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Face to Face with an Other Person

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Face to Face with an Other Person:

Understanding Viktor Frankl Through Emmanuel Levinas*


Erkan Kalem


Viktor Frankl proposed a three dimensional ontology which includes: Somatogenic, Psychogenic and Noogenic dimensions. According to Frankl, the Noogenic dimension has two functions: Self-distancing and Self-transcendence. Self-distancing means to put a distance between my self and my story. Self-transcendence means to go beyond my self and move towards an other person or a future goal. What takes place in me when I move towards and am face to face with an other person? Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy tries to explain what takes place in us during those moments. Therefore, Levinas’s philosophy can give us clues about what Frankl might have implied with his concept of self-transcendence.


Levinas talks about one particular main idea: The encounter with the other. Levinas was very disturbed with the Western idea of a subject as the creator of all meaning in the world. For Levinas, the other cannot be subsumed to what the self will say the other is. Levinas accepts Husserl’s idea of intentionality, which means that all consciousness is consciousness of something or someone. We don't exist without the world around us. Our consciousness is already engaged in the world. In fact, it is the world which awakens our consciousness. This is a crucial point when another human being enters into the scene. For Levinas, we are already always in touch with the human other. We are already always a part of the other and the other is a part of us.


In an encounter with an other person, the other manifests himself in the face, through her/his face. Levinas says that the face of a human being always pierces any form that we put upon them, any stereotype, category, or expectation. Levinas talks about the nakedness of the face.  Nakedness means the true self, outside of any type of a cover.


Beyond the piercing of all our expectations the other via the nakedness of his face does one more thing: She/he enters our world, forces her/his way into our world. For Levinas, the other always transgresses, she/he infiltrates our world. The other visits us, consistently interrupts us through her/his way of being.


Actually, in human relationships the normal is interruption. Levinas says that it is in the nature of the other to interrupt us; it is in her/his nature to destabilize our complacency. The other inflicts her/his presence on us. This is the essence of the encounter with another person.


Encounter with a homeless, a poor, a refugee, someone in need who wants our time, attention, care is the encounter with the ultimate other. This is what Levinas calls the visitation. For Levinas, at that moment, we are already responsible, that is, response-able.  We have been called to respond. The other has already chosen it for us. For Levinas, we are never free when the other visits us. We are being called to do something for the other. We have been called to give a response to that vulnerable other. At that moment we can decide whether to respond or not. Levinas does not tell us what to do. He just says that at that moment we have a choice to respond or not. For Levinas, to respond to that other is to become awakened. We become awakened as a consciousness through the contact with the other person.


Levinas is giving us an incentive to respond: He's saying that if we respond we are allowing ourself to be awakened; if we do not respond we are going back into the prison of the our self.

Here, responding is responding to the other’s needs. When we choose to ignore the presence of the other, Levinas says that we are missing the awakening. To respond is to remain in the awakened state; to refuse to respond is to fall back into slumber, and become numb. To say that the other awakens us means that the other brings us back to our full selfhood. If we ignore the other we remain as a stunted version of ourself. And, when we become numb, stop seeing and hearing what is happening around us, this gives rise to the violence of human beings to other beings. When everyone becomes numb that's when atrocities begin to take place.


For Levinas, to be my true self means being unable to escape from responsibility. The other is the agent that awakens my true self through it’s call. The responsibility to respond to the other empties the ego of its egoism and I enter into my true, unique self.


Levinas talks about infinite responsibility. He says that we are actually infinitely responsible to the other who calls us. We cannot reduce our responsibility to the calling of the other. To have the power to change another person's life carries with it the moral weight of this knowledge. We either continue to hear the voice of this responsibility and carry it with courage or we become desensitized.

The way I respond to the other is what creates the connection. If I'm responding from my own being to the other, at that moment intimacy is possible. Connection is created through this embodied response of giving a part of ourself to the other in need.  However, in the encounter with the other, the other can hurt us, ruin us. Levinas says that anytime another ruins us, it's actually a prelude to a new beginning. Out of the ruins the true self emerges. For Levinas, the self is too small, too focused on itself. The self needs to break open towards the other so that it can find its true destiny. Inevitably the other people in our lives will cause to some trauma and rupture our self, and then the self can expand itself, can become more. The other through its violation challenges the self to expand itself.


For Levinas, morality cannot occur in a vacuum; somebody from the outside has to awaken the moral sense in us. The other who pushes us and moves us to a response to their pain, anger, frustration, or need is the other who awakens us. It's the other who awakens our moral sense by calling upon us. At that moment when the other is calling me to respond to him I have a choice to respond, to become a moral being.


For Levinas, the enslaving character of responsibility is cancelled by the bounty of the good that commands us. The bounty of the good is the good in the sense of the higher good or the good in the ideal sense. The good recides in each one of us, and we need to protect this good in each one of us through our actions.


Levinas’s philosophy is an invitation to respond to the other. His philosophy is not prescriptive; he does not tell us what to do. He says that the more we respond the more we receive in terms of being a human being. In the spiritual realm of human interaction the more I give the more I have.


Levinas shows us that we need the presence of another human being not only to transcend our selves but also to expand our selves. When we are face to face with another person, the other person calls us to respond to her/him, and to respond to the other person I have to expand my experience of my self. At this moment, the first function of the noogenic dimension is activated: I have to distance my self from my story and this self distancing brings a greater awareness of my self, expanding the limits of my self. Self-transcendence and self-distancing happen simultaneosly enriching each other.


* Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)

Emmanuel Levinas was born in 1906 in the present-day Lithuania. Due to World War I, his family moved to Ukraine in 1916, returning back in 1920. Levinas's early education was in secular, Russian-language schools. In Lithuania, Levinas spent two years at a Jewish gymnasium. He went to France in 1923 and began his philosophical studies at the University of Strasbourg in 1923. In 1928, he visited the University of Freiburg to study phenomenology under Edmund Husserl.  At Freiburg he also met Martin Heidegger. In 1929 he received his doctorate degree for his thesis on Husserl. Levinas became a naturalized French citizen in 1939. During the World War II, he served as an officer in the French army. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, his military unit was forced to surrender, and Levinas spent the rest of the war as a war prisoner in a work camp in Germany. The notes that he took during those years were later developed into his book From Existence to Existents (1947), and a series of lectures published under the title Time and Other (1948).


While he was a war prisoner, his friend Maurice Blanchot helped Levinas’s wife and daughter spend the war in a monastery, saving their lives. Other members of Levinas’s family were killed during the war time. His mother-in-law was deported and never heard from again, while his father and two brothers were killed in Lithuania by the Nazis. After the Second World War, Levinas taught at a private Jewish High School in Paris. He began teaching in several universities after 1961; and he retired from Sorbonne in 1979. He died in 1905 in France. Levinas explicitly frames his mature philosophical works Totality and Infinity (1961), Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974) as attempts to respond to Heidegger's philosophy in light of its ethical failings.

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