The outside, or Other, is accorded an incomparable eminence in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. In his penetrating account, metaphysics desires an elsewhere. It persists within an alibi, in which we assert true life as absent. But then our idea of the other would seem to hinge upon the imperceptible — that is, upon an Other which is not other like the bread I eat, or the land in which I dwell. It is not a question of this “I,” and that “other,” but of an absolutely other. In its most recognizable (historical) form it appears as a passionate movement or turn towards an Other, which goes forth from the world of the familiar. Metaphysics turns from an at-home to an exteriority.
Metaphysics yearns to become outside-of-oneself, its desire tends towards the absolutely other — something entirely different than a need: “The customary analysis of desire can not explain away its singular pretension. As commonly interpreted need would be at the basis of desire; desire would characterize a being indigent and incomplete or fallen from its past grandeur. It would coincide with the consciousness of what has been lost; it would be essentially a nostalgia, a longing for return. But thus it would not even suspect what the veritably other is.” (T&I 33) What is the mode of desire whose essence is exteriority?
But what could be a subject of such a desire or such a thinking, whose force would consist in destroying the possibility of subordinating desire to a modality, or of rupturing the very image of thought — overturning its model and smashing its reproductions? The desire for the absolutely other is absolute, Levinas argues, since we are mortal and the Desired invisible; this desire implies our relationship with what is not given, and of which there is no idea. Vision “adequates” an idea with a thing, comprehending what it encompasses.
Beyond the knowledge which measures being, beyond brightness and depth, there is an inordinate desire for the most high: “Desire is desire for the absolutely other.” Unlike a hunger or thirst, metaphysics desires the other beyond satisfaction, and so understands the exteriority or remoteness of the other; metaphysics opens up the very dimension of height itself. The alterity glimpsed in this desire is thus not adequate to an idea, but nonetheless has a meaning — the alterity of the Other, and of the Most-High.
Not the height of heaven but the Invisible; there is no doubting human misery but to be a man is to know the dominion which things and the wicked exercise over us — our animality. “Freedom consists in knowing freedom is in peril.” To know, to be conscious, is also to have time, space to breathe, to avoid, to forestall the “instant of inhumanity”; for Levinas, it is this very postponing of the hour of treason which implies the disinterestedness of goodness, the desire for the absolutely other, the dimension of metaphysics, or “nobility.”