Levinas and Natural Language


I argue that Emmanuel Levinas provided for the locus for the development of proto natural languages that begins with the face of the Other. At the same time Levinas’s first philosophy suggests that not only is language fundamental to ethics but that ethics is also fundamental to language. From this analysis it is proposed that the first word in natural language is, ‘Thou shall not Kill.’

The Face of the Other

Natural language was born in our distant past. Where; when? Nobody knows. If we can discover the conditions possible for the generation of the earliest natural languages this may provide us with direction towards how proto-languages first begin. I will argue that Emmanuel Levinas provides such a locus with his first philosophy, and that a locus for the proto natural language begins is with the face of the Other[1].

Michael Bernard-Donals saw the first philosophy of Levinas connecting language and ethics, “It could be said that if ethics is first philosophy for Levinas, then a theory of language or utterance (rhetoric) might be fundamental to ethics. (Bernard-Donals, 2005, p. 63)” I will argue that the significance of the first philosophy which begins with the face of the Other is not only that language is fundamental to ethics but that ethics is also fundamental to language. As Levinas said: “The ‘vision’ of the face is inseparable from this offering language is. To see the face is to speak of the world. Transcendence is not an optics, but the first ethical gesture. (Emmanuel Levinas, 1961, p. 174)”


While we likely will never hear the first words ever spoken, we get close to that condition with a biblical tale. Amit Pinchevski, in his thoughtful retelling of the story of the tower of Babylon explained that when God confused the languages:

The confusion caused the people of Babel to retract their gazes from the Tower to each other’s faces, acknowledging, maybe for the first time, that they were different, finite, separate – a dialog of baffled faces. Never before were the Babylonians so close and yet so far as in this moment. Is there a moment wherein one is more exposed to the Other’s otherness? (Pinchevski, 2005, p. 225)

It is at this event, this primordial moment in language development, when we cannot understand each Other’s words we look towards the face of the Other. In doing so we retreat from our singular knowing of the tower as the omniscient I of our inward egos and begin to consider the Other – the face of the Other. While this event allegedly occurred during the period of signs and signifiers there is no common understanding of either at the moment of confusion. All that remains is the human language of the face of Other. “Language as the presence of the face” held special meaning to Levinas because for him language was justice (Emmanuel Levinas, 1961, p. 213). The face is the epiphany, the moment where the whole of humanity becomes present, “…in the eyes that look at me. (Emmanuel Levinas, 1961, p. 213)”

The faces beneath the tower of Babel called to each Other in their humanity, revealing the whole of humanity in the Other where both the same and the Other were joined in their nakedness and destituteness. Levinas explained that the event of the original language occurs within this proximity of the other and is without words:

“This relationship of proximity, this contact unconvertible into a noetico-noematic structure, in which every transmission of messages, whatever be those messages, is already established, is the original language, a language without words or propositions, pure communication. (Emmanuel Levinas, 1987, pp. 119, Language and Proximity)”

From this original language, the evolving ethical natural language and natural language are co-determined in this event for they are inseparable even by degree. It is the separation of the ethical from the natural discourse that is unnatural because it bifurcates the face into its separate ontology and otherness. Analogously, it removes the spider from its web. Levinas’s critique of western philosophy is that it has done much to structure the language artificially in this respect, concretizing the Other ontologically within the limits of reason and the totalizing of knowledge through the descriptive and the demonstrative where inquisitiveness and curiosity about the Other has always been the primacy of the natural cum ethical conversation (Emmanuel Levinas, 1961, pp. 21-22).

The Conditions Possible for Natural Language

If the face of the Other is the locus for the generation of natural language then there must be both an I and another. Can a brain in a vat produce a language that only it understands, a private language? Ludwig Wittgenstein argued against such an idea because the individual would not be able to develop intelligible meanings for the signs it developed, “I could not apply any rules to a private transition from what is seen to words. Here the rules really would hang in the air; for the institution of their use is lacking. (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. Paragraphs: 262-263, 275-277, 311, the quote @ 380)” For purposes of this discussion, a natural language requires two or more participants[2]. Second, in this locus for the generation of natural language, there does not have to be words or any verbal or visual symbols that anyone understands other than what can be derived from the face of the Other. The confusing of the languages by God provides at least one moment where this was so, at least in the Bible. Or, as any traveler might attest, in a strange land where others only speak a language that the traveler does not understand.

Our bodies are oriented such that we must look straight at another’s face to see it. We are oriented to faces from infancy. However, Levinas’s insight is that the face of the Other is an announcement to me of its otherness. The Other’s face is not me. As it is not me it also is a mystery to me because there is no possible way for me to get inside the Other’s head as I can with my own. The face of the Other brings me up short from my egoistic sameness if just for a moment. This is true even if it is the face of a familiar Other because I cannot be sure at this moment whether this Other will be the same Other as before. This is the infinite alterity of the Other – that I can never know the Other completely. There is always more Other of the Other that is unfathomable.

From Ontology to Metaphysics

Western philosophy, Levinas argued, has remained focused on the body with a face, the embodied face of the Other – the ontological manifestation of the Other in its definition of being (Emmanuel  Levinas, 1996, pp. 8, Is Ontology Fundamental?). By focusing on the ontological first, philosophy has been engaged in ipseity for both the I and the Other. We separate each and provide a locus for each in the world. This produces an ethics that is oriented from an I locus. For Levinas this is a problem because the I notoriously has been instrumental in defining ethics that are beneficial to me and others whom I define as me. With ontology of being defined first and I focused, the Other’s humanity is demoted. Levinas challenges the phrase, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” because it requires the I to first think of itself before it thinks of the Other. As a result the twisted ethic of the Nazi final solution says to its ipseity, “If I were evil like the Jews, I would want me to be exterminated as well.” The Levinasian turn revises the statement of the golden rule to, “I am responsible for the Other and am obligated to the Other as the Other so desires.” The orientation from the I becomes the orientation to the Other. The primacy of I ontology is reversed so that metaphysics of the face of the Other precedes ontology. I am still an I but the Other, when before me, becomes a metaphysical mystery for which I am responsible but uncertain in how to proceed. What concerns many who read Levinas is that I am responsible to the Other even if it means sacrificing myself for the sake of the Other. This is far different from Other ethical orientations that begin with the ontological I and perform a calculus towards a logical and equitable ethical solution I can live with. There can be no final ethical resolution in a Levinasian sense because my responsibility to the Other never ends.

The problem is that it is not logical in the traditional ethics of the I for me to have the authority, let alone responsibility, to sacrifice myself for the Other. The logic of the Levinasian Other becomes the Other qua Other and as such it is my responsibility towards the other that becomes the first philosophy, its ethics.

The Moment of the Face

In the moment the face comes before me is the moment and the locus for when natural language can occur. “A being (l’etant) is a human being and it is as a neighbor that a human being is accessible – the face. (Emmanuel  Levinas, 1996, pp. 8, Is Ontology Fundamental?)” This face of the Other requires no arbitrary Saussurean symbol or sign. It is an event. It is an event between two, separated by a clear space where there is implicit knowledge that this is an Other before me, but an epiphany that I cannot ever know the depth of the Other from the height from which the Other looks down at me. In this the Other calls into question my ipesity, “The calling in question of the I, coextensive with the manifestation of the Other in the face, we call language. (Emmanuel Levinas, 1961, p. 171)”

The face of the Other is a complicated conversation at best. The Other as the body containing a face is a subject of my intentionality to be sure, but my phenomenal investigation at this moment of seeing is disrupted, disturbed by the presence of the face. “The Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that can be common to us…(Emmanuel Levinas, 1961, p. 194)”

What begins simultaneously with this recognition is the realization that I cannot phenomenally know the Other because my intentionality is restricted to the Other as an ontological corporal being. In order to begin to understand the Other I must reach out to the Other with something more than my intentionality. I must begin a conversation.

Levinas never explicitly said that the locus for ‘natural language’ begins with the face. His fundamental project in context of the face and language was to consider how the face precedes ontology in its metaphysical alterity. However he did say that the face and discourse are articulated. “Face and discourse are tied. The face speaks. It speaks, it is in this that it renders possible and begins all discourse. (Emmanuel Levinas & Cohen, 1985, p. 87)”

It is not difficult to suggest other loci for the origin of natural language. Some might maintain that hand and arm movements are the source for the development of natural language. Gestures in and of themselves could be considered a form of language symbolism as gestures take on meaning when repeated again and again. And while the hand as well as the face have corporeal ontological meaning, the arm and hand do not take on the aspect of otherness as does the face in its infinite alterity. The body produces a language of its own but we look to the face for answers to the question of our understanding of the Other. As such the face is a logical locus for the beginning of natural language which is founded ethically as obligation to the Other.

The locus of the face of the Other is not natural language in the traditional sense of something that evolves naturally as language. Instead it produces a condition of possibility for natural language to evolve from the basic human abilities to produce a natural language. “On the contrary, it calls to me above and beyond the given that speech already puts in common among us. (Emmanuel Levinas, 1961, p. 212). The language of the face is not dialogic, “…the epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity. (Emmanuel Levinas, 1961, p. 213)”

The face, however, is not a sign. Bernhard Waldenfels explained, “The face, expression simpliciter, forms the first word, the face is the signifier which appears on the top of his sign, like eyes looking at you. (Critchley & Bernasconi, 2002, pp. 68, Levinas and the Face of the Other)” It is the expression of the face that forms the first word. So, can we make the intuitive leap that if the face is the first word and there as yet are no words because language has not been invented yet that the face becomes the word or the locus where language might begin? The problem with this pre-linguistic environment is that the face might be reduced by the I to an ontological object from its infinitely alterior place in the first philosophy because there is no language to follow this epiphany. Yet the expression of the face of the other has produced the first word which Hilary Putnam suggested that Levinas explained is, “Thou shall not Kill. (Critchley & Bernasconi, 2002, pp. 45, Levinas and Judaism)” If this is the first word then the space for natural language has been opened by the expression of the face of the Other before me. The second word might have been the expression of wariness, keeping in mind the ethics of the first word of the face, ‘Thou shall not Kill.’ But is this ‘language’ if, as Susan Goldin-Meadow says, “…the definitive characteristic of human language is the recursive function in its grammar…? (Goldin-Meadow, 2002, pp. 87, Missing Links, Issues and Hypotheses In the Evolutionary Origin of Language)” There is not yet a formal grammar in this pre-language formulation of ‘Thou shall not Kill’ but there is recursion for if this is the first word uttered by the face in its alterity before me then there is a kind of pre-grammatical recursivity in the expression of the human face when I meet Others and Others and Others. What caused the explosion of additional morphemes beyond the first word, ‘Thou shall not Kill’ that created the first proto-natural languages? Perhaps it is from this ethical locus of first letting the Other ‘be’ that the stage is set for the development of a communication that extends beyond body language, gestures and grunts. So there must be something in the human condition that recognizes the ethics of letting the other ‘be’ as the primordial condition of human interaction which is the fundamental precept of Levinas’s first philosophy. The face produces this durable ethical space where one can let another ‘be’ but is there something deeper in the human condition that produces the environment where this can be the case? Perhaps this is the ultimate mystery of the metaphysical.

The Ethics of Inquiry

The Levinasian turn recognizes that the history of western ethics that is bounded in ontology produces an I oriented conversation where the primacy of the I is more interested in its own understanding. By being oriented towards understanding I, the Other is an object for the I to consider and understand only in relationship to my ipseity. The conversation in an ontologically oriented philosophy is demonstrative. However, the conversation in Levinas’s first philosophy oriented towards the I’s responsibility for the Other is inquisitive and its primary focus is inquiry. The other becomes a teacher in this space of inquiry, “This voice coming from another shore teaches transcendence itself. Teaching signifies the whole infinity of exteriority. (Emmanuel Levinas, 1961, p. 171)”

Demonstrative conversation cements the Other in the eye of the I and objectifies the Other by promoting the intentionality of the Other as an object of interest to me rather than an object of mystery for which I have an obligation to learn more because I am obligated to the Other without reservation or limit. The metaphysical turn of Levinas redefines language as inquiry and inquiry towards understanding but of understanding of obligation. Language becomes a conversation without theoretical end as the I and the Other continually refine our inquiry in order to better understand each Other. This understanding, of course, will never be complete. And the understanding of this fact became evident in the moment when the face of the Other appears before me and me before the Other. As a result for Levinas, conversation is oriented towards the Other and not towards me.

The Approach

If an utterance is an approach to the Other then, as Bernard-Donals said, “any encounter with another compels speech (Bernard-Donals, 2005, p. 63)” If I am responsible for the Other, according to Levinas, then the approach to the Other is with this understanding that any speech or utterance that results is couched in the same terms. The asymmetricality of this approach to the Other is that my responsibility is irrespective of whatever response to my approach I receive. I may be rebuffed, violently struck down, but my inquiry never changes.

Sam I Am from Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham asks the Other over and over again in situation after new situation whether the Other could like green eggs and ham (Geisel, 1960). Sam I Am is not badgering the Other, but he is making sure through his inquiry if there is any circumstance where the Other might like green eggs and ham. While an extreme form of inquiry to be sure, the message is gotten across that ‘Sam I Am’ is really ‘Sam I Am for you the Other’ at your service to determine your wants, likes, and dislikes without any reference to my self or my needs.

Before Language and Culture

The face of the Other precedes all language and culture. “Meaning, the intelligible, consists for beings in showing itself in its nonhistorical simplicity, in its absolutely unqualifiable and irreducible nakedness, in existing ‘prior to’ history or culture. (Emmanuel  Levinas, 1996, pp. 58, Meaning and Sense)” The nakedness of the face of the Other before me is primordial to my humanity and it exists even in the Hobbesian state of nature, before culture, before civilization or law and before language. It is a condition human that cannot be controverted by language or culture without doing damage to its ethical primordiality. But from where is this naked condition human derived? It is derived from the trace; the beyond. “The beyond is precisely beyond the ‘world’, that is, beyond every disclosure, like the One of the first hypothesis of the Parmenides, transcending all cognition, be it symbolic or signified. (Emmanuel  Levinas, 1996, pp. 59, Meaning and Sense)” Thus the face is an abstraction but one for which humans are attuned to its abstractness. But as Edith Wyschogrod explained, this abstraction is incomplete even in its nakedness without language. Language serves me pedagogically when it comes from the Other (Critchley & Bernasconi, 2002, pp. 191, Language and alterity in the thought of Levinas). It informs me of what is behind the face of the Other by lifting the fog of even a trace of the trace of alterity. I learn by what the Other says to me and I continue my own education by inquiring further, “would you, could you like green eggs and ham?[3]

In Summary

The face of the Other is not language in the traditional sense, but the appearance face of the Other before me produces a moment from which natural language can be sprung. The advance of I towards the Other produces a conditions possible, even a mandate, for language and conversation to begin. The face of the Other is before culture or civilization and is a condition human. The face of the Other as the trace shows itself in its own alterity but it conflates with the primordiality of ethics which is born in the face as the first word, ‘Thou shall not Kill.’


Bernard-Donals, M. F. (2005). “Difficult Freedom”: Levinas, Language, and Politics. Diacritics, 35(3), 62-77.

Critchley, S., & Bernasconi, R. (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Levinas: Cambridge Univ Pr.

Geisel, T. S. (1960). Green eggs and ham. NY, NY: Beginner Books.

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2002). Getting a handle on language creation. Typological Studies in Language, 53, 343-374.

Levinas, E. (1961). Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburg, Pa: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (1987). Collected philosophical papers (Vol. 100): Springer.

Levinas, E. (1996). Emmanuel Levinas Basic Philosophical Writings. Bloomington, In: Indiana University Press

Levinas, E., & Cohen, T. R. A. (1985). Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo: Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP.

Pinchevski, A. (2005). The Ethics of Interruption: Toward a Levinasian Philosophy of Communication. Social Semiotics, 15(2), 211-234. doi: 10.1080/10350330500154790

Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical Investigations (G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


[1] Levinas capitalized the Other and the Self. This convention is maintained here when it refers to another person or ‘me’.

[2] Acknowledging, of course, that there are more who comment on the private language argument including Saul Kripke, Anthony Kenny and Keld Stehr Nielsen.

[3] The words used in but not an exact quote from Green Eggs and Ham (Geisel, 1960)