Levinas, the Self and Altruism
Phenomenology and Existentialism
For hundreds of years, at leas since Descartes’ "cogito", philosophy has been preoccupied with the question of the "I", its essence, its place in the world and its relationship with reality. According to Emmanuel Levinas, all the ways in which Western philosophy formulated these questions, from Plato and Aristotle to Spinoza, Kierkegaard and Heidegger, always returned in the end to the self, what he called "egoism".
Levinas himself was looking for a way to understand who the self is that would not cut him off from the world but depend on his relationship with it, an altruistic way. Levinas, like many philosophers before him, searched for the one thing that makes us unique, makes us disposable and irreplaceable. What he found is not an existential "authenticity" of an "I" that stands on its own, but a "responsibility" and altruism that define the "I" as a relation to those other than it.
There is no me without a you
For Levinas, the "I" does not exist first and only then meets someone who is different from him, exists first of all "within himself" before he goes out into the world. In fact, it is the encounter with the other that makes us aware of ourselves, and this is because the other demands from us to be responsible towards him. This responsibility, the altruism, gives meaning to who we are in the world.
Love is something that makes us special and unique. It is true that every day people all over the world fall in love, but when it happens to us we feel that it is the most special thing that can be. Loving someone else means that we can no longer stay "within ourselves" and we have to understand ourselves from the relationship with the beloved. Love does not last long without commitment and responsibility and therefore to choose it is to choose who "I am".
Levinas’ Difficult Altruism
In Levinas, the concept of altruism is linked to the concept of freedom. To be who we are we must be free, however freedom is not being "free as the spirit" but the ability to take meaningful actions in the world. In order for actions to have meaning for us, we must bear responsibility for them, say that these are "our" actions. That’s why freedom "involves a responsibility that may surprise" (Totality and Infinity, p. 226), what Levinas calls "difficult freedom". It is the responsibility to others, and not the thought of ourselves, that makes us who we are.