal dissymmetry in the exposition to the others


regard (1999, 48). It is precisely this exposition that constitutes me in my
personal singularity, says Derrida echoing not only Levinas, but also
Kierkegaard and Patocka (see ibid., 21). In this perspective, ethics is seen
as infinite and dissymmetrical economy of sacrifice (ibid., 145), or that
of love which is ready to address also an enemy who does not reciprocate
what is given to him or her.
In his celebrated book Oneself as Another, Ricoeur pleads for the ethics
of friendship by emphasizing that in true friendship the uniqueness of
the other is in no way effaced, since the other is regarded in his or her
very singularity. The generous movement of recognition respects the initial asymmetry, while it also invites the other to compensate for it by
establishing an exchange of mutual giving and receiving (see Ricoeur 1996,
221). But the mutuality of recognition, Ricoeur insists, is not a matter of
an economic logic of do ut des, driven by a utilitarian or selfish spirit it
rather represents a situation where the other gives me a sort of second
first gift (Ricoeur 2004, 351), in the sense that the others gift is free and
unconditioned.6
All those accounts (as well as the notion of inter-donation used by
Jean-Luc Marion) lead us to the conception of asymmetrical reciprocity7
or reciprocal asymmetry, which could arguably pave the way towards an
ethics after Levinas, leaving untouched the Levinasian concept of asymmetry. At the same time, this conception would remedy the exclusion of
reciprocity from ethics, insofar as it would break the yoke that fatefully
binds together, in Levinas, reciprocity and the logic of mere contractual
agreement.

3. THE CHALLENGE

OF A

RECIPROCAL ASYMMETRY

When we speak of reciprocal asymmetry or asymmetrical reciprocity,


we may mean different things. Our experiences, indeed, include a large

301
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 302

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES SEPTEMBER

2008

spectrum of degrees of reciprocity and may vary from a rather epistemological reciprocity with an enemy who, nevertheless, recognizes me as his
or her other, to a perfect (yet still asymmetrical, I would claim) reciprocity or (as Ricoeur would prefer to say) mutuality of love which circulates
in a dialogic relation of friendship (which was altogether overridden by
Levinas, as we have already suggested). All this can be found in human
experience, even if we leave aside religious or mystical experience of my
communion with God, where asymmetry in both the chronological and
ontological sense is obvious.
Consequently, I would point out that in our empirical experience,
reciprocity is at least in some measure necessarily a matter of asymmetry,
and vice versa, asymmetry refers to reciprocity or bi-directionality, at least
a minimal one. A perfect symmetrical reciprocity, if such a thing were
ever concretely possible, would imply complete sameness of me and the
other, with the annulment of the uniqueness of each one as a logical consequence (and here Levinas would certainly agree). An absolutely gratuitous gift, on the one hand, and an impeccably equivalent exchange, on
the other, are just abstractions (and as such are useful, however, as regulative ideas); in the real world, instead, we always find ourselves between
these two poles, the former being an ideal of ethics and the latter being
the chief principle of justice and economy. Hence, the Levinasian equivalence between asymmetry and incommensurability (at least an absolute
one) proves to be nothing but a speculative assumption with no phenomenological evidence that could back it up. The other is always other-thanme and simultaneously someone who can be compared to me without
comparison there would be no recognition of the other precisely in his
or her otherness.
In what follows, I will consider such a conception of reciprocal asymmetry that would represent an ideal pattern of friendship. Since the times
of Aristotle, who while drawing on the basically reciprocalist scheme of
friendship wrote that in friendship it is more worthwhile to love than
to be loved,8 friendship can be seen as an ambiguous reality. Employing

302
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 303

TATRANSKY A RECIPROCAL ASYMMETRY ? LEVINAS S ETHICS RECONSIDERED

Levinasian terminology, we could say that friendship like the intimacy


of the erotic relation, whose ambiguity was abundantly commented on by
Levinas involves such a model of intersubjectivity that it cannot be subsumed either under purely ethical or political terms. Personal enjoyment
accompanying the experience of friendship distinguishes it from the experience of unilateral sacrificial giving, whereas the familiar closeness
between friends, on the other hand, makes friendship irreducible to the
relation of mere justice, characteristic of economic or political rules and
laws which are objective and institutionalized. As Marsh puts it,
[p]ersonal and intimate friendship would represent a type of intermediate region between the ethical drama and the task of justice.
[P]ersonal friendship appears as an excess reducible to neither ethics
nor enjoyment, while nevertheless passing through ethics and enjoyment. Friendship marks a space of non-violent familiarity and exteriority, a site of solidarity between identity and difference (2005, 5).

Friendship might be defined as a free exchange of gifts, as an economy


of hospitality, or as a logic of communion, where differences are shared
without being jeopardized by the logic of the same, so harshly stigmatized by Levinas. Of course, unilateral, disinterested or even self-sacrificing acts9 are constitutive components of the asymmetrical model of reciprocity, but they do not have the last say, being just moments aiming at
the establishment or recovery of lacking or broken reciprocity, or at its
growth. However, it is also true that friendship is always a happy accident (Marsh 2005, 8), in the sense that my friends freedom makes friendship unnecessary, and precisely contingent upon the grace of my friends
descent from height (ibid.). The accidental reciprocity (ibid.) of friendship, beyond any calculation, implies indeed a gift, a gratuity directed at
me, even me! (ibid.).
Now let us develop the example of giving, which has a unique
explanatory power, if gift can be understood as not necessarily a material
thing for instance, I can give to the other my time, while listening to

303
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 304

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES SEPTEMBER

2008

him or her. Even for a material gift, however, the value of the gift ideally
transcends the worth of the thing I give, since it is rather an expression
or a token of gratuity and generosity of my love towards the other.10 As
such, my gift awakes in the other originally not an obligation to give
another gift in return, but a feeling of gratitude, which eventually moves
the other but from within, so to speak to reciprocate, even if I have
no right to expect the return of the gift (here again Levinas is surely right).
In other words, the loving response of the other is not enforceable, since
it must remain free as my gift was, and since there is, indeed, no contract
or law obliging the other to respond positively to my gift. The others
choice to reciprocate is an autonomous act, an expression of his or her
self-determination it is fully up to the other whether to reciprocate or
not. The binding of gratitude is soft enough to respect the others freedom and self-governance, even though, of course, it orients him or her
towards the good, exerting admittedly a certain moral pressure.
At any rate, all I can do is to invite the other to reciprocate, but without requiring the control over the situation, even if I can desire or hope
to be eventually loved by the other. I can even take into account the
others will to reciprocate, but I have no guarantee as to when the countergift would arrive and as to its exact value. But all this is not to deny
that I not only can or may, but should wish myself loved if not, it would
mean that I am just indifferent towards the other and that I do not care
whether he or she enters the dynamics of reciprocity which would benefit both me and the other. In the last analysis (and here I am probably
most at odds with Levinas), the absolute unilaterality of a non-reciprocal
asymmetry would only imply epistemological solipsism and ethical isolation, under the guise of a heroic morality of a solitary subject, elected
like a Messiah to bear all the responsibility of the World (Levinas
1998, 71).11
If the other decides to reciprocate the gift, he or she does so not only
to do justice, but, like me, out of love (though justice is also included in
love). The return of the gift is not a mechanical result of the others auto-

304
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 305

TATRANSKY A RECIPROCAL ASYMMETRY ? LEVINAS S ETHICS RECONSIDERED

matic reaction, but of his or her conscious and responsible ethical commitment. Hence, mutuality is rather a matter of responsiveness than of
mere reversibility. Moreover, the gift that I receive from the other is obviously not the same thing that I gave him or her (otherwise it would be
just restitution of a loan), and it may as well have quite a different worth
if it is ever possible to measure it. Briefly, the others giving is not a simple repetition of my giving, but the others original act, his or her unique
contribution to the development of our relationship. And even if the
others gift had hypothetically exactly the same economic value as mine,
it would still remain, in an ethical sense, incomparable because of (or,
better, thanks to) the others irreducible alterity.
To conclude, only if the other enters the realms of reciprocity, I am
and can feel wholly recognized, accepted, and appreciated in my uniqueness. And in addition, as I have already mentioned, I gain benefit and
enrichment from the others gift, which is always, in some measure, a surprising presence of something new in my life. Once I have this experience, I understand that I should cherish and promote the unique otherness of the other not only for the others sake, but also for the sake of
my own uniqueness and growth (and thus for the sake of my very identity and authenticity), which I discover fully possible only in an atmosphere of communion and mutual acknowledgement, where gifts are freely
shared and joyfully welcomed.

WORKS CITED
Bernasconi, Robert. 2005. The third party. Levinas on the intersection of the ethical
and the political. In Emmanuel Levinas. Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers,
edited by Claire E. Katz, vol. I, 45-57. London and New York: Routledge.
Derrida, Jacques. 1997. Politics of Friendship. Trans. George Collins. London and New
York: Verso.
Derrida, Jacques. 1999. Donner la mort. Paris: Galile.
Derrida, Jacques. 2005. Violence and metaphysics. An essay on the thought of
Emmanuel Levinas. Trans. Alan Bass. In Emmanuel Levinas. Critical Assessments of

305
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 306

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES SEPTEMBER

2008

Leading Philosophers, edited by Claire E. Katz, vol. I, 88-173. London and New York:
Routledge.
Chalier, Catherine. 1993. Lvinas. Lutopie de lhumain. Paris: Albin Michel.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1976. Difficile Libert. Paris: Albin Michel.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1986. De Dieu qui vient lide. Paris: Vrin.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1998. Entre nous. Paris: Le livre de poche.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 2000a. thique et Infini. Paris: Le livre de poche.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 2000b. Humanisme de lautre homme. Paris: Le livre de poche.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 2000c. Totalit et Infini. Paris: Le livre de poche.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 2001. Autrement qutre ou au-del de lessence. Paris: Le livre de poche.
Levinas, Emmanuel, and Ricoeur, Paul. 1998. Entretien Lvinas Ricur. In Emmanuel
Lvinas. Philosophe et Pdagogue, 9-28. Paris: Nadir.
Marsh, Jack. 2005. Friendship Otherwise Toward a Levinasian Description
of Personal Friendship. Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology 5, 2: 1-8,
http://www.ipjp.org/december2005/Jack_Marsh_5e2.pdf.
Milbank, John. 1999. The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice. First Things 91: 33-8.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1997. Amour et justice. Paris: PUF.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1996. Soi-mme comme un autre. Paris: Seuil.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1999. Approaching the Human Person. Trans. Dale Kidd. Ethical
Perspectives 1: 45-54.
Ricoeur, Paul. 2004. Parcours de la reconnaissance. Paris: Stock.

NOTES
1. Thanks be to God I am the Other for the others (Levinas 2001, 247).
2. Ironically, this account of Messianism which gives up the idea of a Messiah who will
come to halt or reverse the course of history is closer to Hasidism (normally opposed by Levinas) than to the Talmudic tradition, which was the milieu intellectually and spiritually congenial
to Levinas (see Chalier 1993, 146).
3. It is important, however, to be aware that when Levinas speaks of fraternity, he also means
the primordial pattern of brotherhood as it is presented in the conflict between Cain and Abel
(Genesis 4:1-16): Levinass expression the one-for-the-other in so far as the one-keeper-of-hisbrother, in so far as the one-responsible-for-the-other (2000b, 10) is clear enough to suggest that
Levinas still thinks of fraternity in terms of original culpability as if the words addressed by God
to Cain, your brothers blood is crying out to me (Genesis 4:10) applied to me and to each one.
4. According to Bernasconi, in Levinas the ethical and the political complement and even
question one another: The face to face would serve as a corrective to the socio-political order,
even when the latter is based on equality, whereas the presence of the third party in the face of
the Other would serve to correct the partiality of a relation to the Other that would otherwise have
no reason not to ignore the demands of the other Others (Bernasconi 2005, 46).

306
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3

1523-08_EthPersp_02_tatransky

19-09-2008

14:06

Pagina 307

TATRANSKY A RECIPROCAL ASYMMETRY ? LEVINAS S ETHICS RECONSIDERED

5. Or the paradox: to rule a society on a just basis means indeed to level out its members
(despite the uniqueness of each of them), thus, as Levinas puts it, to compare the incomparable (see 2001, 33 and 246), which is a paradoxical task. Which can also explain why Levinas
comes to say that justice is violence (Levinas and Ricoeur 1998, 20)
6. Whereas in Soi-mme comme un autre (1996, 215) Ricoeur founds the ethics of reciprocity
upon the Golden Rule (see also note 11), in Amour et justice (1997) he distinguishes between the
demand for reciprocity and for love (agape), the latter being pure unilateral generosity demanding
nothing in return. In Parcours de la reconnaissance (2004) Ricoeur somehow reconciles all his previous views by introducing a distinction between reciprocity (as a logic of justice) and mutuality (as
a free exchange of gifts, i.e., as a logic of agape which has become mutual).
7. This term (as well as that of non-identical repetition) was already used by John Milbank (1999) with a meaning similar to the one that I ascribe to it.
8. This nature of love to act as first i.e., before being loved as described by Aristotle is
considered, in their key texts, by both Ricoeur (1996, 223) and Derrida (1997, 7).
9. How are such acts possible? A consistent answer seems to be the following one: it is only
the experience of having already gratuitously received love that enables me to give love to the others. My capacity to love in a generous and disinterested way seems therefore to be rooted in a
radical passivity (that is in acceptance of the primordial gift of love) or gratefulness preceding any
active ethical commitment. Arguably, Ricoeur tries to reflect philosophically on this basically religious experience that transcends the horizontal account of friendship developed by Aristotle.
10. In this sense, Ricoeur speaks of gage de lengagement du donateur dans le don (2004, 342).
11. It is noteworthy that Levinass ethics is practically irreconcilable with the so-called
Golden Rule (plainly confuting the incommensurability of the other), which is one of the basic
imperatives of the Judeo-Christian (and not only that) tradition. Even though in the Bible we find
its positive formulation explicitly only in the New Testament in everything do to others as you
would want them do to you; for this is the law [i.e., the Torah] and the prophets (Matthew 7:12)
its negative version appears in the book of Tobit what you hate, do not do to anyone (4:15).
Significantly, there is a Judaic document from the first century B.C. (known as Targum of Palestine) that employs the Golden Rule as an explanation of Leviticus 19:18 (you shall love your
neighbour as yourself). Furthermore, we find the same association in the Talmud, namely in the
teaching of Rabbi Hillel (who preached between 30 B.C. and A.D. 10), according to which the
Golden Rule is the very heart of the Torah, all the rest being nothing but commentary (B. Talmud, Shabbath 31a). Given these facts, I would claim that Levinas as an eminent Talmudist should
have taken the Golden Rule which demands reciprocity more seriously into account while
engaged in his ethical theorizing.

307
Ethical Perspectives 15 (2008) 3