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Monday, October 23, 2006 

Levinas on Guilt
Topic: Philosophy

Part of my senior thesis at my alma mater dealt with Levinas and his relation to the Other (autroi). Due to finding myself on the action end of two midterms, term papers and finals, my blogging output will have to be relegated to past writing. In the following days, Levinas on shame, remorse, and substitution will follow in forthcoming posts.

Levinas and the Inner Demons: Guilt and its Alleviation

Exonarare alius et ego ab sons sontis. “Liberate the Other and the self from guiltiness.” In philosophy, few deal with guilt and its effects in such an essential way as does Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95). As pertinent as guilt is to the modern ethos and climate, it is a wonder that more work isn’t done on such a paramount issue. But as is human, we rarely if ever linger with guilt, instead always pushing on looking for release from it. Calculations of American wealth that comes from various forms of coping with guilt are enormous. So for a philosopher who dealt so poignantly with the issue, how did he handle it? Does Levinas have any relief to offer the present day? For this present work to be successful, a careful analysis of guilt in the project of Levinas, as well as its two sisters shame and remorse, will be presented, as well as a look into his work to see if there is any hope of release. After all opinions are considered, it will be shown that Levinas does not give us hope in escaping our guilt, and thinks that instead we are consigned to it forever. Let us now turn to his work, so as to better understand the project.


Guilt, in Levinas’ program, is quite different from other notions of the subject that are floating in the spirit of the age. From modern psychology, we get slightly nuanced definitions of the same concepts. For instance, M. Fossum and M. Mason can say that, “While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.”[1] These two have taken their cue from the father of modern psychology, S. Freud. You can hear them echoing their father in Freud’s own proposal: “But with fear of the super-ego the case is different. Here, instinctual renunciation is not enough, for the wish persists and cannot be concealed from the super-ego. Thus, in spite of the renunciation that has been made, a sense of guilt comes about.”[2] And the list could go on. However, what is important to see here is that all of the definitions presented here could take place in a vacuum; they do not require any Other.

For Levinas, guilt is an entirely relational and subjective experience. Relational, in that guilt stems from my encounter with the Other. “Before the Other, the I is infinitely responsible.”[3] The Other places me in such a position so that the self’s responsibility holds the person guilty. Levinas enjoys Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s line from The Brothers Karamazov, “Each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and for every thing, and I more than the others.”[4] The Other’s voice calls me into question. The presence of the Other invalidates my own existence, and shows the corruptness of my own heart. With Blaise Pascal, Levinas affirms that by taking “my place in the sun,” I have pushed the Other out into the cold.[5] If it were possible to conceive of the world with only the self, the self as God, then there is no guilt, no responsibility. For guilt stems from the Other.

Guilt is also, as mentioned, a subjective experience. That is to say, guilt takes place within the self. “…The I is infinitely responsible.” It could be thought that since we are speaking of a relational phenomenon, that the guilt may lie in the between. This, however, cannot be the case. The Other is totally absolved of my guilt. The Other cannot be made guilty for the guilt he or she places on me. This is a form of slavery, of imperialism. If the Other were to share in my guilt, even in a relational sense, than the self knows the guilt of the Other, and this is the Same. By knowing the Other, I attempt to capture, to secure, the Other. This is far too close to conversation, or vile dialogue, for Levinas. The guilt must lie within what the self already knows. “The primordial experience of conscience is the discovery of one’s being guilty of having taken away the other’s possibilities of existence; it is not the mere discovery of my being the ground of ontological negativity…”[6]

We may wonder, then, if there is a chance to escape this guilt. Perhaps, one might reason, that if I simply do not acknowledge or answer the voice of the Other, to not allow her to place me under responsibility and guilt, that the self may slip the noose. However, this is not the case for Levinas’ project, and he offers two reasons for this.

First, we wrongly conclude that we have a choice in the matter. For 21st century Americans, notions of election and destiny rub raw for us. However, we have neither option nor choice in our guilt. By living we have been elected for such a situation as we find ourselves in. “The judgment which declares me responsible precedes any possibility of choice or consent.”[7] Or, later, “The will that is judged in the meeting with the Other does not assume the judgment it welcomes.”[8] Levinas argues strongly that when we were first created that we already had this guilt upon us. There is a choice in the guilt, but it is not ours. The choice of guilt lies in the choice of the Other. If I could assent to the choice of guilt, that would be an acquiring, a taking over. And this, again, is to acquire the Other.

Secondly, for those who argue that this simply cannot be the case, and that we are free, Levinas has a slightly varied objection. He almost grants their demand, which is, that we humans are free, but then shows them the consequences of such freedom. Against Sarte, who claimed that we are condemned to be free, Levinas posits that we are condemned to suffer if we are free. We suffer a guilt, or a shame, in our freedom. Levinas says that, “We are like a knight who has received an investiture, we do not primarily possess a home and land of our own but first of all have received the task of protecting widows and orphans, the poor, and the stanger, i.e., any other in its nakedness and vulnerability.”[9] Freedom, if one ought still to call it as such, bears with it this guilty shame and naked vulnerability. So to those who demand freedom in face of the guilt, Levinas first says that you are not as free as you think, and secondly, that if you really knew the freedom, you may not want it anyway.[10]

With the prognosis so certain, the patient next asks the doctor of the consequences, of how grim the effects. Levinas does not offer much hope. For those who wonder what the effects of the individual are, expositing the following quote may prove the most direct way.
The true judgment is revealed in the eyes of the other, who sees me and speaks to me, although I cannot reduce the other’s epiphany to an image, a concept, a work, or a text. The other’s eyes and voice express – silently and discretely – the true judgment by making me discover my unlimited and incessantly growing responsibility and, thereby, revealing the meaning of my suffering and death. The goodness demanded by this judgment and its accusation of my guilt call me forth to a justice without end beyond the universal justice of a well-ordered world. The more I am just, the more I am guilty, for the nonchosen [sic] responsibility that constitutes me does not diminish but grows by its fulfillment. By revealing my debt, the judgment of the infinite confirms my apologetic position, not in the form of a consolation but as an ongoing transformation of the egoistic fear of my death into a fear of causing the other’s death.[11]
The effects, then, are at least twofold. First, the self is totally and completely overwhelmed, as if by floodwaters, by the guilt and responsibility towards the Other. He says this quite clearly, “unlimited and incessantly growing” and “does not diminish but grows by its fulfillment.” This guilt is like fire, which perpetuates itself the longer it burns, spreading itself farther and wider. One might ask in what sense this occurs in the individual, who, presumably is already “completely” guilty in the face of the Other, and how the guilt can in any sense “incessantly grow.” This is not, however, Levinas’ burden, and he instead seeks to show the all-encompassing sense of the guilt.

Secondly, there is a sense of death and judgment from this guilt. “The goodness demanded by this judgment and its accusation of my guilt call me forth to a justice without end beyond the universal justice of a well-ordered world.” The justice is everlasting, and apparently, beyond anything we here can comprehend.[12] It is a “judgment of the infinite.” Accompanying this judgment is a notion of death, which parries itself between the self and the Other. Of special importance is to note that it is the Other which judges me.


Next time, we will deal with how Levinas employs shame.


[1]M. Fossum & M. Mason “Facing Shame” Healing the Shame that Binds You ed Bradshaw, John (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc. 1988). Back

[2]Freud, Sigmund Civilization and Its Discontents trans. J. Strachey, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. XXI (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1961 [1st German ed. 1930]) p. 124. Back

[3]Levinas, Emmanuel Basic Philosophical Writings ed. A. Peperzak, S. Critchley, R. Bernasconi (Indiana University Press, 1996) p.18. Back

[4]Levinas, BPW p.144. Notice that Dostoyevsky says “before everyone.” It is a social, relational guilt that Dostoyevsky champions here. Back

[5]Peperzak, Adriaan To The Other (Purdue University, 1993) p. 103. Back

[6]Peperzak TTO p. 116 emphasis mine. Back

[7]Ibid p. 117. Back

[8]Ibid Back

[9]Ibid Back

[10]Or, at least, that you are not any better off with it. While these are very much my own words, Levinas says something akin to that in God, Death and Time (Standford, 2000) p. 16-22, 140-144. Back

[11]Peperzak TTO p. 192. Back

[12]Admittedly, Levinas’ terms that pertain to anything of the here after are scant and difficult to understand. Try as I might, I could not find further material dealing with his project on these concepts. This is not necessarily due to lack of information, but perhaps a finitude to my looking. In either case, a theology of the afterlife by his contemporary Jewish peers may provides some insights, which may be found in Contemporary Jewish Theology ed. E. N. Dorff, L. E. Newman (Oxford University Press, 1993). Pp. 190-220. Back

[philosophy] | [Levinas] | [guilt]


Fascinating blog you have here. This is an old post, but relevant to what I am studying now. (I am engaged in reading Othewise Than Being.) I have not read your post as closely as I should have, and will have to go back and read it again, but I'm somewhat confused by your use of the word "guilt" instead of the more common Levinasian term "responsibility". I don't think that responsibility necessarily implies guilt. Responsibility appears to be the central concern of OB, not guilt. Responsibility is infinite, according to Levinas, and it defines our uniqueness as persons, grows in the measure by which we take it upon ourselves. Yet guilt can and often is very destructive.

One frustration that I have with religionists (of Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish persuasion) who turn to Levinas to support their theodicies is that they are too ready to cast Levinas into a mould that fits their religious persuasions. The vagueness of his writing allows this, though on the last pages of OB Levinas alludes twice to "the death of God". My suspicion is that Levinas' notion of guilt and shame are not related to the Christian doctrine of sin. The topic of guilt per se does not even appear in the index to OB. Thanks again for your post. It is most interesting for me.

“The Other is totally absolved of my guilt. The Other cannot be made guilty for the guilt he or she places on me. This is a form of slavery, of imperialism. If the Other were to share in my guilt, even in a relational sense, than the self knows the guilt of the Other, and this is the Same.”

In Levinas this is not a reciprocal relationship. It is not what the other places on me, it is how I efface the other. This non-reciprocity cannot be brought into to ‘light’ of mediation. It is not synchronous with my time, my worldhood. The rupture happens diachronous to me. I do not share a origin with the other. The other is anarchical. Slavery and imperialism imply a relationship. This is not what Levinas has in mind. A logic of this sort would totalize the other in Levinas.

“Levinas argues strongly that when we were first created that we already had this guilt upon us. There is a choice in the guilt, but it is not ours. The choice of guilt lies in the choice of the Other. If I could assent to the choice of guilt, that would be an acquiring, a taking over. And this, again, is to acquire the Other.”

For Levinas, it is not a matter of choice or “aquiring”. It is before your choice. Is original sin your choice? That choice is not given to you either. Likewise, in Levinas your guilt is not up to whether you accept Levinas’ philosophy or not. Even more so, when the other is mediated into an object of my choice, the other is no longer other but a moment of my reflection, a facsimile of the other that Levinas would call totalization or murder.

Levinas does not say that “that we humans are free” but that freedom is a result of effacing the other. Freedom, whether it be in the first moment of Hegel’s Logic or in some vague notion, denies the absolute alterity of the other which gives me no choice except to cover it over (e.g. history), to declare my freedom from the interruption of the other which, in Levinas, implicates me before I can answer. I am responsible to the other before my choice. I owe a debt which does not originate in me but ruptures all my originations in the face to face encounter with the other. I would also call your attention to the famous Anaximander fragment which could also be thought from this context:

Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.

If infinity looks back at us in the face of the other we would expect that my attempt to retreat and cover over such absolute otherness would require my destruction, the destruction of the plastic cast I make of the face of the other as infinity breaks through in the encounter with the other, by necessity. What is required is my guilt, my original sin (the sin of arche if you will), for effacing the call of the other, the rupture of infinity. In my time, my imposed temporal synchronicity to all things, to the other, I am implicated, founded as injust, as murderous in my obliviousness to the call. This is what Levinas calls guilt.

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Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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