Julio Andrade – Normative provisionality as a means to navigate Levinasian infinite responsibility

Here is the latest of our recordings from The British Society for Phenomenology’s 2018 Annual Conference ‘The Theory and Practice of Phenomenology’. Julio Andrade is from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, and the paper is titled ‘Normative provisionality as a means to navigate Levinasian infinite responsibility’.


Abstract: “The core of Emmanuel Levinas’s (1969) argument in Totality and Infinity is that because the other cannot be faithfully represented without reducing his/her alterity, I cannot discharge my responsibilities to him/her. As such, my responsibility to the other is infinite. Infinite responsibility is at the centre of Levinasian ethics, however, it is also the most problematic. If I am infinitely responsible for the other, what of my, and all the other others, needs and desires? Levinas responds by positing a third party to the face-to face encounter with the other. Levinas argues that justice (or the political) is “an incessant correction of the asymmetry of proximity” (1998; 158 emphasis added), i.e. justice or politics must constantly efface the alterity of the other in order to render the other representable, and thus comparable with the third.


However, what such a politics entails in practice is not something that Levinas develops in any depth. He remarks that “[m]y task does not consist in constructing ethics; I only try to find its meaning” (1985; 90). However, his follow-up to this remark hints at an endorsement of just such an enterprise: “one can without doubt construct an ethics in function of what I have just said, but this is not my own theme” (ibid).


It is by expanding on the above ‘incessant correction’ of justice that I hope to offer a way to ‘operationalise’ Levinasian ethics. In order to achieve this, I enlist Woermann and Cilliers’ (2012) ‘provisional imperative’. Pared to its essence, the provisional imperative reads as follows: “When acting, always remain cognisant of other ways of acting” (ibid; 451).I reinscribe this into Levinasian terms – ‘when representing the other, always be cognisant of other ways of representing the other.’ Then, by understanding responsibility as an ability to respond to the demands of the other, a response-ability, I argue that the other as infinity (Levinas takes the idea of infinity as the model for the other), should be understood as the other representing itself in an infinite number of ways, rather than a representation of itself as infinity.


The provisional imperative, I conclude, drives this incessant, and infinite revision of the representation of the other, and concomitantly my responsibility to the other. The provisional imperative operationalises Levinasian ethics such that infinite responsibility to the other is not rendered quixotic even as it is confirmed as the limit of our responsibility.”


The British Society for Phenomenology’s Annual Conference took place at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, UK during July, 2018. It gathered together philosophers, literary scholars, phenomenologists, and practitioners exploring phenomenological theory and its practical application. It covered a broad range of areas and issues including the arts, ethics, medical humanities, mental health, education, technology, feminism, politics and political governance, with contributions throwing a new light on both traditional phenomenological thinkers and the themes associated with classical phenomenology. More information about the conference can be found at:



The British Society for Phenomenology is a not-for-profit organisation set up with the intention of promoting research and awareness in the field of Phenomenology and other cognate arms of philosophical thought. Currently, the society accomplishes these aims through its journal, conferences and other events, and its podcast. You can support the society by becoming a member, for which you will receive a subscription to our journal:


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