The Law Challenged and the Critique of Identity with Emmanuel Levinas

Int J Semiot Law. 2022;35(1):31-69. doi: 10.1007/s11196-021-09845-7. Epub 2021 May 30.


Identity as traditionally conceived in mainstream Western thought is focused on theory, representation, knowledge, subjectivity and is centrally important in the works of Emmanuel Levinas. His critique of Western culture and corresponding notion of identity at its foundations typically raises the question of the other. Alterity in Levinas indicates existence of something on its own account, in itself independently of the subject's will or consciousness. The objectivity of alterity tells of the impossible evasion of signs from their destiny, which is the other. The implications involved in reading the signs of the other have contributed to reorienting semiotics in the direction of semioethics. In Levinas, the I-other relation is not reducible to abstract cognitive terms, to intellectual synthesis, to the subject-object relation, but rather tells of involvement among singularities whose distinctive feature is alterity, absolute alterity. Humanism of the other is a pivotal concept in Levinas overturning the sense of Western reason. It asserts human duties over human rights. Humanism of alterity privileges encounter with the other, responsibility for the other, over tendencies of the centripetal and egocentric orders that instead exclude the other. Responsibility allows for neither rest nor peace. The "properly human" is given in the capacity for absolute otherness, unlimited responsibility, dialogical intercorporeity among differences non-indifferent to each other, it tells of the condition of vulnerability before the other, exposition to the other. The State and its laws limit responsibility for the other. Levinas signals an essential contradiction between the primordial ethical orientation and the legal order. Justice involves comparing incomparables, comparison among singularities outside identity. Consequently, justice places limitations on responsibility, on unlimited responsibility which at the same time it presupposes as its very condition of possibility. The present essay is structured around the following themes: (1) Premiss; (2) Justice, uniqueness, and love; (3) Sign and language; (4) Dialogue and alterity; (5) Semiotic materiality; (6) Globalization and the trap of identity; (7) Human rights and rights of the other: for a new humanism; (8) Ethics; (9) The World; (10) Outside the subject; (11) Responsibility and Substitution; (12) The face; (13) Fear of the other; (14) Alterity and justice; (15) Justice and proximity; (16) Literary writing; (17) Unjust justice; (18) Caring for the other.

Keywords: Alterity; Autrui; Ethics; Face; Fear; Identity; Justice; Language; New humanism; Other; Proximity; Responsibility; Semioethics; Semiotics; Sign; Subjectivity; Substitution; World; Writing.