Finding the meaning of one’s existence is fraught with potholes and detours. Emmanuel Levinas, iconic 20th century philosopher, sheds light on this very human endeavor by recognizing that the human person is infinite, never alone, but always separate. In his work, Totality and Infinity, Levinas expounds on how responsibility for the Other is a movement of infinity while trying to objectify and reduce the Other to the Same, to that which we can control, is a totalizing action. The infinite is at play within the human person from the moment she questions her existence, struggles to seek for more, enjoys the world, and encounters the Other. This infinite is not found in the mystical and abstract but in her very concrete and ethical relationship with another.
Levinas privileges the Other in our journey towards finding our meaning. This counterbalances the preoccupation of philosophy with the self and with being. The danger of anchoring on the exalted being came to a head in the Holocaust that exterminated millions who were deemed inferior by the utterly self-possessed Nazis. The Nazis, for all their culture and aristocracy, sent millions of human beings to their deaths. The Nazis’ sense of entitled being is ultimately senseless without first the compassion for the Other. Today, in our mundane reality, the preoccupation with the exalted being, is manifested in the countless selfies we post on our social media accounts. The movement towards exteriority, towards the Other, is a movement of infinity. Before the human person asserts her own freedom, she must first be responsible for the Other because it is then that she finds her meaning in life. It is then that she moves beyond being. She removes the chains of being as she decenters herself and lives the philosophy of après vous (you first).
This human person, as subject, may start from her consciousness of something other than herself but she moves beyond that because she desires to be proximate with the Other, not just to know the Other. Proximity of the Other comes by way of contact and not information, through discourse and caress, not knowledge. Proximity of the Other is never just consciousness and understanding of the Other but is ultimately responsibility for the Other. The human person, as subject, lives for something other than herself. She does not have to but she does because of the infinite in her. Who she is, is given by a source that is infinite and non-thematizable; and she finds that she is in solidarity with the Other from the very beginning. Though separate from the Other, the human person finds that she carries the Other within her in an ethical maternity, and appreciates that this Other cannot be thematized and totalized. It is not the insufficiency of the I that prevents totalization, but the Infinity of the Other (Totality and Infinity,80).
In the end, even if the human person relegates her freedom to her responsibility for the Other, she will still find herself at her freest because she becomes who and what she is meant to be, here and now, with others. None of the sense of enchainment and neutrality, but of passion. No need, only desire. Not totality, but infinity.