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Lyotard and Levinas: The Logic of Obligation

Darren Ambrose

Jean-Francois Lyotard’s inquiries into the logic of obligation, culminating in his
discussion of ethical phrases in Le Differend, are deeply indebted to a Levinasian
reading of that logic and his articulation of a radically new modality of ethics.
Emmanuel Levinas is one of the major figures in twentieth century European
philosophical tradition to have produced a substantive reconfiguration of ethics based
upon the idea of an asymmetrical human relation rather than mutual obligation. The
resulting ethics, outlined in texts such as Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than
Being, or Beyond Essence, is one of hyperbolic responsibility beyond norms and duty
and outside formal rules and pragmatics. In this paper I will analyse Lyotard’s
arguments concerning the logic of absolute obligation – the ‘phrases of pure
prescription’ - through a detailed reading of his relatively unknown essay on Levinas
entitled ‘Logique de Levinas’. Lyotard’s short commentary demonstrates
considerable interpretative insight and originality and represents a sophisticated
response to Jacques Derrida’s early influential commentary ‘Violence and
Metaphysics’. Derrida’s commentary is marked by its critical claims regarding
Levinas’s efforts to articulate a philosophical ethics beyond the Hegelian dialectic. As
I will demonstrate, central to Lyotard’s own interpretative efforts is an urgent
recovery of Levinas’s ethics from such an allegedly reductive reading.

In his essay ‘Logique de Levinas’1 Lyotard aims to ‘establish that prescriptive

statements are not commensurate with denotative ones – or in other words, with
descriptive ones’. As part of this effort Lyotard argues that Emmanuel Levinas is the
thinker who has done more than any other contemporary philosopher to develop an
original philosophical analogue of the purely prescriptive obligation derived from the
Judaic and Talmudic tradition. His reading of Levinas in this essay consists of an
attempt to ‘rewrite Levinas into the language of phrases’. Levinas’s thought
persistently revolves around the question of a primary asymmetrical relation to the

Translated as ‘Levinas’ Logic’ in The Lyotard Reader, ed. A. Benjamin, pp. 275-313. An abbreviated
form of this translated text was first published in French as ‘Logique de Levinas’ in Textes pour
Emmanuel Levinas, pp. 127-150

other, and how such asymmetry is the condition (rather than the foundation) of all
justice. This asymmetrical relation to the other (what Levinas terms ‘proximity’) is
conceived as being ‘unique’, absolutely other, and the primary signification of all
subsequent meaning.

Throughout all of his work Levinas contrasts his conception of asymmetrical

proximity, and the way it inscribes a primordial sense of obligation towards the other
within the self, with the historically developed notion of consciousness and self-
consciousness found in Kant, Hegel and Husserl. Within the Post-Kantian tradition
consciousness and self-consciousness signify intentionality, transcendental
constitution, conceptual mastery, self-possession, the sovereignty or freedom of the
rational subject, or the autonomous agent who constitutes everything that appears to
befall it. According to this tradition consciousness and self-consciousness confer
meaning on the world and on the other human subjects in it. However, Levinas argues
that consciousness and self-consciousness so conceived are not all there is to
subjectivity; they are also the condition of a primordial sensibility and passivity in
which my relationship to the world is one of proximity to absolute alterity.2 Proximity
names a totally autonomous event of exteriority as well as naming the relation
between such exteriority and the subject. In proximity the self-constituting
sovereignty of consciousness and self-consciousness is revealed as having the
structure of the one-for-the-other. In that sense it carries the anarchic character of an
intervention in the stable order of things that I constitute and inhabit. ‘Proximity’,
Levinas says, ‘is anarchically a relationship with a singularity without mediation of
any principle or ideality. What concretely corresponds to this description is my
relationship with my neighbour.’3 The subject’s relationship with this form of
exteriority is absolutely asymmetrical and not one that it brings about, or constitutes,
in any way.

This relation is conceived as anarchic because such exterior singularity just happens
or emerges despite myself, it befalls me. The other is out of my control, beyond any
stable order I might try to impose. It is in this sense a relation outside of the
Levinas’s most detailed account of sensibility, passivity and proximity is contained in chapter 3 of
Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, translated by A Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University
Press, 1998)
E. Levinas, Ibid. p. 90

coordinates of conscious intentionality. Levinas characterises this befalling of the
other as an ‘assignation’, a being ‘approached’, a being ‘called out’, ‘summoned’, or
‘accused’. What is overturned in proximity is the sovereignty of the subject, not my
responsibility, which is assigned beyond any possibility of evasion. In the
asymmetrical relation with the other, which is, for Levinas, the human relation par
excellence, I am exposed beyond my will and ethically obligated to the other in an
absolute sense. He writes:

‘The psyche is the form of a peculiar de-phasing, a loosening up or unclamping of

identity: the same prevented from coinciding with itself, at odds, torn up from its rest,
between sleep and insomnia, panting and shivering. It is not an abdication of the
same, now alienated and slave to the other, but an abnegation of oneself fully
responsible for the other. This identity is brought out by responsibility and is at the
service of the other. In the form of responsibility, the psyche in the soul is the other in
me, a malady of identity, both accused and self, the same for the other, the same by
the other.’4

This exposure which comes through proximity provides the necessary logic of
obligation structuring subjectivity itself – ‘the word ‘I’ here means ‘here I am’’ [me
voici], answering for everything and for everyone. And it is this logic of obligation
which conditions the subject’s openness to the other and is, Levinas claims, ‘the
condition for all solidarity’.5

For Levinas this hyperbolic logic of obligation serves to overwhelm the order of
thematised propositions – ‘the simultaneity and reciprocity’ of the relations when said
or iterated within a stable language or, as Levinas refers to it, ‘ontological language’,
the language of iterated being. However, all of his philosophical work presents a
thorough and ongoing struggle to articulate this ‘non-ontological’ understanding of
this asymmetrical alterity of the other and a notion of the ethical which is ‘older than’
justice. A constant theme throughout Levinas’s work is the way in which the
articulation of ethical proximity and absolute obligation represents a betrayal of its
primordial and anarchic ‘sense’. In gaining a ‘sense’ by becoming articulated within

Ibid. p. 69
Ibid. p. 102

linguistic propositions it also paradoxically loses its sense, ‘betraying itself, appearing
according to the intelligibility of a system.’6

Given Levinas’s own difficulties regarding the iteration of ethical sense, it is

important to realise that there is a considerable challenge faced by any attempt to
provide a commentary actually about Levinas’s particular style of philosophical
discourse. In this paper I propose to demonstrate that Lyotard’s own commentary on
Levinas’s thought, in particular the essay entitled ‘Levinas’s Logic’, represents one of
the more successful attempts to elaborate a philosophically sophisticated account of
Levinas’s iteration of a logic of obligation. In this relatively obscure essay Lyotard
clearly addresses the way Levinas’s discourse sets ‘a trap for commentary, attracting
it and deceiving it.’7 Arguably his success in understanding Levinas is in no small part
down to this crucial observation. This trap is the temptation to read Levinas’s
discourse, which is populated by contradictions, paradoxes, hiatuses and enigmatic
lacunae, as a purely speculatively enterprise, and to ignore the degree to which these
textual elements signify non-speculatively.8 However, the question of how Levinas’s
work works (non-speculatively) is also recognised by another of Levinas’s most
perceptive, and indeed earliest, of interlocutors, Jacques Derrida. In a 1980 essay on
Levinas, Derrida writes the following concerning the apparent necessity to have to
read Levinas’s work otherwise:

‘One must, even though nobody constrains anybody, read his work, otherwise said,
respond to it and even respond for it, not by means of what one understands by work
according to the dominant interpretation of language, but according to what his work
says, in its manner, of work, about which it is, otherwise said, about what it should
(be), otherwise said about it should have (to be), as work at work in the work.’9

Ibid. P. 69
J-F. Lyotard, ‘Levinas’s Logic’, p.275
Lyotard, in Discours, Figure criticises Derrida for his neo-Hegelian reading of Levinas in the first of his
commentaries entitled ‘Violence and Metaphysics’. Here Derrida remarks upon what he calls the ‘complicity -
between Hegelianism and classical anti-Hegelianism’8. For Derrida ‘as soon as he [Levinas] speaks against Hegel,
Levinas can only confirm Hegel, has confirmed him already’. To clarify his point Derrida, in a footnote, cites
Hegel’s Science of Logic: ‘Pure difference is not absolutely different (from nondifference). Hegel’s critique of the
concept of pure difference is for us here, the most uncircumventable theme. Hegel thought absolute difference, and
showed that it can be pure only by being impure.’ Lyotard argues that Derrida’s apparent rapprochement between
Levinas and Hegel risks effacing the true measure of Levinas’s ethics.
J. Derrida, ‘At This Very Moment In This Work Here I Am’, translated by R. Berezdivin in R
Bernasconi & S Critchley (eds.), Re-Reading Levinas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991),
p. 38

I want to argue here that one of the most important elements of Lyotard’s paper on the
Levinas’ logic of obligation is his insistence upon an irreducibly non-speculative
aspect to Levinas’s fundamental prescriptive claims in works such as Totality and
Infinity and Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. At work in these texts, Lyotard
discerns an aberrant logic of obligation which succeeds at not being reducible to being
merely another moment of speculative ontology. This logic functions as an excessive,
non-denotative, prescriptive logic. To continue to argue that such a logic is fatally
vulnerable to being reinscribed within speculative ontology is, Lyotard maintains,
fundamentally mistaken simply because it fails to appreciate both the way in which
Levinas is only too aware of the degree to which his ethical discourse runs the risk of
being reinscribed and reduced, and the way in which he subsequently constructs his
text in order to solicit a sense of absolute obligation to an other which is irreducible,
in the end, to speculative ontology. The ultimately irreducible element is identified by
Lyotard as a perlocutionary aspect capable of signifying otherwise, an aspect that
signifies beyond and in excess of the stable strictures of denotative discourse. This
aspect constitutes what Levinas will term the ‘dimension of height’ or the ‘divinity of
exteriority’ in Totality and Infinity10, and what Lyotard terms the ‘differend’. By
making such an identification Lyotard successfully discerns the full implications of a
distinction which, although present in Totality and Infinity, becomes increasingly
significant and developed in the later text Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence,
namely the distinction between ‘Saying’ and the ‘Said’.

By the time of Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence language seems no longer
reducible to prepositional form (the Said). ‘Language’, says Levinas, ‘is not reducible
to a system of signs doubling up beings and relations; that conception would be
incumbent upon us if the word were the Noun. Language seems rather to be an
excrescence of the verb.’11 For Levinas, ‘Saying’ – speaking a language – is
irreducible to the prepositional form of the Said, or the logical construction of
identity. Language is always in excess of this logical function of predication, and this

E. Levinas - ‘The idea of infinity designates a height and a nobility, a transascendence.’ (Totality
and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by A Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,
p. 41)
E. Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, p. 35

excess is preserved in the verbality of language which serves to temporalise the
movement of the proposition. Thus, language is never a stable or self-identical
totality, and it can never purely coincide with itself. There does exist a prepositional
language (the Said) which is the language of identity reducing the other to the same,
and there is the language of temporality or of a primordial sensibility (the Saying) in
which this stable identity is disrupted and language is turned towards and animated by
something other than its self-identical totality, i.e. towards an other outside of its own
coordinates. However, Levinas does not advocate the abandonment of the stable
forms of prepositional language, the stable discourse of concepts and definitions
associated with philosophical reason.

Saying, Levinas claims, is always already somewhat ambiguously implicated or

betrayed within the realm of prepositional language, (i.e. the Said). He asks – ‘Is it
necessary and is it possible that the Saying on the hither side be thematised, that is,
manifest itself, that it enter into a proposition and a book?’12 Levinas’s answer is an
emphatic ‘yes’:

‘It is necessary. The responsibility for another is precisely a Saying prior to anything
Said. The surprising Saying which is a responsibility for another is against ‘the winds
and tides’ of being, is an interruption of essence, a disinterestedness imposed with a
good violence.’13

Saying cannot ever be thought, cannot be comprehended as ethical, unless it is in

some sense fixed or reified – fixed not just as a Said or a theme but as a philosophy.
‘Philosophy’, Levinas says, ‘makes this astonishing adventure…intelligible.’14 In his
essay, Lyotard recognises both the necessity for Levinas’s discourse to run the risk of
thematising unthematisable transascendence, and the necessity of rethinking the very
process of that elaborate negotiation. Lyotard acknowledges the necessity for the
primordial signification of the other, our anterior prescription of obligation and
response, to have to be signified within the form of an enunciated and descriptive
‘Said’. Lyotard argues that despite the obvious risks involved in the necessary

Ibid. p. 43
Ibid. p. 44

transition of the primordial prescription of Saying into a thematising discourse of the
Said, it is never simply reduced to it. The prescriptive Saying always retains a
signification that exceeds or overflows any such thematisation, enunciation or Said.
The signifyingness of the one-for-the-other (Saying) that animates the psyche of the
self, this notion of a non-denotative excess (of the trace of the other in the same), and
its relation to its necessary thematisation, together with the way in which Levinas
negotiates that impasse (in order to make his work succeed in radically displacing
Hegelian speculative philosophy) becomes the very focus of Levinas’s later work.
Levinas writes:

‘Here animation is not a metaphor, but, if we can put it thus, a designation of the
irreducible paradox of intelligibility: the other in the same, the trope of the for-the-
other in its antecedent inflexion. This signification in its very signifyingness, outside
of every system, before any correlation, is an accord or peace between planes which,
as soon as they are thematised, make an irreparable cleavage, like vowels in a
dieresis15, maintaining a hiatus without elision. They then mark two Cartesian orders,
the body and the soul, which have no common space where they can touch, and no
logical topos where they can form a whole. Yet they are in accord prior to
thematisation, in an accord, a chord, which is possible only as an arpeggio. Far from
negating intelligibility, this kind of accord is the very rationality of signification in
which the tautological identity, the ego, receives the other, and takes on the meaning
of an irreplaceable identity by giving to the other. The said shows, but betrays (shows
by betraying) the dieresis, the disorder of the psyche which animates the
consciousness of, and which, in the philosophical order of the said, is called
transcendence. But it is not in the said that the psyche signifies, even though it is
manifested there. Signification is the one-for-the-other which characterises an identity
that does not coincide with itself...It is not reducible to any synchronic and reciprocal
relationship which a totalising and systematic thought would seek in it...The psyche or
animation is the way a relationship between uneven terms, without any common time,

Dieresis – the division of one syllable into two, especially by the resolution of a diphthong into two
simple vowels. It also refers to the sign placed over a vowel to indicate that it is pronounced separately
(e.g. Noël; Chloë; Zoë; Naïve )

arrives at relationship. Non-objectifiable, non-contemporaneous, it can only signify

In his commentary Lyotard argues that the prescriptive statements associated with
Levinas’s pre-ontological and animating sense of ethical obligation are not entirely
commensurable with denotative (or descriptive) ones. However, as part of this
commentary Lyotard stages a so-called ‘neo-Hegelian’ response to Levinas’s work
which is akin to the Derrida’s critical response in his early commentary. This type of
staged response serves to emphasise the essential denotative (or descriptive) quality of
Levinas’s statements regarding the ethical situation in order to demonstrate the
degree to which they might be considered vulnerable to being assimilated by a certain
type of ontological discourse (or speculative dialectics). This approach insists, as
Derrida originally had, upon there being an implicit proximity between Hegel and
Levinas at the very point of their greatest apparent disjunction regarding ethical
prescription and description. The ‘neo-Hegelian’ commentary staged by Lyotard,
concentrates upon the seemingly disjunctive Levinasian principle that the ethics of
pure obligation derives from a relation with absolute alterity.

Lyotard argues (in neo-Hegelian mode) that since, for Levinas, absolute alterity and
heterogeneity are ethical, the unethical is always the ‘other’ of the ethical; so all that
is unethical is in fact ethical. Lyotard claims that if the one who suffers injustice
should protest against this apparent sophism then he only has its major term to blame,
namely his own law. If the premise states that the rule is alterity, then it necessarily
authorises retortion, enabling the same to be drawn from the other and the other from
the same. If this amounts to nothing more than persecution, it remains the fault of the
persecuted alone; he suffers only from his own law and refutes himself. For Lyotard
such is the mechanism of the Hegelian response: it is ironic and parodic by means of
its ‘I understand you’. Indeed, one is able to see an example of the Hegelian
mechanism in a section of the Phenomenology of Spirit entitled ‘The Law of the Heart
and the Frenzy of Self-Conceit’. Here a form of self-consciousness claims to know
with certainty that it operates as the principle of necessity, i.e. that it has the
universality of law immediately within itself, ‘and because the law is immediately

Ibid. p. 70-1

present in the being-for-self of consciousness, it is called the law of the heart.’17 Hegel
sets about discovering whether self-consciousness’ realisation actually corresponds to
its ‘Notion’, ‘and whether in that realisation it will find that its law is its essential
nature.’18 Hegel demonstrates, with more than a hint of irony, that in fact the self-
consciousness that sets up the law of its own heart inevitably meets resistance from
others, precisely because it contradicts ‘the equally individual laws of their hearts; and
these others in their resistance are doing nothing else but setting up and claiming
validity for their own law.’19 For Hegel the only universal that actually emerges is the
universal resistance and struggle of all against one another, with the result that ‘what
seems to be public order, then, is this universal state of war’, where what is meant to
have the status of universality, through its own contradictory logic, ends up nothing
more than ‘the essenceless play of establishing and nullifying individualities.’20

Levinas’s defence against such a persecuting (Hegelian or neo-Hegelian) commentary

resides in his claim that the absolutely other is not merely the other of the same,
whereby the other is always played out or exchanged in an economy of being as
being’s other. The absolutely other is otherwise than being. In this way the ethical
cannot relate dialectically to, or be identified with, the unethical in the neo-Hegelian
sense, precisely because the two terms do not exist upon the same plane. The neo-
Hegelian approach seemingly presupposes a unified synchronous temporal plane in
which the two terms would inevitably dialectically relate. However, for Levinas the
absolute other is always diachronically prior to the same rather than the result of an
immanent development from the Same. It is precisely this anteriority of absolute
alterity which forbids their mutual opposition from ever becoming totally

However, Lyotard claims that Levinas’s riposte is not completely irrefutable, and at
this point adds a warning concerning the inherent lure or trap in Levinas’s discourse.
For Lyotard the lure consists precisely in seducing the reader to refuse the riposte
regarding the diachronous anteriority of alterity and to insist upon the inevitable

G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by AV Miller, with analysis of the text and
foreword by JN Findlay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p.221
Ibid. p.227
Ibid. pp.227-8

collapse of Levinas’s notion of the absolute other in the ironic manner of the neo-
Hegelian reading.

Such a refusal, Lyotard argues, remains on self-consciously Hegelian grounds by

claiming that it is not enough to plead the exclusive disjunction of the otherwise than
being, i.e. that the absolutely other is other than all that is. Whatever terms Levinas
uses to state such an exclusive disjunction, and no matter how radically and
emphatically negative it may be, to even use or invoke it necessarily implies a positive
assertion in the very act of enunciation. Hence we are always able to infer an
affirmative expression from the most negative expression.21 For Lyotard we only ever
have to bring into play the notion of the ‘enunciative clause’. Through enunciative
clauses we are able to maintain that a non-being or the otherwise than being ‘is’, since
we are able to state that a non-being or the otherwise than being ‘is’ a non-being or
‘is’ otherwise than being. These enunciative clauses, which permit such inferences,
would seemingly constitute the unexpressed premises of Levinas’s particular form of
argumentation, i.e. throughout all that is said to be, or not to be, something is -
synchronicity of terms is restored.

For Lyotard all philosophical discourses, no matter how historically diverse, make use
of this enunciative clause, even if only covertly. It appears as if Levinas’s work,
which endeavours to discover and articulate a diachronous sense of the otherwise than
being, must inevitably abound with such synchronous statements. Indeed, Lyotard
goes on to characterise the lure or trap in Levinas’s discourse as the temptation to
regard the palpable and evident thematisation of the absolute and diachronous
transcendence of the absolute other in the work as discernible evidence of the
enunciative clause that would so convincingly ruin it. Hence, such a reader is tempted
by the thought that if they are able to detect the presence of an enunciative clause then
they are able to demonstrate that Levinas’s other is other only insofar as there is an

In his early commentary ‘Violence and Metaphysics’, published in Writing and Difference,
translated, with an introduction and additional notes by A Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1978), Derrida suspects that Levinas risks merely repeating a gesture intrinsic to all forms of
empiricism or absolutely heterological metaphysical thought (a gesture understood well by Hegel
himself), namely that it ‘always forgets, at the very least, that it employs the words “to be” (p. 139) For
Derrida Levinas’s arguments amount to the claim that a non-violent language is a language that does
without the verb “to be”, it is a language without predication, ‘a language of pure invocation, pure
adoration, proffering only proper nouns in order to call to the Other from afar. In effect, such a
language would be purified of all rhetoric…purified of every verb.’ (p. 147)

assertion that maintains its absolute relation and exteriority. Such alleged ruination of
Levinas’s work is characterised by Lyotard as the inherent temptation of how to read
the work. His work seemingly solicits ruination as part of the way it would seem to

However, Lyotard argues that Levinas’s work not only contains this lure of
‘ruination’, but has another ‘face’ or ‘path’ that always already evades a Hegelian
form of persecution. To discern this other face Lyotard engages much more closely
with the actual logic of how Levinas’s work seemingly works. Within this analysis of
Levinas’s logic he selects an assertive statement regarding the relation between self
and other from Levinas’s Totality and Infinity. This statement is taken from the
second section of the book entitled ‘Interiority and Economy’ where Levinas sets out
his account of how ‘radical separation’ is the necessary condition for the passage of
the ‘metaphysical’:

‘The interiority that assures separation must produce a being absolutely closed over
upon itself, not deriving its isolation dialectically from its opposition to the other. And
this closedness must not prevent egress from interiority, so that exteriority could
speak to it, reveal itself to it, in an unforseeable movement.’22

Lyotard isolates two important statements made by Levinas here and characterises
them thus:

1) The self does not proceed from the other (i.e. it does not derive its self-identity
from a dialectical opposition to the other).

2) The other befalls the self (i.e. the other reveals or manifests itself in an
‘unforseeable movement’).

Lyotard labels these statements ∼P and Q, respectively23

E. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p.148
Lyotard, Ibid. p.278

Levinas claims that if the self were in fact to proceed from the other, either through
contrast or opposition, (so P), then the other would not be a revelation and would have
no marvels to teach. No transcendable occurrence would be able to touch the self; the
self would simply be a matter of perpetual self-identity where everything became a
matter of maieutics.24 Levinas contests the claim that an absolute immanence of the
self would be capable of discerning the revelatory quality of the approach of the other.
Indeed, such immanence is likened by Levinas to the journeys or adventures of
Ulysses, i.e. adventures ultimately traversed on the return journey home. Immanence
is the purely self-determining movement of self-relation whereby its encounters with
otherness are ultimately disclosed as nothing more than effaced or occluded elements
of its own self-relation. It remains fundamentally maieutic despite perhaps claiming
that it traverses real exteriority. Within immanence exteriority is never anything other
than an element ultimately wholly within the travails of interiority. Writing of Hegel’s
immanent philosophy of spirit and self-consciousness, Levinas claims that is best
characterised as ‘the freedom of play where I take myself for this or that, traversing
avatars under the carnival masks of history.’25 Thus, the logic of Levinas’s position is
as follows:

If P, then ∼Q – if the self proceeds from the other then that other cannot ever
befall the self; if the self derives its own identity from its dialectical opposition to the
other, then the other never truly manifests itself as an other in any kind of
unforeseeable or revelatory way.

In the passage of Totality and Infinity cited by Lyotard, Levinas claims that the
manifest transcendence of the other is conditional upon the separation and closure of
the self. Thus:

If ∼P, then Q – if the self does not derive its own self-identity from a
dialectical opposition from an other, then the other exists as an unforeseen alterity in
its own separate realm – otherwise than the self.26

Maieutics - a dialogue that endeavours to give birth to knowledge already contained in the
E. Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, p. 125
In The Differend Lyotard writes, ‘The other can only befall the ego, like a revelation, through a
break-in’, p. 110

However, Levinas also claims that the other befalls the self; it manifests or reveals to
the self in spite of the latter’s apparent self-sufficiency. Thus:

If ∼P, then ∼Q – if the self does not derive its self identity from a dialectical
opposition from an other, it still cannot prevent the other from befalling it, it cannot
‘prevent egress from interiority, so that exteriority could speak to it.’ So the structural
contradiction would seem to suggest that the self cannot completely derive itself free
from any opposition to an other, to do so would actually entail the impossibility of the
other ever befalling it.27

There is a sense in which if the self does not actually proceed from a relation to the
other in some way, then the other cannot ever befall the self. However, Lyotard
claims, far from exteriority inverting itself into interiority and interiority into
exteriority, as with Hegelianism, Levinas proposes a group of statements (and most
crucially a set of relations between statements) that are able to hold the exteriority of
the other and the interiority of the self as separate. Yet, (and this highlights for
Lyotard Levinas’s real struggle with Hegel), this group of statements is not greatly
different from expressions and relations that could themselves be drawn from Hegel’s
own dialectical discourse. Lyotard claims that the ‘lapsus’ or hiatus constituted by if
∼P, then ∼Q,when juxtaposed with the first two relational expressions of if P, then
~Q and if ~P, then Q, puts the Levinasian group of propositions very close to what,
in Hegel, is called contradiction and the dialectical process of aufhebung. This occurs
in spite of Levinas’s subsequent assertion following the statement Lyotard isolates
from Totality and Infinity:

‘The whole of this work aims to show a relation with the other not only cutting across
the logic of contradiction, where the other of A is the non-A, the negation of A, but

This point had already been forcibly made by Derrida in his early commentary on Levinas. He argues
that if there is no recognition of otherness or difference as otherness or difference in relation to one’s
self-identity, then otherness or difference cannot actually be said to occur or exist. For Derrida, for
something to be other or different it is always structurally necessary for it to be in relation to an
identity. Derrida argues that Levinas’s discourse is necessarily and inescapably entangled within
Hegel’s dialectic of Identity and Difference by virtue of the fact that it is a discourse; it cannot be
‘beyond’ or ‘exterior’ to dialectic since such a dialectic expresses something intrinsic to the very nature
of all discourse. For Hegel the essential identity between ‘thought’ and ‘being’ is evidently intrinsic to
language itself.

across dialectical logic, where the same dialectically participates in and is reconciled
with the other in the unity of the system.’28

In his essay Lyotard begins to question whether the connotations of the two ‘musts’
that punctuate this passage from Levinas’s work are ‘exhausted’ when translated into
forms of propositional implication that Lyotard terms ‘alethic propositional modality’
(e.g. ‘It is necessary that…’) or ‘epistemic propositional modality’ (e.g. ‘It is certain
that…’29). He argues that the type of neo-Hegelian response to Levinas’s work rests
upon the reduction of the ‘musts’ to merely propositional or denotative (descriptive)
discourse and he asks whether or not it is possible to escape this neo-Hegelian
reduction by reading such ‘musts’ otherwise. They may well, he suggests, express an
alternative modality which is otherwise than denotational or propositional modalities.
Such a modality, a modality signifying otherwise, is what Lyotard terms
‘illocutionary’ (i.e. directed towards the addressee of the message), and is ‘almost
conversational’.30 For Lyotard this illocutionary modality transforms the ‘musts’ in
Levinas’s discourse from denotations or propositions into direct appeals from the
author to his reader with a view to obtaining his agreement about the three
propositions. Failing this the ‘conversation’ which constitutes his discourse will have
been interrupted. Lyotard writes:

‘The “necessity” expressed by this must bears upon the pragmatic nature of Levinas’s
discourse: if you, the addressee of that discourse, accept P (i.e. that the self proceeds
from the other), then you must refuse Q (i.e. that the other befalls the self), and you
will not be on my side - you will be a Hegelian.’31

For Lyotard in denotative or propositional readings the scope of the ‘must’ is kept
merely at the level of statements. However, he argues that by making a different,
pragmatic or ‘perlocutionary’ interpretation of it (i.e. ‘one that relates to the locutory
situation that defines the message’s relations of addresser/addressee’32) we are obliged
to take into account the very act of enunciation. The enunciative clause thus returns

E. Levinas, Ibid. p.150
J-F. Lyotard, ‘Levinas’s Logic’, p.279

even in such statements; and it returns, Lyotard argues, with the usual effect of
rendering the properties of particular statements, (i.e. the statement of disjunctive
exclusion), almost negligible, in favour of the enunciative assertion. However,
Lyotard claims that despite the necessity of the act of enunciation the perlocutionary
statements in Levinas are not ever absolutely reducible to mere assertion. Such
irreducibility, he claims, is indeed something that Levinas’s discourse ultimately
shares with Hegel in that neither thinker’s assertions are reducible to the level of mere
assertion. Both thinkers display a more subtle enunciative modality which has
perlocutionary application, and it is the pragmatic force of ‘statement elements’ such
as the musts in Levinas’s work that seemingly bring his thought again into proximity
with Hegel’s. Lyotard claims:

‘Levinas says, “The interior and the exterior must be exterior”, Hegel says, “The
interior and the exterior must be interior”. Propositionally the two statements are
contraries. But they have the same perlocutionary form: for the discourse of ethics to
hold together [Levinas’s work], the claim for the exteriority of the interior relation is
just as necessary as the claim for its interiority is for the discourse of Phenomenology
[Hegel’s work]. In this respect the two discursive positions are not different.’33

Further to this, Lyotard suggests another proximate element. He argues that both
enunciative demands, both of the ‘musts’, (but Levinas’s infinitely more than
Hegel’s), are not clearly formulated. Rather, they are inserted into statements as
‘modalities that govern their parts (P and Q)’34, as opposed to being enunciative acts
which govern the attitudes of the protagonists of philosophy. Lyotard argues that for
both thinkers ‘they are “speculative” statements in which the form of the statement
implies the instance of the enunciation while hiding it.’35 If this is indeed the case then
Levinas’s statements can be placed on a par with Hegel’s only to the detriment of
Levinas, simply because it would finally imply that the absolute exteriority of the
other, (as expressed by statements P and Q and the three subsequent relations),
despite Levinas’s insistence upon that absoluteness, can only be so by virtue of the
enunciative modality of what Lyotard now terms the ‘constative-representative’ or the

Ibid. p.280

‘must’. It is a ‘must’ only relative to the enunciative clause. In such a situation the
Levinasian discourse must inevitably become enveloped within the Hegelian
discourse, since it is the discourse which explicitly needs the enunciative clause to be
inserted, in order to form speculative statements. Such a situation, Lyotard argues,
represents the ultimate temptation into which Levinasian discourse leads those who
have not broken faith with the Hegelian speculative project.

Lyotard, in elaborating his neo-Hegelian reading, is attempting to indicate the extreme

degree to which Levinas’s work seemingly operates as a trap. This trap is the lure of
reading Levinas’s discourse as if it were inherently speculative when it is not; the lure
of treating it as if it were merely reducible to a particularly Hegelian form of
discourse, when it is radically otherwise. Speculative discourse, Lyotard argues, is a
discourse of the same, i.e. a discourse consisting of immanent self-relation, and as
such is opposed to other terms designating ‘other kinds of discourse, such as those of
the poet, the politician, the moralist, the pedagogue, and others.’36 The speculative, for
Lyotard, is a kind of discourse placed under a unifying law of truth - we judge it as
true or false. Speculative discourse functions in a reductive way, seeking to reduce
everything other to the same. The problem particular to the speculative project is to
determine which sub-genre of discourse describes the criteria of truth or falsity that is
valid for all the different discourses of the denotative genre. However, Lyotard claims
that Levinas’s ethical discourse signifies a non-denotative genre, and as such it
perpetually resists speculative reductive envelopment. For Lyotard, the logic of
Levinas’s discourse is not explicitly governed by the mere truth or falsity associated
with the realm of denotative statements. It attempts to signify otherwise. ‘The passage
from the ethical phrase to the phrase of knowledge’, he writes in The Differend, ‘is
done only at the price of forgetting the former.’37

For Lyotard within Levinas’s work the non-denotative genres of discourse appear to
be reducible to two types; those that are placed under the rule of the just/unjust and
those governed by aesthetic value. Being deeply suspicious of the latter, Levinas
attempts to place the ‘deontic’ genre at the very heart of philosophical discourse,
which does not simply consist in describing rules determining the truth or falsity of

Ibid. p.281
Lyotard, The Differend, p. 111

statements, but with those that determine their ethical sense. The value of Lyotard’s
brief commentary on Levinas ultimately resides in his subtle recognition that the well-
formed expressions that concern Levinas do not need to be well-formed in the terms
required by propositional logic. In their ‘deep structure’, regardless of their surface
forms, properly Levinasian statements are powerful ethical imperatives. If ethics
becomes the unique concern of philosophical discourse, it is then in the position of
having to comment not on descriptions (denotative statements) but on prescriptions.

Indeed, the ‘glory’ of Levinas’s thought for Lyotard resides in its ability to liberate the
criterion of validity of ‘orders’, that is, the criterion of their justice, from any sense of
justification by truth functions. Its strength lies in its ability to undermine the
reductive mechanisms of Hegelianism and to establish a notion of ethics outside of, or
otherwise than, denotative discourse, and which is actually able to provide the
profoundly ethical sense or orientation for subsequent denotative discourse. Hegelian
speculative philosophy serves only to reduce the non-denotative to the merely
denotative, thereby eradicating any of its primordial ethical sense. Levinas’s absolute
other occurs without the need for the type of knowledge given through denotative
discourse, and as such it obliges me to act without telling me how to act. The face of
the other actually manifests and reveals this obligation because it carries the
possibility of subsequent ‘expression’, what could be actually said to be my
responsibility. In Totality and Infinity Levinas writes:

‘In language we have recognised teaching. Teaching is a way for truth to be produced
such that it is not my work, such that I could not derive it from my own interiority …
In effect, the being who speaks to me and to whom I respond or whom I interrogate
does not offer himself to me, does not give himself so that I could assume this
manifestation, measure it by my own interiority, and receive it as comes from

The face of the other obliges the self (the same, interiority, economy), in its self-
sufficiency, to open onto possibilities that it could simply never derive from itself.
The other truly befalls the self and is a genuine revelation of difference. For this

E. Levinas, Ibid. p.295

reason any attempt to totalise the prescriptive manifestation of the other into an
immanent form of denotative discourse, what Levinas terms the ‘unrelating relation’39
between ‘separated’ interlocutors, must acknowledge how it inevitably marks a ‘new
scission in being, since he would still tell this total to someone.’40 Immanent
philosophy as such can never claim the last word, it can never ultimately totalise,
since the other, the interlocutor it attempts to encompass ‘has already escaped it’41,
interrupts it, disrupts it and displaces it. The other refuses to be totally thematised qua
Hegel since for Levinas the other always manifests and ‘expresses itself’ on its own

‘In contradistinction to plastic manifestation or disclosure, which manifests something

as something, and in which the disclosed renounces its originality, its hitherto
unpublished existence, in expression the manifestation and the manifested coincide;
the manifested attends its own manifestation and hence remains exterior to every
image one would retain of it, presents itself by stating his name, which permits
evoking him, even though he remains the source of his own presence…This
presentation of the exterior being nowise referred to in our world is what we have
called the face. And we have described the relation with the face that presents itself in
speech as desire - goodness and justice.’43

Ethical obligation to the other, Lyotard argues, occurs within Levinas’s work as the
very condition for all subsequent discourse, and as such, ethics, goodness and justice
are absolutely prior to all knowledge, reason and politics.

The primary obligation must take the form of a fundamental estrangement of the self,
of a ‘scandal’ for the self, in the face of the other. The self is not truly obligated to the
other unless one comes to see that the other is absolutely other. This can only happen
when the receiving self is no longer a self, when the self is estranged, made a stranger
to itself, scandalised, profoundly shocked or a ‘hostage’ to the other. All knowledge is
posterior to obligation; ethics is becomes my obligation, my responsibility, my being

Ibid. p.296

‘hostage’ for-the-other before I am able to think and act. In order to circumvent the
lure of merely identifying Levinas’s work with speculative philosophy, Lyotard
attempts to identify the Levinasian sense of absolute obligation with a phrase that puts
its addressee in the position of always already being obliged, that is, of being solely
the addressee of the phrase and not the addressor of a reaction.44 The addressee is
always already obliged and has always already responded, prior to any response he is
able to make. Such a response prior to response is the very structure of subjectivity for
Levinas; the subject is always already obliged; me voici, ‘Here I am’. For Lyotard
such an obligation and response must take place through the feelings of the addressee,
(indeed Levinas will, in Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, describe the
structure of obligation and response as the persistence of ‘cellular irritability’ or the
pain of the unique elected subject gnawing away at itself or being too tight inside its
own skin). If it took place through thought rather than sensibility there would be a
phrase which would involve an ‘I’ posited outside the peculiar logic and structure of
obligation and response, an utterly closed self-sufficient ‘I’ that would be able to say
‘I think that I must…’ or ‘I think that I am here…’.

For Lyotard, the non-denotative ethical genre, as expressed in Levinas’s work,

consists in a set of prescriptive phrases that immediately put me, or my self, in a
position of absolute obligation with regard to the other, and as having already
responded to that obligation, without explanation and independent of one’s
subsequent thoughts or actions. For Lyotard, as he will go on to explore in his 1983
work The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, this ethical genre is incommensurable with
all other genres. To render its non-denotative aspect as denotative in the attempt to
make it commensurable with all other genres is the enduring mistake of the neo-
Hegelian commentators who refuse to read it or recognise it as being anything other
than speculative discourse.

In The Differend Lyotard reiterates and clarifies this point – ‘The violence of the revelation is in the
ego’s expulsion from the addressor instance, from which it managed its work of enjoyment, power, and
cognition. It is the scandal of an I displaced onto the you instance. The I turned you tries to repossess
itself through the understanding of what dispossess it. Another phrase is formed, in which the I returns
in the addressor’s situation, in order to legitimate or to reject it – it doesn’t matter which – the scandal
of the other’s phrase and of its own dispossession. This new phrase is always possible, like an
inevitable temptation. But it cannot annul the event, it can only tame and master it, thereby
disregarding the transcendence of the other.’ (p. 110-11)

In his later reflections on ethical phrases Lyotard produces what is arguably one of the
most powerful speculations on how we might begin to understand the type of ethical
writing presented by Levinas. These speculations go straight to the very heart of
Levinas’s problematic efforts to signify and bear witness to a deep logic of affective
obligation via proximity to the other, and to the associated problems of commentary
by the other that is his reader:

‘Instead of being the description of an experience, conducted by an I in quest of self-

knowledge, perhaps Levinas’s writing is the testimony of the fracture, of the opening
onto that other who in the reader sends a request to Levinas, of a responsibility before
that messenger who is the reader. It is not a question of writing ‘in the second person’,
under the regimen of the you, but of writing to the other, under his or her law.
Levinas’s text would be the confiding of a hostage. It is in him that the liability would
be assumed...It is what is witness to the fracturing of the I, to its aptitude for hearing a
call...As soon, however, as one begins to speak about what one reads, as soon as one
compares what one has read with what one has requested or thought one requested,
doesn’t the reader, become commentator, inevitably turn into the persecutor of the
work? From the sole fact that one thinks one knows what one requested and supposes
the works’ responsibility to be commensurable to the nature of one’s request, is it not
necessary that one then place oneself, while commentating, back under the regimen of
descriptive, under the temptation of knowledge? How can a commentary not be a
persecution of what is commented upon?’45

The very act of commentary by a reader presupposes that the reader knows in some
sense what the work is actually about, or supposes that they know it to be knowable
and translatable into a set of descriptive propositions. The request put to Levinas’s
text by such a commentator has the effect of closing down the enigmatic and
revelatory quality of Levinas’s writing through its insistence upon there being a
content or sense to the work that can be translated into a knowable set of denotative
propositions. In The Differend Lyotard concludes by stating an understanding and
writing down Levinas’s ethical phrase:

Lyotard, Ibid. P. 114

‘The you is never the I, and the I is never the you. In its wording, the ethical phrase is
annihilated. Its secret, the asymmetry of the pronouns, is divulged and neutralised in
their being autonymically grasped in the third person.’46

Through such neutralisation one is led inevitably to a place of deep uncertainty and
scepticism. Has Levinas really ever been understood, can he ever be said to be
understood when the performativity of his ethical phrase is translated into the realm of
denotative knowledge. In this moment of profound uncertainty and incomprehension,
which comes from the realisation of a certain loss within the denotative, are we not
stripped of the illusion of sovereignty over the ethical phrase? Are we not forced to
confront the absence of knowledge in such moments? In such moments do we not
catch just the slightest glimpse of the otherwise than knowing, the moment prior to
intellection that is the welcoming of the stranger, a moment of ecstatic and anarchic
openness that precedes (and exceeds) any commentary upon the nature of that other
and their request. Perhaps it is this immediacy of welcome that is glimpsed within and
from out of the exhaustion of knowledge. Perhaps it is here that the immediate and
diachronous ethical prescription occurs. In acceding to Levinas’s text I respond,
indeed have responded, to a perfomatively inscribed prescriptive obligation that has
always already happened; in commentating upon it perhaps I simply betray and
reduce it.

Ibid. P. 114


J Derrida, L’ecriture et la difference (Paris: Seuil, 1967) in English as Writing and

Difference, translated, with an introduction and additional notes by A Bass (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1978)

J Derrida, “En ce moment même dans cet ouvrage me voici” in Textes pour
Emmanuel Levinas Paris: Editions Jean-Michel Place, 1980) in English as ‘At This
Very Moment In This Work Here I Am’, translated by R. Berezdivin in R Bernasconi
& S Critchley (eds.), Re-Reading Levinas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1991), pp. 11-48

GWF Hegel, Phanomenologie des Geistes (Hrsg. Hoffmeister, Hamburg: Felix

Meiner Verlag, 1952) in English Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by AV Miller,
with analysis of the text and foreword by JN Findlay (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1977)

E Levinas, Totalité et infini: Essai sur l’extériorité (Livre de Poche; The Hague:
Martinus Nijhoff, 1971, first edition 1961) in English as Totality and Infinity: An
Essay on Exteriority, translated by A Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,

E Levinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1978, 1st
edition 1974) in English as Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, translated by A
Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998)

J-F Lyotard, Discours, Figure (Éditions Klincksieck, 1971)

J-F Lyotard, ‘Logique de Levinas’ in Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas, translated as

‘Levinas’ Logic’ in The Lyotard Reader, ed. A. Benjamin (Oxford: Blackwells, 1989)

JF Lyotard, Le Differend, in English as The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, translated

by G.V.D. Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988)