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Adorno and Levinas: From Freedom to Peace

In this essay I attempt to sketch out the possibility of a response to the problem of the relation between ethics and politics in Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy. Levinas’s ethics as first philosophy is revolutionary, and promising, but it leads to a gap between ethics and politics. This is a genuine problem, since depending on how one problematizes this gap and responds to it, one may end up with different, even opposing, views of Levinas’s thought, ranging from the right side of the political spectrum to its very left. In order to respond to this problem, I examine the possibility of a constructive dialogue between Levinas’s ethics and Adorno’s negative dialectics. In particular, I approach the relation between ethics and politics in Levinas from the standpoint of the question of history.

According to Levinas, human being is not a being for-oneself and self-sufficient in its identity. It is not the same with itself, as it is “always already” interrupted by the other. “Always already” because the human subject is, from its very beginning, awakened by the alterity of the other. It is an awakening by the infinity that originates in the face of the other, the infinity that is produced in the form of an irresistible, infinite responsibility for the other.

The order of language is incapable of truly appreciating the anterior posteriority of the relation with the other. It tends to push the self-identical subject back at the center of its world by stubbornly insisting on its grammatically active role in the sentence. But, strictly speaking, it is not the human subject that is awakened by its responsibility for the other; rather, more precisely put, it is responsibility for the other, this very awakening, that is the human subject. However, even this formulation is not satisfying, since responsibility for the other individuates “me” not the “subject.” It individuates me as the unique I who is not substitutable with anyone else in its responsibility. “I” myself am responsible, infinitely, for the other, and no one else could take my place and lighten my burden. Thus, here we should be very cautious when using a general concept such as the human subject. Pushing in the direction of precision, therefore, we must say that it is responsibility for the other that is “me.”

In this formulation, we can already see the tension associated with the temporal structure of the ethical relation. When we say “responsibility for the other is me,” we are in fact referring to the anterior posteriority of the other with regard to the I. If it is the other who, from the very beginning, awakens the I as a subject, then the awakening of the I by the other should take place in a time before the time of the subject. But, necessarily, this awakening has to have also taken place in the time of the subject (for, what is time before the subject?). Thus, we could see that the subject is simultaneously anterior and posterior with regard to its relation with the other.

In fact, Levinas speaks of two times: he uses the term eschatology to refer to the temporality of the ethical relation and the term history to refer to the time of the subject. History, as the history of the totality, stands in a “diachronic” relation with eschatology. This means that the singularity of the ethical relation, the relation between the I and the other, escapes—or transcends or interrupts—the time of history. As we shall see, the tension between history and eschatology is a modality of the problem of the relation between ethics and politics.

My relation with the singularity of the face of the other brings me face to face with my overwhelming responsibility for the other. But, for Levinas, the singularity of the face is not equivalent with the singularity of an empirical encounter with another person. In the singularity of the face of the other, all others beyond my immediate other oblige me at the same time. It is not a private relation between two human beings. It is not love pure and simple. Levinas’s ethical relation is not Martin Buber’s “I-Thou.” I am not alone in the world with my immediate other: there is always a “third.” There are always others of the other, others beyond my neighbor. However, just as in the case of the relation with the other, the entry of the third should not be taken as referring to an empirical emergence of a third person. The third party does not come after, as if I am first in relation with an immediate other and then a third enters. The third is already there in my relation with the other.

I am infinitely, beyond my capacity to respond, responsible for the other. But that is not the whole story. I am as well responsible, infinitely, to all the others beside my immediate other, so that if I devote myself completely to one other, I will be betraying my responsibility for all other others. There enters upon this limitation of my capacity to respond to the overwhelming demand of the other and all other others the question of justice and the need for calculation and comparison (this is where consciousness, with its rationality, is born: justice brings in the need for justification, etc.). In other words, the entry of the third—which, strictly speaking, is not an entry as it is already there in the encounter with the face—highlights that entailed in my infinite responsibility for the other, originated in the realm of ethics, is a call for the consideration of the contingencies of the reality of politics (collectivity, society, and its time, i.e., history).

With the notion of the third party, Levinas’s ethics thus recognizes the need for a passage to politics. It is precisely here that it encounters a serious challenge. Levinas himself points to this challenge in his characterization of the relation between ethics and politics as an impasse. The ethical is the origin, the ground of possibility, of politics, but it is necessarily betrayed in the totalitarian operation of politics. The simultaneous affirmation and denial of ethics in politics implies that ethics and politics stand in a relation of permanent interruption, “a perpetual duty of vigilance,”[1] as Levinas calls it. But it also implies that ethics cannot do anything more than interrupt politics. However, a permanent interruption of politics by ethics is not adequate, for it cannot perform the calculations and comparisons that justice demands. Let me elaborate.

For Levinas, the absoluteness of the demand of responsibility stems from the absoluteness of the face of the other. The I is responsible for the other, regardless of the other’s (and the I’s) social, cultural, and historical specificities. This is summed up in the idea of the ‘nudity’ of the face, purified from all the contingencies of being, i.e., the contingencies of the realm of politics. The direct consequence of this nudity is that the asymmetry of the ethical space (where responsibility moves one-directionally from the I to the other) cannot be directly translated into politics, which is the symmetrical realm of particular subjects. Ethics may indefinitely disturb the unjust operation of politics, but merely disturbing it, it ultimately leaves it to politics to make the comparisons and determine the asymmetries—which are required for decision-making and action—based on its own unethical calculations.

In temporal terms, the impasse between ethics and politics appears as an unbridgeable gap between history and eschatology. Insofar as the temporality of the subject, that is, subject as the agent of politics, is the temporality of history, it is unable to form an experience of eschatology. In the realm of politics, the ethical relation takes the form of a “forgotten” original experience—”forgotten” because, although it is always present in the form of a disruption, it cannot be re-presented and be experienced, for it takes place in a past “older than every past present.”[2]

What Levinas’s ethics lacks is the capacity to concretely engage with the historical reality of politics in such a way that satisfies the requirements of its own question of justice. In order to move beyond a mere interruption of politics, ethics would need to be supplied by social and historical categories that would make such a concrete engagement possible. Convinced that such categories could not be formulated from within Levinas’s own (meta)phenomenological ethics, scholars, such as Enrique Dussel,[3] Robert Gibbs,[4] and Asher Horowitz,[5] have looked to dialectics, as a potent (though not the only) source and tried to find a rapprochement between Levinas and the Hegelian-Marxian tradition of the dialectic.

Following Horowitz, I will argue that Adorno’s negative dialectics is the form of dialectical critique that meets the requirements of Levinas’s ethics and opens the possibility of a productive dialogue. Before engaging with Adorno, however, let me first make a brief comment about Hegel and Marx. Their differences notwithstanding, Hegel and Marx both preserved the role of the spontaneous subject and its freedom as the agent of historical change. For Levinas, however, it is precisely the spontaneous subject that is the problem. The concept of the free will cannot be the locus of the ethical relation, since its logic is a logic of being and precludes the possibility of a relation with the face of the other, the otherwise than being. The infinite demand of responsibility does not comfort the subject with the luxury of freedom. I am responsible for the other beyond and above my choice, as I enter the relation with the other in absolute passivity. It is not a free will that comes into a relation with the other and recognizes its responsibility. Quite the contrary, it is responsibility for the other that provides the moral subject with the possibility of freedom, that is, freedom from the prison of the self and its desires. If there is hope in Levinas’s thought of ethics, it is not the realization of freedom, but rather the hope for an ethical peace.

But peace is not the telos of history: “of peace,” Levinas writes, “there can only be an eschatology.”[6] This brings us to the second limitation of the Hegelian and Marxian versions of the dialectic—which is of course connected to the first. Not only do Hegel and Marx not do away with the notion of freedom, they also rely on a teleological conception of history as universal history—a conception of history that does not leave any space for Levinas’s non-teleological eschatology. Horowitz nicely summarizes this point: “if Hegelianism is the idealist reduction of eschatology to objective history understood in teleological terms, materialism [i.e., Marxian materialism] would be the reduction of history to an eschatology still understood in teleological, purposive-instrumental terms.”[7]

Adorno’s reformulation of dialectic, as dialectics of nonidentity or negative dialectics, is more promising, as it strips dialectic from its claim to totality, thereby rejecting the notion of universal history as the history of the totality. To universal history he opposes the idea of natural history, which simultaneously construes and denies universal history.[8] Through this simultaneous construal and denial, Adorno’s notion of natural history is able to not only meet the requirements of ethics, but also move beyond Levinas’s own characterization of the relation between history and eschatology.

For Levinas, in history, as the history of the totality of works, the subject appears in its participation as a part in the whole. The time of history cannot, therefore, truly appreciate the singularity of the I in its nonparticipation in the totality. Eschatology is the experience of the break up of the totality. It is not a power within history. Levinas’s is a non-teleological eschatology that interrupts the time of history and, in its interruption, retains the singularity of the I.

For this relation between history and eschatology to be imaginable, we need a conception of history that does not necessarily dissolve the I into the totality. Adorno’s natural history seems to be doing just that. Universal history sees everything existing as a moment in the totality. In contrast, Adorno’s natural history sees everything existing as fragments that, although taking place in the totality of history, cannot be fully reduced to it. There is always a residue that transcends the totality. The acknowledgement of this non-reducible residue opens up the possibility of appreciating the singularity of the I as more than a moment of the totality.

Moreover, Adorno’s notion of natural history could also correct Levinas’s notion of history and provide a more adequate response the problem of the gap between ethics and politics. For Levinas, history is always the history of the totality, in which the lack of an experience of eschatology is an inevitable outcome of the betrayal of ethics in politics. In other words, for Levinas, totalization in the realm of politics is an ahistorical necessity that forecloses the possibility of significant historical change. In contrast, Adorno’s notion of natural history distinguishes between totalization and domination.[9] For Adorno, the atrophy of experience is not merely the outcome of the ahistorical, totalitarian character of politics, but also the result of a historical reduction of experience, the result, that is, of a history of domination. In other words, while, in its denial of universal history, Adorno’s natural history is able to embrace the possibility of a non-teleological eschatology, in its affirmation of universal history, it can also envision the possibility of historical change, that is, the possibility of a transformative struggle against domination which could make the world a better place for the other. From the standpoint of natural history, totalization would no longer need to be conceived of as the final word in politics that ethics could only permanently interrupt.

I would like to end the essay with two brief remarks. First, the dialogue between Adorno and Levinas need not be a one-sided relation. If Adorno’s notion of natural history could correct Levinas’s ahistorical conception of history, his own dialectical thought could in turn benefit from Levinas’s characterization of the ethical relation. Insofar as negative dialectics’ notion of exteriority, i.e., nonidentity, is understood within the terms of dialectical negativity, it would not be able to conceive of the ethical prophetic drive that animates its own critique. Although in characterizing negative dialectics as “the morality of thought”[10] Adorno points to its ethical origin, he is unable to properly register the primacy of ethics over ontology, justice over truth, and responsibility over critical thinking. Dialectical thought falls fundamentally short of such a recognition, because the alterity of the other is more radical than the exteriority of dialectical negativity. This is what Levinas’s (meta)phenomenology could offer to Adorno’s negative dialectics.

Second, we have to note that the dialogue between Adorno and Levinas could not take the form of an overarching theory. The implicit, and modest, claim here is that while negative dialectics and ethics as first philosophy operate on different levels of analysis and could not be merged into a single, unifying theory, they could nevertheless supply each other with crucial insights. The question that remains to be answered is whether the relation between Adorno and Levinas could be an innocent relation of supplementation, or their coming into a dialogue would require them to change their respective analyses accordingly.


1. Emmanuel Levinas, “Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas,” in Face to Face with Levinas, ed. Richard A. Cohen, SUNY Series in Philosophy (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1986), p. 30.

2. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 1998), p. 76.

3. Enrique Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation, trans. Aquilina Martinez and Christine Morkovsky (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985).

4. Robert Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 229–54.

5. Asher Horowitz, Ethics at a Standstill: History and Subjectivity in Levinas and the Frankfurt School (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 2008).

6. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 2011), p. 24.

7. Horowitz, Ethics at a Standstill, p. 28.

8. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1983), p. 320.

9. See, Horowitz, Ethics at a Standstill, pp. xx and 306; also see ibid., p. 385, note 1.

10. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London and New York: Verso, 2005), p. 74.

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