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Saturday, November 04, 2006 

Levinas on Substitution
Topic: Philosophy

Levinas and the Inner Demons: Guilt and Atonement

Having already discussed the main problems for Levinas, namely how he views guilt, shame, and finally remorse, we now turn to a hypothetic solution to the problem: substitution.

But this has all been very depressing work up until here. Is there any balm in Gilead? Does Levinas offer any hope to the reader, to alleviate this guilt, to atone for it? This is where we will be turning our attention to next. Just as Levinas shows the deprecation of humanity in his doctrine of guilt, we must turn to another doctrine to find any hope of salvation for humanity. This doctrine that we shall look to is that of substitution.


Levinas says, admittedly very cryptically, that it is in substitution “whereby identity is inverted, a passivity more passive still than all passivity, beyond the passivity of the identical, the self is freed from itself.”[1] This would be a true salvation for Levinas, for if the self is “freed from itself,” I am then free from the guilt that so incessantly torments me. I am certainly free from guilt, for we saw that guilt is active, and substitution is the passivity that extends beyond all passivity. Remorse, we saw is passive, but even that could be eluded should the self be freed from itself, and the realization that I have caused the Other so much grief. Is this where Levinas is aiming for? First we shall see what substitution is, then look to the ideas of who can accomplish it and under what circumstances.

In a documented conversation with Jill Robbins, Levinas fleshes out more what substitution may look like. When asked what role and how substitution should play, he answers thusly:
For me, the notion of substitution is tied to the notion of responsibility. To substitute oneself does not amount to putting oneself in the place of the other man in order to feel what he feels; it does not involve becoming the other nor, if he be destitute and desperate, the courage of such a trial. Rather, substitution entails bringing comfort by associating ourselves with the essential weakness and finitude of the other; it is to bear his weight while sacrificing one’s interestedness and complacency-in-being, which then turn into responsibility for the other. In human existence, there is, as it were, interrupting or surpassing the vocation of being, another vocation: that of the other… All of the culture of the humans seems to me to be oriented by this new “plot,” in which the in-itself of a being persisting in its being is surpassed in the gratuity of being outside-of-oneself, for the other, in the act of sacrifice or the possibility of sacrifice, in holiness.[2]
So substitution is not to be thought of as is typical of the word. If that were the case, we would need to speak of murder and destruction. For typical substitution, which Levinas decries in “becoming the other,” or “putting oneself in the place of the other man,” eliminates the Other for my sake, even if my sake was to help the Other. When my coach substitutes me into a basketball game, the player for whom I substitute is no longer in the game; he himself is no more. Such substitution is damaging and destroying.

Instead, we should think of substitution more of a drawing near. The self draws near the Other to bear the burden of the Other and die to self. The New Testament idea of παράκλητος (paraclete) is very appropriate here. Used to describe the Holy Spirit in the Gospel according to John, is connotes ideas of Comforter, or legal helper in court. The Paraclete is someone who draws near to comfort. The Holy Spirit in the fourth Gospel is of course interested in the Other, but here is where the analogy breaks down, since the Holy Spirit is not so much Other-oriented as Jesus-oriented. Still, we may think of this as a proper way of understanding substitution. There are two main components. That of the drawing near (to bear the burden), and the loss of self-interestedness.

We notice in the above quote that the hope of this substitution is “sacrifice…in holiness.” This is a consistent thought in Levinas, which may perhaps stem from his Jewish roots. The idea that sacrifice can purge or make holy is attested to in the Jewish Bible, and throughout their rabbinic scholarship. For instance, in Exodus 28:36-38,
“Make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal: HOLY TO THE LORD. Fasten a blue cord to it to attach it to the turban; it is to be on the front of the turban. It will be on Aaron's forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacrifices the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron's forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the LORD."[3]
Here we have the ideas of holiness, guilt, and sacrifice all together. Aaron bears the guilt of the people, so that their sacrifices may be acceptable to the Lord for holiness. However, Aaron does not displace the people. He is along side of them. The self cannot become the Other, for this is again imperialism.

Let us now turn to the questions of Whom?, in substitution and How? It is important to understand that, just as guilt finds its root in responsibility, so does substitution. They have a common parent. Commenting on this, Adriaan Peperzak notes,
Burrowing yet deeper, Levinas discovers in passivity an accusation: the obligation that is imposed on me in responsibility makes me guilty – a debtor - without my having made any choice. Beyond this, the responsibility grows to the measure in which I fulfill it. I can never pay off the burden of my guilt. There is always more demanded of me than I can accomplish. I stand under an accusation that I have not earned.
All well and good. So far we have covered this. Here, however, is where he is going:
In the accusation, Levinas uncovers persecution as a necessary presupposition: only a persecuted subject is a subject who – without so desiring, against his will – lives for the Other. The most extreme intensifying of passivity is, however, attained in the concept of substitution: the subject is so little its own possession and so greatly of and for the other that he/she is responsible for everything that has to do with the other – not only for the other’s misery but also against the suffering subject.[4]
We have already seen the accent on passivity placed by Levinas, and now, in order to keep this passivity, he must introduce the idea of persecution. It is the persecuted self who will most passively attempt to alleviate the Other.[5]

If the persecuted one is the self to help the Other, how, practically, does the individual go about this substitution? Perhaps a comment by Peperzak will aid us here. He notes,
The emergence of the Other is at the same time that which changes mere appearances into givens and that which awakens the consciousness of the anarchic thinker to its shame…The presence of the Other abolishes the atheism of the will’s monopoly…I am saved by the acceptance of the critique that comes from the Other’s face.[6]
Here, he states that Levinas imagines salvation to come, paradoxically, by throwing myself into that which condemns me. The critique of the Other, that most horrible, guilt-producing critique, is the very thing the self must turn to, and must accept and embrace, in hopes of being saved. This should strike us as bizarre at least.

Imagine a doe being hunted through the dark woods, all the while hearing the baying of hounds and the shouts of men with guns behind her. These are the sounds of her death. They terrify her, forcing her to run farther and faster while hounding her ever deeper into the woods. However, for Levinas, salvation comes by stopping the flight, turning, and with open arms embracing that which pursues and condemns me. The self must throw itself at the mercy of the court, hoping that the judge who should condemn me will instead pardon me and find me “not guilty.” The doe must cut short her retreat, and hope that somehow these dogs do not mean to tear her apart, and that the men mean to take her in as a pet to be cared for, and not rack her on their trucks. In substitution, the I seeks to altruistically save the Other by stepping in and taking its faults, and in so doing (i.e., accepting the critique), the I is itself saved. I do this by accepting my death, by accepting the condemnation of the Other upon me, and in accepting, I am saved.

One can see how incredibly difficult this must be. We have a natural self-preservation instinct, an instinct that kicks in when we are threatened with losing life or losing face. To accept the critique is surely a miracle for many. But it is not implausible. While Levinas does purport an amazing option for atonement, it is not impossible or exclusively untenable. To be saved from as great a guilt as Levinas posits we bear would take a remarkable atoning.


[1]Levinas BPW p. 90. Back

[2]Is It Righteous To Be? ed. Jill Robbins (Stanford, 2001) p. 228. Back

[3]New King James Version. Nelson Publishing, 2001. Back

[4]Peperzak TTO p. 222. Back

[5]Another interesting dilemma for Levinas is the question of who is persecuting the self? Is it the Other, whose persecution drives me to helping her? Perhaps, and this would make some sense of what we will say below, but this is not thoroughly fleshed out in his writing. For more on this sticky question in Levinas, see BPW p. 87-89, 93-94. Back

[6]Ibid. p. 146, emphasis mine. Back

[Levinas] | [philosophy] | [substitution]


I just read this post and am in the process of reading some others with a few preliminary comments. I think you may be giving short shrift to Levinas from a more traditional Christian apologist point of view. Speaking as one with many years experience in traditional Christian denominations and un-denominational Churches I have seen an abuse of the 'salvation' motif as a kind of license for abuse of the other. I see this abuse in a similar light as Levinas' critique of Heidegger's notion of authenticity (see my latest post here for a little more on this, If salvation empowers, endows one with a special knowledge, this elevated and founded origin (arche) can make Ethics in Levinas' sense secondary just as Heidegger's authenticity gives short shrift to ethics.

Did Jesus ever promise that salvation eliminated personal guilt? Sure, there is the notion of substitution, Jesus taking on the sins of the world, paying the price, etc. but isn't the promise of salvation concomitant with following in his footsteps, becoming the servant not the master, the first being last and the last being first? Wouldn't this mean the believer should accept the free gift not as merited or earned but as an interruption of the other, the other being Jesus, while we were "yet enemies". Why would Christians use salvation as an excuse to bash the other, condemn the other, totalize the other in Levinas' sense. Did Jesus totalize the other or did he meet each one as unique, as personal, as worthy of unconditional love even as sinners. This type of ethos puts the other in the place of a radical alterity, an interruption of mine-ness whether it be authenticity or salvation. As long as the other is known and understood in some prior understanding, disposition, metaphysics of ontology, there can be no place for a Jesus-like attitude or an Ethics in Levinas' sense. The violent history of Christianity, while not reducible to it, does show another option for Christians that is more akin to the heretical disposition of the Pharisees and Scribes that Jesus decried. It might also be more along the lines of Levinas' critique of ontology, totalizing the other.

Additionally you state in protest, "for Levinas, salvation comes by stopping the flight, turning, and with open arms embracing that which pursues and condemns me". I believe that here is where Jesus has a noble but radical philosophy, in short, yes. Remember turn the other check? Remember, walk a mile for the other that forces you to do so, give your coat to the other that takes it? Remember while we were yet enemies Jesus gave himself, sacrificed himself to the enemies? Did he protest to Pontius Pilate? Did he claim that he was God and therefore innocent? He freely gave himself to be counted as a common criminal, guilty of sin even to the point that "God made him that had no sin to be sin ". Are you suppose to turn yourself over to the persecutor? If you want to follow the radical lead of Jesus, the answer is yes. The doe turning to the hunter is not so different than the sheep being led to the slaughter, is it?

I do not want to imply an across the board equivocation to Levinas and Christianity nor do want to imply that I am a Christian but I do see some deeper confluences in Levinas and Christianity (and Kierkegaard) than the conclusions I read in this post.

That is great to hear, thank you for reading!

Thank you, that was just an awesome post!!!

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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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