As I think about the common threads between Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida I am struck by the structural adherence to things particularly Jewish in nature. While there are many disagreements between these two French thinkers, there is an undertone that appears to be shared, each commenting on the work of the other that ties back to foundational Jewish morality. The foundational text that ties their thinking together is found in some form or another throughout the Torah and Tanakh paraphrased as follows: You are obligated to care for the widow; the orphan; and the stranger for you were once strangers in Egypt, strangers in a strange land.
From this text, Levinas works out a philosophy placing ethics as the first philosophy, before ontology and epistemology. For Levinas, each human being has the ethical responsibility to care for the welfare of the other (person) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation. It is a duty of rememberance, of recalling one’s own sojurn as stranger in need, as well as a duty of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other (person). Based in the biblical cry of HININI (Here I AM!), the response provided by all those called directly by God from Adam to Abraham to Moses, Levinas suggests that the HININI is an announcement, one that tears into the fabric of complaciency, creating an opening, a proximate space, from which one can wait for the cry of the other and then respond to that cry.
Levinas universalizes the Torah, taking it out of the specifics of the story of the Israelite slavery experience in Egypt, making the obligation to care for the other conditional on the slavery experience placing it into a universal framework of ethical response-ability framed as a human and not merely a Jewish obligation. Anyone may make the announcement HININI without having to have lived through the experience of slavery, of being a stranger in a strange land. To the contrary, all one need do is announce and wait for the cry of the other. The Torah obligation is conditioned on an existential experience and appears to actively require one to seek out the widow, orphan and stranger; the obligation to do so rests on a personal experience of redemption; a movement from exteriority to exteriority, from group experience to the obligation to be of service for the exteriority of the other. The universal obligation travels a different path, from the interiority of the self to the exteriority of the other without turning on the experience of being othered.
Derrida takes up much the same theme when he addresses such divergent ideas as what is meant by hospitality and giving of gifts. Derrida’s project takes up a thread similar to Levinas’ notions of reservations and expectations. For Derrida the host and/or the giver of gifts acts in such a way as to have no reservations about the act of hosting or giving and does so with no expectation for reciprocation. In short, the act of hospitality and the act of giving is an act of selfless interiority expressed as exteriority. Another way to think about this is to suggest that the act of hosting or the act of giving does not carry the burdensome question for the host or giver of ‘What’s in this transaction for me?’ The host or giver does not engage in a contractual relationship with his or her guests or gift receipients, rather, wherever possible, the act of hosting or giving should be wrapped in the weeds of anonymity so as not to falsely create an appearance of obligation.
Like Levinas, Derrida’s approach is a universal one but unlike Levinas, it is unlikely to be understood in terms of the specifically Jewish reference to either the HININI or to the conditional obligation to care for the widow, orphan or stranger. I, however, am not convinced that Levinas did not have at least some impact on Derrida’s thinking about the ethics of hosting or giving.
In the final analysis, both Levinas and Derrida argued for an ethics of responsibility, an ethics that is unconditional, without reservation, and without expectation of reciprocation. It is the very impossibility of this ethical demand that makes it so compelling.