Taking Turns with the Earth
Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice
Matthias Fritsch



Levinas’s “Being-for-Beyond-My-Death”

The previous chapter began to argue that the ontological problems besetting many approaches to intergenerational justice call for ontological investigations into the links among time, sociality, and normativity. In this chapter, we will go beyond a sketch of these links by discussing the constitutive role of natality and mortality in greater detail through a sympathetic yet critical reading of Levinas on time and responsibility. The goal is not to show that Levinas offers a full-blown theory of intergenerational justice, but that discussions around his work on “ethics as first philosophy”—a discussion that includes his predecessors and the reception of his work by his successors—helps us to reconceive justice in general as intergenerational from the beginning. Levinas challenges the presentist assumption, as it were, head-on, by rethinking and explicating the very ground of responsibility in general, beyond a narrower focus on obligations to unborn claimants. While relations between presently living individuals remain Levinas’s focus—and indeed relations to the unborn are thought to be inseparable from these—all moral relations are conceptualized as intrinsically characterized by a future-directed aspect that points beyond the life of the presently living.

Once we have better understood this future directedness in the present, we can deal more specifically with “nonpresent” future people as the subjects of justice. This discussion of Levinas, and particularly the concluding discussion of deconstructive and feminist responses to him, will prepare us for the more extensive development (in Chapter 3) of the model of intergenerational justice that I call asymmetrical reciprocity. As we will also see, however, given its source in responsibility and justice in general, the model does not divide justice by theoretical fiat into intra-and intergenerational issues, but maintains the moral and political contestability of that division.

I. Why Levinas for Future Justice?

Since the publication of his first magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (1961), Levinas has enjoyed a strong and widespread reception, with particular intensity in the last twenty-five years (for an overview, see Morgan 2007; Mensch 2015; Davidson and Perpich 2012). Levinas’s work has had significant impact not only on philosophical ethics, religion, and theology, but also in the study of literature, culture, history, and postcolonial studies (Drabinski 2011). However, despite the obvious relevance of his work to intergenerational justice, and despite the increasing importance, in academia as well as in global civil society, of sustainability and long-term, future-oriented responsibilities, few attempts have been made to reread Levinas with these concerns in mind (but see Waldenfels 2017; Liebsch 2017; Severson 2017; Fritsch and Menga 2017).

And yet some scholars have recently devoted book-length studies on the centrality of time to Levinasian ethics, subjectivity, and sociality (Severson 2013; Lin 2013). While these studies do not consider future people specifically, they do point in the right direction and may be used as helpful springboards. In particular, what this recent body of work has made increasingly clear is that time, for Levinas, is a fundamental way to think the conundrum of the emergence of normativity as he sees it. For Levinas, socialization and responsibilization are constitutive of human subjectivity. An agent does not become an agent in a value-free way, only acquiring obligations later, for instance, when she recognizes the validity of the moral law or commits to a social contract or accepts the demands of particular others. On his view, obligation is not generated in an agent’s being confronted by the universalizable interest of an obligating party (e.g., avoiding pain, having her rights respected, and so on). Rather, obligation is also, and indispensably, generated by what we cannot know of a concrete singular other, by her or his very otherness and the fact that they cannot be absolutely subsumed under a general category (e.g., nationality, humanity, vulnerability, etc.). Alterity here means, therefore, “singularity” (Perpich 2008, 18), but also the “ultimate unidentifiability” of that which obligates me. My obligation is always incompletely justified. This is reminiscent of Kant, who, even if he stressed the universality of the law and the autonomy of the rational agent, knew well that the moral law is a command beyond reason of which we must be content to “comprehend its incomprehensibility.”1

The source of moral obligation is thus never wholly accessible to the responsible subject. It appears not in a concept such as humanity or vulnerability, but only on the (for Levinas, primarily or even exclusively human) face. Levinas does more than just stress the singularity of the other in his ethics. He also challenges the basis of any ethic that abandons, or fails to account for, what he takes to be the factual starting point of moral responsibility in a first-person perspective. This failure affects all forms of ethics that begin with a third-person standpoint, for instance, by grounding themselves on a general law or on previously identified and universally shared traits under which all entities with moral status have been subsumed. This subsumption could be by reference to sentiment (“they can suffer, too”), reason (“they, too, are rational and hence autonomous”), or in some other way, and it misses what is crucial to Levinas, namely, the first-person perspective from which an agent finds herself obligated by the needs of a concrete other who is never just the exemplar of a concept (Levinas 2001, 114; see Fritsch 2013).

But in the ultimate inaccessibility of the singular other’s alterity, we find the basic conundrum that his phenomenological accounts keep circling around, knowing full well that they cannot reach the center: that which must appear to an agent cannot appear as such without betraying the singular and concrete alterity, and the only ever incomplete justifiability, of the moral source as it addresses the singular subject in its inescapably first-person standpoint.

Paying attention to time is one way, though arguably a privileged one, of attempting to describe the paradoxical source of responsibility without straightaway betraying it: hence the proliferation of temporal notions in Levinas’s oeuvre, such as patience (TI 236/263ff.), diachrony (TO 105/d ff., OB 7–20/20–39), hope without awaiting (GDT 67/80), fecundity (TI 240/268ff.), infinity (TI), the immemorial past (GDT 162/186, 177/204; TO 111/d ff.), the pure future (TO 89/83, 90/85, 114/d ff.), and so on. The basic idea is to understand the agent as always already obligated by the other, who, however, cannot ever be fully grasped by the agent and so remains outstanding, obligating the agent from a futural excess that will not appear fully in the present. The moral source comes from an “immemorial past” whose unrepresentability by memory turns it toward a future said to be “pure” on account of its unpredictability. Normative socialization and subjectivization occur in the “posteriority of the anterior” (TI 54/47; see Ciaramelli 1998; Wenzler 19842). Alter and ego are related to each other in a time they do not simply and wholly share and in which they thus cannot engage in reciprocal and symmetrical exchange of benefits and debts, or rights and duties (i.e., in exchanges in which my right or duty straightforwardly entails your duty or right, etc.).

We can begin to see here why one might think Levinas’s work is particularly helpful for intergenerational justice. Levinas conceives of subjectivity as inherently, and interrelatedly, temporal, social, and responsible. That is to say, human beings are understood, on the basis of a phenomenological social ontology, as constitutively related to others in normatively binding ways that point beyond the lifetime of individuals. Normative sociality is characterized by an “infinite time” that is situated “across the discontinuity of generations” (TI 268/301). Despite the seeming presentism of Levinas’s emphasis on the “face-to-face” relation as central to social ontology and ethics, and despite conceiving the other’s face as living, the alterity of the face is elaborated as addressing an ego, in constitutive ways, from a futurity that that ego cannot share, appropriate, or render commensurable with the time of its life. Far from being presentist, nongenerational, or otherwise cut off from future people, the very being of the human subject is conceived as a “being-for-beyond-my-death” [l’être-pour-au-delà-de-ma-mort], a fecund or generative being “for a time that would be without me” (CPP 93/h 45). This generativity promises to render the moral status of future people, born and unborn, less problematic and anomalous.

What is more, this mortal futurity of our being is recognized by Levinas not just as an ahistorical thesis, but as the very signature of our age, a signature pitted against technology and modern nihilism:

Our age is not defined by the triumph of technology for the sake of technology, as it is not defined by art for the sake of art, and as it is not defined by nihilism. It is an action for a world to come, a going beyond one’s epoch. . . . There is a vulgarity and a baseness in an action that is conceived only for the immediate, that is, in the last analysis, for our life. And there is a very great nobility in the energy liberated from the hold of the present. (CPP 93/h 46)

Two questions need careful consideration here: How does Levinas arrive at the conception of moral subjectivity as “for” the time of the other? And why would that time refer to a time beyond my death? As in the previous chapter, I will briefly return to Heidegger, whose early work on being and time Levinas considers an “obligatory passage” (GDT 22/32ff.). In Being and Time, Heidegger famously argued that a world, understood as the context within which entities and possibilities for action appear meaningful, arises for an agent in her or his confrontation with death: only “being-for-death” permits the authentic temporalizing from out of the future that allows entities and the agent herself to appear in a meaning-conferring context of reference (GA 2). As we already discussed in the previous chapter, the basic claim is that there could be no agency and no meaning without relation to death, a claim that I will not unfold and defend in great detail here (but see, e.g., Dahlstrom 2001; Gethmann 1993; Caputo 1988), although I will now seek to motivate it again in this context.

If facing death is necessary for the authentic temporalizing that discloses a world of meaningful possibilities to me qua agent, one may think that death is, at least initially if not essentially, encountered in or by way of another person: I encounter death through the death of another. But for Heidegger, while it may be that I first learn of death by way of the other’s, this knowledge is still too “objective” (GA 2, §47, 281/316): “We do not experience the dying of others in a genuine way but are at most always next to it [immer nur “dabei”]” (GA 2, 282/318). A “genuine” relation would be one in which an agent relates to her own death in “anticipatory resoluteness” as her ownmost possibility. Seeing as the Heideggerian agent must grasp the present moment not as an “is” but as a “to be,” that is, ripe with futural possibilities to be actualized by the agent herself against the background she has inherited alongside others, this way of relating to death is necessary. The present must be seized by the agent as coming toward her from a future in which no one can replace her, a future in which she exists as an absolute singularity. The agent’s fChapter uture has to be wrested away from “the masses” (the “they,” das Man) and their “fallen,” “inauthentic” (uneigentliche) self-understanding so as to allow the agent to take responsibility for her own choices. Because death—and Heidegger argues, controversially, death alone (for doubts about this, see Hügli and Han 2001)—is that futural possibility which no one can assume in place of the agent, anticipating one’s own death temporalizes the present in such a way that an agent can present choices for action to himself or herself in a meaningful way. The meaningfulness of these possibilities depends on its limited, finite character, for if I were immortal, as we suggested in Chapter 1, no choice or action of mine, nor social relations, would have meaning to me. Choosing to do A now would not mean sacrificing my chance to do B; I would have time enough to do everything I want—and perhaps more. As Levinas puts it, glossing Heidegger, “An immortal person is a contradiction in terms” (GDT 45/56).3 This finite, ownmost, and possibilizing effect can thus only be had by anticipating one’s death as one’s proper possibility: “Death is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein. Thus death reveals itself as one’s ownmost, non-relational, unsurpassable possibility [eigenste, unbezügliche, unüberholbare Möglichkeit]” (GA 2, 294/333; emphasis in original).

In response to Heidegger, Levinas agrees with the dependence of meaning and agency on death, but he emphasizes the inaccessibility and utter alterity of my own death to me. While it remains true for Levinas as well that “human freedom” demands that the “present moment does not coincide with itself” but is “dispersed in the inexhaustible multiplicity of the possible” (TI 238/265), death is not a possibility of the agent but the very impossibility of agency, the point at which all activity ceases and a fundamental passivity reveals itself. Levinas is fond of making this point by saying, with and against Heidegger’s words, that death is not the “possibility of impossibility,” but the “impossibility of possibility” (TO 70/t 57, 114/d; Levinas 2001, 122; TI 235/262) because it signifies the end and limit of the autonomous “I can.” And yet, to have access to her agency and a meaningful world, a human being must know of death, must develop a relation to it and come to understand it as a threat to her projects and her interest in survival. The agent is caught between the need for a relation to death and its inaccessibility.

While Heidegger attempts to solve this conundrum by turning away from “the masses” and toward the “mineness” and “non-relationality” of death, Levinas develops an intersubjective (if we may use this otherwise problematic word for the moment) solution: the experience of mortality, the encounter with death, cannot bypass other people and their mortality. As noted very early by Heidegger’s students Dolf Sternberger and Eugen Fink, in his account of mortality Heidegger does not fully pursue the ontological significance of “being-with” (Mitsein) and its existential care for the other and the other’s mortality.4 Heidegger does not press the question of how we can think together individualization and being-with in relation to death, even if in the infamous §74 of Being and Time he does allow a co-historizing of Dasein with others in a “generation” and, notoriously, in “the people” (GA 2, 436/385).

By contrast, Levinas zeros in on the question of individuation and relation to others in the face of dying. Space does not permit me to go into the details of Levinas’s argument in this context, an argument well investigated in the secondary literature (Beardsworth 1996; Rolland 1998; Chanter 2001; Köveker 2004; Klun 2007). We could say that Levinas here extends and intersubjectivizes the long philosophical tradition that associates time with sensibility, receptivity, and mutability.5 For Levinas, to be enabled by, but also subject to, mortal time implies a relation and exposure to others: “The solitude of death does not make the Other vanish” (TI 234/260). Sociality is based on the fact that we are temporal and vulnerable. To be temporal is to not be one with oneself, to be constantly changing, and thus to be subject to change by the other. While this connection between temporality and receptivity, and thus also between finitude and sociality, is a fundamental insight of much recent philosophy, Levinas makes it more precise, and radicalizes it, by carrying the other right into the heart of agency.

Death threatens to reduce a free being to a mere thing, to something that lacks inner distance, that merely coincides with itself. Temporal distance defines what Levinas calls the will or freedom, and what we have called agency, to the extent that only this distance, this noncoincidence with itself, allows a self to experience itself as being-possible. “Human freedom” demands that the “identity of the present splits up into an inexhaustible multiplicity of possibles that suspend the instant. And this gives meaning to initiative, which nothing definitive paralyses” (TI 238/265). “To be conscious is . . . to have a distance with regard to the present: to relate oneself to being as being to come, to maintain a distance with regard to being even while already coming under its grip. To be free is to have time to forestall one’s own abdication under the threat of violence” (TI 237/265). As a result of this temporalizing anachronism, the human being never coincides with its birth, its natural kind, or its definition: it is never completely born but remains in the process of being born. As Hannah Arendt argues in The Human Condition, human natality comprises both the aspect of being thrown as a mere thing or body into unchosen circumstances and of appropriating them to the point of giving birth to something new, the hallmark of human action (Arendt 1958, 8–12, 246–247).6

Owing to this inseparability of death from an interpersonal order, there is also a point “where death no longer touches” the will (TI 240/268), for the inseparability permits it to shift the center of gravity away from egoism. The violence of vulnerability, pain, and death—all those things that reveal agents as also passive objects by means of their bodies, as potentially things exposed to the actions of the world—this violence “occurs in a world in which I can die as a result of someone and for someone” (TI 239/267; emphasis in original). The interpersonality of death, then, “changes its concept: it is emptied of its pathos that comes to it from the fact of it being my death.” It is this re-centering of the ego in the other, in the beyond-egoism, that Levinas says he analyzes as “fecundity,” from which the “time of patience” flows (TI 240/267). (We will come back to fecundity shortly.)

If the fact that death is inseparably connected to an interpersonal realm allows a mortal being freedom to re-center itself toward the other, then this possibility is not first and foremost its own. It is a possibility that responds to the death of another, the death that articulates the basic demand “Do not kill.” For the other’s mortality, a dying and a vulnerability that an agent cannot bypass lest it miss its own agency is never free from a claim upon the concern the agent has for the other—a care (Fürsorge) that Heidegger already grounded in Dasein’s ontologico-existential “being-with-others,” despite determining Dasein’s being as care (Sorge) for its own being, and without conceiving of this care for the other as responding to the other’s claim. On a certain reading of Heidegger, he too recognizes that death first of all allows the recognition that the other’s possibilities call for surpassing my own death. For Heidegger, the singularizing assumption of one’s mortality first of all permits one to recognize that time, the temporality of existence not thought on the basis of the revolution of celestial bodies, is not shared, for singularizing death is not shareable and death is what gives access to time. Only resolute running ahead toward death permits the recognition of this nonsharing of time, thus of the other’s alterity, of her own time. In encountering being as being-toward-death and thereby understanding one’s own possibilities as finite, Heidegger writes: “Dasein dispels the danger that it may, by its own finite understanding of existence, fail to recognize that it is getting outstripped by the existence-possibilities of Others [die es überholenden Existenzmöglichkeiten der Anderen], or rather that it may interpret these possibilities wrongly and force them back on its own” (GA 2, 308–309/264; translation modified). Hence, while death singularizes, it also “makes Dasein, as Being-with [Mitsein], have some understanding of the potentiality-for-being of Others” (GA 2, 309/264, §53). This understanding makes it possible for Dasein “to let the others who are with it [die mitseienden Anderen] ‘be’ in their ownmost potentiality-for-being” (Heidegger 1962, 344/298, §60). To understand the alterity of others, then, means to understand that letting them be in their being implies giving them possibilities for existence that surpass, or pass beyond (überholen), me in ways unassumable by me. Already in Heidegger, recognizing the connection between agency and mortality, between freedom and the noncoincidence of time with itself, leads to an account of social relations as never just restricted to the ontological assumption, so frequent in approaches to intergenerational justice (see Chapter 1), of sharing life in the sense of belonging to the same generation—even if what we mean by “world” will also have to include the shared structures of meaning and public norms of our being-in-the-world (see McMullin 2013, 122ff.). But in Heidegger, the mineness of death calls me to responsibility for my being, while in Levinas the interpersonal order from which death comes calls on me to take responsibility for the other above all.7 Further, Heidegger’s existential analytic does not stress the fact that Dasein is embodied, hungry (TI 134/142), sexed, that it ages, has sex and perhaps children (see Mensch 2015, 148).

The differences between Heidegger and Levinas come to a head in the latter’s claim that death is not nothingness but rather belongs to an interpersonal realm that is already in the process of outliving the individual. Let us look at this more closely.

II. Death Is Not Nothing

The way we approach death is thus the key to grasping the relation to others, including future others. As indicated, this issue concerns the heart of Levinas’s philosophy: if the alterity of death cannot, pace Heidegger, be appropriated for an authentic temporalizing, then how can it appear at all? Death is that which an agent must access for her very ability, but it is defined by its coming to me rather than my going to it. I run to death, and death toward me, but the encounter seems impossible: as Levinas references Lucretius, when I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not (TO 78/t 66; cf. TI 235/261–263; Cohen 2006). For Levinas, the problem is precisely not that death is nothing; on the contrary, this conundrum can be approached only by understanding that death appears with others, in an interpersonal world.

To the Levinas of Time and the Other, the alterity of death, its inaccessibility “as such,” seems to be incapable of being solved conceptually; only in the “concrete situation” of the encounter with another person can we approach death. The other person can fulfill this mediating role because, in everyday life, she is both knowable as another “me,” another species of the same genus, constituted by the activity of the subject—and refractory to the genus, different from me, utterly incomprehensible in her own mortality and vulnerable exposure to an unknown future (TO 83/t 75). Hence, “[d]eath, source of all myths, is present only in the Other, and only in him does it summon me urgently to my final essence, to my responsibility” (TI 179/195, Levinas’s emphasis).

It is not so much that Levinas wants to show that death comes from the other first, and only then, by an analogical transfer, can be experienced by the self as also applying to it. Particularly in physical pain, there is, he says, what naturalism calls an “instinctive knowledge” of death: pain points to a beyond that appears to threaten with something worse (TI 233/259). Despite this knowledge, however, the point is to show that death is inextricable from an interpersonal order without which it could not be experienced as death, in its imminence, its threat, and its approach from the outside without my knowledge or control. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas adds to the sketch of an argument in Time and the Other the idea that to be meaning-giving, death must be understood as a threat to my projects, and this requires that death be personified. To grasp death as possibly interrupting my projects, I must model it on the experience of other people, as we do when we anthropomorphize it, as in fact many cultures do (e.g., Thanatos, the Grim Reaper, the Hooded One, King Yama, Enma, Shinigami, etc.). But agents can personify death and see it as the activity of a foreign power only if they already have the experience of an alien will, that is, another person. Both the other and death reveal the agent as utterly passive, exposed to a violence that does not originate with the agent.

In his phenomenological analyses, Levinas adds a few other indices to the fundamental inseparability of mortal temporalization and ongoing socialization, analyses that come to a head in the claim that death is not nothingess but rather the ethical relation to futural others whose life and world is not, or not totally, appropriable by me. As one of these indices, Levinas argues that fear of death is not fear of nothingness, as perhaps in Heidegger’s account of anxiety (TI 236/262–263), but of violence and pain. As such, it extends to the other person, who can inflict or alleviate the pain. In death, the other is present both as potential murderer and as caregiver: “The doctor is an a priori principle of human mortality. Death approaches in the fear of someone and hopes in someone” (TI 234/260).

But Levinas warns that we should not (as Heidegger does on Levinas’s view) reduce the affects before death to either flight (as in the case of “the masses,” the quotidian others) or existential anxiety (as in the case of authentic resoluteness), for it is possible that fear of the other’s death may affect me more than fear of my own (GDT 93/109, 105; LR 82/93–94e). On this view, humans have “the capacity to fear injustice more than death [sa possibilité de redouter l’ injustice plus que la mort]” (LR 85/106e), as testified to in the “banal fact—which is no mere banal fact—that one can die for someone” (Levinas 2001, 127). This possibility shows that death, while never accessible as such, is not nothingness; it is, in fact, inseparable from a life beyond it: I can die in order to let someone else live.

In his discussion of Ernst Bloch on hope, Levinas argues for this nonequivalence of death and nothingness from the perspective of agential projects. In general, my projects depend on others providing me with the world of alternatives on which my free choices depend, and making possible my self-separation and temporal noncoincidence central to freedom (see Mensch 2015, 126). For this reason, my work and my projects are also always aimed at others. If, then, part of the fear of death is the fear to leave my work unfinished, this fear cannot but also reference others who may abort, forget, or carry on my work. In this sense, my death is always premature (LR 82/e), characterized by fear of abandoning my projects and by hope that others will carry them on. To Heidegger’s anxiety before death, then, Levinas pits Bloch’s “melancholy of fulfilment” (Bloch 1985, 343):

For Bloch, the anxiety of death comes from the fact of dying without finishing one’s work [oeuvre], one’s being. It is in an unfinished world that we have the impression of not finishing our work. . . . There is failure in every life, and the melancholy of this failure is its way of abiding in unfinished being. This is a melancholy that does not derive from anxiety; on the contrary, the anxiety of death would be a mode of this melancholy of the unfulfilled (which is not a wounding of one’s pride). The fear of dying is the fear of leaving a work unfinished, and thus of not having lived. (GDT 99–100/115–116)

What Bloch calls the “darkness of the lived moment” (Bloch 1985, 341), and what I have called the noncoincidence of the present, makes freedom possible but also renders each moment incomplete and thus referenced to a future of hoped-for completion: “The subject, in the darkness of the pure fact of being, works for a world to come and for a better world” (GDT 101/117).

This temporal structure of agency is what Levinas has in mind when he characterizes our being as a being-for-beyond-death. If my agency depends on “my” time not coinciding with itself, and this noncoincidence is the entry point for an ongoing socialization that has always already opened “my” time for the other and her moral demands, then “my” time is structurally stretched out toward the future of others. This structure would hold even if I were the last person on earth, as in Routley’s famous thought experiment (see Routley 1973 for the “last-man argument”). The meaningfulness of my acts would still depend on my being in a world that is fundamentally social and futural. If, in that extreme situation which we should beware of turning into a revealing model, my acts were not just “desperate blows of a head struck against the wall,” it is because “a meaningful order subsists beyond death,” a death that is never calculable and thus remains “a death ever future” (TI 236/263; see also GDT 183/211–212). This meaningful order is that of the untraversable interval between me and my death: there would still be the time that is not for me but for the other to come.

That death is not mere nothingness for the ego is confirmed by the fact that, on this view, the other cannot be morally (though can, of course, be physically) annihilated. Murder is, in Levinas’s words, physically possible but ethically impossible (TI 199/218, 232/258). The force with which the other confronts the murderer is not just a measurable, physical force but also something other than force; otherwise, the murder victim would be a mere thing, and a thing can be destroyed but not murdered. What is other than force in the other is her very alterity, which Levinas here begins to describe as the “unforeseeableness of his reaction,” the transcendence to calculations and totalizing comprehension, the unpredictability of the other’s future. Even in murder, the other retains an immeasurable alterity or infinity and thus an “ethical resistance,” a remnant of agency condensed into the moral command not to kill (TI 199/218). This agential remnant derives from the incalculability of death for both victim and killer, and thus from an unpredictable future. Death is separated by a “leap” from the consciousness of our lives (TI 235/261), granting still some postponement of death and possibility for unpredictable actions to the victim. Death is not presentable or presentifiable: it is not a calculable moment in time that agential powers can produce, neither in oneself nor in others, but rather an anachronistic event.

Crucially, this noncoincidence of the present with itself (and thus of the murderer’s calculations with themselves) implies that there is an infinity in the present, a futurity that extends beyond physical death and that renders impossible the sending of the victim to nothingness. If agency (including that of the murder victim) depends on the anachrony of time, and this anachrony entails (in the way discussed above) a constitutive being-with-others, then even a socially isolated murder victim, in principle, “lives on” in these others as a constitutive aspect of their time. Ethical resistance in the present communicates with the memory of survivors. Cain may have wanted to consign Abel to nothingness, but we, Abel’s future people, remember him (TI 232/258). A murder victim survives in the conscience of the killer and in the memory of relatives and society. That is why Macbeth, in the defeat that follows his murder of King Duncan, can only wish for the destruction of the entire universe, for death to be a total void (TI 231/256, 146/155).

For Levinas, then, the finite time that permits agency by opening up the present as “to be” is inseparable both from a futurity unmasterable by the living and from the demand to let the other live, to let her have her time, a time inappropriable by me and in the end incommensurable with mine. As we will see in Chapter 5, in volume 2 of The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida condenses this constellation of mortality, alterity, vulnerability, and futurity—that is, my inextricable relatedness to others who may or will survive me—by focusing on the corpse: the alterity of the other could be defined, Derrida says, by the fact that she will have to bury me (BS2 126–128/188–190). The others are those before whom I am not just another living being with whom they share time, but are also those who are already in the process of surviving me, and who will come to treat me as the passive thing that I, in my embodied vulnerability, already also am. There will be others after my death who encounter my corporeal passivity in purer form, as it were. As I will argue in the last chapter, however, these others are not just my “neighbors” (loved ones, family and friends), but also always political powers who co-decide the fate of the corpse, and the earth that lays claim to the body.

If agency, then, can come about only with the demand to let the other live in a time that cannot be appropriated by me, then we can say the demand has always already been expressed to me. As the “always already” indicates, the demand precedes the agent in an unpresentable, unmasterable time Levinas calls the “immemorial past”; this past, however, is also ahead of us as the “pure future” in that it remains outstanding (TO 111/d, 114/d). Thus, the demand, and the mortal face that bears it, is in “diachrony,” not synchronous with my time (TO 97ff./d; OB 7–20/19–39 et passim). Given its futurity, the demand is not from the beginning limited by the autonomous capacities of the agent, that is, by the dictum, at times attributed to Kant, that “ought implies can.”8 Rather, the demand to let the other live, to let her have her time, is for Levinas unpredictable in what it will require, and is in this way infinite. It is this infinity of the heteronomous demand that leads Levinas to further characterize obligation in general as always displaying a relation to the future time of others.

Accordingly, our being is, as we have seen for Levinas, a “being-for-beyond-my-death” (CPP 93/h 46; see TI 236/263, 253/284, 301/336–337), and this futural structure holds even if the other in question is born before me: if, say, I take care of a parent generation, or someone my own age, I give possibilities for life to a time that is not synchronous with mine, and whose possibilities thus always outlive me, even if the other were to die before me. But of course, the futurity of being-for-the-other is even more pronounced in relation to those born after me, to today’s children and their children after them. In addition to this literal coming-after, members of future generations in this specific sense are characterized by the fact that I, or others in my generation, give birth to them. To stress this biological, ontological, and ethical relation to the future, Levinas also characterizes responsibility in general as “fecundity” (TO 90–95/t 85–89; TI 267/299). Fecundity is “an ontological category” (TI 277/310)—of which biological fecundity is one noncontingent form (TI 247/277)—that takes note of the fact that human beings exist generationally (see Mensch 2015, 156).

Let us look at this more closely.


1. This sense of ethics as emerging with a heteronomic otherness and grounded in a command may conflict with a common but mistaken understanding of moral autonomy. In particular, in the modern, specifically Kantian lineage, it is often thought that morality requires an autonomous agent who freely accepts, or even self-imposes, its dictates. Here, however, normativity is seen to precede and (in part) to ground autonomy, so that there is always some unchosen and heteronomic aspect to autonomy. Kant himself, it may be worth pointing out, did not understand the moral law as depending on the autonomous agent accepting it autonomously: while particular norms may be issued autonomously by way of the categorical imperative, the moral imperative itself, as the law of reason, is strictly speaking without reason and we can only “comprehend its incomprehensibility” (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, B 128, referring to the second German edition. For this translation from the “Concluding Note,” see Kant 1948, 131). For Kant, it remains a command with the corresponding necessitation (see Kant 2017, 155; 1900ff., 6:379). As Allen Wood, in particular, has pointed out, the idea of Kantian autonomy as itself grounding the moral law is a common misconception widely used by critics of Kantian ethics such as Anscombe and Rorty to discredit it (A. Wood 2008, 106ff.; see also Waldenfels 2006, 21ff.).

2. Wenzler 1984 is the postface to the German translation of Levinas’s Les Temps et l’autre; Levinas himself said that he admired Wenzler’s comprehensive account (see Cohen 1987, ix).

3. Later in these fascinating lectures, in discussing Kant on immortality, Levinas will put into question the attempt to “simply rank the hope of immortality among the derivatives of being-toward-death and therefore of the originary temporality of being-there” (GDT 63/75).

4. For Sternberger and Fink, see Hügli and Han 2001, 135. For the role of death in singularization, see Fritsch 2006b.

5. As Derrida writes in his discussion of sovereignty and capital punishment, “Time is sensibility or receptivity, affection (a major vein of philosophy from Kant to Heidegger . . .); time is suffering. . . . If you suppress time, you will suppress sensibility” (DP1 226/308). On Derrida’s analysis, this link between time and suffering leads to the attempt to dissociate capital punishment from cruelty by way of the phantasm of instant killing: a killing that takes no time.

6. Little research has been done on the suggested correspondence between Levinasian responsibility and Arendtian natality. See Markovits 2009; Astell 2006; Fritsch 2017a; and Mensch 2015, 168–170.

7. See Heidegger, GA 20, 439–440/318, which reopens the contrast between Mitsein and dying.

8. The principle “ought implies can” would for Levinas come into play, and find its possibly rightful but always perilous place, with the arrival of the third party: as a secondary, political or legal definition that, while necessary, stands under the suspicion of passing over a prior responsibility.