The Nature and Origin of Violence in Groups
A Consideration of Group Dynamics based on Levinas’ Work
Paper written for the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations
June 2003 Symposium — Power and Politics

Let us explore the question: Why should we — as organizational consultants, interested philosophers, as psychoanalysts, as students of human nature, as fellow members of the human race — concern ourselves with the work of Emmanuel Levinas?

In this paper, I shall review some key elements of Levinas’ thought, and show how his thinking provokes a re-evaluation of thinking about others and our selves, and how this thinking may be relevant and useful within the world of human relations research and in the practice of organizational consulting. I suggest that a mode of thinking which Levinas critiques — totalization — may indeed be that which constitutes the origins of violence, both between self and other, one-to-one, and within groups. It should be remembered that violence is opposed to the good — which is also a consideration of this paper. We shall first consider the motivations for Levinas’ works, then review some key concepts — particularly of totality and infinity — and then consider how Levinasian thought may be applied within an organizational consulting milieu. Then I shall show how these concepts can be applied usefully within a consultation with a group of psychoanalysts who espouse a radical openness, but find themselves clashing over issues relating to what a commitment to openness really means.

It is the dehumanization of the other that is not just a concomitant of oppression but a necessary prior condition — an originary act of violence — that is first performed and required long before the visible effects of oppression are manifest — such as arresting people because they are in the wrong part of town; not allowing non-white people to take certain jobs; torturing people for opposing the brutal policies of the government; house arrests; banning; silencing the opposition; killing of those opposed to the system . And the list could go on and on…

Consider Nazi Germany; Stalin’s Soviet Union; Apartheid South Africa; Srebinerca; Slavery; the decimation of the American Indians; Rwanda; Cambodia, and so on. These acts of violence, and the way they are understood and rationalized effect all of us to this day. Consider also, religious persecution, attitudes towards women, homosexuals, the poor, oppressed and downtrodden. Consider also attitudes towards those considered crazy and mentally ill, because their behavior falls outside of what is considered normal and acceptable — in a society which itself participates in dehumanization of segments of its own population. All these instances represent totalized systems — the system becomes greater than the humans involved.

Also consider the neglect of and disdain for lower-income groups, the treatment of workers in Indonesia, Vietnam and other third world countries by trans-national companies , racism in a variety of forms, intolerant religious fundamentalism which doesn’t just tolerate violence, but encourages it, and more … These are further examples of total and totalizing systems.

Thinking of ethics, and doing good — which is a central theme of the present discourse — and considering the concept of the good in relation to politics, the theme of this conference on group relations, we can consider the violence perpetrated by those who claim God is on their side, and they know what he (or she) says, and follow this by claiming the authority of God, as they define him, as justification for acts which cause violence to others — in the form of denigration of outsiders, justifying the servitude and oppression of women, and even causing death to others — those infidels — who do not believe as they do.

This illustrates the arrogance of the self-assured nature of thought justifying itself, as the only, and total truth — thought which claims itself as self-originating and as the total truth — as totality, which seeks to gain political power to force others into accepting the precepts and consequences of its dogma. In contrast, Levinas’ thinking takes our responsibility to the other as primary, and philosophy, laws, politics, the social sciences and justice should be mindful of the other — and all others — in its formulation.

Levinas, wondered, especially, about the brutality of the Nazis. He was motivated to think about and examine the totalitarianism of the Nazis, and so also to rethink the foundations of western philosophy for a variety of reasons:

Levinas was Jewish, born in Lithuania in 1906. The family fled to Russia to escape oppression. He emigrated to France in the early 1920’s. There, he became interested in the work of Edmund Husserl — the “father of phenomenology” — and went to Germany to study his thought further, in 1927. While there, he was witness to the emergence of Husserl’s brightest student, Heidegger, to a leading role in Western philosophy. He was amongst the eager students who attended Heidegger’s noted lectures and debates around that time.

Levinas introduced Heidegger’s thought to France. It was particularly the French — Sartre, Camus, Merleau Ponty and others who developed Heidegger’s thought into modern existentialism.

During the war, Levinas was incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp. He lost many family members to the Nazis during the period of the Nazi occupation of France.

After the war, Levinas began seriously asking the question: how could Heidegger, who had authored one of the greatest works of philosophy of the twentieth century — Being and Time — willingly throw in his lot with the Nazis? Heidegger had been offered the rectorship of Freiberg University and had accepted in 1933 where he presided during expulsion of Jewish faculty members and students, and the burning of books — including those of Freud, Einstein and of his own Jewish teacher — Husserl .

Heidegger had succeeded, in Being and Time, in going beyond traditional western metaphysics, which had often relied on arbitrary governing original principles — such as the notion of the all-pervasive God — to guarantee the truth of its positions. Heidegger began thinking of the truth of what it means to be here , as human, in the world, from consideration of what is presently and immediately given and apparent to us. It represented a movement away from the arbitrary and towards the contemplation of immediate experience, in openness — a more authentic truth.

The puzzling and disturbing question then is: How could Heidegger, who represented a culmination of that highest attribute of civilization — philosophy — be seduced by the Nazis, and their totalizing (and totalitarian) ideology?

Was there something in Heidegger’s philosophy which would lead to the embrace of a totalized and totalitarian system? Something that might suggest this direction? If so, then perhaps this might imply that there is a “force” or tendency in all Western philosophical thinking that might propel thought into the confining constraints of totality.

In Totality and Infinity, Levinas’ first major work, Levinas provides an opening to his project of rethinking philosophy, by setting up and exploring the vicissitudes and distinctions of the two terms of the title — totality — and infinity — while at the same time providing the basis for an ethical philosophy — a philosophy that begins with ethics, where ethics is understood as an openness to the other.

Traditionally, philosophers had first explored the nature and substance of truth along with the appropriate methodology of attaining truth, before setting out to explore ethics and morality. The most vivid and impressive example is given to us by Kant — who wrote The Metaphysics of Morality after he had completed several of his major philosophical works in which he explores the nature of reason, of judgement and thus of truth. Ethics, for Kant, is founded on the rational.

For Levinas, however, ethics is first philosophy. Ethics — my caring for the other, my openness, my responsibility for the other — comes before reason, before understanding, before truth. Before philosophy itself, in fact.

What does Levinas mean by this?

He explores the nature of self, the self-same, the I, or ego, in its identity with itself, then asks us to think about the other. The other is, Levinas says, other, in that he or she is absolutely other, and therefore always beyond my conceptual grasp.

To the extent that I can conceive of the other within my own conceptual framework, to the extent that I can categorize, structuralize, thematize, diagnose or finalize the other, I am making the other into an aspect of the same — my self — and thereby I lose my openness to the other, by making him or her into an aspect of the same — my own conceptual framework.

The achievement of knowledge consists of grasping the object. Its strangeness is then conquered. Its newness, the opening up of its otherness is reduced to the “same”, to what has already been seen, already known. In the ethical relation, the other man remains other to me. Despite our exchanges, he remains that which I — closed up in myself — am not.

The other, as other, as absolutely other, remains always outside my conceptual grasp. This is the realization I have when I am face-to-face with the other.

What does the face of the other say to me? What is invoked in me by the presence of the other, by the face of the other?

The face of the other calls out to me in its otherness: “Here I am.” And “Do not kill me.” For the face of the other, as presented to me, as absolutely other, also presents itself to me as this possibility, that he/she might be killed. But simultaneously with this moment, the face of the other calls out to me: “Do not kill me.” Thus, we are now faced with the proposition, or the commandment, to be more precise: “Thou shalt not kill.”

What is there in the face? In my analysis, the face is definitely not a plastic form like a portrait. The relation to the face is a relation to the absolutely weak, to what is absolutely exposed, naked, and destitute. It is a relation with destitution and consequently with what is alone and can undergo the supreme isolation we call death. There is, consequently, in the face of the other always the death of the other and thus, in some way, an incitement to murder, the temptation to go the extreme, to completely neglect the other. At the same time (and this is the paradoxical thing) the face is also the ‘thou shalt not kill. (p 166).

This injunction not to kill the other is not only an injunction not to kill the other physically — for example, with a knife or a gun — but is also an injunction not to do violence to the other by totalizing him or her. Totalization entails the creation of a complete and total concept of the other within my own conceptual framework.

Totalization of the other is violence. This is the original violence, of making the other into an aspect of the same — which strips the other of her alterity, denies her otherness and autonomy as a separate human other, whose experience I cannot see, feel, touch or hear.

Thus, Levinas suggests that it is in this realization of the face-to-face with the absolutely other that I first become aware of the concept of infinity.

What is infinity?

In linguistic analysis, which is common to much 20th century philosophical thinking, particularly in continental thought, as well as what is referred to as post-modern thinking, words are essentially signifiers or signs, which point to the things themselves, or more correctly the concepts of the things. The word tree points to (signifies) that which we commonly take to be a tree, the concept we have of a tree as a tree. The signifier “tree” is bounded and finite and excludes what is designated, for example, by the word flower.

Similarly the word pen, or desk, or mountain, have finite, bounded and definite contents.

Not so with the concept of infinity. As soon as I conceive of the infinite as a something, then I am no longer conceiving of the infinite because the infinite is by definition, not finite. I could come up with a new definition/conception of infinity but then again as soon as I arrive at such an understanding, it is no longer an understanding of infinity.

Thus the signifier infinity always necessarily (as signifier) points to some thing — which is not a thing at all — which overflows itself.

It is in the face of the other — the face as reminder of the absolute otherness of the other — which reminds me of the impossibility of ever knowing her fully — that I first become aware of infinity, and so we arrive at Levinas’ understanding: that we can totalize the concept of a thing but the other always partakes of infinity, and so is always unknowable in totality, just as infinity is.

We propose to call “religion” the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality.

Thus, to reiterate now: the face of the other in its infinitude calls to me: thou shalt not kill, or perhaps: thou shalt not totalize.

To totalize the other is violence. This is a realization that Levinas finds is missing in the works of Western philosophy, even including Heidegger, who subsumes the being of the other into his concepts of Dasein (being there), and Being, which ultimately becomes a totalized concept.

In fact, for Levinas, understanding which is rational understanding, when applied to others — other human beings — will inevitably lead to a conceptualization and thematization of such other, and imprisonment of the other into my categories of thought.

Awareness of the other, the experience of the face-to-face, is prior to any rational understanding. Prior to conceptualization. And prior to language itself.

We need to remind ourselves, again and again, in reading Levinas (or re-reading him) that Ethics for Levinas is not about a set of rules that govern correct behavior — such as when we talk of the ethics of a profession — medical ethics, or the ethical code governing the practice of psychotherapy — although these ethical rules may indeed be founded on good and appropriate considerations of the other. These also may well not be — certain rules of some professional organizations are formulated with the interests of the group’s members, not its clients, in mind.

For Levinas, Ethics is the appreciation of the other as absolutely other. In the same moment as my recognition of the other, I am aware, I am made aware, of my responsibility for the other.

How far does this responsibility extend? Levinas suggests that his responsibility for the other — the other as infinite — has no limits as such. In fact, he suggests that not only am I responsible for the other, I am responsible for the other’s responsibility.

In a number of interviews which took place over a period of several years, collected in a book titled Is It righteous to Be?, Levinas returns repeatedly to a line from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov:

We are all guilty in everything in respect to all others, and I more than all the others.

I don’t know whether it is possible for me, or for any of us, to live our lives, moment-to-moment, with the weight of this responsibility.

However, perhaps I can take cognizance of the Levinasian stance of openness to the other in my professional work — as a therapist, a coach or organizational consultant.

Perhaps we can take Levinas’ thought as a provocation. An invitation and inducement towards being in a radically open way to the other, to each other we encounter in our work.

We cannot reduce Levinas’ thought to a methodology or system, because in order for me to do honor to the spirit of Levinas, I must welcome the other — whether working with an individual or in a group. This welcoming without conditions is a radical openness, without presupposition, systematization or categorization, to the other, or others.


We can conclude this present meditation by considering some of the ways that Levinas’ thinking could be applied to our work.

But first, we should note that much of what Levinas writes about is the relationship between self and other. What about relationships in groups?

Within the dyad, self may be able to contemplate the possibility of a total openness to the other. A putting-the-other-first. Thinking from this standpoint, we could engage in a re-evaluation of the nature, practice and purpose of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. We could ask: What would the practice of one-to-one therapy be like if the analyst adopted a stance of openness — so that no categories and no diagnoses are applied to the patient? Indeed, to go further, in such a stance of radical openness the therapist, beyond desire for self, beyond the stance of doing violence by applying his categories to the other-as-patient, would not even attempt to cure the patient! Nor do him/her any harm.

Perhaps this is what was suggested by Bion, when he spoke of the analyst needing to be “beyond memory and desire.” For example, Bion writes:

It is important that the analyst should avoid mental activity, memory and desire, which is as harmful to his mental fitness as some forms of physical activity are to physical fitness.

When we go beyond the dyad, a third is introduced. I must now decide how to divide my attentiveness between more than one other. Here, Levinas says, the idea of justice arises. Justice is the extension of the ethical relationship to the other to a group-related responsibility — responsibility towards the others.

Contemplation of the nature of a system of justice founded on a non-divisible openness to the other — or others — could lead us to a new awareness, a reconsideration of the nature of group dynamics, and of what is desirable, in terms of each’s responsibility to each other other, in groups — and towards a rethinking of politics, anthropology, business practices, community therapy and human relations theory as well as of organizational consulting.

What would an ethical organizational consulting approach be like? Perhaps we could think of it as a “just organizational consulting methodology, or simply as “just consulting”.

There is clearly a definite need for Just Consulting in business these days. Besides the realm of conflict resolution in groups, we can see a definite need for Just Consulting in the corporate world these days, after the recent revelations of the less-than-just behavior of many senior executives of large well-known corporations.

It is heartening to note that a group called Governance Metrics International has conducted a study which shows that companies which have an overall “good governance” rating (measured in terms of how well they treat their employees, how well they treat their customers, whether they restate earnings, etc.) actually perform better, financially, in the long run.

I cannot do much more in a paper of this length than suggest some ideas for further consideration, in the realm of organizational behavior.


In respect to human relations theory: We may note that Bion’s basic assumption groups all share the characteristic that they create (or embody) a totalized view of the group by the group, by each and every member, with concomitant totalized views of those not in the group. To the extent that the group totalizes itself, and each sees the other as part of that totality, the group does violence to itself and to each other. The work group is presumably free of such violent (and debilitating) totalization, but as the work group is based on a rational premise — the accomplishment of a commonly-conceived task — it may or may not be operating in an Ethical or Just manner. It depends.

I am presently involved with a group of organizational consultants that is presently engaged in thinking about what a Levinasian/ethical group practice would be like.


There is a temptation in organizational consulting to consult to those who are paying the bill — not only consulting to them, but also seeing their interests as paramount. There are cases where consultants minister to the problems of the executives, sometimes expressing great sympathy (or empathy) for their plight, while at the same time blocking from awareness (of both the executives and the consultant/s) the un-human, de-humanizing attitude of management both to employees and to the population being served.

How sympathetic can we be to the director of a mental hospital who complains of disorder and dysfunction in the organizational system, while suffering from alcoholism, depression or some other form of personal debilitation — while the patients are herded into the drug-induced haze of the cuckoo-nest-like halls of drug-induced oblivion? The mental hospitals in New York were emptied out, due in part to the encouragement of major segments of the pharmaceutical industry, who hailed the new “freedoms” available to ex-patients who could now live normal lives outside the mental hospitals — in group homes, through the “benefit” of their psychotropic drugs.

And it was in these group homes that these ex-patients were brutalized, de-humanized, robbed, neglected, sexually abused and sometimes left to die alone, forlorn, in their rooms due to lack of attentiveness on the part of profit-hungry administrations.

This was part of a state-sponsored program.

The lessons of the holocaust, of the brutalization of one by an other in South Africa, Cambodia, Rwanda and Stalin’s Russia, to name a few, are perhaps not learned because they are not lessons that can be finally and totally codified within a neat rational system. If we agree with Levinas that reason comes after my responsibility for the other, then any attempt to develop a rational understanding of these evils must first take account, as Levinas does, of one’s responsibility for the other. The lessons that we can learn from the evils of the past must be founded on lessons of the heart.

And this is what we can gain from reading Levinas — that the path to travel is the path with heart. The grand structures of reason, no matter how elegant and impressive they may appear, are not good for us — within one-to-one relationships, within small groups, for our society, and the global society — if they do not begin with a fundamental appreciation of and openness to the other. Of each other.


Let us consider some organizational consulting situations where an understanding of Levinas could help us gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics being played out in a group.

1. Always keep the infinite in mind/out of mind.
There is no one way — no method — for ensuring openness, and listening justly to others. There are general principles of psychoanalysis which prepare one to clear the ego-centered understanding which we may bring to relationships — psychoanalysis allows for reflection on one’s way of entering into and conducting relationships within the context of a relationship between patient and analyst. What we gain from experience of participation in group relations conferences, and from Zen meditation — to name some possible methods — may also help us become aware of what we bring to our relationships with others.

I attempt to be mindful of the other person as infinite, and attempt to be aware if and when an individual in a group attempts to totalize an other, or themselves. Or, whether the group as a whole falls into the position of totalizing itself. I remind myself, from time to time that keeping these notions, entailing respect for the infinite, in mind, necessarily would seem to entail having such ideas out of my mind, as mind cannot contain the infinite. Thus, one keeps the idea in mind while at the same time allowing oneself to freely explore the dynamic interaction with the other, or others. In this, I have found, on many occasions, that working with another consultant, or sharing thoughts with other consultants, on reflection, can reveal my own modes of not appreciating the infinity of some one or more others. It is in conversation with others, that the fixed standpoints one adopts may come into relief.

It is not always appropriate to share one’s views, directly, with any one member of the group, or with the group as a whole. This would not be contradictory to Bion’s thoughts, as expressed in Experience in Groups. Also, there are consulting assignments where it has occurred to me that various key authority figures in the organization would put up a stiff resistance to recognizing that they are treating any other human within the organization with less than the full respect that is owed to another human being, the other as infinite being.

I have consulted with several service businesses which employ large numbers of low-skilled and generally low paid workers. I have noticed that frequently there is a great deal of denigration of the low-skilled workers, coupled with the view of these workers as lazy, demanding, and unreliable. Generally, there seems to be an inverse correlation between the amount of such complaining and denigration, on the one hand, and the wages and other benefits provided to the employees, on the other. The ethical path, in these organizations, seems to frequently result in greater worker satisfaction, less employee turnover, and better quality of work.

During an ongoing consultation with a group of artists who use a 12-step model (à la Alcoholics Anonymous) to attempt to help ease the suffering of the artist’s inability to perform her art, we notice that these aspiring artists treat themselves and each other as if they are not really artists as yet. This becomes apparent during a concert performance where each member of the group — identified as Sandy H., Frank M., Mary S., or Bill W., for example — is given exactly five minutes to perform his or her art, in a cold, impersonal hall. Going over the allotted time leads to being given the “Thank you” sign, upon which the audience applauds and the budding artist must sheepishly leave the stage. By defining themselves in this way, each implicitly allows him/her self to become a member of an impersonal list of performers, worthy of applause and acclaim only by virtue of having the courage to stand on stage and perform, never worthy of an encore, for example.

By seeing themselves as worthy of being put in such a position, each allows him or her self to be defined as being unworthy of the possibility of attaining public acclaim, and so agrees to put him or her self in the exact position which the group claims it is helping each member to escape or recover from. We are presently exploring ways to help them see how a spirit of openness, a non-defining, non-violent and non-infringing description by each of self, and each of other may contribute greatly to the healing community they seek. The totalized is formal, neat and complete, whereas the infinite defies formalization, is beyond essence, and as unstructured, is an-archic. Allowing more free reign of chaos, within the context of the framework of the organization which holds them, may both allow them to experiment more freely, and be artistic — art is always presented in a framework that entails others. There may be an artful way of composing themselves, if we, as consultants, can facilitate the process of allowing themselves to become artists in more ways than they initially expected. Art, like spoken or written language, takes place between us — in relationship between artist-as-self and others.

2. Who is (politically) correct?
A psychoanalytic training institute in London is known to follow a more progressive, philosophical path than the traditional Freudian Institute. They have a tradition of reading philosophy, and approaching their readings of Freud and other analysts from a phenomenological/philosophical position, resulting in a reading of psychoanalysis, and a practice which could not be called conventional. Several members of the organization have read Levinas extensively, and have published papers or books concerning Levinasian thought and practice.

This institute was the first in the U.K. to admit gay persons as candidates for training. They read Freud’s theories as metaphor, and do not take a position concerning a normal and proper mode of expressing one’s sexuality — defining such-and-such as normal and desirable sexual practice, while another form of sexual expression is perverse — that is, not acceptable within a totalized Freudian framework.

In 1978, a Dr Karl Harrison completed training with the group. He was well respected within the group. Besides being qualified as a physician, he was also a homeopathic practitioner. He treated one of the esteemed members of the organization, amongst others, during and after his training. At that time, the training program was not as large, nor as formal as it had become in 1995. There were no certificates or diplomas. The early nineties saw the introduction of nationwide rules concerning the registration and licensing of psychotherapists in the U.K. In 1978, the year of Dr Harrison’s “graduation”, there were no formal certifications required for psychotherapists.

Dr Harrison left the eclectic and liberal training group — on good terms — and decided to become a Catholic minister. He continued practicing as a therapist.

In 1995, he approached the organization, to ask for a formal letter, stating that he underwent formal training in the seventies, and that he completed all the requirements — coursework, supervision and individual therapy. He was now working as a psychotherapist within the prison system, and needed to show some sort of formal credentials in order to be able to continue his work.

The institute does not take a position on religion. Some members are engaged in the practice of Buddhism, and many could simply be called agnostic. Perhaps even atheistic.

The Institute’s board consists of eleven members. One prominent member, Olga Cavanaugh, who has come to be seen as the spokesperson of the Gay and Lesbian segment of the Institute, declares that she is not prepared to provide a letter saying Dr Harrison is certified as a qualified therapist by the Institute. She claims that the open spirit of the Institute allows all shades of opinion, meaning and practice, and the fact that Dr Harrison has become affiliated with the Catholic Church means that he affirms an ideology, a set of practices and beliefs such as that adhered to by the Catholic Church in Ireland, where she grew up. She knows from first hand experience what the Catholic Church is capable of. They have adopted an official position which is paternalistic, reactionary, anti-woman, anti-homosexual, anti-birth control, and anti-abortion, in any circumstances! As Dr Harrison represented this anti-feminine, anti-freedom position, he does not conform to the ideals which the institute represents, and so he should not be eligible to be authorized by the Institute.

Two other members of the board see things differently. They claim that the general spirit of the Institute is one of openness, and appreciation of the other as other, without reservation, and without violence. They see no particular clear and bright lines demarcating a particular ideology or ideologies which are automatically approved or disapproved. In their view, it matters more how a person is in his or her being, and how he or she treats others, particularly their patients.

Dr Harrison is asked by the board about his views, and his mode of practice. Does he believe in a woman’s right to choose? Dr Harrison answers that he believes that abortion is generally wrong in the eyes of God, but that he would not try to influence a patient one way or the other, as he recognizes that this is his personal view, and so, as such, it would not be appropriate to attempt to preach this to a patient or to try to influence a patient to take a particular course in her life based on his opinions. What matters in therapy, he believes, is to allow the patient to explore for herself what seems appropriate. He is a facilitator, not a preacher, when engaged in his psychotherapeutic practice.

He says that he has worked with a patient who became pregnant during the course of the therapy. Normally, he says, if someone came to him and said she wanted to get an abortion, he would refer her to someone else. But in this case, he was already working with the patient, and so continued to work with her during the course of her having the abortion, and working with whatever material came up subsequently.

This satisfied three of the members of the board, who said that, although they didn’t share his particular religious views, they were satisfied that he was not unduly exerting influence, or imposing his ideology (and thus committing violence on others). Additionally, reports from others who had been patients of Dr Harrison — including a patient who disliked formal religions, but found Dr Harrison very helpful and attentive when she was going through a crisis — were favorable. So, he should be entitled to a certificate from the Institute. Ms Cavanaugh and others, on the other hand, were absolutely opposed. "You're prepared to certify someone who does not believe in a woman’s right to choose? A religious fundamentalist? What next, you would authorize a Nazi?” she demanded to know.

Now, two of the three board members who had voted to authorize were Jewish, and so they were doubly offended. Subsequently, Ms Cavanaugh and Ms Perkey led their followers (most of the Gay and Lesbians, as well as one or two others) in a walkout, and the Institute was split between two factions.

We can ask what is happening here? Ms Cavanaugh claims that the institute stands for openness and freedom, and Dr Harrison represents a restriction on the openness, that his views would conflict with those of many members of the Institute. On the other hand, Dr Katz claims that excluding someone because of particular views — where those views are not compelling the individual to denigrate, totalize or otherwise do violence to others — would be contrary to the spirit of openness of the Institute; that we should not be concerned with the particularities of an individual’s world view, as much as the spirit with which that person practices.

It seems that sometimes a well-intentioned idea, an idea which involves an opening up to freedom — once it has been accepted and put into practice — can become an ideology which is practiced as dogma — a totalized world view. The finest humanitarian/humanistic principles can, intentionally or otherwise, become hard and fast rules which may have the aura of goodness but can actually become the rationale for treating others with less than true Justice.

In the process of writing this up, I confess that I became aware — due to the perceptive comments of a colleague who read the initial draft — that I was perhaps totalizing one of the parties in the above dynamic. He wondered if I hadn’t taken sides somewhat in my descriptions of the positions of the parties involved. I reviewed what I had written and attempted to give a fuller account of each person’s position. I also realized that there was much more that could have been explored, and so I contacted some of the people involved, and have asked them for further comments, thus making the for the possibility that this would be an ongoing consultation.

I note also that written presentations, case histories, descriptions of relationships and interactions after the fact necessarily summarize some issues, always involve condensation, and a resultant focus on what the writer deems interesting and relevant. Levinas, in his later work, Otherwise than Being, or beyond Essence, draws a distinction between the saying — which is present, dynamic, and in interaction directly with the other — and the said — a recollection, a summarizing, a review which is more static, and not directly in interaction with the other. As this paper is intended to be read at the ISPSO Conference, it will become a live saying in its presentation and the ensuing discussion, which will give it a different life. The reader who reads it without that interaction will necessarily experience it differently. A description of a person after the fact of their presence always involves some type of characterization, sometimes even as caricature. We would need extensive, moment-by-moment description of a person and his/her actions to attempt to overcome this, and that itself, while impossible, would also not necessarily provide you with a complete or accurate picture of the person . As we are always in interaction with others, we always speak from our point of view. I can try to open up each person's point of view, as a conflict resolution consultant, encouraging each participant to appreciate the view of the other. This is sometimes difficult or even impossible. The problems, in Levinasian terms, could be referred to as the problem of establishing a dialogue (dia-logos) between two others who are totally separate and distinct from each other — the problems and possibilities of inter-paradigmatic dialogue . As consultants we can be aware that, sometimes, people are speaking to each other (if they are actually addressing the other at all) in languages that involve very different sets of assumptions. One thing we can learn from these considerations, is that sometimes it is possible that dialogue will not allow each side of dispute to appreciate where the other is coming from — the two parties may be talking to one another across an unbridgeable chasm. But recognizing that all discourse between any 2 others is inter-paradigmatic (as it occurs between two absolute others) may help one to help them achieve the possibility of true dialogue (dia-logos).


The reader is encouraged to think of situations encountered which reflect this dichotomy: the ideas and principles arrived at after much debate appear good and holy, and after reflection seem to be the ethically, religiously, spiritually or politically correct thing to do. These principles are then embodied in a set of rules. But, the application of the rules in a given particular situation seems to do harm to one or more others, in contravention of the original motivating spirit behind the rules.

We can think of the noble motivations of Christianity, and the subversion of these ideas during the Crusades, and the Inquisition. Or, the good spirit (in my view) of Marx’s vision — how everyone could share equally — subverted by Stalinism. Or, we can consider the irony of a country being invaded and occupied by those who hold freedom as the highest value — war in the name of freedom. Robert Mugabe seemed to many to be the embodiment of the socialist, egalitarian vision when he became Zimbabwe’s president in 1980. Now, in the name of creating a greater justice, he authorizes thugs to harass and kill white farmers, and members of the opposition, expels those who know how to farm effectively, while he flies in his private plane to antique shows in London, as millions face poverty and starvation due to food shortages brought about by his gross mismanagement of the economy.


How do we follow a Levinasian path? How can we become Levinasian, and apply his thinking to our practice?

Perhaps, if we attempt to become Levinasian, we run the risk of creating yet one more thematization, one more set of ideas which could in turn become the new holy ideology. Perhaps then we somehow need to eschew Levinas in order to welcome him!

On the other hand, Levinas has opened up for philosophical thinking, for all serious thinking that involve relationships between us, a new spirit, a new responsibility, an ethic that involves a caring of one-for-the-other, without appeal to an abstract notion of God, an understanding that we are always already in relationship with each other, and that implies a responsibility for others, that should suffuse our thinking — about philosophy, life, psychoanalysis, justice, business, ecology and politics… It is the un-codifiable, unmarked and uncharted path with heart.

Nietzsche undertook a radical re-thinking of western thinking and philosophy, and its assumptions, deconstructing previous assumptions of philosophical thinking, forcing us to read philosophy, and understand society and its mores in a more critical light. Nietzsche influenced Freud, who also radically questioned society’s assumptions. Levinas’ radical rethinking of the assumptions underlying western philosophy, and its unquestioning quest for truth turns philosophy from being a love of wisdom, into being a wisdom of love.


Bernasconi, Robert & Critchley, Simon (eds), Re-Reading Levinas, Indiana University Press, 1991

Bion, W.R., Experiences in Groups, Tavistock Publications, England, 1959

Bion, W.R., Attention and Interpretation, Tavistock Publications, England, 1970

Collins, Jeff, Heidegger and the Nazis, Totem Books, New York, 2000

Derrida, Jacques, A Dieu, Stanford University Press, California, 1999

Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference, University of Chicago Press, 1978

Descartes, Meditations, Anchor Books, New York, 1974

Dudiak, The Intrigue of Ethics, Fordham University Press, New York, 2001

Dylan, Bob, Who Killed Davey Moore?, 1964, 1965 Warner Bros. Inc

Freud, S., The Future of an Illusion, Hogarth Press, London, 1973

Freud, S., Civilization and its Discontents, Doubleday, New York, 1958

Gans, Steven, Redler, Leon, Just Listening: Ethics and Therapy, Xlibris Corporation, 2001

Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977

Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, Harper and Row, New York, 1962

Kant, I, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Harper and Row, New York, 1964

Kramer, H. and Springer, J., Malleus Maleficarum, Dover Publications, 1971

Kunz, George, The Paradox of Power and Weakness, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1998

Laing, R.D., Politics of Experience, Penguin Books, England, 1967

Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity (tr: Alphonso Lingis), Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, 1969

Levinas, Emmanuel, Is it righteous To Be? (Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas), ed. Jill Robins, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 2001

Levinas, Emmanuel, Beyond Essence or Otherwise Than Being,

Mitchell, Steven, Freud and Beyond, Basic Books, New York, 1955

Plato, The Republic of Plato (tr: Alan Bloom), Basic Books, New York, 1968

Conference on Evil
April 30 - May 1st, 2005
Psychoanalysis, Philosophy, Religion - An Inquiry on Evil
"Value of Values" - Online Discussion Group
Begins: Mar 28th
Topic: Values and Group Dynamics
Philosophy Cafe
Last Meeting: Feb. 15th 8pm
Topic: Levinas and Ethics