All posts by Floriana Ferro

About Floriana Ferro

Dr. Floriana Ferro was born in Catania, Italy. She has been a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University and Chercheuse Libre at Université Paris I. In 2011 she obtained a Ph.D in philosophy at the University of Catania. She has held seminars in Italy, France, and United Kingdom. Her publications encompass different areas, just as contemporary ethics, ancient philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, and Italian literature.

Stephen Hastings-King, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing (Leiden: Brill, 2014)



The book is about the history of the group from 1949 to 1967, and its aim is to present the movement “as something other than a merely sophisticated variant of revolutionary Marxism” (p. 3). Socialisme ou Barbarie is considered in its specific historical context, when communism is already declined in a political paradigm (Stalinism) and takes shape in bureaucratic structures and institutions. In the first two chapters of the book, the author shows how the Hegelian framework of Marxian writings and its abstract laws are called into question, together with their Stalinist and Trotskyist interpretations. In France, the former give birth to bureaucratization: there is a separation between dirigéants and exécutants, and hierarchies are built according to the role performed inside the PCF (the French Communist Party) or the CGT (the General Work Confederation, that is the communist trade union). The Trotskyists, on the other side, go against the Stalinist falsification of Marxian writings, but they are not revolutionary enough, since they have lost contact with their proletarian basis.

In the third chapter, Stephen Hastings-King points out how Socialisme ou Barbarie, through a historical and sociological interpretation of Marx, makes a phenomenological operation. It tries to assume the point of view of the worker and to analyse production, relations, and language from this perspective. According to what Lefort argues in ‘L’experience prolétarienne’ (1952), one can say that “only workers can know and write about their experience: revolutionary theory must be confined to analysing and interpreting what they write” (p. 108). Socialisme ou Barbarie is fundamentally an intellectual movement, which tries to redefine revolutionary theory through a new reading of Marx and his Leninist interpretation. However, every reflection will remain on an abstract and decontextualized level, if it does not refer to reality: in this case, the latter is represented by the productive life of the working class.

Giving his book the title Looking for the proletariat, Hastings-King wants to show that all the efforts of Socialisme ou Barbarie are aimed at understanding the workers, helping them to acquire class consciousness and to shape political actions. This is the reason why the movement gives prominence to worker writing. The fifth chapter of the book shows how the group, through the newspaper Tribune Ouvrière, tries to give a voice to the collective at the factory of Renault Billancourt, whose political context is clearly defined in the fourth chapter. Hastings-King points out similarities and differences with another worker newspaper, the Detroit-based Correspondence project. After that, the author writes about Tribune Ouvrière and the role that Socialisme ou Barbarie plays in the process of its production, printing, and distribution.

In the sixth chapter, the identity of Daniel Mothé is analysed. His true name is Jacques Gautrat and he works at Renault Billancourt. His experience as a métallo and his revolutionary ideas lead him to write several articles, all of them published in the Socialisme ou Barbarie review. His literary identity is very interesting from a phenomenological perspective, since each “version of Mothé is hyletic: a view from a particular position. Each position is shaped by a certain number of directional social relations. […] The most important of the predicates, the one on which the others rely, that organises and enables them to exist, is the narrative function” (p. 249). Mothé reflects on Gautrat’s experience through the lens of Marxism in its Socialisme ou Barbarie’s interpretation. Sometimes it is not clear if Mothé or Gautrat is speaking, but it does not matter: the idea of a “natural” or “ingenuous” way of writing, supported by the Correspondence group, is rejected by Socialisme ou Barbarie. Every text is a product of self-reflection and self-consciousness.

Mothe’s ‘Journal d’un ouvrier’ is very important to understand how Marxist ideas are experienced by the proletariat: it shows the impact of Fordism on the rhythm and condition of workers, the conflict between the latter and the trade union, which is manipulated by the Communist Party, the attempt to act through independent collectives. The language spoken by the Party has no meaning for the proletariat and sometimes it is used to justify anti-revolutionary actions. According to Mothé and Socialisme ou Barbarie, the only way to save Marxism is to take the point of view of the worker, to support direct-democratic collectives, and to help proletariat in organising its future political actions.

Stephen Hastings-Kings is very precise and punctual in describing the life of the movement, through continuous references to their historical, social, and political context, and an efficient use of their written sources. There are also a bibliography and a clear index, helping the reader to find his way through the book. This work is theoretically well supported by references to Marx and Marxism, and to pivotal authors in phenomenology, especially Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. One should also give credit to Hastings-King for the smoothness of his language.

Aoife Nolan, Rory O’Connell, Colin Harvey (eds.), Human Rights and Public Finance: Budgets and the Promotion of Economic and Social Rights (Oxford and Portland: Hart Publishing, 2013)

The volume offers not only good quality contributions, but also a short biography of the authors, an explanation of the abbreviations, an introduction, and, at the end of the volume, a useful index.

The aim of this collection is to point out the role of governments in monitoring and managing resources addressed to equality. State parties have the power to establish the use of economic and other resources, public servants to distribute them, and civil society to give a feedback. Academics are very important in this respect: they can analyse the percentage and the employment of a government’s budget, and give their professional advice on its use. All the authors of this volume show, with both theoretical foundations and practical evidence, how neoliberal policies are insufficient to fight a severe financial crisis. Different paradigms, based on a Keynesian view, are proposed. Every contribution is well supported with references to international policies and concrete results, making the proposed alternative approaches desirable.

For what concerns human rights, the Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states that governments have to use the maximum of their available resources to guarantee these rights (p. 13). However, the concept of ‘maximum available resources’ is subject to interpretation and sometimes is disrespected, as Nolan points out (p. 45). This happens especially in periods of economic crisis, when resources are more limited and governments make cuts to public expenditures.

The authors of this volume criticize, first of all, the necessity of these cuts, arguing that they are due to a neoclassical view of the economy. This view, shared by the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions, places great emphasis on balanced budgets and low debt policy. According to neoclassical economists, a short period of austerity is necessary to restore a pre-crisis order. A Keynesian approach, on the contrary, suggests a stronger and focused injection of public money, in order to set economy in motion and support the weakest categories of the population (cfr. p. 19).

For what concerns the theoretical aspect, Paul O’Connell’s contribution is very relevant. It contains not only an account of Keynesian thought, but even a radical critique to neoliberal policies. O’Connell states the ideological nature of the push for austerity: governments, agreeing with financial institutions, try to entrench neoliberal capitalism (p. 61). Citizens should make their contribution to the deliberative process, which is not a matter for ‘technicians’. O’Connell also suggests a participatory budgeting policy, in order to protect and implement human rights (pp. 72-73).

Another key point of this collection is the concept of ‘progressive measures’. Even when some cuts on public expenditures are necessary and the tax system becomes heavier, there should be a fair distribution of the charges among the population. A retrogressive measure, on the contrary, has an unbalanced impact on it and affects mainly the disadvantaged. As Ignacio Saiz argues, tax collecting is very important for increasing available resources (pp. 80-81). Countries with a low tax income are the most subject to inequalities, because they have a limited public budget and the few duties collected usually weigh on the poorest, while big companies, entrepreneurs or landowners avail themselves of reliefs. Countries with a balanced and progressive tax income, on the contrary, have a larger public budget, which can be used to guarantee economic and social rights (i.e. a Welfare State). Saiz also suggests a tax on financial transaction, which would generate additional resources in a progressive way (p. 102).

For what concerns the impact of governments on human rights, the authors of this volume show the close relation between financial disputes and political ones. Through a brief account of European and American history in the 17th and 18th century, Rory O’Connell points out how equality issues go all the way through the pursuing of a representative system. In a post-revolutionary era, when democracy is taken for granted and the debates on human rights are put aside, politicians should be re-educated (pp. 120-121). In the wake of Foucault, Rooney and Harvey point out the power of discourse and the insufficiency of mainstream theories in modifying political debates (pp. 130-132). An integrationist approach, trying to accommodate equality within existing paradigms, does not lead to significant changes in human rights issues. Conflicts are necessary to modify the discourse, thus a sharper contribution of civil society on political debate is suggested (pp. 134-135).

A significant section of this collection is dedicated to the application of budget analysis to specific contexts. Enakshi Ganguly Thukral writes about the importance of dedicating a part of a government’s resources to children, especially in poorer countries. They are not a homogenous group (age, gender, socio-economic status, physical and psychical health distinguish them); then an analysis of budget allocation and expenditure should go together with a focused implementation of it (pp. 147-148). Even gender policies are important, as Sheila Quinn shows (p. 164). Her study is focused not only on the analysis of Northern Ireland, but also on the definition of an effective and efficient gender responsive budget.

Methodology plays here a great role. The last part of this collection, called ‘Analysis in action’, shows that budget analysis must be carried out within a good framework. Eoin Rooney and Mira Dutschke point out the problems connected with social housing policy in Northern Ireland. The latter has been progressively subjected to neoliberal measures, such as privatization , making the situation of the people worse (p. 211). Public authorities and private associations need the help of academics, whose expertise is necessary to set up a good methodology. As Harrison and Stephenson write, an EHRIA (equality and human rights impact assessment) must balance rigour with usability, in order to guarantee a real implementation of human and social rights (p. 239).

Responsibility and Capitalism. A Phenomenological Way to Approach the Economic Crisis

1. Capitalism as the economic expression of onto-theology


It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages[2].


The words of Adam Smith, originally used to justify liberalist economy, presently sound like an act of accusation. Classic capitalism encourages pure egotism, relying on an ‘invisible hand’[3], which should promote the public interest together with the individual one. However, the hand of the market is not invisible, is pitiless. Capitalism in nothing but a pursuit of money, of more and more money. Then, as time goes by, wealth accrues in the hands of fewer and fewer people[4]. Marx already predicted the concentration of capital as a necessary consequence of free competition. However, he could not predict the birth of financial capitalism. Neo-liberalism spread over Western countries, leading to financialization, that is ‘the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies’[5].



While classic capitalism links money to production, financial capitalism is based on uncertainty[6]. Money increases or decreases according to the Stock Exchange prices. Since they are unpredictable, people could gain or lose fortunes in a day: a risky investment is nothing but gambling. In this way, the concentration of capital in a few hands comes faster. Those who are not successful go broke and damage other people: bankers and brokers lose the money of whole companies and families, shopkeepers and businessmen close their activities and dismiss people who work for them. There are not only employers and workers who pay the price, but also small capitalists. Unemployment increases and consumes decrease. In this way, even production decreases and the system itself collapses.


This is a devastating situation, depending not so much on the structure of the system, as on its moving principle. Capitalism, in its classic definition, should stimulate production and consuming, appealing to individual interest. But the course of egotism is one-way: it aims to individual affluence, regardless of its impact on the others.


Capitalist economic systems are characterized by the private ownership of property and the consensual exchange of goods and services in a free market.[7]


According to this recent definition, common both to classic and financial capitalism, egotism reveals to be their driving force. The expression ‘private ownership’ refers to individual possession and power, while ‘free market’ indicates liberty of action.


Philosophically speaking, capitalism is nothing but the economic expression of onto-theology. Exactly like the Ego of Western philosophy[8], it is regardless of the Other. The theoretical I subjects everything to its structures and the practical I cares only about its freedom. In the economic case, the Ego subdues the Other to the main category of capitalism, that is profit. The practical consequence of this philosophical statement is that an indiscriminate pursuit of money causes the exploitation of environment, animals and people. The Ego prevails on the Other, but would be powerless without Him. Profit has to be made at the expense of somebody, who cannot be too weak, otherwise he will die or become a slave. The free market disappears without a certain balance: money can circulate only among people who produce, work, and consume. This is why, if the Ego takes too much power, then will lose everything.


The current economic crisis could be seen as a critical moment when, philosophically speaking, the I is capable of annihilating the Other. The next step would be the following: a few people with a high concentration of money, laying down the law to the majority and spoiling the environment of its resources.


There are two solutions to avoid this disaster: the first is destroying capitalism and adopting another economic model, communism for instance; the second is putting limits to capitalism itself. The former corresponds, in philosophy, to the annihilation of both the I and the Other, and to the birth of an anonymous subject; the latter would be the introduction of a different relation between identity and alterity, that is responsibility. If neglecting ethics is destroying capitalism, adopting ethics will save it.



2. A general lack of ethics


The present economic crisis is the symptom of a disease. Capitalism could be seen as a living organism, whose childhood, adolescence and youth were quite healthy. Some temporary illnesses, as the crisis of 1929 and the post-war situation, did not destroy it. Capitalism is, at the moment, in its maturity. After a fast and flourishing growth, it took a definite shape: at the top there are the investors (individuals, private and public institutions), who finance with their money the whole system; they fund producers and providers of services, who distribute their products and services through mediators and sellers; in order to produce, sell and put in operation, a great amount of manpower (workers and employees) is necessary; at the end, there are the consumers, who buy products and services. Every element of capitalism has to work correctly, like the organs in a living system. If one of them has problems, it affects the other elements and the system collapses.


Capitalism is presently affected by a disease and is in great danger. The most acute stage passed away, but the organism is not regaining its health. First of all, it is necessary to identify the illness and the affected parts of the organism. Fortunately, the diagnosis is not difficult: the crisis started from financial institutions and companies (Lehman Brothers and Bernard Madoff Investment Securities, for instance). Their collapse created a sudden lack of money and damaged producers, providers and money savers in general. In this way, there were indirectly affected also mediators, sellers, workers and employees, who saw their revenues decreasing or vanishing. And, since every member of the system is a consumer, products and services were bought to a lesser extent. The crisis of consumption caused, on the other hand, a new crisis of production and service-providing[9]. It is a vicious circle generating a gap between the majority of people, who progressively lose their wealth, and a few people, who hold money and power. This gap already exists, but is becoming greater and greater.


The crisis is due, primarily, to the heads of financial capitalism, but it would be a mistake to blame only them. There are also other people who are responsible in a similar way, people who hold a great amount of money and power: executives and owners of national and multinational companies, big traders and mediators. In Italy it happened, for instance, that Calisto Tanzi, President of the food company Parmalat, was guilty of bankruptcy fraud and criminal association. His immoral policy, nourished by the connivance of some politicians and bankers, led to the ruin of a great number of investors. The bankruptcy happened in 2003, four years before the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in the United States. Then the current crisis came, as a product of a diffused malpractice. When powerful people do not behave in a responsible way, they create a great damage to society. The crisis is not the disease of capitalism, but a serious symptom of it: the disease is what produced the crisis itself, that is a general lack of ethics.


Before giving a definition of what ‘lack of ethics’ means, it is necessary to define ethics itself. Capitalism is seen, in this paper, as the economic expression of the Ego of onto-theology. According to Levinas, the guiding principles of the Western I are intentionality and freedom: the former is a grasp of what is external to the subject; the latter is the ability to act through free will. Levinas takes position against Husserl, the father of phenomenology and of conscience as intentionality[10]. Even if his criticism could be considered exaggerated (Husserl had no intention to theorize a ‘tyrannical subject’[11]), the author of ‘Totality and Infinity’ is extraordinary in delineating ethics.


Morality is not added to the preoccupations of the I, so as to order them or to have them judged; it calls in question, and puts at a distance from itself, the I itself […]. The “vision” of the face as face is a certain mode of sojourning in a home, or […] a certain form of economic life. No human or interhuman relationship can be enacted outside of economy; no face can be approached with empty hands and closed home. Recollection in a home open to the Other –hospitality – is the concrete and initial fact of human recollection and separation[12].


Levinas points out the ‘separation’ between the Ego and the Other: the latter is not an alter-ego, another subject, but someone radically different. The other person is irreducible to the Ego. Notwithstanding this separation, there is an original relation between them: the subject approaches the other person in a particular ‘economic’ way. Since ‘economy’ means ‘management of a household’ (from the Greek words oikos, ‘house’, and nomos, ‘law’ or ‘rule’), every relation with something or somebody has to do with interiority. While the objects are included in the domestic dimension of the subject (as nourishment, tools or furniture), the other person cannot be grasped. The interhuman relationship is hospitality, is opening one own’s doors to the other.


According to Levinas, ethics is not only reception, but also responsibility. The identity of the subject is orientated to the alterity of the other, ‘without a prior commitment’[13]. Responsibility precedes freedom, it is independent from every choice. One is responsible of the other ‘despite oneself’[14], thus nobody can avoid responsibility.


From the economic point of view, it is a very important principle: it is not based on what one ‘chooses’ to do, but on what one ‘is’. Applying Levinas’ statements to capitalism, one could say the following: if one ‘is’ richer and more powerful, then one ‘will be’ more responsible, despite one’s choices. It does not mean that freedom is not important, but that responsibility founds freedom. Responsibility is the moving principle of ethics, while freedom is what makes it concrete. Behaviour depends on free will, which acts ‘according to’ or ‘against’ responsibility. This is the reason why a single action or a whole behaviour is responsible or irresponsible. Shortly, if ethics is based on responsibility, then moral activity will be responsible and immoral activity irresponsible.


Adapting Levinas’ phenomenology to economic analysis, one could state the following: intentionality and freedom exactly correspond to the ‘private ownership’ and ‘free market’ of capitalism. They are based on egotism and on an instrumental relation to the other. If egotism coincides, in capitalism, with obtaining profit, the other will be seen as a mean to make money. This relation to the other is absolutely unethical. Ethics, instead, is moved by responsibility and sees the other as the main addressee of action.


However, Levinas’ thought is too radical to be concretely applied: according to him, the subject should give itself unconditionally, because it is guilty from time immemorial[15]. Levinas’ ethics is oriented to non-reciprocity and, economically speaking, it is inapplicable. In order to move the market, a balance between one’s needs and the others’ needs is necessary. It would be better, in this case, to follow Ricoeur’s reciprocal ethics: one should see ‘oneself as another’, that is an intimate implication of otherness in identity[16]. Ethics requires both an original relation to the other (Levinas) and a practical bi-directional attitude (Ricoeur).  


The Golden Rule and the imperative of the respect owed to persons do not simply have the same field of exercise, they also have the same aim: to establish reciprocity wherever there is a lack of reciprocity[17].


The keyword is ‘respect’: respect of every person as the aim of morality, respect of oneself and the other in the same amount (it recalls the Christian principle ‘love your neighbour as yourself’[18]). ‘Reciprocal’ does not mean ‘claiming something in exchange’, since the logic of ‘exchange’ is based on egotism. Reciprocity is seen as a bi-directional respect, towards oneself and towards the other.


At this point, if ethical behaviour is respectful, unethical behaviour will be disrespectful. Unethical behaviour could be defined as a certain number of actions, fulfilling one’s aims and directly damaging (or putting in danger) the other. ‘Directly’ means that there could also be indirect consequences of one’s own action, not imputable to the agent. Unethical behaviour means betraying one’s responsibility towards the other. Phenomenology usually considers the other as ‘the other person’, but human actions do not effect only people. The other could be a human being, as well as an animal or the environment. They cannot do anything ‘in exchange’, but it does not matter, since reciprocity, in this case, does not involve exchange.


A concrete example of what unethical behaviour means is given by various bankers in the United States and United Kingdom. During the economic crisis, they violated ethics in this way: through ‘deception’ and ‘half truths given to authorities’ (lying), ‘violation of securities legislation’ and ‘allegations of fraud’, ‘misleading balance sheets’, promoting an ‘excessive bonus culture’, ‘ignoring internal corporate risk controls’, ‘conflict of interest’, ‘undue short-terminism’, ‘excessive risk-taking’, ‘callousness towards impoverished home owners’, ‘over-concentration of economic power by large banks’[19].


These actions are directly imputable to bankers, who violated both ethics and law. In this way, they caused a great damage to society, especially when financial institutions collapsed. Having an over-concentration of economic power gave an enormous amount of responsibility to the bankers, who used it, paradoxically, to escape responsibility itself.


Marx thought that the crisis of capitalism depended on over-production and concentration of money in a few hands[20]. The evolution of capitalism through financialization, together with globalization, changed the economic situation. The current crisis is not due to over-production, but to an indiscriminate pursuit of money. Capitalism is in danger not for its dialectical movement, but for a lack of ethics. The moving principle of ethics is responsibility, so ‘lack of ethics’ means ‘violation of responsibility’. Moreover, everyone is responsible of oneself and other people, and more power means more responsibility. For this reason, a lack of ethics is worst in powerful people than in common ones, because the consequences are more serious. An ethical revolution is then necessary and has to involve, primarily, the higher levels of the economic system.



3. A Phenomenological perspective on ethical revolution


An ethical revolution could be considered from several points of view. In this paper, a phenomenological perspective is adopted. ‘Phenomenology’ is here considered as an equivalent of ‘egology’: everything is considered, perceived, and felt ‘in first person’, from the point of view of the subject. On the ethical side, it has some interesting consequences. First of all, phenomenology claims an original responsibility towards the other.


The knot tied in subjectivity, which when subjectivity becomes a consciousness of being is still attested to in questioning, signifies an allegiance of the same to the other, imposed before any exhibition of the other, preliminary to all consciousness […]. This allegiance will be described as responsibility of the same for the other, as a response to his proximity before any question[21].


Ethics does not ‘proceed’ from consciousness, but ‘precedes’ it. The human subject has a moral character, so that he cannot avoid responsibility. The latter is part of his ontological (Levinas writes ‘pre-ontological’[22]) constitution. The subject is introduced, from its birth, in a relational world. When it lives distant from people, it is related with animals and nature. Loneliness is nothing but an abstraction. Using Sartre’s words, ‘the fact of the other is incontestable and touches me to the heart’[23]. Human beings are then relational (not only social) beings. The way in which they interact is based on responsibility. From the economic point of view, it is very important, because it implies the following: no one can avoid responsibility towards the other. An economic subject is responsible of the strategy chosen, of its application, and of its consequences. Violating responsibility implies paying for one’s own mistakes.


A second consequence of a phenomenological perspective is the singularity of both the ego and the other. Every subject has a common core[24], typical of human knowledge, perception, and feeling, but a concrete ego is absolutely unique. Moreover, it relates to an other who is absolutely unique as well.


Reason presupposes these singularities or particularities, not as individuals open to conceptualization, or divesting themselves of their particularity so as to find themselves to be identical, but precisely as interlocutors, irreplaceable beings, unique in their genus, faces[25].


Ethics refers to singular beings, either subjects and addressees. Every ego is different and relates to a different other. From the ethical point of view, no one can be replaced in assuming responsibility. Every person, here and now, is called to an original relation to the other. This relation does not consist in universal principles, belonging to universal subjects, and applied to universal addressees. Phenomenology does not theorize either norms, or rules. It does not matter ‘what’ the subject does (‘this act’, ‘that act’), but ‘how’ it does it (‘respecting’ or ‘not respecting’ the other). An ethical behaviour is that which follows one’s original responsibility towards one’s concrete neighbour.


In capitalism, it means that every single member of the system (executive, trader, worker, employee, customer) is not responsible for what the others do, but for what he or she does. The amount of responsibility is greater according to the amount of money and power one has. If, for instance, an employee behaves in a bad way towards a customer, he or she will have to pay for his or her single action. If an executive adopts an irresponsible strategy, he or she will have to pay not only for the action, but also for all that follows. In the case of people with great power, a single mistake has many consequences and involves many people.


Thirdly, phenomenology avoids two kinds of danger: anonymity and alienation. The uniqueness of both the ego and the other preserves them from the tyranny of universality. From the philosophical point of view, the singular avoids a subordination to the Same (or Being, or Spirit)[26]. In economy, it gets away from Hegel’s ethical State and Marx’s socialism. The difference between the former and the latter is that Idealism maintains private property, while communism abolishes it. In both cases, the ‘good’ of individuals is established by State institutions, which manipulate everything, from the economy to private life[27]. Equality is guaranteed, but at the price of making individuals anonymous beings.


Phenomenology also helps against alienation. In this case, it is better to adopt Ricoeur’s version: the thought of Husserl is inclined to alienate the other (‘all that which holds for myself holds, as I know, for all other human beings’[28]), while Levinas risks to alienate the subject (‘the-one-for-the-other goes to the extent of the-one-being-hostage-for-the-other[29]). According to Ricoeur, oneself is seen as another, implying respect on both sides.


This ethical principle is necessary to heal the plague of capitalism, that is the alienation of a part of the system. Marx thinks that there are only two classes, oppressors and oppressed. The former are capitalists, the latter proletarians. Workers are alienated by owners of companies, who make profit with the exploitation of proletarian labour[30]. However, financial capitalism is characterized by a more complex structure. Alienation usually concerns the parts of the system who own less money: workers, employees and small businessmen, for instance. Phenomenology leads, in its ethical and reciprocal form, to a balance between stronger and weaker members of the system.


Ethical capitalism, that is capitalism passing through ethical revolution, is a third way between communism and classic/financial capitalism. The former reduces all subjects to anonymity, the latter is a source of alienation. Phenomenology theorizes uniqueness (Levinas) and reciprocity (Ricoeur) between the ego and the other.


Fourthly, a phenomenological perspective warns against a pseudo-ethical behaviour. ‘Being ethical’ does not mean ‘having an ethical coat’. There are companies who put ‘something ethical’ in their product or in their policy, in order to attract investor, partners or customers. For example, an enterprise produces part of its eggs, breeding hens in open air. In this way, it attracts people who are sensitive to the living condition of animals. These customers will pay a higher price to buy this kind of eggs. However, there are also people who are content if hens are not in cages, even if they are bred indoor. And there are customers who do not care about animal conditions, but only about price. The latter will buy eggs produced by hens bred in batteries. This is exactly the case of the Italian company AIA:[31] its executives understood that better conditions for animals attract more customers. But the company is not moved by ethical reasons, otherwise it would limit the whole production to free-range eggs. Companies like AIA purely act for profit.


If the purpose of a behaviour is other than ethical, such a behaviour will be not really ethical. However, a moral appearance is useful to make money: being good pays. An ethical film enhances profit, even if the substance is unethical. First of all, not all the people are sensitive to moral behaviour, because most of them rather prefer to avoid an immoral behaviour. Secondly, they pay willingly an higher price up to a certain threshold (30%, 50% of sustainable production, for instance). This threshold is not clearly determinable and is different case by case.[32] This is why companies do something ethical, as much as it does not hinder profit.


Phenomenology rejects such a kind of behaviour. ‘Being ethical’ means ‘acting responsibly’. When a company follows a moral conduct, it does not limit itself to some good actions. Ethics is neither charitable, nor instrumental. An ethical producer of eggs, for instance, breeds chicken in open air, provides them with healthy food, leaves them space enough to live comfortably, heals them when they are sick, avoids to raise too many hens if good conditions cannot be guaranteed. This kind of behaviour is ethical because it respects both customers and animals: it provides buyers with eggs of the best quality and, at the same time, allows chicken to have a good life. This kind of behaviour is, philosophically speaking, oriented towards the other.


If moral behaviour is, on the contrary, money-oriented, it will not be moral at all. Since current capitalism aims to profit, it meets ethics only by accident. Ethics is usually a limitation to profit: the “obsessive materialism which capitalist economy promote is one of the weaknesses of capitalism when it is considered from an ethical point of view”[33]. An ethical behaviour is not necessarily ascetical and includes material goods and pleasures: in order to avoid alienation, the ego has to preserve itself. Capitalism does not purely promote self-preservation, but an indiscriminate pursuit of materialism. As the economic expression of onto-theology, capitalism is ruled by egotism.


Phenomenology goes beyond the tyranny of the Same, of the universal subject, of indiscriminate property and freedom. Stating the importance of ethics, of original responsibility, of uniqueness, phenomenology does not destroy the subject, but makes it ‘singular’. Definitely, it has to renounce to its tyrannical power, but not to itself. What is here suggested is not to alienate the ego in behalf of the other. Building one’s own identity is necessary to self-preservation and, moreover, to have ‘something to give’. If the subject is alienated, it cannot offer anything to the other. Ethics should not imply a fission of one’s identity[34], but an equilibrated inclination to giving.


The economic consequence of such a perspective is not the end of capitalism. If capitalism is based on egotism and egotism is ‘partially’ preserved by phenomenology, then capitalism will be ‘partially’ preserved by phenomenology. Phenomenology does not accept capitalism in its current form, because it is ‘wholly’ based on egotism, that is indiscriminate freedom and property. However, it accepts a different form of capitalism, which is only ‘partially’ ruled by egotism. This new kind of system is called ‘ethical capitalism’ and is based on respectful freedom and property.


Defining what is and what is not ‘respectful’ is the most difficult task to accomplish, due to the open character of phenomenology. Phenomenology is not a normative system, but a perspective. For this reason, it does not suggest a precise behaviour, but a different way to approach the world. Classic and financial capitalism are based on individual interest; ethical capitalism is based on responsibility. One’s freedom and property are not destroyed or ‘limited’ by the other’s freedom and property. One’s freedom and property is directed both to self-preservation and preservation of the other, that is the environment and its inhabitants. Ethical capitalism is not self-oriented, but other-oriented: it is directed both to the other and to the self as another. Responsibility is opposed to alienation, because it is bi-directional. This is why a responsible behaviour, on large scale, could save capitalism from its gaps and from its ruin.


[1] Cf. Hein, E., The Macroeconomics of Finance-dominated Capitalism and its Crisis, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012, p. 1.

[2] Smith, A., The Glasgow edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. 2a, edited by R.H. Cambell and A.S. Skinner, Oxford: Claredon Press, 1976, pp. 26–7.

[3] Cf. ibid.,  p. 456.

[4] ‘It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals’ (Marx, K., Capital [Cap.], Volume 1, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954, p. 586).

[5] Epstein, G. A., ‘Introduction: Financialization and the World Economy’, in Epstein, G. A. (ed.), Financialization and the World Economy, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005, p. 3.

[6] In 1938, George Edwards already individuated finance as an element of instability: the current form of capitalism converts real equity in financial one. Edwards was even afraid of a conspiracy by financial institutions. See Edwards, G. W., The Evolution of Finance Capitalism, London: Longmans Green, 1938.

[7] Bishop, J. D., ‘Ethics and Capitalism. A Guide to the Issues’, in Bishop, J. D. (ed.), Ethics and Capitalism, University of Toronto Press Incorporated: Toronto-Buffalo-London, 2000, p. 4.

[8] ‘Ontology as first philosophy is a philosophy of power’ (Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority [TI], Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 9).

[9] For a specific description of this mechanisms, see Hein 2012.

[10] Levinas criticizes the thought of Husserl in several writings. Cf., for example, TI, pp. 109-110, 121-126; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence [OB], Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 8, 33, 63-66; Id., Discovering Essence With Husserl, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998, pp. 74-75, 124-126, 176-177.

[11] Husserl considers the Other as an Ego-subject, but neither identical, nor subject to the Ego. ‘Each has its place from which he sees the physical things present; and, accordingly, each has different physical-things appearances. Also, for each of the fields of actual perception, actual memory, etc., are different, leaving aside the fact that intersubjectively common objects of consciousness in those field are intended to as to having different modes, different manners of apprehension, different degrees of clarity, and so forth’ (Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book  [Ideas I], The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982, pp. 55-56).

[12] TI, p. 172.

[13] OB, p. 153.

[14] Ibid., pp. 51, 54-56, 74.

[15] Ibid., pp. 26, 51, 87.

[16] Cf. Ricoeur, P., Oneself as Another, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1992, p. 3.

[17] Ibid., p. 225.

[18] Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27.

[19] Thomas, R., ‘Ethics – or the Lack of Ethis – in the Global Financial Crisis 2007-2010’, in Rosamund M. Thomas (ed.), Business Ethics, Cambridge: Ethics International Press, 2011, p. 75.

[20] Cf. Cap., p. 587.

[21] OB, pp. 25-26.

[22] Ibid., pp. 43-44, 78.

[23] Sartre, J.-P-, Being and Nothingness. An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, New York: Philosophical Library, 1956, p. 367. Even if Sartre is better known as an existentialist, Being and Nothingness can be considered as a phenomenological masterwork. Anyway, the constitutive inter-subjectivity of human beings was first stated by Heidegger, according to which ‘being-in-the-world’ (in-der-Welt-sein) is also ‘being-with’ (Mit-sein). Cf. Heidegger, M., Being and Time, State University of New York Press: Albany, 1996, p. 112.

[24] The phenomenological epoché, theorized by Husserl, searches for a pure consciousness, abstracting from the concrete Ego-subjects. ‘It therefore remains as the “phenomenological residuum,” as a region of being which is of essential necessity quite unique and which can indeed become the field of a science of a novel kind: phenomenology’ (Ideas I, pp. 65-66).

[25] TI, p. 252.

[26] Cf. TI, pp. 46-47, 143, 269-271.

[27] Cf. Hegel, G. W. F., Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, §§ 257-258; Marx, K.- Engels, F., The Communist Manifesto [Manifesto], New York: Russell and Russell, 1963, Chap. 2. According to Hegel, the State is the reality of reason and will, which coincides with individual freedom. According to Marx, communism implies centralization of credit, means of communication, production and education in the hands of the State. Both authors theorize, in order to guarantee equality, a strong Statism.

[28] Ideas I, p. 55.

[29] OB, p. 141.

[30] Cf. Manifesto, pp. 25-26; Marx, K., Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, New York: International Publishers, 1964, pp. 108-111.

[31] Products numbered B5110, for instance, come from hens farming to barn, while B5114 are free-range eggs. The other products come from hens bred in batteries. This is why, in 2001, AIA was condemned by the Italian Antitrust. The company showed on its egg-packages images of hens eating on lawns and the proposition ‘uova fresche allevate a terra’ (‘fresh eggs bred ashore’). It could led customers to think that they were free-range eggs, while hens were crowded into big barns (intensive livestock farming).

[32] Cf. Trudel, R.- Cotte, J., ‘Does It Pay To Be Good?’, MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 50, 2, 2009, pp. 66-68.

[33] Groarke, L., ‘Can Capitalism Save Itself? Some Ruminations on the Fate of Capitalism’, in Bishop 2000, p. 204.

[34] Cf. OB, pp. 49, 104, 141, 180, 185. 


Beyond Subjectivity. Levinas, Kierkegaard and the Absolute Other


However, since the thinkers both passed away, there are two possibilities: to side with one of them, thus criticizing the other, or to analyze their writings, in order to individuate analogies and differences from a third perspective. I would be a very bad lawyer, so I prefer to be a peace officer, opting for the second choice. I will show that, notwithstanding the deep divergences separating Levinas and Kierkegaard, there are also clear points in common, that the former (and perhaps even the latter) would never have admitted. The tension of subjectivity beyond itself, toward Infinity, will be the key point of their encounter.

1. The refusal of impersonal totality

First of all, Levinas and Kierkegaard are thinkers of singularity. Their philosophical reflection starts with a critique to Hegel and to the universal Spirit. The latter manifests itself in history, knowledge and ethics. The so-called Totality involves all the aspect of human life, considering individuals as parts of a greater plan, the immanent becoming of the Spirit toward the highest awareness of Itself.1 Each man is considered as a necessary, but only functional element of a super-individual entity, whose norms rule thinking and action.

Kierkegaard strongly lashes out against Hegel and his oblivion of singularity. It does not mean that the former denies the existence of universal principles of knowledge and ethics. As a matter of fact, societies are ruled by norms that everyone is expected to follow. One of these norms is the respect of human life, especially of the members of one’s family.

When Abraham, in Fear and Trembling, is commanded by God to kill his own son, he falls into a deep crisis.

There is no higher expression for the ethical in Abraham’s life than that the father shall love the son. The ethical in the sense of moral is entirely beside the point. Insofar as the universal was present, it was cryptically in Isaac, hidden, so to speak, in Isaac’s loins, and must cry out with Isaac’s mouth: Do not do this, you are destroying everything.2

Abraham knows that the sacrifice of Isaac means both a transgression of Jewish ethics and an unbearable suffering for the lost of his only child. God wants His gift back, without giving any reason. Abraham, a man of faith, obeys to the divine command and prepares his son for the sacrifice. His knife is ready to get dirty of his own blood. God then decides to hold the hand of the patriarch, who has proved his obedience enough.

Notwithstanding the reassuring epilogue, Abraham makes his choice for God’s sake and despite ethics. Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in Fear and Trembling, justifies this decision as the highest expression of singularity. Faith is defined as a paradoxical push, according to which “the single individual is higher than the universal” and “determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to absolute by his relation to the universal”3.

The highness of singularity is then due to its relation to the Absolute. Totality and God are the two extremes among which the individual takes place. To follow the former or the latter is due to a choice.4 The weight of each alternative is different: faith requires a leap, an act of courage and will directed to the highest task of a human being, ethics is a renounce to a real subjectivity. Shortly, the utmost duty of a person is to become singular, which requires one to be a believer.

Even if Silentio does not understand the movements of faith, because he does not experience them, he sees them through other men’s actions. The example of Abraham, and of other knights of faith, is the expression of a path toward infinity and real happiness.5 Silentio, talking about the story of the patriarch, admits the impossibility to know the secret of his interiority. He describes the experience of another man, without understanding it, without grasping the relation between the latter and God. Here two important aspects come out: the first is the irreducibility of an individual to another, the second is the uniqueness of the relation to Infinity.

Levinas seems to forget both when he criticizes Kierkegaard in Difficult Freedom and Proper Names. He denies every commitment of the latter with Jewish philosophy. First of all, the concept of faith as a leap, as a decision of free will, has to be excluded. Judaism believes in the Torah, in the law belonging to the religious tradition.6 Secondly, Levinas reproaches Kierkegaard to put religion above ethics. According to the former, the latter is guilty of the amoralism of Nietzsche and other contemporary thinkers, who philosophize with the hammer, regardless of everything.7

Defining ethics as belonging to Totality means confusing the tyranny of the Same with the one-for-the-other, the pre-original push of first philosophy. If the faith was an act of freedom, it would be considered prior to responsibility. And the latter is, in Levinas’ thought, the principal feature of ethics.

Subjectivity is in that responsibility and only irreducible subjectivity can assume a responsibility. That is what constitute the ethical. 8

Levinas does not agree with the concept of ethics expressed by Silentio in Fear and Trembling and proposes another view, which is not in contrast with religion. The author of Difficult Freedom is right in underlining the differences between Jewish tradition and Kierkegaard’s thought, but he seems to ignore what the latter writes in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Here another pseudonym, Climacus, expresses his concept of ethics. If becoming a subject is the highest duty of a human being, as it was said before, it is what both ethics and religion ask him. While objective thought, and totality, demand the individual to become an observer, giving birth to an impersonal ethics, subjective thought does not claim to grasp external truth but inner one. Ethics is present everywhere God is, in the historical process as in the secret of inwardness.9 However, the individual cannot have a perfect knowledge of the former as he has of the latter. According to both ethics and religion, the man has to become a subject.

Therefore, says the ethical, dare, dare to renounce everything, including this loftily pretentious and yet delusive intercourse with world-historical contemplation; dare to become nothing at all, to become a particular individual, of whom God requires everything, without your being relieved of the necessity of being enthusiastic; behold, that is the venture! But then you will also have gained that God cannot in all eternity get rid of you, for only in the ethical is your eternal consciousness; behold, that is the reward! 10

Even if Levinas has read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, criticizing the “becoming subject” of the individual,11 he does not consider that religion here agrees with ethics. He seems to ignore that Kierkegaard always writes through pseudonyms and that every pseudonym has a singular perspective, which never coincides with the perspective of another pseudonym. This is why Silentio and Climacus have different views of ethics and religion. What Climacus says seems to be more detailed and, perhaps, similar to Kierkegaard’s thought: he underlines the difference between objective and subjective ethics. While the former expresses totality, the latter belongs to singularity.

Subjective ethics is very close to Levinas’ one, since the individual is seen in his uniqueness of election. He emancipates from totality and objectivity, looking for his principles in relation to God, to Infinity. The criticism of Hegelian thought is strong both in Levinas and Kierkegaard, thus leading to singularity and to a responsibility which cannot be transferred to anyone else.

The philosophers both contest the absorption of the Other in the Same and state the necessity of an individual ethical answer. They are, generally, against every impersonal system, even if Levinas does not recognize this aspect in Kierkegaard’s thinking. Accusing the latter of violence and amoralism seems really unjustified.12

Anyway, Levinas is not always severe with his predecessor. He appreciates Kierkegaard’s scepticism towards objective truth and the immanence of thought. Actually, in the Postscript, Climacus points out the limits of disciplines as mathematics or history, which are inevitably incomplete and make the subject accidental. Becoming an observer deprives the latter of its individuality, whose existence is wholly indifferent.13 Levinas makes the same criticism to Husserl’s intentionality, which sees the ego as an impersonal “who”. The immanence of thought, the sleep of il y a (“there is”), is the greatest alienation for a human being. He becomes an individual only when he is independent from theoretical activity.14

Being subjective is thus a necessary task for both philosophers. It implies a separation from universal knowledge and, furthermore, a relation to absolute alterity. Kierkegaard states that subjective truth involves a passion of the infinite. What really matters is not the correspondence between the thought and the object, that is the idea of God and God Himself. Subjective thought is focused on inwardness, on the relation between God and the ego. Subjective truth is nothing else than faith. Objectively, it is a paradox and implies uncertainty.15 However, Kierkegaard gives it the highest value and Levinas clearly appreciates it.

Thus Kierkegaard brings something absolutely new to European philosophy: the possibility of attaining truth through the ever-recurrent inner rending of doubt, which is not only an invitation to verify evidence, but a part of evidence itself. I think that Kierkegaard’s philosophical novelty is in his idea of belief. Belief is not, for him, an imperfect knowledge of truth, a truth without certainty, a degradation of knowledge.16

Doubt implies a continuous retreat from certainty, presumed by the right sciences and historical knowledge. It pushes toward the pursuit of something else, whose existence is not proved. Doubt is inseparable from belief, from subjective truth. Objectively, it is an expression of an imperfect knowledge, while, subjectively, it is the expression of truth itself. The uncertainty of the latter implies justification, or even silence.17 The choice of “Silentio” as a pseudonym for Fear and Trembling reflects the impossibility of Abraham to communicate his behaviour to his people. Subjective truth is an individual experience, requiring a relation with an absolute and unknowable alterity.

The uncertainty of faith does not imply either degradation or negativity. The same can be said about the idea of God in Levinas’ philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, the Infinite in the finite causes a breach in theoretic intentionality, overflowing every concept. Human thought is imperfect, because it is incapable of containing God. It does not mean that the perfect (infinite) is a negation of the imperfect (finite), but that the perfect transcends the imperfect. The idea of Infinity is then positive: it is not a lack of relation, but a relation to the absolutely distant.18

This relation, according to both Kierkegaard and Levinas, cannot be expressed with an objective knowledge. Turning to transcendence means separating from universal thought and becoming a subject. Furthermore, recognizing one’s own individuality means, at the same time, recognizing the irreducibility of the other person.

Even if the philosophers agree on this general statement, there are some differences separating them. While Kierkegaard is more concerned for the subject, Levinas gives priority to the other. According to the former, truth is subjectivity because it is focused on individual experience: “that every human being is such an entity existing for himself, is a truth I cannot too often repeat”19. It implies that one is able to know one’s inwardness, one’s own existence, but is unable to grasp alterity.20 The irreducibility of the subject is the condition of the irreducibility of the other.

The author of Totality and Infinity thinks in the opposite way: the irreducibility of the other is prior to the individuation of the self. While Kierkegaard focuses only on the separation of the ego from totality, Levinas has two concerns: the individuation of the subject and the irreducibility of the other to the violence of the ego. Thinking through intentionality and acting through free will are means of power on the other person. This is why Levinas puts responsibility before freedom and the other before the self.21

The subject, in Kierkegaard, follows its own will: the leap of faith is an act of freedom. It does not mean that life involves egoism, since the other person is important. The relation to God does not make sense without a commitment to the neighbour.22 Levinas does not say that the subject is not free, but that responsibility precedes will. At this point, the subject is considered in a passive acceptation (“subject to”), not as an “I”, but as a “me”.23

The priority of the other on the self is what differentiates Levinas from Kierkegaard. That aside, they both refuse impersonal totality, conceived as a theoretical and/or ethical system. They also assert the relation to Infinity as a modality of subjective uniqueness, that leads to recognize the irreducibility of the other person.

2. The irreducibility of the Infinite

Another point in common between Levinas and Kierkegaard is the view of Infinity itself. It coincides with God, who is absolutely Other and distant from the subject.

Precisely because there is the absolute difference between God and man, man expresses himself most perfectly when he absolutely expresses the difference. 24

Kierkegaard’s thought is extraordinary. This sentence places him in the middle of Christian tradition and contemporary philosophy. The author of Fear and Trembling never hides his protestant culture and concern for the life of faith. Anyway, his thought is not strictly theological, but primarily existential. The relation to Infinity, apart from its religious meaning, gives the highest sense to individual life. It does not matter if God exists or not, if He is a supreme being or something else. This is a concern of observers, of objective thinkers. What is really important is the relation between the subject and the divine, the finite and the infinite. Turning to transcendence, to the absolutely Other, is the only way for the individual to be itself. God is distant and irreducible to the subject, but, at the same time, extremely close. Dealing with infinity means dealing with one’s inwardness, with one’s utmost secret (Deus in interiore homine).

This secret cannot be communicated, only justified or expressed with silence. Saying the difference means exactly this: going beyond thought and language, thus facing incomprehension. The only way to express difference is manifesting Infinity in a finite existence.

Becoming subjective means becoming an extraordinary being, in the middle of worldly immanence and divine transcendence.25 The individual is called by God to follow a vocation in everyday life, to be a witness of His will. It implies going against the universal systems of thought and ethics, against an established order, to affirm individuality and follow what is asked to inwardness.

Notwithstanding the impossibility to grasp Infinity, the finite being answers to its call. The relation between the two goes beyond ontology and leads to ethics (not the universal one, but the one following religion). Infinity manifests itself through the evidence of a singular existence, so that the latter is, at the same time, the object of transcendence and the condition for its incarnation.26 There is a sort of exchange between Infinity and a finite being: the latter gives space to the former through transfiguration, while the former knows itself through the gaze of absolute alterity.27 Transfiguration (Forklarelse) is not an explanation (Forklaring), but an expression without words, recalled by the witness of faith.

The separation between man and God, that initially causes anxiety and a sense of alienation, becomes a push towards one’s own existence. When Abraham raises the knife over Isaac, he is answering to the divine call, even if he does not understand it. Leaving aside his people’s ethics and his sadness for the lost of the only child, he directs his free will toward the will of God. Abraham expresses Infinity through a finite action. And, when his hand is drawn back by a new command, he rejoices. He has obeyed and, at the same time, his son is alive. The epilogue of the story gives sense to the choice of Abraham: only through the paradox of the patriarch’s action the goodness of God is revealed. The passion for divinity, that pushes the individual toward an incomprehensible choice, leads to transfiguration. Infinity is expressed through the existence of a finite being.

Even according to Levinas, the distance between the finite and the infinite is overwhelming, though the latter is inside the former. The subject is separated from God and lives an independent life. It does not need anything else, but feels a tension inside. The relation between the finite and the infinite is Desire, which is not directed to fulfilment, but to absolute alterity.

Desire is absolute if the desiring being is mortal and the Desired invisible. Invisibility does not denote an absence in relation; it implies relations with what is not given, of which there is no idea. Vision is an adequation of the idea with the thing, a comprehension that encompasses. Non-adequation does not denote a simple negation or an obscurity of the idea, but – beyond the light and the night, beyond the knowledge measuring beings – the inordinateness of Desire. Desire is desire for the absolutely other. 28

This tension towards the absolutely Other is primarily affective. It goes beyond the limits of thought and the adequation of the object to its idea. The Desire of Infinity originally belongs to subjectivity, which is affected by transcendence in an exceptional way. It is the trace of absence, of otherwise than being. It is called illeity (from the latin ille, “he”) and is nothing else but the mark of an original creation. It cannot be grasped by thought, because it goes beyond ontology and does not imply the existence of the creator. It is a semantic ambiguity, what unsays itself without negating. The trace of Infinity cannot thus be represented, since there is nothing in common between the subject and God.29 Levinas’ concept of transcendence refuses theology and every interpretation of the man as representing God. The affective relation to an absolute alterity, paradoxical and impossible to be explained in words, thus unites both Levinas and Kierkegaard.

However, the former does not agree with the latter, when he describes the nature of the metaphysical desire. First of all, it has nothing to do with need or passion. The subject feels a tension to Infinity when its separation is complete: the ego is wholly atheist and its material needs are satisfied by the external world (“without separation there would not have been truth; there would have been only being”30). The Desire of God is not looking for fulfilment, but pushes the subject to ethics. The command of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of moral action and establishes freedom on responsibility.31

Levinas’ desire of Infinity is thus very different from Kierkegaard’s passion of Infinity. First of all, the latter has its root in anxiety, the former in responsibility. The revelation of God strikes Levinas’ subject when it is quiet and satisfied, pushing it towards the other person. Kierkegaard’s individual, instead, is troubled by doubt and looks for the unity with Infinity. Secondly, Kierkegaard’s passion is oriented towards activity, Levinas’ desire to passivity. Even if they are both sources of morality, the former is based on freedom, the latter on responsibility, which precedes freedom itself.

Shortly, the infinite is, according to both the thinkers, absolutely different from the finite. The latter is moved by the desire of the former, even if the authors do not agree on its nature: the tension is active and passionate for Kierkegaard, passive and responsible for Levinas. However, the desire of Infinity leads, according to both, to the ethical/religious behaviour.

3. From the absolute Other to the singular other

The desire of Infinity is that which primarily constitutes the subject. However, according to Levinas and Kierkegaard, it is not enough for the fulfilment of individual existence. Being subjective means, at the same time, put in practice one’s tension to ethics, whose direction is indicated by the divine command. The relation to the absolute Other thus leads to the relation to the singular other.

Levinas accuses Kierkegaard of transcending the ethical stage and ignoring the other person for the sake of religion.32 He seems not to have read the Works of Love, where the neighbour is essential for the life of faith: “the single individual is committed in the debt of love to other people”33. Stating the irreducibility of the subject and of the other person is not enough for Kierkegaard. It could lead to an egoistic life, where the relation to Infinity would be purely ascetical. The love towards the other person, instead, is a commitment that cannot be avoided.

Levinas is the philosopher of alterity par excellence, since the relation to the other, both singular and absolute, is constitutive of the subject. And this relation implies a radical view, that is the impossibility for the I to exercise its power on the other person. Even if the latter can be partially reduced to phenomenality or submitted to freedom, there is something escaping the grasp of the ego. When the subject is wholly constituted as separated, the other person reveals, through the Face, the command of Infinity.

Freedom is then inhibited, not as countered by a resistance, but as arbitrary, guilty, and timid; but in its guilt it rises to responsibility. […] The relation with the Other as a relation with his transcendence – the relation with the Other who puts in question the brutal spontaneity of one’s immanent destiny – introduces into me what was not in me.34

Immanence is considered brutal, because it submits the individual to the anonymity of Totality. The violence of thought and freedom are nothing but expressions of the tyranny of the Same. The encounter with the other person makes the subject aware not only of its own individuality (already discovered in the atheistic separation), but even of its own uniqueness. The transcendence of the Face is a transfiguration, not an incarnation, of the transcendence of God. The call of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of ethics, pushing the subject to responsibility. The latter cannot be assumed by anybody else, it is the sign of a uniqueness in election. The transcendence undoes the deepest core of the ego with an unavoidable assignation.35

Ethico-religious life is then directed by the divine call to the other person. Both Levinas and Kierkegaard see absolute alterity as directed towards singular alterity. It is a threefold relation, whose terms are the subject, God and the other person. However, the two thinkers have different views about its modality.

Kierkegaard thinks of the subject as directly relating to God, who is the very link between the self and the other: “in love for the neighbor, God is the middle term. Love God is above all else; then you also love the neighbor and in the neighbor every human being.”36 There is not any mediation between the finite and the infinite. Paradoxically, the mediation is between the finite ego and the finite other. The relation to Infinity is then primary, the real condition of the encounter with the other person.

Levinas thinks exactly in the opposite way. Even if the infinite is in the finite as a trace of creation, one has to meet the other to be aware of illeity. The middle term is, in this case, not God, but the other person.37 Singular alterity is the place where absolute alterity reveals itself. The call to responsibility happens simultaneously to the encounter of the Face. The phenomenal dimension of the other man refers to what transcends phenomenon itself. The paradox is that, without seeing the finite, it is impossible to relate to Infinity. Kierkegaard and Levinas describe the threefold relation among the subject, God and the other in two opposite, but equally paradoxical ways: according to the former, the finite needs the infinite to relate to the finite, according to the latter, the finite needs the finite to relate to the infinite.

Other differences between the two philosophers concern their general view on the subject and on the other. These poles are both important, but, as it was stated before, Kierkegaard gives priority to the former, Levinas to the latter. The author of Totality and Infinity takes the risk of alienating the subject, while his predecessor tends to fall into solipsism.

In Fear and Trembling, for instance, subjectivity experiences its vocation without being understood. Abraham, going against the ethics of his people, feels a tension between his behaviour and the external judgement. Kierkegaard’s knight of faith cannot help but feel a deep solitude.

His behaviour leads him to detach himself from the system of needs of his community, in order to follow his vocation. He is extraordinary and, for this reason, runs the risk of being misunderstood. The “tribunal of the world” condemns his actions, which are oriented to please the “tribunal of God”.38 And, since the former is always there and the latter does not need him, the individual is always on the verge of falling into the abyss of nothing.

What has been said about ethico-religious behaviour is valid also for subjective thinking, well described in the Postscript.

The reflection of inwardness is the subjective thinker’s double reflection. In thinking, he thinks the universal, but as existing in this thinking, as assimilating this in his inwardness, he becomes more and more subjectively isolated.39

The risk of solitude is then unavoidable. Even if the individual thinks to universality, he is not an abstract entity. He is a singular and concrete being, whose thought cannot be separated from his existence. It does not imply subjectivism, because the truth of an object does not depend from the belief of the subject. It is possible to have a general concept of how a human being thinks, since it is a matter of observation. The latter implies the possibility of communication and is not submitted to anxiety or other emotional states. This saves Kierkegaard’s philosophy from the extremes of solipsism, subjectivism and irrationality.40 However, subjective truth is more important than objective one. The highest task of a human being is not becoming an observer, but becoming subjective: one has to focus primarily on the relation between oneself and the object, that depends on the perception of one’s own inwardness.

Levinas, on his side, is worried about the violence of subjective thought and freedom. This is why he develops an asymmetrical ethics and puts the other above the I. The latter is called by the Infinite to a pre-original and unavoidable responsibility. This election makes the subject wholly unique, but is connected to a risk of alienation.

The subject in responsibility is alienated in the depths of its identity with an alienation that does not empty the same of its identity, but constrains it to it, with an unimpeachable assignation, constrains it to it as no one else, where no one could replace it.41

In Otherwise Than Being, the very core of the subject is undone by the other, who is inside the ego as ipseity. It is an expression of Levinas’ mature thought, where ethics is took to an extreme and identity is destroyed from inside. In Totality and Infinity, instead, the risk of alienation is avoided, because ipseity is still a nucleus of genuine egoism.42

Levinas, as much as he strives to save the subject from alienation, gives way to it in his mature thought. Kierkegaard, on the other side, is able not to fall in solipsism, but is on the edge of a cliff. Focusing on the subject or on the other leads the two thinkers to opposite forms of extremism. Notwithstanding this and the modal differences, they are united by a threefold view of the relation between the finite and the infinite: the subject (finite) relates to God (infinite), who leads it toward the other person (finite).

4. A lifelong suffering

The last aspect of the relation between the infinite and the finite in Levinas and Kierkegaard is an unavoidable suffering of the subject. The latter, in its tension towards God, cannot help but experience a pathos, inextricably connected to the conscience of its own limits.

Individual existence is, according to Kierkegaard, a synthesis of the finite and the infinite. It is the place where transcendence reveals itself through the actions of an exceptional singularity. The subject is thus in the middle between its own needs as a worldly entity and the tension to go beyond the systems regulating these needs and their satisfaction. Becoming subjective means living in this world and striving for another world. The individual who follows his vocation knows already what his priority is: he has to renounce to satisfy his needs, when they hinder the pursuit of eternal happiness.43

It is not a matter of doing something and avoiding something else. The tension to Infinity is not only a limit to hedonism or to universal ethical life. It completely changes the existence of an individual, orienting it to that which is always there. A finite need disappears according to the subjective mood or to its satisfaction, while Infinity is eternal. It does not matter if it exists in an ontological sense, because it is constitutive of the individual and transcends his inwardness.

The choice of a religious life, of following “that which is always there”, causes an unavoidable pathos.

But suffering as the essential expression for existential pathos means that suffering is real, or that the reality of the suffering constitutes the existential pathos; and by the reality of the suffering is meant its persistence as essential for the pathetic relationship to an eternal happiness. It follows that the suffering is not deceptively recalled, nor does the individual transcend it, which constitutes a retreat from the task […] Viewed religiously, it is necessary […] to comprehend the suffering and to remain in it, so that reflection is directed upon the suffering and not away from it.44

The reality of suffering implies the persistence of the tension to Infinity. God is constitutively inside the individual, but following His will is a choice. Who pursues eternal happiness cannot avoid suffering and has to remain in it. The voluntary component of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is here strongly evident.

Levinas’ thought, on the other side, refuses the power of free will in relation to Infinity.

But giving has a meaning only as a tearing from oneself despite oneself, and not only without me. And to be torn from oneself despite oneself has meaning only as a being torn from the complacency in oneself characteristic of enjoyment, snatching the bread from one’s mouth. […] Signification, the-one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood.45

The suffering of the subject does not depend on a choice, but happens “despite oneself” and comes from one’s original constitution. Being sensible means being permeated by the other in the fibres of one’s own skin. The divine command, which urges upon responsibility for the other person, is directed to the spoliation of one’s flesh. There is no distinction between body and soul: the man, as a sensitive being, is affected by the enjoyment of its pleasure and, at the same time, by the indigence of the other person.

Suffering is then involuntary in Levinas and voluntary in Kierkegaard. However, both agree on considering pain as constitutive of the relation to Infinity and ethical life. The individual who follows the divine command puts aside the satisfaction of his needs, in order to give himself to the other person.

The reason for suffering is the same in Levinas and Kierkegaard. What really separates them is its aim. Accepting pain of one’s existence makes sense only if oriented to afterlife, writes Kierkegaard. The pursuit of eternal happiness is the reason of renouncing to one’s need and pleasures. According to Levinas, on the other side, it does not matter if there is life after death. Responsibility has to be undertook despite any other reason.46

However, there is no certainty of an eternal happiness, neither in Kierkegaard nor in Levinas. According to the former, it is an orientation toward Infinity, a relational modality, according to the latter it has nothing to do with responsibility. They both theorize a life of possibility, of uncertainty and doubt, which, paradoxically, has a higher value than objective truth.

Levinas recognizes the positivity of possibility in Kierkegaard,47 even if he does not acknowledge the existence of a religious ethics in the Postscript. As it was stated before, Climacus distinguishes universal morality from subjective one: the former constitutes a dogmatic system, while the latter is inconclusive and ongoing. The tension to God, driving force of religious ethics, does not lead to the certainty of beatitude, but at least deploys its possibility.

Levinas and Kierkegaard, notwithstanding some differences, agree in stating the singularity of the subject, which primarily explicates itself in relation to Infinity. The absolute difference between man and God hinders whatsoever objective certainty, but it does not make it less important. To face Infinity inside oneself is inevitable and leads to the realization of one’s own existence. What is more, the divine command indicates the other person as its real addressee. Life means giving oneself to singular alterity. However, in spite of a correct ethical behaviour, striving for Infinity is connected with suffering.

An intense and almost unbearable pain, involving the body and the soul, accompanies the subject until the end of its life. Levinas and Kierkegaard both assert the inevitability of suffering, due to a uniqueness in election. Individual existence is where God reveals Himself and shows the way of giving. This path never ends, until life stops, until worldly existence gives space to a new existence, or, if faith is meaningless, to nothing else (the anxiety over doubt never ends). Subjectivity, despite its finiteness, infinitely strives for what goes beyond.


1 Cf. Hegel G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by Miller A. V., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, §§ 793, 805, 808.

2 Kierkegaard S., Fear and Trembling (FT), in Fear and Trembling/Repetition, ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 59.

3 Ibid., p. 70.

4 According to Pojman, the leap of faith is an act of pure free will (cf. Pojman L., Religious Belief and the Will, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 143-8), while Sagi asserts that it has its root in existence (cf. Sagi A., Kierkegaard, Religion and Existence. The Voyage of the Self, Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi B. V., 2000, p. 41).

5 Cf. FT, p. 33-9.

6 Cf. Levinas E., Difficult Freedom (DF), trans. by Hand S., London: The Athlone Press, 1990, p. 144.

7 Cf. DF, p. 117; Id., “Existence and Ethics”, in Proper Names (PN), trans. by Smith M. B., London: The Athlone Press, 1996, pp. 72-3; Id., “A propos of Kierkegaard vivant”, in op. cit., p. 76.

8 Cf. PN, p. 73.

9 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Concluding Unscientific Postscript (CUP), trans. by Swenson D. F., London: Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, 1941, pp. 118-23.

10 Ibid., pp. 133-4.

11 Cf. PN, p. 76.

12 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., “Introduction: Good Fences May Not Make Good Neighbours After all”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), Kierkegaard and Levinas: ethics, politics, and religion, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, p. 2; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 22-5, 32-9. According to Simmons, Levinas criticism of Kierkegaard is due to the influence of Jean Wahl (cf. Simmons A. J., “Existential Appropriation: The Influence of Jean Wahl on Levinas’s Reading of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 51-67).

13 Cf. CUP, pp. 175-9.

14 Cf. Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority (TI), Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 119.

15 Cf. CUP, pp. 181-2.

16 PN, p. 77.

17 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., op. cit., p. 3; Simmons A. J., op. cit., pp. 48-9.

18 Cf. TI, pp. 24-5, 41.

19 CUP, p. 169.

20 This is even the presupposition of Kierkegaard’s deconstructive readers, who are against logocentric and one-way interpretations. Cf. Jegstrup E., “Introduction”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), The New Kierkegaard, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 1-2.

21 Cf. TI, pp. 21-7, 203-4; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (OB), Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 15, 19-20, 88, 114-5, 138-9. Cf. also Janiaud J., Singularité et responsabilité. Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Levinas, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2006, pp. 311-4.

22 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Works of Love (WOL), ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 190. Cf. also Westphal M., op. cit., pp. 25-32.

23 Cf. OB, pp. 15-6, 50-6, 72-5, 142. Cf. also Llewelyn J., “Who or What or Whot”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), op. cit., p. 72; Lellouche R., Difficile Levinas. Peut-on ne pas être levinassien ?, Paris-Tel Aviv : Editions de l’éclat, 2006, pp. 81-3.

24 CUP, p. 412.

25 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 155, 158.

26 Cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 134.

27 Cf. Podmore S. D., Kierkegaard and the Self Before God : Anatomy of the Abyss, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011, pp. xii-xiii, 180.

28 TI, p. 34.

29 Cf. OB, pp. 12-3, 151-2; TI, p. 104. On metaphysical Desire, cf. Ciaramelli F., “Levinas e la fenomenologia del desiderio”, in Moscato A. (ed.), Levinas. Filosofia e trascendenza, Genova: Marietti, 1992, pp. 144-58; Baccarini E., Lévinas. Soggettività e Infinito, Roma: Studium, 1985, pp. 40, 46-7. Lellouche defines it as a hetero-affection (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 86-7). About the semantic ambiguity and non-representativeness of Infinity, cf. Baccarini E., op. cit., pp. 30-8; Chalier C., La trace de l’Infini. Emmanuel Levinas et la source hébraïque, Paris : Cerf, 2002, pp. 65-73 ; Moscato A., “Semantica della trascendenza. Note critiche su E. Levinas”, in Moscato A. (ed.), op. cit., pp. 58-9, 73-8; Plourde S., Emmanuel Lévinas. Altérité et responsabilité, Paris : Cerf, 1996, pp. 136-7 ; Rolland J., Parcours de l’autrement, Paris : PUF, 2000, pp. 1-2. According to Visker, the intrigue of the Infinite is anything but il y a, where the subject, being one-for-the-other, loses its individuality (cf. Visker R., Truth and Singularity. Taking Foucault into Phenomenology, Dordrecht-Boston-London: Kluwer, 1999, pp. 236-7, 241-6, 265-72).

30 TI, p. 60.

31 Cf. TI, pp. 50, 203-4. Cf. also Chalier C., op. cit., pp. 44-8, 56-60; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 19-21; Petitdemange G., “Au dehors : les enjeux de l’alterité chez Emmanuel Lévinas”, in A. Münster (ed.), La différence comme non-indifférence. Éthique et altérité chez Emmanuel Lévinas, Paris : Kimé, 1995, pp. 30-2 ; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 111-4. According to Westphal, Levinas’ transcendence is traumatic because it destabilizes the inwardness of the subject (cf. M. Westphal, “The Trauma of Transcendence as Heteronomous Intersubjectivity”, in M. M. Olivetti (ed.), Intersubjectivité et théologie philosophique, Padova : CEDAM, 2001, pp. 92-8).

32 Cf. PN, pp. 76-7.

33 WOL, p. 190.

34 TI, p. 203.

35 Cf. ibid., p. 279; OB, pp. 141-2.

36 WOL, p. 58. Cf. also ibid., p. 108. Gibbs points out that the alterity of the other person is mediated by the alterity of God (cf. Gibbs R., “I or You: The Dash of Ethics”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), op. cit., p. 146). Seeskin states that the transcendence of Kierkegaard’s God is anonymous and excludes every form of dialogue (cf. Seeskin K., Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 134).

37 OB, p. 12. Cf. also Haar M., “L’obsession de l’autre. L’éthique comme traumatisme”, Cahiers de l’Herne : Lévinas 1991, pp. 444-5; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 119-24; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 106-9; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, op. cit., p. 24.

38 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 191, 197, 308-10.

39 CUP, p. 61.

40 Cf. Gouwens D. J., Kierkegaard as religious thinker, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 49-53, 56.

41 OB, pp. 141-2.

42 Cf. TI, pp. 39, 44, 60, 117-8, 208, 277-9.

43 Cf. CUP, p. 350-3. According to Sagi, the voyage to Infinity and to the self are the same, since obeying to God’s will means realizing one’s own existence. Notwithstanding its weakness in understanding Infinity, the subject has the strenght to follow it. (cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 16, 147).

44 Ibid., pp. 396-7.

45 OB, p. 74. Unlike Westphal, Lellouche defines Levinas’ ethics as traumatic because it coincides with suffering (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 54-7, 70-1).

46 Cf. OB, pp. 6, 117.

47 Cf. Sheil P., Kierkegaard and Levinas. The Subjunctive Mood, Farnham: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 4, 144-5.