Emmanuel Levinas, Radical Selflessness, and Not-So-Latent Misogyny

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The philosophy of the Lithuanian-Jewish thinker, Emmanuel Levinas, generally seems to be categorizable as a radical selfless-ness. When one encounters the Other, Levinas posits that one ought to drop the ego and offer everything to the Other.

Levinas suggests that one should not prioritize ontology over ethics, as the ethical is what really matters. To make this point known, Levinas had to deconstruct the philosophical systems of many acclaimed and brilliant philosophers. Heidegger and Buber were some of the main targets for Levinas, but the true assault would come later.

While Levinas may not have intended his misogynistic undertones at first, he dug his own grave during an incredible spat with the French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir that revealed the internal sexist objectifying ideology of the philosopher.

Denis Donoghue aptly describes the roots of the battle in his article in the New York Review of Books entitled The Philosopher of Selfless Love:

“Inevitably, Simone de Beauvoir accused him of relegating women to a secondary status derived from ‘the masculine.’” (40)

At this point, it would have been easy for Levinas to diffuse the prodding of de Beauvoir by simply choosing a different, less gendered term. But for some unfathomable reason, one possibly based in hubris, Levinas doubled down. Donoghue continues in the same article:

“Levinas tried to answer her charge in Ethics and Infinity… but he only made more trouble for himself by saying things like ‘the feminine is other for a masculine being not-only because of a different nature but also inasmuch as alterity is in some way its nature.’” (40)

From this rebuttal, it is clear that Simone de Beauvoir was right in her critique of Levinas because his conception of the Other, is fundamentally based in a not-so-latent misogyny as Levinas thinks not only that women are the absolute other, but that their primary mode of being is to be touched.

Levinas relegates women to a secondary status that perfectly fits in with the critique of society and culture that Simone de Beauvoir offers in The Second Sex. Levinas writes in Time and the Other, a collection of lectures from between 1946 and 1947:

“I think the absolutely contrary contrary, whose contrariety is in no way affected by the relationship that can be established between it and its correlative, the contrariety that permits its terms to remain absolutely other, is the feminine.” (85)

Not only does Levinas call the feminine “other,” he goes so far as to call it “absolutely other.” For Levinas, women are the Other in the purest possible form. Levinas goes on to call women mysterious in their alterity, but obviously, this is only a mystery to men.

Simone de Beauvoir comments on the “mystery” in The Second Sex, suggesting that:

“When he writes that woman is mystery, he assumes that she is mystery for man. So, this apparently objective description is in fact an affirmation of masculine privilege.” (38)

To give priority to men, as a man, is simply a problematic self-affirmation of power. Those on top always find a self-justification for why they are on top, have been on top, and should always be on top. But of course, someone who relegates the Others to a secondary status for inherent differences will find that Other mysterious. Further, the mystery will remain mysterious because those with primary status often won’t give those with secondary status the opportunity for demystification.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her masterful work The Second Sex, is able to firmly show that in a male-centric world, women have always been the Other, and to continue to affirm that alterity is misogynistic. She claims that there has never been an equal relationship between men and women, and the alterity is what fuels this hateful separation. Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex that :

“To say that woman was the Other is to say that a relationship of reciprocity between the sexes did not exist: whether Earth, Mother, or Goddess, she was never a peer for man; her power asserted itself beyond human rule: she was thus outside of this rule.” (105)

Levinas asserts this in full force by using his phenomenological reading to force women into the status of alterity. He is eating from the same bowl as those who relegate women to a status of less-than. He uses the exact terminology to describe the feminine, the terms Other and alterity, as those making efforts to break free from the shackles manifested by these words.

Although not commented on by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, an important section of Levinas’ piece to analyze for misogyny (quite easily, at that) is, once again, in Time and the Other. Levinas buys directly into many classic male-centric expectations of women. He writes that:

“the existent is accomplished in the “subjective” and in “consciousness”; alterity is accomplished in the feminine. This term is on the same level as, but in meaning opposed to, consciousness. The feminine is not accomplished as a being in a transcendence toward light, but in modesty.” (88)

Firstly, Levinas, in an extremely problematic manner, sets the feminine opposed to consciousness. Meaning, that to Levinas, women are not conscious in the way that men are. These two sexes are diametrically opposed. Secondly, Levinas posits that women, instead of being conscious, should be modest. Incredibly, Levinas calls upon the language of Heidegger’s authenticity. Levinas sub-textually speculates that if women want to exist in the truest possible way, then they should think little of themselves and cover up their bodies. It does not take a brilliant feminist like Simone de Beauvoir to see that this is completely and utterly misogynistic.

In a fashion that is all too transparent to even be considered latent, Levinas wades further into the depths of classically sexist rhetoric by taking the route of blatant objectification. Levinas feels the need to include, in Time and the Other, his concept:

“phenomenology of voluptuousness.” (89)

This sounds problematic upon first reading, far before one even explores his definition, which serves only to make everything worse. Levinas continues on to describe voluptuousness as:

“a pleasure [not] like others, because it is not solitary like eating or drinking,” (89)

This seems to have an element of truth. Eating and drinking are solitary, potentially a stretch to call it a pleasure instead of a need, but Levinas is only correct in his assertion if the voluptuousness of women is meant to be a group activity, that is, if the voluptuousness is meant to be experienced by men. Women are meant to be experienced by men. Levinas, at this point, is resorting to pure objectification. He continues on to say that this voluptuousness, as a group activity:

“seems to confirm my views on the exceptional role and place of the feminine.” (89)

Not only does Levinas suggest that women’s bodies should be used and enjoyed by men, he goes so far as to say that that is the role of women.

“The caress is a mode of the subject’s being.” (89)

The very core of being for women, according to Levinas, is to be looked at and touched.

Simone de Beauvoir pulled a small thought out of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas that could be read as misogynistic. Specifically, de Beauvoir calls him out for relegating the feminine to a secondary status of alterity and for labeling women as “mysterious” from a male-centric view. But if Simone de Beauvoir were to have commented on the phenomenology of voluptuousness, it probably would have been hard for her to remain as academically polite.

The things that Emmanuel Levinas wrote in Time and the Other are, quite frankly, disgusting. The rhetoric is classically misogynistic and sexist. The objectification is apparent. Denis Donoghue described the exchange with much less of a bias than Levinas potentially deserved, but the spat could have been far more violent and far more serious. Simone de Beauvoir could have decided not to attack Levinas for the aforementioned crimes because she just didn’t want to engage, but the discourse could have been far worse.

Simone de Beauvoir would have been nowhere close to okay with the blatant and horrible objectification. Levinas gave these lectures in a period of change. Simone de Beauvoir was an active figure in the philosophic community, there was finally a spark of change, and Levinas tucked the misogyny into his philosophy, which had no place. The misogyny may have just been a part of Levinas, as a person, but for someone so concerned with selflessness, Levinas was quick to take away the very things that make women human. He took consciousness, that which makes one sentient, away from the feminine. There must have been some disconnect between power and responsibility in the mind of the philosopher, and maybe he should have just kept his mouth shut if he thought women were so “mysterious.”

Filmmaker and Photographer based in New Jersey

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