Anthropomorphizing and Bestializing

As was noted in Ethics, Attributed Subjectivity, and Noticing the face of the Other, Levinas says that “with the appearance of the human” comes a relationship which is otherwise than being – not just the possibility but, indeed, the fact of acting non-indifferently and entirely for the sake of the being of an other.

Levinas’ association of the ethical event “with the appearance of the human” has been a cause of consternation for many thinkers. For instance, David L. Clark says that “Levinas’s experience” as depicted in The Name of a Dog1 “is informed by conventional assumptions about animality” and “triggers Levinas’s most dogmatic claims about non-human life and tests the limits of their coherence.” In support of this contention, Clark refers in particular to parts of two remarks Levinas made during an interview:

One cannot entirely refuse the face of an animal. It is via the face that one understands, for example, a dog. Yet the priority here is not found in the animal, but in the human face. We understand the animal, the face of the animal, in accordance with Dasein. The phenomenon of the face is not in its purest form in the dog. In the dog, in the animal, there are other phenomena. For example, the force of nature is pure vitality. It is more this which characterizes the dog. But it also has a face. (PoM, 169) …

The human face is completely different and only afterwards do we discover the face of the animal … (PoM, 172)

Clark interprets the statements above as indicating that, while “one cannot entirely say ‘no’ to the animal face … saying ‘yes’ is the exceptional rather than the categorically imperative act”. There is, however, a problem for Clark’s interpretation. In that same interview, Levinas says (PoM, 172), “It is clear that, without considering animals as human beings, the ethical extends to all living beings.” Since the ethical is the matter of responsibility towards an other, Levinas is clearly indicating that the responsibility for the other which is the heart of ethics includes non-human beings as others for whom one is responsible.

In the context of a stated responsibility for non-human animals, the remark about not entirely refusing the face of the animal would seem to be intended as a way of denying the traditional notion that it is necessary that human biology be an aspect of the other in order for one to be responsible for the other. Accordingly, contrary to Clark’s interpretation, Levinas is not here presenting the face of a non-human being as less “categorically imperative”.

In fact, since the face (as was noted in the previous essay in this series) is a “means of access” and is not a prerequisite for having a responsibility for the sake of the other, the face-status of the other is never a proper basis for determining that one’s self is not responsible for and towards an encountered other. For that matter, it could be that consciousness-status itself might likewise not provide a basis for determining that one has no responsibility for an encountered other.

If, as Levinas says, “the ethical extends to all living beings” and not just to all beings that are consciously aware of participating in being, then it could well be that the responsibility towards an other might first depend on the apparent fact of the other simply having to act for the sake of its own continuing-to-be. This is to say that it might be that what is most basically relevant to the ethical – to responsibility for an other – is not conscious subjectivity but, instead, the fact of the other participating in being by acting for the sake of its own continuing-to-be. For instance, a living plant must itself act to continue to be a living plant, whereas a lump of coal does not itself seem to need to act in order to continue to be a lump of coal.

In any event, in the current context, limited as it currently is to a discussion of both human and non-human animals, it is not the face but rather the apparent fact that the other has subjective experience which here seems to be of utmost relevance to (the response to) the responsibility which so very much concerns Levinas. In order to appreciate how much more relevant subjectivity is (in comparison with the face) when determining whether one has responsibility for an other, it is to be noted that even the face of an other deadened or made hideous by a monstrous subjectivity does not eradicate – or even mitigate – responsibility for that other. Levinas once said (EN, 200):

Jean-Toussaint Desanti asked a young Japanese who was commenting on my works during a thesis defense if an SS man has what I mean by a face. A very disturbing question which calls, in my opinion, for an affirmative answer. An affirmative answer that is painful each time!

Of course, since the face indicates the means by which humans become aware of the other as conscious of experiencing subjective being, then, as a practical matter, being willing and able to see an other as having a face is essential to – is essentially concomitant with – being willing and able to recognize responsibility for an other.

Clark erroneously insists that, according to Levinas, “The problem lies not with the human, who cannot or will not see this face, but decisively with the animal, whose face lacks the ‘purest form’ that we are presumed to see with absolute clarity when the visage is human.”

There is nothing in the Levinas statement which Clark quotes that associates the human face with clarity. Furthermore, Clark’s interpretation takes no account of the emphasis which the Levinas quote puts on human understanding. Levinas is discussing human understanding based upon how animals generally appear to humans in the way that humans ordinarily perceive and think; he is discussing the problem of human understanding. Since the responsibility for an other is independent of one’s own understanding, “[t]he problem” to which Clark refers most definitely does not lie “decisively with the animal”. Instead, the problem of interest to Levinas is the problem which humans have in understanding others, in seeing, reading, and responding to the face of an other, and he is most interested in the problem humans have in understanding and responding for the sake of the conscious subjectivity of an other.


Misha quietly whispered to his companion: … human beings; do what you like you can’t get to the bottom of them. … Here I am lying by your side, and I don’t know what you’re thinking, and never did know, and what sort of life lies behind you I don’t know, and you know no more about me. … In the summer I was in the hospital. At my side was a soldier from Moscow. And all the time he was asking how the Cossacks live and Lord knows what else. They … think the Cossack is a savage, and that instead of a soul he’s got bottle-glass. And yet we’re men like them … we weep over our sorrows, but don’t rejoice at others’ gladness.2

The problem which Levinas highlights is the problem which humans have in understanding others, and it is to be expected that the problem in human awareness is typically most extreme when the other is a non-human being.

Ethical responsibility, according to Levinas, is wholly independent of human understanding, because the ethical responsibility itself indicates the possibility of acting non-indifferently for the sake of an other. Even so, the response to this responsibility is clearly heavily dependent upon what one understands about the other towards whom one is responsible and for the sake of whom one would act.

Since one learns of the extent of one’s responsibility for the being of others as well as the ways in which one can respond for the sake of those others by becoming aware of others as experiencing subjects concerned with their own continuing-to-be, anything which impedes one’s understanding of others’ subjectivities interferes with one’s acting for the sake of those others. It is not the responsibility of the other – even the animal other – to make one understand or even to make one aware of the other’s being as an experiencing subject; rather, being aware or becoming aware is an ineradicable aspect of one’s responsibility to act for the sake of the being of the other. After all, ethical being entails a devotion to noticing others; ethical being is not a matter of an entity making itself noticed.

There is nothing in this way of thinking, in this way of understanding Levinas’ thinking, that denies that a human is responsible towards and for the sake of animals. When Levinas says that the “priority … is … in the human face”, and when he says “The human face is completely different and only afterwards do we discover the face of the animal”, he is simply noting that in general it is easier for a human to read, to become aware of, to understand the subjective being of other humans than it is for a human to become as aware of the breadth and depth of the subjective being of a non-human being. And this is in no way meant to suggest that it is at all easy for a human to understand the subjective being of other humans.

Levinas is also further noting that, generally speaking, it is only after a human being learns to be aware of – and read – the subjective being of an other human that the human being is better able to be aware of – and read – the subjective being of any non-human beings and to recognize that the responsibility towards others extends to non-human beings.

About six months ago, I was present when a two year-old, his parents’ first born, went into his mother’s hospital room after she had given birth to another boy. The parents had spent much time and effort in preparing the two year-old for the fact that he was going to have a little brother come live with him in his house. Of course, the bulk of that preparation was intended to mitigate the jealousy or resentfulness which, the parents had been told, the two year-old was expected to experience and exhibit.

When he entered the hospital room and saw his mother holding the newborn, the two year-old just looked. He had no identifiable expression. His mother called him to her; she hugged and kissed him, and she introduced him to his little brother. The two year-old just looked, and then drew away a little. His expression did not change. He was more reserved than was usual for him. All of the adults who were present were sure that he was jealous, even if it was just the tiniest bit of jealousy. The jealousy seemed to be confirmed when the little brother was placed in a clear plexiglass (or maybe it was polycarbonate) cradle or crib or whatever it is called, and the two year-old started to giggle as if the idea of putting a baby in a display case such as you see in a store was just too funny. But, after a short while, the two year-old returned to his – what was for him – unusual inexpressiveness, and he remained reserved for the duration of his visit to the hospital room.

The two year-old’s behavior got all of the adults to worrying about how he would respond when the baby was eventually brought home. Would the apparent – even if muted – jealousy then give rise to a far more vociferous objection and assorted misbehaviors? Or would the two year-old revert to the reservedness, the uncharacteristic for him lack of animation (was it a resentfulness?) that he had exhibited in the hospital room?

Later, the two year-old was at home, once again playing energetically, apparently completely unfazed by his hospital experience. When the parents and the new baby arrived home, the two year-old was told with excitement that his parents had come back. He ran gleefully to the front door as his father came in, bearing the baby in a carrier. His father was carrying the baby, but the father was making it clear to the two year-old how very thrilled he was to see him again. It was hoped that it would seem to the two year-old that his father’s full attention was being paid to the two year-old while basically ignoring the baby. But the two year-old did not care about any of that. That is because the two year-old was entirely caught up in being overjoyed that the baby had come to his home. He was so thrilled that he paid no attention to his father. The two year-old wanted to kiss the baby and welcome his little brother. And the family dog seemed to want to do the same thing, but the two year-old told the dog, “No. No. This is a baby. This is his house.”

Had the two year-old actually been at all resentful or jealous when he met his little brother in the hospital? Or is it that he had only thought of – had anticipated – the arrival of the little brother in terms of a scene that was to take place in his own home? Is it that the two year-old was only capable as a two year-old of thinking about the first meeting with his little brother in terms of that meeting taking place in his house since his parents had talked to him repeatedly about his new little brother in terms of the baby coming to and being in his house? And because of that, is it that the two year-old’s meeting with the baby in the hospital simply did not correspond with what he, in his thinking, had expected such that the meeting in the hospital left him somewhat confused and certainly dumbfounded? Did he even think of that baby in the hospital as his little brother?

Had the adults failed to understand – and, as a consequence, had they misinterpreted – the two year-old’s initial reaction at the hospital because the two year-old was, as is perfectly normal, simply so very incapable of expressing – of making evident – the manner of his thinking in and about such a circumstance? Had the adults, in effect, denied that it was even possible for a two year-old to be capable of thinking with such enduring imagination about a real-world situation? Had the adults failed to recognize that the two-year old had a subjectivity of his own which was far more developed than the adults had been capable of realizing? The adults knew that the two year-old had feelings, but in their inability to read the two year-old’s own face, did the adults essentially relegate him to that manner of being (one most often attributed to animals) which is conceived as being more purely sensual, as being determined more by uncontrollable drives than by a significant sort of rational thinking?

Is that an animalization (or a bestializing) of a human? Or does the interpretation of the two year-old’s behavior in the hospital in light of the joy he later evidenced when his brother came home amount to the anthropomorphizing of a child, an attributing to the two year-old of a more fully (adult) human type of thinking?

In any event, what is most evident here is that the problem associated with the face has to do with the ability to read the face, to understand the other in terms other than – deeper than – how the other seems to present, how the other is perceived. This is the problem of human understanding which concerns Levinas, and there is nothing about this problem which warrants thinking that the scope of the ethical is (meant to be) restricted to others who are humans.

(Continued in Ethical Responsibility and Non-Human Animals)

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EN – Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous, translated from the French by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (London and New York: Countinuum, 2006).

PoM – Emmanuel Levinas, “The Paradox of Morality” in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, translated by Andrew Benjamin and Tamra Wright, ed. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 168-180.

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1 Emmanuel Levinas, “The Name of a Dog” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, translated by Seán Hand (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 151-153.

2 Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don, translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry (New York: Vintage International, 1989), p. 396.

This entry was posted in Ethics, Morality, Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Religion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Anthropomorphizing and Bestializing

  1. Pingback: Ethics, Attributed Subjectivity, and Noticing the Face of the Other | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: Ethical Responsibility and Non-Human Animals | The Kindly Ones

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