William Large: Levinas’ ‘Totality and Infinity’: A Reader’s Guide

Rami El Ali


Levinas' 'Totality and Infinity': A Reader's Guide Book Cover Levinas' 'Totality and Infinity': A Reader's Guide
Reader's Guides
William Large
Paperback £13.49

Reviewed by: Rami El Ali (Lebanese American University)

Levinas’ ‘Totality and Infinity’: A Reader’s Guide is a recent book in Bloomsbury’s series of reader’s guides. It is written by William Large, who has also written a guide on Heidegger’s Being and Time. Large’ guide comes shortly after James Mensch’s guide on Levinas’ Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Both books are extremely helpful in introducing the reader to Levinas in general and his Totality and Infinity (henceforth, TI) in specific, though their approaches are slightly different. Both focus on providing an expository commentary that follows Levinas’ text, but Mensch’s exposition is longer (just under twice as long) and as a result more detailed. Mensch also focuses on the specific connection between Levinas and Heidegger in a way that Large does not, beginning with an introduction on how the two philosophers’ works are related. Large’s book, by contrast, is divided into three main chapters. The first provides a quick overview of the context and themes of TI, the second and largest chapter (roughly a hundred pages) is a reading of the text, and finally the book ends with a brief look at TI’s reception and influence. As a result, the two guides serve slightly different purposes. Mensch’s book is more helpful for more advanced readers, Large’s is better for nonspecialists and students aiming to approach Levinas’ work. In particular, the brevity of Large’s book makes it a great text to assign along with TI. It helps students understand the text without being too distracting or time consuming, even if the guide has some drawbacks.

The need for Large’s (but also Mensch’s) guide is easiest to appreciate if one has tried to read TI without introduction. As a reader of Levinas coming largely from the analytic tradition, it is hard to overestimate how opaque Levinas’ writing can seem, particularly if one is not familiar with phenomenology. Even with a phenomenological background, TI remains daunting. Before one can approach the position Levinas develops over the course of the book through various distinctions, arguments, and observations, one is confronted with the book’s language and organization. In the first two pages, Levinas introduces some of his central themes, which include ideas like the philosophical understanding of being as war, the ‘eschatology of messianic peace’, infinity, and the connection Levinas sees between his position and Descartes’ proof of God in the third meditation. These ideas are initially obscure, seem to break with the phenomenological tradition, and sound deeply theological (with a cursory glance ahead only seeming to confirm this suspicion). Section I, which follows TI’s preface, is also one of the densest. It attempts to encapsulate the book’s argument using the full terminology that Levinas only develops in the subsequent sections. Compounding these difficulties is Levinas’ style, which often seems more focused on being poetic than precise, despite the clarity of his position (at least for the most part) once the book is understood.

Large’s text helps immensely with these problems. The first chapter prepares the reader by quickly looking at the connections between TI and ethics, phenomenology, and judaism. The first connection is central to Levinas’ project, since TI reinterprets metaphysics as a relation to another person, rather than as a relation to a noumenal world beyond the phenomena (e.g. see TI’s sections Ia and IIe). In this sense, Levinas seeks to replace traditional metaphysics with ‘ethics’. Large primarily focuses his discussion on contrasting TI’s view with traditional ethics. While traditional ethics begins with the subject who acts ethically by deliberating on principles that lead to action, Large argues that Levinasian ethics begins with the concrete experience of the other, rather than with any principles that govern the subjects’ encounter.

Though this captures the basic idea in TI, the discussion in this introductory chapter might have benefitted from more explicitly pointing out that Levinas is more interested in providing a metaethical position than a normative ethical one. Levinas does not explicitly say this, but it is clear that his focus is on the confrontation with the other as a source of moral obligations, rather than as a way of determining a particular theory of obligations.[i] For Levinas, by contrast to the silent world, which one can interrogate, but which cannot answer that interrogation (or as Levinas put it “To ask what is to ask as what: it is not to take the manifestation for itself.”[ii]), others are ‘self-presenting’; they have a face (e.g. Levinas writes “What we call the face is precisely this exceptional presentation of self by self”[iii]). While Levinas thinks the face has a sort of nonconceptual impact on us, the face’s significance is clearest when we appeal to the other’s use of language. Because another person can speak for herself, she can provide a way of comprehending her and her world. Her self-presentation also serves to interrupt the subject’s thinking or conception of the other, and indeed of her own world. The result is that the subject, insofar as she is already amidst others, finds herself in a situation in which these others make demands, and foremost moral demands, on her.

The other’s self-presentation serves many different purposes in Levinas’ argument, but one thing it seems to imply is a commitment to moral noncognitivism, the view that there is a reality to moral discourse despite the absence of moral truths in the world (Levinas’ way of putting this is to say that the face cannot be grasped through representation e.g. in TI section IIIb1). More specifically, Levinas’ view seems to be a form of prescriptivism, where moral judgments express a subject’s prescriptions e.g. ‘Murder is wrong’ becomes ‘Let no one commit murder’, with priority given to the pronouncements of the other.[iv] Though much of what Large goes on to discuss in the book’s main chapter makes Levinas’ interest in metaethics clear, stating this explicitly would have helped better locate TI amongst contemporary discussions. It would also eliminate the confusion in Levinas’ own use of ethics, and prevent readers from looking for a normative theory in what he says.

The second connection Large focuses on is that between TI and phenomenology. Large’s discussion helpfully highlights how Levinas’ work breaks with Husserl’s and Heidegger’s, while also noting the importance of Plato and Descartes to TI. These connections and others are also further developed in the close reading of TI (in chapter 2). However, one limitation of this early discussion is that Large focuses exclusively on these philosophers’ treatment of alterity. Though this reflects Levinas’ own emphasis, Large’s discussion might have benefitted from beginning with a general overview of how TI provides an alternative to Husserl’s representation-heavy phenomenology and Heidegger’s phenomenology of practical engagement. Understanding that Levinas emphasizes receptivity (what he calls ‘sensibility’, which allows us to stand in the relation of ‘living from’) over theory (i.e. Levinas’ ‘representation’) or practice (i.e. Levinas’ ‘labor’) is helpful if one is already familiar with transcendental and existential phenomenology, or if one is trying to understand the relations between different phenomenologists.

Finally, Large considers a charge sometimes made against Levinas, that he is providing a distinctively Jewish philosophy. This discussion is supplemented by another in the book’s final chapter, where Large discusses criticisms of TI’s religious (even if not specifically Jewish) terminology. Large’s discussion on both these issues explains many of the important points in a simple way, making it easy to follow why TI is not fundamentally Judaic or religious. This is particularly important because one’s interest in the work might vary with whether one understands it to be religiously committed or not. It is also important because the text calls for this type of clarification. Levinas’ language undoubtedly sounds theological (e.g. Levinas calls the separation of the subject ‘atheism’), and sometimes specifically Judaic (e.g. in the use of ‘the stranger, the widow, and the orphan’[v]). But Large makes it clear that this language remains religiously noncommittal. On the one hand, he argues that to read Levinas as a Jewish philosopher is at worst ad hominem, and at best does not clearly recognize the hermeneutical features of the text. On the other hand, throughout his reading of the text, Large defines Levinas’ religious concepts, explains why Levinas uses them, and shows that on a straightforward reading these concepts do not commit us to any God or religion. Indeed Levinas’ view, coupled with his choice of words (e.g. infinity as an idea arising from the other person), might seem to altogether undermine traditional conceptions of religion or God as transcending human community. Whatever one might think of Levinas’ own commitments, or the fruitfulness of reading TI as part of a theological or Judaic philosophical canon, TI certainly does not assume a traditional theological framework.

This brings us to the central chapter of Large’s book, which is a reading of the text largely following TI’s sections and subsections. Large begins with Levinas’ dense preface, in which Levinas asks “whether we are not duped by morality”[vi], and to which his initial answer is that “being reveals itself as war to philosophical thought”. This ‘truth’ is what Levinas seeks to overcome in the remainder of TI’s four sections. In the first, Levinas presents a complete overview of his answer, beginning with the reinterpretation of metaphysics as a relation between one separated being and another (i.e. the ‘face to face’ relation), and concluding with the claim that truth presupposes justice, as a way of overcoming the ‘truth’ of history. In the second section, Levinas provides his account of the separated person. He argues that the phenomenological subject is foremost an enjoying being, one whose enjoyment (and therefore freedom) depends on an uncertain world (Levinas’ ‘the element’), which can only be overcome through the home, labor, and representation. This account also grounds Levinas’ critiques of existential (but also transcendental) phenomenology, which he sees as mistakenly beginning with radical freedom (e.g. in Sartre), reducing life and its enjoyment to bare existence, and mistakenly assuming the priority of representation (e.g. in Husserl) or labor (e.g. in Heidegger). In the third section, Levinas turns to the relation with others, arguing that unlike the world, which can be dominated and comprehended by sight and touch (which he associates with representation and labor), another person remains a separated being, genuinely accessible only through the face-to-face encounter, and ultimately speech. In the fourth and final section, Levinas turns to various related issues that go past the relation to the other. These include the issue of death (which arises first at the end of the third section) and the way it is overcome through the birth of subsequent generations, the erotic relation to another, and a sketch of political relations that begin from within the family rather than the state. As Large points out, these sections do not always seem to clearly fit with the rest of the book, and certainly seem more like sketches than fully worked out positions.

Large’s overviews, definitions, and explanations of these sections of TI are all simple to read and very informative. They help clarify TI’s organization, its language, and its content. Large sticks to writing in a simple and conversational tone, making his reading of the text easy to follow, and ideal as secondary reading for students learning Levinas. Large also does a nice job of locating Levinas’ position in the history of philosophy, he looks at the connections he discusses in the preface in more detail, but also further connections to other philosophers (e.g. Kant and Hegel). His approach is also critical in some places. For instance, although he preserves the distinctions Levinas makes using these concepts, he does not defend Levinas’ questionable use of ‘woman’ and ‘the feminine’ in the text. He also highlights the difficulties in the final section of the text, though his discussion of those sections is brief, and does away with the section by section reading of the text. The main drawback of this otherwise informative chapter is that Large sometimes sticks too closely to Levinas’ terminology and metaphors, which can be less helpful when one is confused about what Levinas is saying. For much of the text, however, Large’s guide will be valuable for a wide range of audiences.

This brings us to Large’s final chapter which considers TI’s critical reception. Large focuses on four main problems that emerge out of TI, but only introduces them, without going into details (each discussion is less than two pages long). The problems are those concerning the immediacy of speech, the lack of a substantive political theory, Levinas’ use of the feminine, and the difficulties that arise out of TI’s religious language. The first problem, developed by Blanchot and Derrida, concerns Levinas’ privileging of the other, and specifically her speech, as immediate in a way that e.g. her writings or other works are not. The second is that TI seems to provide a space for ethical relations between subjects who encounter one another directly, but seems to leave out more indirect relations to others such as those that arise in politics, or which concern justice amongst others.[vii] The third problem is Levinas’ use of the concepts of ‘woman’, ‘female’, and ‘feminine’ to designate relations that falls short of being the ‘ethical’ face-to-face relation (though they do not preclude it) in both his discussions of the ‘intimacy’ of the home, and the transcendence possible through the birth of future generations. And the final problem is that raised by the religious terminology. Given their brevity, these discussions only serve to point the reader in a direction of enquiry, or alert students to difficulties within the text. My own preference would have been for a slightly longer final section, as in many cases these critiques are interesting for readers not familiar with the phenomenological tradition and its aftermath. Overall, however, I thought Large’s book an extremely helpful read, and I would not hesitate to recommend it, particularly for beginning readers of TI.


Large, W. (2015). Levinas’ ‘Totality and Infinity’: A Reader’s Guide. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Levinas, E., & Lingis, A. (1969). Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1989. “Ethics and Politics.” The Levinas Reader. Ed. Seán Hand, 289–97. Oxford: Blackwell.

[i] It should, however, be noted that Levinas does focus on one particular obligation which he thinks is grounded by the face. This is the obligation to not commit murder. The reason for this is that murder eliminates the other, and thus undermines the very source of moral obligation.

[ii] TI 1969 p. 177

[iii] TI 1969 p. 202

[iv] Another possibility is that Levinas endorses norm expressivism, the view that moral judgments involve the subject’s acceptance of a moral norm. To decide whether TI endorses prescriptivism or norm expressivism would require a longer discussion.

[v] It is worth pointing out that Bettina Bergo’s (2011) Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Levinas provides an interesting philosophical understanding of ‘the stranger, the widow, and the orphan’.

[vi] TI 1969 p. 21

[vii] This is exemplified, for instance, by the distinction Levinas has to make between two notions of the other in responding to the Sabra and Shatila massacres in an interview published in ‘Ethics and Politics’ (1989).