The Neighbor and the Stranger

A NALS / SIREL Conference

July 4th – 8th, 2016 at the University of Toulouse II – France

“Beyond the axiology of inter-estedness, beyond the appetite for being, beyond the restlessness of each for his restfulness, for his being-there, for his share in existing, beyond the concern for that which has so admirably been called Da-sein, the concern that decipher in the needs that money can satisfy – but as much in the possible cruelties of the ‘struggle for life’ – is not man also the astonishing possibility – exception to the edict of all modes of being! – of giving his place, the Da, to sacrifice himself for the other, to die for the stranger?” [1]

As the seventh year is the year of fallow land, this seventh year of the Toulouse International Conference tends to take place somewhere else than in the foothold in the land, somewhere else than in the autochthony, taking under consideration the landless, the undocumented, the migrant that each human being conceals, those that through their misery oblige to reconfigure the rules of living together.Current affairs have (and for some time now) imposed the ethical problem of thinking about our responsibility in front of the call of the stranger. Even though this symposium is obviously influenced by recent events, it does not constitute simply one reaction. As a matter of fact, the gesture of Levinassian studies that we carry on tends to bring to light the ever-present risk of reducing the other to our own concepts. Hence it is not at all a matter of producing prescriptions.Our proposal, studying the place of the stranger in Levinas’ thought, amounts rather to turn one’s self to that which the human has as most unsettling and somehow most deviant: his difference—which is at the same time unpredictable and inexhaustible.

If the evidence of daily life drags us to see plastic resemblances in the Other’s face and to see in the sufferings of one’s existence the possibility of a threat to the self, Levinas on the contrary observes throughout his work the significance of the difference that overcomes these aesthetic approaches and the concern for self-preservation. As a matter of fact, the doubt, the concern, and the making available of one’s self to the other, to which I can be subjected by surprise, are not based on the already seen and known but on that which disrupts what is expected and disturbs our points of reference. Alterity, precisely, foils predictions and comes back to the division between the possible and impossible, the border between the known and unknown. This alterity described by Levinas transforms our way of viewing by overturning acquired positions – the neighbor and the stranger do not look any longer like they can be separated. The paradoxical presence of the pair neighbor and stranger can therefore be found in any intersubjective relationship whatsoever: no matter the degree of proximity I nurture with an individual, this proximity is always permeated by the distance that difference imposes.

In Levinas’ texts, the shadow of the stranger often brings to mind those of the widow and the orphan. The stranger appears in Levinas not as the stranger according to visible, identity, bureaucratic criteria (those strangers to this land, this culture, this language) but beyond visibility, his strangeness lays on that which is elusive in the very nature of proximity: there where the identity documents seem to say everything, they do not say anything at all. The Other can even speak my own language without my listening.

The neighbor is at the same time the stranger, the ‘first comer’ [le premier venu], which I never know, and the familiar or relative, is the one who addresses himself to me personally. He is that one who is never there where we expect him to be and that one whose vulnerability reminds the subject of his own responsibility.

Hereafter we propose the topics that could structure the different workshops:

  • Philosophy of religion:

Is religion the stranger that philosophy cannot receive? This question arises particularly in what concerns ethical reflection. As a philosophical discipline, do ethics draw only on the Greek source? Is there also a biblical source? Does it find itself confined at the boundary between philosophy and biblical monotheism? In spite of the secularization process, it seems obvious that the neighbor’s figure refers to the biblical injunction: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (a verse common to both Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:20). This concern for the neighbor goes along with the concern for the stranger: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt”. In an interview from 1986, Levinas himself evokes this concern for the deprived reminding us of Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25. Indeed, with whom to share one’s bread, whom to clothe, whom to give asylum if it is not the starving one, the poor and exiled? This question seems to shift the relationship from the divine to the duty of assistance toward those in need and thus to establish ethics as first philosophy.

  • Political philosophy and philosophy of law:

As Derrida underlines, at first glance the notion of hospitality does not seem to be a main topic to Levinas: “Has anyone ever noticed? Although the word is neither frequently used nor emphasized within it, Totality and Infinity bequeaths to us an immense treatise of hospitality” [2]. It is possible that the problem of hospitality begins with questioning the comfort of being at home in one’s own place and under the effect of the arrival of the stranger whose exile uproots us from our own soil. The attachment of the concept of hospitality to that of ethics appears clearly. Extending this remark to the other texts allows one to suggest that Levinasian ethics is an ethics of hospitality and this invites us to think about its political implications. Can one say that thinking hospitality gives one the key to think about what is at stake in politics and law? What are we talking about when we propose a politics or a law of hospitality? The tension between my responsibility towards someone who is close to me and towards the common good raises the question of a justice that takes the third [le tiers] under consideration. Would politics not then be a quest for the highest good but for the lesser evil?

  • The first comer [le premier venu]:

Different from many conceptions of ethics, Levinas emphasizes the absence of choice and will. Actually, the weakness of the other seizes me against my will, not as a concept does but in my flesh, as a call that I do not choose whether to listen to or not. This power of disturbance is not reserved for those closest to me, like a friend of mine, my wife or my child, this power always belongs to the ‘first comer’ [le premier venu]. The Other, as Levinas describes him, is not the one who brings to light the conceptions that I already carry within myself, rather, he comes to dwell within me and he transforms what is close to me into that which is strange to the point of affecting me in my own body.

  • Art and images:

The image introduces an ambiguity between that which is near or close to me and that which is far away. In art, we sometimes have the impression that that which is near becomes the most remote, whereas in the media that which is the most remote becomes that which is the nearest. Nevertheless, we can also undergo the opposite experience. One could then ask oneself if the images turn other people’s suffering into a spectacle which leads us astray from our responsibility and ask as well if paintings, poems, films, or music bring us closer to the stranger or push us farther apart. Would aesthetic pleasure, in the end, lead us astray from our concern with the other? Contrary to other thinkers, Levinas never systematized an aesthetics nor a philosophy of art and when one thinks of his work one thinks rather of ethical questions. Discussion therefore can focus upon the convergences or divergences, the compatibilities or incompatibilities between art and alterity or aesthetics and ethics.

  • Human sciences:

If one seeks to give continuity to the possibilities contained in the work of Levinas, then epistemological questions will certainly catch one’s attention: how can one elaborate, in the social or human sciences, a dialogue about the other which seizes him as other without immediately reducing his alterity? Can we apply Levinassian conceptual tools to other fields of research, like anthropology, a discipline eminently exposed to other cultures where the face-to-face with the Other, which is so close and so far at the same time, is an inevitable moment? Is a social, human, or cultural science from a Levinassian matrix even possible? The topic of the neighbor and the stranger invites an open dialogue with the studies of Levy-Bruhl, Durkheim, Mauss, Levi-Strauss, and Alfred Schütz among others.

[1] “Sociality and Money”. Trans. F. Bouchetoux and C.  Jones (2007)

[2] Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Trans. P.-A. Brault and M. Naas (1999)