Human Reciprocity and Divine Asymmetry

  • Bernardo Andrade (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentationScientific


Talk at the North American Levinas Society

This paper seeks to understand Levinas's puzzling claim that "the passing of God... is precisely the reverting of the incomparable subject into a member of society." It is well known already that the other person who faces me "is from the first the brother of all other men," so that the face must be considered not only in the uniqueness of its appeal here and now, but also universally in its essential references to all those Others who share the earth. It is much less clear, however, how God's passing may open a communal space of identity and reciprocity where I and Others all partake--a space where I and Others are counted together as citizens. In fact, Levinas goes so far as to claim that "it is only thanks to God" that, as a subject incomparable with the Other, I am nonetheless approached as an Other by the Others, that is, "for myself." My responsibility is total and inalienable, but "thanks to God" I am not alone: there are Others who have their own responsibility, as radical as mine.

In approaching this problem, I turn to Levinas's discussion of the third party in Otherwise than Being, specifically to Ch. V, Sec. 3, entitled "From Saying to the Said, Or the Wisdom of Desire." I contend that Levinas's turn to politics seeks to avoid a double risk: neither to render the human community atomistic and conflictual, nor to subsume it under a mediating totality. The result is an ethical plurality of humans anterior to any totality, bound to one another by the self-withdrawal of infinity. Collective responsibility is thus assured by constant reference to an authority which can never be embodied by any single one of us. Human reciprocity is therefore grounded in the trace of transcendence, in divine asymmetry.
PeriodJul 2021
Held atSaint Michael's College, United States
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Levinas
  • Politics