Interpreters of Emmanuel Levinas often note the central role he gives to language in his account of ethical discourse. Levinas himself puts the matter quite strongly, claiming, for example, that ‘the relation between the same and the other … is language’ (TI, 39) and that ‘[a]bsolute difference … is established only by language’ (TI, 195). This aspect of Levinas’s thought has seemed to some readers to cast doubt on the possibility of ethical relations with non-human animals, as well as infants and others who lack linguistic capacities. My aim in this paper is to present an alternative reading of Levinas that avoids this implication. I argue that the core emphasis of Levinas’s account lies not on language, but on our capacity to learn from the other. We do this through what I term the second look: we respect [re-specere] the other by letting her teach us, by giving her our undivided attention, by looking at her again. ‘Teaching’, as Levinas puts it, ‘is a discourse in which the master [that is, the other] can bring to the student what the student does not yet know’ (TI, 180). Learning from the other, whether through language or otherwise, creates a kind of ethical conversation that ‘puts in common a world hitherto mine’ (TI, 174).


Jonathon Crowe (Bond University)

Jonathan Crowe is Professor of Law at Bond University and a regular Visiting Scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author or editor of nine books and more than ninety book chapters and journal articles, primarily on legal philosophy, ethical theory and public law. His recent books include Natural Law and the Nature of Law, published by Cambridge University Press, and the Research Handbook on Natural Law Theory, co-edited with Constance Youngwon Lee and published by Edward Elgar. He is a former President of both the Australasian Society of Legal Philosophy and the Australian Dispute Resolution Research Network.


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