Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Ethical phenomenology

Basic themes of ethical phenomenology are “otherness,” “responsibility,” “I-Thou,” “the vocative,” and “(non)relationality.”


Ethical phenomenology probably originates with Max Scheler, a contemporary of Husserl, in his study “The Nature of Sympathy.” It also finds its origin in Sartre’s concern with ethical themes of freedom, responsibility, and choice. Interest in a phenomenological ethics is also noticeable in the “The Ethical Demand” of Knud Logstrup.But ethical phenomenology is especially associated with the original and influential work of Emmanuel Levinas.


Partly as a result of his Jewish experience of Nazi brutality, Levinas was set to radicalize the thinking of Husserl and Heidegger into an ethical phenomenology. Although he started out as a Husserlian phenomenologist, Levinas came to the realization that Husserl’s transcendental ego remains idealistic and that Heidegger’s ontological phenomenology is revolves around being or presence –or in other words, with the self.


For Levinas, this Husserlian focus on the essence of things and Heidegger’s preoccupation with the modalities of being in the world all are manifestations of the primacy of the self or “mineness” in traditional philosophical phenomenology. For a truly profound understanding of the human reality one must not ask for the meaning of being, self, or presence but for the meaning of what is otherwise than being, alterity, or the infinite. Levinas finds the phenomenological power of this question in the encounter with the face of the other that makes an appeal to us. In the vulnerability of the face of the other, says Levinas, we experience an appeal: we are being called, addressed (the vocative). And this response to the vulnerability of the other is experienced as a responsibility. This is an ethical experience, an ethical phenomenology.


Levinas has many followers. Especially worth mentioning are the later works of Jacques Derrida (e.g. The Politics of Friendship) and especially Alphonso Lingis the translator of many of Levinas’ texts into English. The ethical engagement of the phenomenological studies of Lingis is evident in the titles of his books: The Community of Those Who have Nothing in Common, Abuses, The Imperative.