The starting point for the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas lies within the German phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger in which he aims to overcome with a different ontological approach. He criticizes Western philosophers as „thinkers of totality” who cannot overcome their own subjectivity.

What kind of quality does being hold in philosophy? Is there a symmetry between Me and You? Why is it that metaphysics is the first philosophy? And above all: what is the significance of the Other for me? These are some of the question that lead Lévinas to a new kind of fundamental philosophy – to ethics as first philosophy.

But what does it mean and why is it still relevant today in times of crises? It is his different approach to philosophy which focuses on the Other from whom everything else emanates. But who is this other being? The Other is not defined as an „alter ego“ (Husserl) but as the master of the self, as face and infinite claim to the self. What exactly does that mean?

The encounter with the Other can only happen if there is no claim to power, if his priority a priori exists, if his naked face1 is vis-à-vis to us. The Other and the self are not on equal terms. The relation remains asymmetrical due to the priority of the Other: he is „le maitre“.

Central feature of Lévinas ethical philosophy is his definition of ethics as „the putting into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other“2. Ethics, then imposes the limit of my power. The spontaneity of the ego is limited by the presence of the Other as a moral self to which the self is obliged to. The Other is my master by leading me. Coming face to face with him means coming face to face with a moral obligation. The Other makes a moral demand upon me and thereby limiting my ability. The self is responsible for the Other.

Lévinas breaks new ground by maintaining ethics as first philosophy. The infinite responsibility for the Other is his fundamental ethical principle. This intersubjectivity is the source of all his thinking that aims to overcome Western/occidental philosophy as mere egology3. Taking the perspective of the other and not of oneself is truly lived intersubjectivity. To see the other at his most vulnerable and to think less about ourselves might help to get through this crisis and protect us all.

1 Emmanuel Lévinas: Zwischen uns. Versuche über das Denken an den Anderen. p. 23

2 Emmanuel Lévinas: Totalität und Unendlichkeit. p. 51.

3 Emmanuel Lévinas: Die Spur des Anderen. p. 22.