Totality and Infinity

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority
Totality and Infinity (French edition).jpg
Cover of the French edition
AuthorEmmanuel Levinas
Original titleTotalité et Infini: essai sur l'extériorité
TranslatorAlphonso Lingis
SubjectsPhilosophy, ethics, religion

Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (French: Totalité et Infini: essai sur l'extériorité) is a 1961 work of philosophy by Emmanuel Levinas. It is one of his early works, highly influenced by phenomenology.


The Other[edit]

Levinas advances the thesis that all ethics derive from a confrontation with an other. This other, with whom we interact concretely, represents a gateway into the more abstract Otherness.

The distinction between totality and infinity divides the limited world, which contains the other as a material body, from a spiritual world. Subjects gain access to this spiritual world, infinity, by opening themselves to the Otherness of the other. For example:

To approach the other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. (p. 51)


Levinas places heavy emphasis on the physical presence involved in meeting the other. He argues that only a face-to-face encounter allows true connection with Infinity, because of the incessance of this type of interaction. Written words and other words do not suffice because they have become past by the time the subject perceives them. That is: they have fallen into the register of totality.

Jacques Derrida, in "Violence and Metaphysics," takes Levinas to task for this assumption, arguing characteristically that writing might be at least as sacred as speech.


The book contains several observations on History and the judgement of history, like "the judgement of history is always pronounced by default."[1]

Status within philosophy[edit]

Totality and Infinity is considered an original and significant contribution to the world of philosophy—continental philosophy in particular. The work can be read as a response to Levinas's teachers, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Britannica both identify Totality and Infinity, along with Otherwise Than Being as one of Levinas's most important works.[2][3]


  1. ^ Didier Pollefeyt (2004), Incredible forgiveness, p. 43
  2. ^ "Emmanuel Levinas". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  3. ^ "Totality and Infinity". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 20 September 2011.

Secondary literature[edit]