Roger Burggraeve – Responsible for the Responsibility of the Other


Emmanuel Levinas gives to thought on psychotherapeutic counselling as ethical relationship

Roger Burggraeve (ethicist & Levinas scholar KU Leuven)

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From the thought of Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995)[1] we would like to shed some ethical light on psychotherapeutic counselling but without entering into its specific aspects and methods. The central focus of Levinas’ thought, namely the I-other-relationship, serves as our starting point. In its modality as counselling, psychotherapy likewise unfolds as a relationship between the therapist as ‘I’ and the client as ‘other’ (without being reduced to those roles). Hence we start with Levinas’ description of ‘my’ relationship to the ‘other’ in order to show how this relationship displays an unmistakable ethical structure that exposes at the same time the fundamental structure of all psychotherapy. This fundamental ethical structure is formed concretely according to a double responsibility, as we shall later see, namely as a responsibility for the other that is at the same time a responsibility for the responsibility of the other, and which in turn also contains two dimensions. And since psychotherapy does not function in a vacuum but often takes place in an institutional context, namely in a psychiatric clinic, therapy centre or residential setting, we shall also reflect on that aspect at the end of our essay – like an open conclusion – paying special attention to the opportunities and risks of organised psychotherapy and to the ‘small goodness’ that accords a specific hue to the responsibility of the therapist for the client.


1. Therapy as the heteronomous experience of the other’s face

The starting point for every counselling is a simple act, or rather a ‘radical fact’ or an ‘absolute or pure experience’, that at the same time is also an ‘heteronomous experience coming from elsewhere’ (TI 67) – “a traumatism of astonishment” (TI 73) – namely the fact that the therapist is confronted with the client as ‘other’. Put in a Levinasian manner: in the direct encounter with the client, the therapist is faced with the ‘epiphany of the other’. In the encounter, which forms the basis for therapeutic dialogue, the other reveals itself not only as separate but also as distinct from the therapist. That is precisely what Levinas calls the radical alterity of the other. In his first major work Totality and Infinity (1961) he speaks of the ‘exteriority’ of the other, by which he does not mean a spatial distance that can be bridged or not, but rather a qualitative difference of irreducibility: “the alterity of the other person is the only model of exteriority, where space does not come in between” (RTJD 225).


1.1.The client as other is invisible

In the concept of ‘alterity’ lies both a negative and a positive dimension. The negative dimension means a denial of the knowability of the other. The alterity of the other lies precisely in the fact that the other constantly transcends our observation and our knowledge. What is constitutive of alterity is that the other never coincides with the image and the presentation that we make of her or him. As the other, a counsellee always eludes, up to infinity, the image formed by the therapist. The distance of this surplus remains insurmountable, notwithstanding all attempts at bridging the gap. The other presents oneself to me as a ‘withdrawing’ movement, or rather as a ‘withdrawal in the withdrawal’, a withdrawal that never weakens. The client is always infinitely more than the images, presentations and interpretations that the counsellor can design of the other. Even though the other has her or his physiognomy and personality, and thus her or his recognisable calculability, the other’s epiphany still consists in shattering one’s own image and appearance time and again. The other escapes essentially from every typology, characterology and classification, in short from all (professional) attempts by the therapist to understand and fathom the client. In this sense the face of the other is essentially, and not provisionally, a movement of retreat (anachoresis): ‘The other is invisible’ (TI 34). It is a veritable paradox: the other appears by means of disappearing, stronger still by means of withdrawing oneself from one’s appearance as an inaccessible secret or mystery. The other is a presence that immediately renounces itself: an apostate or ‘heretic’ to itself. The counsellee is literally ‘extra-ordinary’ and ‘e-norm-ous’, beyond all order and norm, the purest ‘anachronism’, an essential conundrum: the unsurpassed enigma that brings the counsellor to confusion. The epiphany of the other confronts us with the other as a stranger, or better as ‘the stranger’ par excellence. The epiphany of the counsellee makes any kind of curiosity ridiculous (OB 90-91).


1.2. The client’s face as expression: looking and speaking at me

This rather negative description of the alterity of the other has a clearly positive meaning, however. The basis for the unknowability and irreducibility of the other (the counsellee) to her or his image and appearance is indeed her or his “manifestation kath’auto” (TI 65), and that is precisely what Levinas labels as the face. The face is at the same time a form and a shattering of this form. It is ‘expression’, or stronger still ‘self-expression’: “it is a presence before me of a self-identical being” (FC 41). The other manifests oneself out of oneself, and not on the basis of one’s (psychological, relational, economic, social, cultural) context: “The sensible presence of this chaste bit of skin with brow, nose, eyes, and mouth is not a sign making it possible to ascend toward the signified, nor is it a mask which dissimulates the signified. Here the sensible presence desensibilises to let the one who only refers to oneself, the identical, break through directly” (FC 41-42).

According to Levinas, the expression of the face occurs in an eminent manner in the look. The possible nakedness of the other can be covered or disguised by using cosmetics or makeup. However, there is one zone of the face that cannot be made up or embellished, namely the eyes (even when the area around the eye – the eyelid and the eyebrow – can be made up): “The eyes break through the mask – the language of the eyes, impossible to dissemble. The eye does not shine; it speaks” (TI 66). The concrete shape of this direct presence is the look: “This way for a being to break through its form, which is its apparition, is, concretely, its look, its aim. There is not first a breakthrough, and then a look; to break through one’s form is precisely to look; the eyes are absolutely naked” (FC 20). They are the most unprotected part of the face. Thus the look is the most direct and personal presence of someone else who looks at me. Hence for a therapeutic dialogue it is of utmost importance that the client gets the chance to look at the counsellor, which implies that the counsellor will also look at the client: to divert one’s eyes would then mean a refusal of contact and encounter. When both look at each other, they encounter each other directly. The look of the client is the other itself, that gazes at the therapist in absolute directness and frankness, and thereby speaks to the therapist. In other words, both do not originally stand beside each other (Miteinander), as Heidegger posits, but facing each other: ‘eye to eye’. And it is precisely this directness of facing each other that makes possible both the sincerity of the (therapeutic) encounter as well as the invitation to it.

The expression of the look refers, as was already made apparent inadvertently in the description above, to language or rather to dialogue. “The epiphany of a face is wholly language” (PIF 55). This language, however, should not primarily be understood as an objective linguistic system but rather as the fact that the other speaks to me and vice-versa. This is not about a discourse but an ‘invocation’ and ‘response’ between two people who direct themselves to each other and speak to each other. “The claim to reach the other is realised in the relationship with the other that is cast in the relation of language, where the essential is the interpellation, the vocative. The other is maintained and confirmed in her or his heterogeneity as soon as one calls upon her or him, be it only to say to her or him that one cannot speak to her or him, to classify the other as sick, to announce to the other her or his death sentence; at the same time as grasped, wounded, outraged, the other is ‘respected’. The invoked is not what I comprehend: he is not under a category. He is the one to whom I speak” (TI 69). By means of the fact that either the therapist or the client addresses the other, the counsellor and the counsellee are detached from themselves and appealed for a response. The word of the one elicits the counter-word of the other. And the fact of this dialogue that precedes every content is the first and most fundamental ‘miracle’ of the encounter between persons, a client and a therapist (ET 28).


1.3.The asymmetric reciprocity of therapy: the client as other is my master

This reciprocity of speaking to each other, however, is neither neutral nor formal, but a qualified reciprocity in the sense that the dialogue is marked by the primacy of the other. The other comes before me: her or his speaking is the basis for the therapeutic encounter. Both the fact that the client as other speaks to the therapist and what the other consequently says establish the counselling as dialogue itself. The other is my master: by means of speaking to me the other does not only express her- or himself but he also ‘teaches’ me. Even though it is possible that by means of her or his address the counsellor elicits the word of the other, still the word of the client comes first. By means of speaking, the other indeed determines and orientates the dialogue. In this regard, the speaking of the other can in no way whatsoever be reduced to one or the other form of Socratic maieutics (TI 171). The word and the first content of this word, namely the alterity of the other, comes to me from elsewhere and contributes more to me than what I find and contain in myself (TI 51). The word of the counsellee does not arouse any idea that was already slumbering in the counsellor; it teaches the therapist something completely new: “the absolutely new is the other” (TI 219). If the other were not to speak to me I would neither experience nor know the other in her or his alterity. In that sense is the other my teacher, who educates me masterfully about her- or himself, without my having possessed this education already in the depths of myself – as a source of affinity and recognisability – or my being able to let it simmer up from within me (TI 69). Hence Levinas states, making use of religious language, that the other who speaks to me ‘reveals’ oneself and thus is a radical, heteronomous – not religious but experiential – form of ‘revelation’. Hence the first teaching of the other is the fact of one’s insurmountable alterity: “the first teaching of the teacher is his very presence as teacher” (TI 100). The therapist cannot foresee or predict the word of her or his client entirely. He or she is not the designer who takes initiative; on the contrary, the therapist is the one who receives, listens, obeys – literally the one who gives ear (TI 69). This means that listening is the first way of answering, of being literally ‘repons-ible’ (cf. infra). In a qualitative psychotherapy before everything else the client is given and granted the word. This is made possible by the attentive listening by the therapist to the client. For that, a certain reserve from the side of the counsellor is necessary, in the sense that he or she guards oneself from speaking all too much and thus determine, or even through the overflow of eloquent words ‘terrorise’ (cf. infra), the other. The asceticism of listening more than speaking also implies the ‘silence’ of the therapist, to be sure on condition that it is not an indifferent, all too politely distant, rhetorical, or even an icy and aggressive silence, but rather a silence that contributes to the creation of a ‘terror-free zone’ (cf. infra) wherein the client is given the chance to be present and to speak as other. Listening implies being able to keep silent, but the silence must also be a sincere listening, otherwise the moments of silence, whether long or short, become unbearable. This careful listening also implies that the spoken word of the face-to-face takes priority over the written word: “Oral discourse is the plenitude of discourse” (TI 96). The one who speaks assists oneself in order to illuminate one’s word (TI 98) and to correct or even to contradict the interpretations of that word spoken by the counsellor (TI 91). This possibility of ‘contra-dicting’ – speaking again, or literally anew – is essential for therapy as dialogue.

All this means that a therapist is no longer the ‘lord and master’ of the therapeutic dialogue. Ideally speaking, counsellors learned from their professional formation and position to discern and to adjust their position as a superior. To be counsellor requires a constant conversion in the literal sense of the word, namely a reversal of the order: by means of one’s epiphany and speaking, the client becomes the master and teacher to whom the therapist must listen humbly. It is not I, the therapist, who stands at the centre of attention but the other, the client. The other appears as the superior who exercises authority – not to be reduced to power – over me: “To approach the other in conversation… is to receive from the other beyond the capacity of the I” (TI 51).  Perhaps the therapist indeed has something to offer, but first the client must acquire the space to express oneself and to speak. Every therapeutic relationship must thus begin – and begin time and time again – with a form of humility and modesty. The client must tell the therapist about that which concerns oneself the most. This is a wholly different learning than Greek learning, based on ‘know thyself’ (gnothi seauton). In the relationship to the client, the counsellor learns not by descending into himself and drawing out from one’s deepest interiority the wisdom about all things, but by stepping out of oneself and standing open attentively for the other who reveals oneself by speaking to the counsellor. The relationship to the client as other is pre-eminently not an autonomous but a heteronomous event that is based on the counsellor’s awareness of one’s not-knowing. In this regard, the alterity of the client as the starting point for the learning of the counsellor is not only external but also prior and superior. As radical other, the client brings the counsellor round to lay down all pretence and to approach the client with diffidence and respect, so that the other can reveal one’s alterity in all freedom, at the authority of one’s alterity itself.


2.    The ethical dynamics of the therapeutic relationship

With this, however, we have already arrived inadvertently at the level of ethical reflection. Therefore we now direct our attention explicitly to the ethical dynamics of psychotherapy as an I-other-relationship (or even better as an other-I-relationship).

2.1. The therapeutic face-to-face as ethical crisis

Before we enter into the positive dynamics of respect, acknowledgement and responsibility in their different forms, we must first reflect on the negative ethical dynamics, namely the lower limit, that Levinas summarises as: ‘you shall not kill’. It is his foundational insight that a qualitatively ethical relationship between people – just as an ethically qualitative therapeutic relationship  – is impossible without examining the real possibility of an unethical (therapeutic) relationship, in the awareness that an ethically inappropriate relationship is also a relationship, and thus indeed has an impact on the victim of such an anti-relationship.

2.1.1.      The client as other is also vulnerable

Concretely speaking, we follow Levinas in his analysis of the ethical vulnerability of the other, whereby we focus on the vulnerability of the counsellee at the same time. Above, we spoke of mastership and thus about the authority and the strength of the other as ‘master and teacher’. But the strength of the face is also characterised by weakness, a very specific ethical vulnerability. Stronger still, the mastership of the face is based, upon closer inspection, on that vulnerability. The ‘hard and unrelenting’ alterity of the face consists in that the other is irreducible and unassailable in one’s being-other. But actually that is already an ethical statement, since the face can in fact be assailed, meaning to say it can be stripped of its alterity and thus be violated. The paradox is that the face appears in its epiphany as invulnerable, while at the same time it can be negated and humiliated in its alterity. Hence, according to Levinas the face also reveals itself as a “strangeness-destitution” (étrangeté-misère) (TI 75). Since the other comes ‘from elsewhere’, he falls outside the horizon of the familiar world of the ‘I’ (GCM 9). The other is literally a ‘foreigner’: utterly dependent on oneself and abandoned to one’s fate, completely defenceless, in need of help and without refuge, “not autochthonous, uprooted, without a country, not an inhabitant” (OB 91). The nakedness of one’s face runs through up to the nakedness of one’s body, which suffers cold and is subject to disease and ailments. And he is embarrassed by one’s nakedness, which also drives the other to camouflage one’s nakedness by means of all sorts of ‘false pretences’. In short, through the face – and the entire body is face – the other is exposed to all kinds of weather, to disease or old age and decline, and thus to loneliness, suffering and death: “Existence kath’auto is, in the world, a destitution” (TI 75).

In a very particular manner, this vulnerability applies to those who are marked by psychological suffering, including the relational, social and spiritual dimensions of that suffering. Not only does their suffering – depressions, fears, obsessions, corrosive feelings of alienation and absurdity, etc. – ultimately make them fragile and dependent, but the very fact that they have to seek professional help as well, in the awareness that on their own or merely with the assistance of those around them they may not get out of it all. Levinas compares psychological suffering even with physical ‘pain-illnesses’ (douleurs-maladies) whereby the cruelty of the pain becomes the central phenomenon of the diseased state and isolates itself in consciousness, or even absorbs the rest of consciousness. This same ‘pain-illness’ or ‘pure pain’ can sweep the persons who are affected by a form of deep psychic suffering: “the ‘pain-illnesses’ of beings who are psychologically deprived, retarded, mentally deficient, impoverished in their social life and impaired in their relation to the other person” (EN 80). This leads Levinas to label suffering as the ‘excessive’ par excellence, not in the quantitative but in qualitative sense of the word (even though the essential excessiveness of suffering is expressed most acutely in forms of severe suffering). Strictly speaking, all suffering is ‘unassumable’; it is refractory to the ‘I am’ or the mastership of one’s own life. Its fatality and therefore its passivity of ‘pure undergoing’ expresses itself in the incapacity – or the refusal – of consciousness to assemblage the data of life into a meaningful whole: “at once what disturbs order and this disturbance itself. It is not the consciousness of rejection or a symptom of rejection, but this rejection itself: a backward consciousness, ‘operating’ not a ‘grasp’ but a revulsion” (EN 78). Therefore suffering is experienced as ‘evil’, not to be understood as an absence of ‘good’ (privatio boni), but undergone as the ‘evilness of evil’, malignity par excellence (ES 131-132).

2.1.2. Temptation to violence in psychotherapy

By means of his essential and factual vulnerability and poverty the face of the other elicits in others the ‘temptation to indifference’, or even the ‘temptation to violence’ as Levinas formulates it in strong terms (EI 86). Although with this bold statement Levinas goes directly against the positive self-image that therapists cherish narcissistically about themselves, an honest appraisal of reality – especially the reality of themselves – still requires that they acknowledge their potential – direct or more often subtle – violence towards the other. It is only by means of this humility and wisdom that therapists shall be able to prevent and heal their ’predisposition’ to violence: “To be free is to have time to forestall one’s own abdication under the threat of violence” (TI 237).

The question now is, what allows for the fact that the ‘I’, in this case the counsellor, can be tempted to violence. For the answer to this question we must pay attention to the way in which Levinas describes the dynamics of existence of the ‘I’ (and thus of the therapist as an ‘ordinary’ person). Just like all other earthly beings the ‘I’ – as a being – is marked by the attempt-to-be. With a term from Spinoza, Levinas speaks of the conatus essendi (OB 4-5): “the natural tension of being on itself that I have alluded to as egoism. Egoism is not an ugly vice of the subject’s, but is ontology, as we find in the sixth proposition of Part III of Spinoza’s Ethics: ‘Every being makes every effort insofar as it is in it to preserve in its being’; and in Heidegger’s expression about existence existing in such a way that its Being has the very Being as an issue” (PN 70-71). The existence of the ‘I’, and thus of the therapist, is no blank page, no trouble-free existence, but a threatened, fearful and worried existence that displays the inclination – especially when threatened – to fold back into itself whereby it precisely becomes a subjective existence, an I-existence: ‘as-far-as-I-am-concerned’ (quant-à-moi). The attempt-at-being is from the very beginning an ‘effort-at-being’, literally an effort in order to be, a ‘struggle for life’ to use an expression of Darwin (AS 80-83). The exercising of this struggle for life is not so much about being strong but rather about being flexible. Thus the struggle for life as the capacity and the drive to adapt to changing, and especially threatening, circumstances. In this ‘clever’ struggle to exist the ‘I’ does not remain turning within itself and affirming itself (I am I), but steps outward in order to transform the other, namely the world, into its means, its house and environment (TI 116). Even knowledge is introduced in this project of self-unfolding that ensues from the finitude of the ‘I’, in the sense that the ‘I’ literally gets a grasp onto the world by means of developing and applying its knowledge as ‘understanding’. It is knowledge, therefore, in the service of the functional (‘economic’) transformation of nature into a life world for humans as egos. In this manner, the ‘I’ realises itself as an animal rationale: the animality of the struggle for life is raised to the human level of rationality, but this rational humanity remains at the service of animality (PM 169-172).

This dynamism of the attempt-at-being, however, does not only relate to the ‘other’ in nature but also to other people in the world. In its egocentric interest the ‘I’ is inclined to introduce even other people into one’s project of self-unfolding – or, if necessary, if they form too great a threat, to eliminate them. This leads us seamlessly to the ‘temptation to violence’, which Levinas repeatedly refers to when he explores the relationship between the ‘I’ and the other. The ethical benevolence toward the other is not self-explanatory; it is no spontaneous natural given for it must elevate itself time and again above the egocentric selfishness of the ‘I’ that as a ‘for itself’, in its fear for limitation, suffering and death, fights with suppressed energy and with all its means for its own existence.

The basic self-interest of the I strives ‘to reduce the other to the same’ (TI 43). This reduction is the core of all violence, whatever the form may be in which it incarnates itself: visible and direct or indirect, hidden and subtle; bodily or psychologically and socially; mild or extreme; individual or collective; profane or spiritual and religious. The concrete forms wherein Levinas discovers this violence are especially the following: the use or instrumental functionalisation of the other as a ‘means’ of one’s own self development; the abuse of the other, tyranny and enslavement; racism and anti-Semitism, hate and murder. In the context of our Levinasian interpretation of therapeutic relationships, we reflect on a few so-called ‘milder’, non-lethal forms of violence. Although they seem a far cry from murder and destruction, this does not mean that they would be ‘not serious’, meaning to say they would not imply any real violation of the other. Precisely in order to promote the ethical quality of therapeutic dialogue, they must be taken seriously.


2.1.3. Temptation to diagnostic violence in psychotherapy

Firstly, with Levinas we can point to ‘diagnostic reduction’, meaning to say to the inclination of the ‘I’ (therapist) to reduce the other (client) to her or his appearance (cf. supra). Thanks to my spontaneous or methodical and professionally developed observation – ‘vision’ in the literal sense of the word – I endeavour to focus on or get an image of the other, and to know and to understand her or him. By means of one’s face, which expresses itself physically in and through its plastic form, we get a view of the other thanks to one’s appearance, meaning to say thanks to one’s physiognomy, glance, facial expression – and, in extension, thanks to one’s psychological and social body, namely thanks to one’s character, relational network, social and cultural milieu. On the basis of our attempt-at-being and its egocentric interestedness we are inclined to approach the other in her or his observable and objectifiable appearance. Thus the other becomes accessible and understandable to us. Thus I come to know how to deal with the other and how to exercise power over her or him, so that he ‘contributes’ to my own happiness and self-unfolding. If therapists can make clear to their clients how well they understand her or him, they can then obfuscate how much their therapeutic action stands in service of the reinforcement of their own positive self-image as a person and as a professional. In the words of Levinas himself: “You turn yourself toward the other as toward an object when you see a nose, eyes, a forehead, a chin, and you can describe them. […] When one observes the colour of the eyes one is not in ethical relationship with the other. The relation with the face can surely be dominated by perception, but what is specifically the face is what cannot be reduced to that” (EI 85-86). It is of vital importance for every counsellor to realise how in the endeavour to gain good knowledge of the other, on the basis of one’s own perception, one can inadvertently end up in the risk of diagnostic reduction, and thus in the risk of a real, although not always acknowledged and thus subtle form of violence. In this regard, coming to awareness that one as therapist is liable to be tempted to diagnostic reduction is already an ethical awareness, namely that such a reduction is not allowed, in other words that one should not do violence to the other (which will be discussed further).


Temptation to rhetoric in psychotherapy

Another temptation in psychotherapy is that of rhetoric, “the art that is supposed to enable us to master language” (OS 135), and this art can corrupt dialogue in its true nature of ‘face-to-face’. Here Levinas follows in particular the view of Plato, who among others in the Phaedrus (273d) states that in our conversations we often rely on rhetoric in order to approach the other as “an object or an infant, or a man of the multitude” (TI 70). For that, rhetoric makes use of figures of language itself, so that the saying can appear in beauty – as a form of ‘appearance’: eloquence (OS 139). This applies not only to our daily conversations but also to philosophy, ethics, education and religion, jurisprudence and politics (GCM 7-8), and specifically to our psychological conversations and therapeutic interactions with clients. The risk is that a therapist tries to convince the interlocutor by using professionally developed psychological concepts and interpretations of all kinds of ‘syndromes’ as forms of linguistic magic. And as in all rhetoric, one ends up in the temptation to approach the other with a ruse – but that ruse is at the same time embellished in beautiful and elevated language (DF 277), whereby it is not always simple to unmask it as a form of abuse of power, or even of terror. In professional forms of interpretative psychotherapeutic discourse language becomes easily rhetoric and runs therefore the risk to degenerate into a form of violence, in the sense that it attempts to penetrate into the perception and the reason of the client via wordplays rich in imagery and hyperbolic figures of speech conveyed with the necessary pathos (0B 19). The conversation partner begins to think and to understand oneself differently, no longer in conformity with one’s own experience but according to the power of the speaker – and this, according to Plato, turns the speaker into a ‘despot’: probably a friendly and ‘convincing’ despot but still a despot. The risk of rhetorical violence can still be increased by the fact that different therapeutic schools exist like, among others, the psycho-dynamic and psychoanalytic, the cognitive-behavioural or behaviourist and systemic, the humanist or existential, and other possible combination of forms. Each school employs not only its own methodology and style but also its own conceptual framework and discourse, and does so according to its own rhetoric that reinforces itself in the discussion with other schools. Moreover, each school employs its own rhetoric strategies to attract clients…

Levinas can then also state that rhetoric, in more or less aggressive but subtle forms, making use of diplomacy, flattery, demagogy or compassion and altruism, does not approach the other ‘face-to-face’ but rather indirectly and obliquely. This does not mean that rhetoric reduces the other to an object. Rhetoric remains a conversation where despite – or by means of – the ruse and tricks of all kinds of figures of speech, one still remains addressing the other. But precisely by addressing the other as other, rhetoric competes for one’s ‘yes’ which constitutes exactly rhetoric’s ambiguity: a face-to-face wherein violence is done to the other at the same time. Rhetoric is therefore a specific form of violence and injustice, in the sense that one acknowledges the other by means of speaking to the other, but at the same time one tries to seduce the other to give oneself over to the speaker, in our case the therapist. Rhetoric is thus not about a form of violence whereby one launches frontally onto the other as an object or inert reality. The eloquent ‘I’, in this case the counsellor, launches onto the other, in this case the client, as a free being. Via the use of evocative, metaphorical language and reasoning as such, one attempts to penetrate the freedom of the other so that the other will agree freely with what is presented so meaningfully – and thus ‘beautifully’ (!) – in scientific and therefor professional psychotherapeutic language. At any rate, rhetoric will go at lengths to give the impression of free consent to the other. Against this background it is understandable that Levinas argues for the use of simple and direct everyday language (OS 138), although he is aware that even that language cannot do without rhetoric (TI 70). And if we were to keep silent in order to avoid rhetoric, that silence also becomes a form of rhetoric (BV 28). In extension to this, we thus argue for the use of sufficiently sober and brief, ‘naked’ everyday language in therapeutic conversation, certainly when it is about psycho-affective phenomena related to psychological health (or sickness). In that way, the misleading ideological use of all too grandiloquent professional-technical psychological metaphors can, or better should be avoided. And, by means of the use of simple, everyday language, the encounter itself between me and the other, between counsellor and counsellee, can especially remain primary – without being flooded by all sorts of eloquent forms and manners of speaking. One is then no longer concerned about the art of professional speaking but about the encounter with the other as other, whereby the presence and the word of the other take first place: “In everyday language we approach the other instead of forgetting the other in the ‘enthusiasm’ of eloquence” (OS 142).


2.1.4. Temptation to dominance and power abuse in psychotherapy

Another so-called ‘milder’ but yet strong, non-lethal form of inter-human violence, which can also creep into the therapeutic relationship, can be labelled as domination and power abuse. At first sight this seems to be a developed and extreme form of instrumental functionalizing of the client. Upon further consideration forms of power and domination come forth out of self-protection and fear for the power of the other who can equally be a selfish ‘I’, driven by its own strong struggle for life (especially because of its actual situation of alienation). In the psychotherapy, the exercise of power by the therapist remains a permanent temptation especially when the therapist feels threatened. Moreover, the possible misuse of power goes hand in hand with the power position of the therapist as a professional. This is no such temptation that a therapist can put behind oneself once and for all by means of a one-time decision at a certain moment. It can crop up time and again, since a therapist is not immune and perfect but rather a fragile being that can be pushed into the defensive on account of the context and the circumstances. Hence, vigilance and conversion, through ‘inter-vision’, remain necessary in order to accord the client with the deserved priority: ‘the other first!’

With Levinas we must also be aware that the striving for domination through ‘influencing’ and power can be tempted towards the ‘terror of tyranny’. Following Plato, for Levinas (FC 15-17), tyranny consists in an ‘I’ trying to subjugate others – but without killing them – in such a way that in one way or the other they give up their freedom to the ‘lord’, in exchange for the satisfaction of their needs (TI 229). This tyrannical penetration into, and seizure of freedom makes of its victims not only ‘slaves,’ but in its extreme form also ‘enslaved spirits.’ One no longer has an individual will; one loses her or his freedom to think and act. In its consistent form, this means that even the ‘capacity’ to obey an order – which implies freedom – is eradicated. An enslaved spirit acts out of ‘blind’ obedience. Here, ‘blind’ means literally that the ‘servile soul’ not only loses the experience of his or her autonomy but also of his or her obedience. There is no longer any ‘conscious’ obedience, but only an inner, irresistible ‘inclination’ and ‘drive’ to accommodate oneself to the powerful (TI 237). The inclination to submit becomes second nature, whereby the tyranny exercised no longer appears as terror (DF 149).

For an ethically authentic therapeutic face-to-face it is therefore extremely important that the counsellor is aware of one’s possible striving for domination, and of the possible inclination towards the subjugation and subordination of the client. In their existential (and sometimes also material) situation of need and necessity, clients can feel so weak and impotent that they would be prepared to become attached to the therapist who is assisting them. And a therapist can be tempted, in one way or the other, to bind and subjugate clients to her- or himself, that is to say to intimidate and manipulate clients so that clients surrender themselves emotionally and existentially to the therapist. Even though it appears at first sight rather far fetched and exaggerated, tyranny is in no way whatsoever impossible in a therapeutic relationship, precisely because the terror exercised can hide behind the pretence of the docile obligingness and unconditional trust of the client. And thus stories arise time and again – to name but one actual example – of forms of sexual dominance and dependence in therapeutic relationships, with all its pernicious consequences for the client. The latter is often very much aware of the serfdom (vassalage) but the gratification of amalgamating and ‘consoling’ dependence – and of the alleged power of the therapist – is so huge that this awareness of dependence is suppressed (cf. above on the servile soul), till… till one awakens later, which can lead to great shame and anger, not only towards the other but also towards oneself because one did not dare (or was not able) to resist…


Prohibition against crushing the other: the basic ethical condition for psychotherapy

The description of all these facets of the ‘temptation to violence’ was no neutral description, in the sense that they already proceeded inadvertently from an important ethical presupposition, namely the ‘prohibition against violence’, which has been interpreted time and again by Levinas in the unrelenting prohibition: ‘Thou shall not kill’ (EN 30). With this prohibition begins all responsibility and care for the other, and thus also of psychotherapy and counselling. This does disturb our romantic and naïve image of the therapeutic face-to-face, as if it would be based spontaneously, constantly and entirely on goodness, care and benevolence. Our analysis, in line with Levinas, of a few modalities of violence has demonstrated unambiguously how even therapeutic conversation can be subjected to violence and inauthenticity. A therapeutic dialogue is not automatically non-violent because it is therapeutic. Just like every human conversation it is potentially violent. Counsellors who are not aware of this run a great risk – greater than the risk of those who are indeed aware – of ending up in one or the other shrouded or direct form of violence. That is why an ethically qualitative therapeutic relationship begins with the awareness that violence is possible and forbidden!

We would now like to elucidate further what this prohibition signifies, paying special attention to its implications on therapeutic counselling. At the moment that I, on the basis of my attempt-at-being, am tempted by the naked and vulnerable face to reduce the other to one’s appearance or into a means of my self-unfolding, I realise that that which is possible is actually not allowed. This is precisely the core of the fundamental ethical experience that is aroused within the therapist by the face of the client. In the face the counsellor discovers oneself as potentially violent vis-à-vis the other. The face appears as opposition and resistance: it poses itself before the counsellor as a radical ‘halt’ or ‘no’, as an absolute resistance against all the capacities of the counsellor (PIF 55). This is not about a physical but rather an ethical resistance: a resistance of that which actually has no resistance. The banal factuality of violence “reveals the quasi-null resistance of the obstacle” (TI 198). Even though the face is not capable of resisting the factual violence, it still stubbornly remains speaking – without words or in an almost inaudible whisper – the defenceless word: ‘Thou shall not kill’ (OS 94). And of course we already know that ‘Thou shall not kill’ “does not signify merely the interdiction against plunging a knife into the breast of the other. Of course, it signifies that, too. But so many ways of being comport a way of crushing the other” (IFP 53).

Something very paradoxical is apparent here, namely that therapeutic dialogue – as a particular incarnation of inter-human ethics – begins as a shock experience, i.e. as the possibility and the prohibition to cause damage to the client, the other, by means of inflicting violence on the other in one way or the other. The therapeutic encounter begins not with a commandment that prescribes what the counsellor must do, but with a prohibition that indicates what is certainly not allowed. In the conversation that the therapist initiates with the client, the therapist is not primarily faced with the task ‘to do’ something, but rather with the warning ‘not to do’ something. An ethically qualitative therapeutic encounter begins not as straightforwardness and generosity, but as reservation and caution. The fundamental ethical feeling that is aroused by the prohibition against violence is a remarkable form of fear and ‘shuddering’ (OB 84, 87, 192, 195), not concern for oneself but the fear of wanting to kill the other. In this regard, Levinas likewise speaks of a scruple. Literally, the Latin scrupulus means a stone in the shoe whereby one cannot remain standing but is irked to start moving. Scruple is thus an unrest that has a bothersome effect, which is also characterised by Levinas as discomfort and shame: I am anxious that I might in one way or the other grasp and do violence, neglect, violate or damage, use and abuse, reduce to one’s image or diagnosis, manipulate rhetorically, maltreat, dominate or subjugate, in short ‘kill’ and inflict injustice to the other in one’s irreducible and wholly being-other, whereby the other is given over to me, depending on me (GCM 169). We can also label this first ethical movement toward the vulnerable other as “the apparently negative movement of restraint” (NT 126). Confronted with the principal affectability and factual vulnerability of the client, the therapist is demanded to restrain and to withdraw oneself. An ethically qualitative therapeutic dialogue begins as the paradox of the shrinking or ‘self-contraction’ of the therapist. It is not with impetuous haste that enthusiastically drives forward and thus threatening to crush the client, but with trembling and inhibition that the counsellor approaches the counsellee. Or to put it differently still, the ethical relationship of the therapist to the client begins as hesitation, embarrassment about oneself, a movement of self-questioning: ‘Oh my, what am I doing…? Am I perhaps too obtrusive, too rough, too self-assured and unconcerned? Or am I too concerned with myself and my own image or appreciation by others?’ The appearance of the other traumatises me so that I begin to feel uncomfortable (OB 51). “[The face of the other] calls into question the naïve right of my powers, my glorious spontaneity as a living being. Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself [being sure of itself in its naïve spontaneity], feels itself to be arbitrary and violent” (TI 84).

All this implies that an ethically qualitative therapeutic encounter cannot tolerate any form of violence by the therapist towards the client. This demand for non-violence is the primary ethical task of the counsellor, whatever the context of the therapeutic conversation may be. It is such a fundamental ethical task that it precedes all other ethical modes of approach to the client. Its fundamental character is at the same time wholly paradoxical since by not killing or by not using any (direct or indirect) form of violence, one has in fact not yet done anything. If a therapist refrains from violence, everything else still remains to be done, whereas through obedience to the prohibition the conditions for a salutary therapeutic interaction are created.

By means of the prohibition ‘Thou shall not kill’ and the ethical scruple or reservation that has been aroused within me, the radical asymmetry between me and the other – between the counsellor and the client – still becomes more visible than was already demonstrated above. The ethical prohibition instigates the “curvature of the intersubjective space” (TI 291). By means of the prohibition, the ‘I’, the counsellor, and the other, the client, are distinguished from each other in a radical way, not only phenomenologically but also ethically, precisely because they are placed before each other in ‘non-in-difference’. This difference does not depend on their respective, distinct qualities nor on their coincidentally unequal psychological dispositions and moods during the therapeutic encounter (TI 215). It lies in the ‘I-other-conjunction’ itself: by means of its demanding – forbidding – character, the face of the other – the client – stands as an authority above the counsellor. Out of its ethical ‘highness’ the face comes towards the counsellor with an appeal. With Levinas we can also call this the ‘sacred height’ of the face of the client (PIF 56). As such, the client as other is not the counsellor’s equal, but her or his superior: not only her or his master who teaches and reveals something radically new, as we saw above, but also a ‘lord’ who as a ‘Thou’ commands the therapist unconditionally from the eminent height of the other’s face: “The interlocutor is not a Thou, he is a You [pas un Toi, il est un Vous]; he reveals himself in his lordship” (TI 101). That is precisely the paradox of the epiphany of the face of the client: as the factually lesser and ‘needy’ one, the client as the irreducible other that speaks and appeals to the counsellor ethically is her or his superior, by whom the therapist must let oneself be orientated. Thus, the mastership of the other, the client, sketched above, is reinforced or rather ethically qualified. Thus the primacy of the other likewise acquires its full ethical weight. The other comes first, not because he or she is better or occupies a more interesting social position, but rather because in and through her or his face as ethical appeal the other exercises authority over the therapist, to be sure a disarmed authority because by means of its prohibition the face cannot force but only appeal to the therapist.


Psychotherapy as multidirected responsibility for the other

It is only by means of obedience to the prohibition against violence that in psychotherapy space is created for the positive interpretation and realisation of counselling as an ethical relationship toward the client, the other. Levinas characterises the positive ethical relationship toward the other with the synthetic term responsibility. In counselling, one strives not only not to inflict violence on the other but one strives also and especially for the well-being of the other as much as possible, whatever the methodological paths may be that a certain psychotherapeutic ‘school’ develops and applies.


3.1. Recognition and affirmation of the uniqueness of the client

Let us now look more closely upon this responsibility. Different dimensions can be distinguished therein. A first dimension of therapeutic responsibility has to do with establishing and promoting the client as a unique other. It is a responsibility that allows a client to raise her or his voice: the voice of the irreducible, lofty other, the true master and teacher for every therapist. This responsibility is more than not killing or not using violence. It is also the fundamental choice and attitude of acknowledgement and respect for the being-other of the client. Concretely, the therapist acknowledges the client by believing in that other. This means no subjugation of the other but a turning towards the client that confirms its alterity. By means of giving recognition to the client, the counsellor respects and confirms its face as an expression of its unique being-other: to show respect is to bow down before a being that commands me. Hence, Levinas can state that “speech is a relationship between freedoms which neither limit nor negate, but affirm, one another” (ET 43). By speaking to each other they bind themselves to each other, but at the same time they are not swallowed up in this dialogue: they remain transcendent with regard to each other. The reciprocity of this respect is no formal relationship of someone who speaks to someone else. On the contrary, it is about an ethically qualified reciprocity in the sense that the client, who is confirmed in its unique being-other and mastership by the counsellor, responds to this recognition with its word and story and thus also gives recognition to the therapist. This does not mean that a reciprocal recognition becomes the condition for the recognition by the therapist: the recognition of the counsellor remains asymmetric and unconditional.

An essential and at the same time concrete form of recognition in therapeutic dialogue consists in paying the necessary and deserved attention to the other as other: “the eminently sovereign attention in me is what essentially responds to an appeal. The exteriority of its point of departure is essential to it: it is the very tension of the I” (TI 99). This attention initially expresses itself (1) by the simple but not simplistic form of greeting the other – ‘good morning’ (bonjour) as a ‘first blessing’ (AT 98); (2) by addressing the other using the other’s ‘proper name’: the other not as a particular case of a genus but as unique ‘you’; and (3) by finally listening carefully to the other, as we already explained in the first part of this contribution. These are all forms of what Levinas calls ‘ethical courtesy’, incarnating the choice of giving priority to the other: “After You!” (IFP 47, 49).                                                    With Levinas, we can in psychotherapy call the special way to pay attention to the uniqueness of the other the ‘noble casuistry’ (LAV 121). The positive value of casuistry consists in that it constantly takes into account that which it faces along with the concrete situation of every ‘casus’. Or rather, it approaches persons and situations not as exemplary applications of a general principle or as a particularity of a clinical syndrome, but on the contrary, it approaches them in their irreducible and unrepeatable, ‘extra-ordinary’ uniqueness. We cannot deny that casuistry has often had (and still has) a pejorative reputation, often because of its own deficiencies. Some have employed this methodology hypocritically or even abused it in order to justify themselves or to judge (or condemn) others. Indeed, while painting a concrete situation, one can always find details to justify one’s judgement ideologically, whatever that judgement might entail. Nevertheless, casuistry is a matter of great importance for every therapy and counselling, as it is in essence the striving for an actual estimation, understanding and ‘re-understanding’ or ‘re-interpretation’ again and again of the unique person in her or his unique situation. It is especially the acknowledgement of the fact that a being finds itself before me that is utterly new or ‘hapax’: someone else – a wholly other – who is there for that one single instance, here and now, beyond every difference based on genus and species. In this regard, ethical casuistry is an eminent precautionary measure against every form of ideology and reduction, which makes of the singular case a concrete deduction of the general principle – bad casuistry (LAV 122).

 3.2.  Psychotherapy as responsibility for the responsibility of the other

After this general consideration of the therapeutic responsibility to acknowledge the client in her or his unique being-other and right to act, we would like to specify further the task of the counsellor by appealing to the way in which Levinas in his second major work Otherwise than Being or Beyond the Essence (1974) radicalises the idea of responsibility by describing it as “responsibility for the responsibility of the other” (OB 117). We can distinguish two aspects therein, on the one hand, the care for the responsibility of the other for oneself, and on the other hand, the care for the responsibility of the other for others.

3.2.1. Emancipatory aspect of the therapist’s responsibility for the other 

Our responsibility for the other indeed shows a remarkable paradox. Thanks to its heteronomous and altro-centric origin and orientation, it implies a transcendence of the attempt-at-being of the ‘I’, the therapist, as we explained above. But this transcendence directs itself at the same time to the attempt-at-being of the other, the client. It is not only the recognition of the client (‘other’) by the therapist (‘I’) that is important, but also the care for the ups and downs of the counsellee in its very concrete self-unfolding, namely the unfolding of its ‘attempt-at-being’ into an independent and free existence. In the therapeutic encounter, attention for the other must be such that the other is not reduced to an ‘object’ of responsibility, but rather be promoted to a ‘subject’ of responsibility. In that sense the claim of the client does not stand at odds with the radical heteronomous responsibility of the therapist, but the one has need of the other. The responsibility of the counsellor sees to it that the ‘mastership’ of the client, the other par excellence, which was made explicit above, takes on its true ethical form. By means of one’s responsibility for the client as ‘other before me’, the therapist makes real the ethical mastership of the other. The responsibility for the client implies indeed the essential care for his or her being independent or free from alienations, anxieties and obsessions and becoming mature, otherwise there is no authentic therapeutic relationship. The I-other-relationship is indeed, according to Levinas, only possible when the partners of the encounter are radically separate from each other and are not swallowed up in the relationship (and the conversation), but remain separate: “Simultaneously, in dialogue is hollowed out an absolute distance between the I and the You, absolutely separated by the inexpressible secret of their intimacy, each being unique in its kind as I and as You, each one absolutely other in relation to the other. […] On the other hand, it is also there that unfolds […] the extraordinary and immediate relation of dia-logue, which transcends this distance without surpassing it or recuperating I” (GCM 145). Or formulated still more pithily: “The same and the other at the same time maintain themselves in relationship and absolve themselves from this relationship, remain absolutely separated” (TI 102). What is remarkable here is that the relationship and separation do not stand side by side, but are mutually dependent on each other. The irreducibility between the partners of the dialogue is the condition for a non-fusional, non-violent encounter. And it is in and through such an encounter that they receive their separateness as well.                                                                       Thus the alterity of the client becomes, thanks to therapeutic dialogue and thanks to the responsibility of the therapist, confirmed and promoted. With Levinas we can call this the true miracle of therapeutic conversation, and of all authentic conversations. We would also like to call it the emancipatory dimension of the heteronomous responsibility ‘by and for the other’, whereby the evil – the real risk of paternalistic and moralistic tyranny – in therapeutic dialogue can be prevented. Or rather, this needs to be avoided at all costs in order to guarantee the ethical quality of therapeutic dialogue. The awareness that one can be inclined, precisely from one’s ‘power position’ as counsellor, to emphasise only the psychological, affective or existential ‘neediness’ of the client and as such make the other dependent or keep the other imprisoned in (the yearning for) dependence, forms an essential part of an ethically qualified therapeutic responsibility. The therapist who takes on correctly her or his responsibility for the client throughout the course of the dialogical interaction creates space and possibilities for the affirmation and development of the independence and responsibility of the client for oneself. This of course is not the same as denying unrealistically the dependencies and alienations or ‘demons’ with all kinds of old and new names that afflict and ‘possess’ the client, since this is probably the reason why the client has approached the counsellor. It rather means that one does not identify the client with these depersonalising dependencies and alienations, so that precisely in and through the encounter and the dialogue, space is created in order to tap the (realistic) potentialities of growth of the client. Authentic therapeutic responsibility means that the counsellor stimulates the client to express oneself and make oneself present in one’s unique being-other, so that the dialogue can unfold into a true partnership – without thereby destroying the ethical asymmetry: an asymmetric reciprocity. This emancipatory approach to the client as subject of its own attempt-at-being (conatus essendi) likewise implies that the counsellor appreciates not merely by acknowledging and by ‘resonating’ or ‘mirroring’ the contribution of the other, but that the counsellor also dares to react with questions and comments that contribute to the counsellee’s being able to express oneself more and better. Only thus can the banal and pitying sentimentalism of a merely ‘accommodating’ conversation be avoided. A real and robust, at the same time circumspect and respectful, therapeutic dialogue is based on the face-to-face of two unique persons that approach each other with an open view and that confirm each other in their unique alterity in and through this directness.

The emancipatory dimension of the therapeutic relationship should therefore not be understood incorrectly, as if the therapist would not be capable of being critical towards the client. The therapist is, after all, responsible for the well-being of the client. This is not the same as giving in time and again to the desires and longings of the client. What clients find (subjectively) important, namely ‘the good in their own terms’, is not automatically identical with what is (objectively) desirable or fair, ‘the real good’. It does not mean that one must not pay attention to the longings that clients express, and this with the necessary benevolence. The above-mentioned concept of emancipatory responsibility remains simply intact. It does mean that – on the basis, among others, of professional knowledge and wisdom – one must remain alert and critical in order to investigate, to weigh and ponder, in order to judge in one’s honour and conscience – without boldness but likewise without fear – about what truly contributes to the well-being of the client. This can imply that therapists choose not to give in to the requests of the client, especially if these requests are formulated as ‘demands’ and ‘rights’ in the form of pleading, insisting, urging (and thereby appealing to their fragility…). Think for instance of the situation wherein clients request for (strong) anti-depressants or consider them normal, on the basis of their non-relenting psychological suffering… . It is one thing to listen to the client and even take into account his or her refusals and resistance, even to the point when they say ‘no’. It is another thing to say no as a therapist, at times necessary however painful, to the desires of the client, when one is convinced that condoning them would simply be damaging or not helpful in the long run to their well-being. Precisely the responsibility of the therapist for the other implies that his or her alert and critical voice should not be obliterated in the therapeutic inter-change. By introducing in all honesty their reservation and critical reflection in the therapeutic encounter, therapists likewise acknowledge the unique being-subject of the clients. In and through the face-to-face of the one-before-the-other, the client is not reduced to an object but is promoted to a subject. And this in its turn is simply therapeutic, meaning to say healing and liberating for the client.


3.2.2.  Responsible for the client’s responsibility for the other

We need to go a step further, in a certain sense different from what Levinas himself says in his philosophical view on responsibility, even though he remains our inspiration for this new step. It is namely important in the description of the ethical structure and modality of therapy and counselling as responsibility for the other, not only to have an eye for the subjective side of the responsibility, i.e. the therapist’s being responsible, but also for the objective side, i.e. for the one to whom the responsibility is directed. If one pays no attention to the ‘object’ of responsibility of the counsellor, namely the client, this can give rise to pernicious lopsided developments so much so that the responsibility by the other (therapist) for the other (client) can be transformed into its own opposite. In concrete, applicable terms, the question indeed not only is what this responsibility means as choice and attitude for the therapist but also where it leads or should lead. If we do not pose this second question it is very likely that the therapeutic care for the other, with all possible effort and commitment, ends up in the contrary result for the client. That is why we apply the concept of asymmetrical responsibility not only to the therapist but also to the client, whereby it concerns two forms of responsibility that intersect each other. The responsibility of counsellors for their clients is only integral if it grows forth into a responsibility for the responsibility of those clients not only for themselves (cf. supra) but also and in particular for others. Levinas affirms explicitly that an ethically excellent existence consists in this: “to elevate the care-for-self of living beings to the care-for-other in man” (TN 1). In other words, if we only apply the idea of responsibility for the other to the therapist, our analysis falls short and gives rise to a one-sidedness with dangerous consequences. It is indeed not impossible that the engagement of therapists for their clients ends up in an egocentric and utilitarian result in the clients. The caring responsibility for the other, the client, can be very altro-centric and unselfish, but this can unintentionally entail as well that one leads the client – the goal of our responsibility – to a conventionally smug, self-sufficient life wherein what is only or mainly important is the care for oneself. To put this paradoxically, the altruism of the one can lead directly to a promotion of the egotism of the other. Not only the ‘I’ but also the other, the client, can be selfish, indifferent, rude, dominant, manipulative, exploitative, violent, tyrannical, racist, immoral in one way or another… Does a therapist for example have to accept a bullying client, an aggressive father, a sexist teacher, a paedophile’s abuse of children, sexist or racist utterances of intolerance, etc.? It is indeed contradictory to bend just an empathic ear to unethical proposals or evil behaviour of clients… Precisely for that reason, the emancipatory promotion of the other to free self-determination and creative self-expression, as sketched above, should never have the final word. In therapy one probably will not start with the other-oriented responsibility since – precisely from the standpoint of therapy – one is faced with the urgency to attend first to the psychological problems and needs of the client. Yet the ethical dimension of the responsibility for the other deserves a place in the therapeutic process. And this is non-committal: in no way should it be in principle neglectful or exclusivist. In other words, it is not about an optional possibility that could just as well be left out, but it is on the contrary about an essential dimension of the ‘integral human being’ – at which therapy is or rather must be directed (which is its global ethical normativity). People can be sick of too much ethics (for instance through a crushing awareness of responsibility and sense of guilt), but they can also be sick due to too little ethics! For that reason, the therapeutic dialogue must go beyond itself. Not only must it be the expression of self-transcendence in the therapist, but also in the client. Through the epiphany of the other, who come in their vulnerable existence, counsellors are made responsible for the responsibility of the other, not only for itself but also for others. In other words, the counsellor is faced with the challenge to take up her or his responsibility for clients in such a way that they are helped and stimulated to acknowledge and take up in turn their heteronomous responsibility for others. If this does not happen, the therapeutic guidance ends up contradicting itself, destroying even its own dynamism and meaning: in an extreme ethical attention for the client as radical other, that other is then only led to pose itself centrally at the cost of others.

Concretely speaking, this implies for therapeutic dialogue that, if necessary, one also confronts the client with the boundary rule mentioned above of ‘Thou shall not kill’ as an expression of the prohibition against violence, abuse, consumption, humiliation, indifference, exclusion, denial… In the non-violent space of therapeutic conversation, everything can be said by the client, but this does not mean that everything is allowed. If in the therapeutic dialogue the counsellor adopts only a ‘compliant’ and ‘understanding’ attitude and does not remain critically alert to the non-allowable boundary transgressions by the other, the counsellor then misunderstands and corrupts one’s own responsibility and the responsibility of the client. The client as well is responsible for ‘her’ or ‘his’ others, in community and society. Hence, in one’s responsibility for the client the therapist must not be led to the temptation by the uniqueness of the other to close up oneself in an exclusive in-crowd of the ‘I-you’ with the client. A counsellor must be alert time and again for the others with whom the client is also connected, beginning with the ‘hidden’ others of the client’s family, relational and social network, and cultural milieu. If one neglects the real responsibilities and connections of the client with those absent third parties, then one inadvertently encourages the egocentric utilitarianism, against which we have argued above. An ethically qualitative therapeutic dialogue should never enclose itself in the cosy in-crowd of only a mutual ‘I-you’. The therapist is tasked not only ‘to hear’ the voice of the vulnerable client but also ‘to awaken’ the other to a manifold responsibility, not only for oneself but also for others, not only for those who are near but also for the absent others with whom one is invisibly but no less really connected in society.[1]

Thinking through this idea of the responsibility of the client for others, we arrive at the insight that the prohibition ‘Thou shall not kill’ likewise applies to the attitude of the client towards the therapist. In other words, the client also has a minimum responsibility towards the counsellor in the sense that the client should not ‘kill’ the therapist, meaning to say inflict violence, menace or violate…. If the therapeutic encounter is truly an inter-human dialogue of two separate and distinct subjects, not only the client but also the therapist must stand up for himself or herself. Taking up responsibility for the client by entering into the therapeutic interaction does not in any way mean that the therapists lose or should give up their voice. He or she remains an irreducible, unique person who may – and must – ‘say no’ to the client that despises or attacks his or her dignity as a human being. Even if the counsellor in taking up responsibility gives full attention and priority to the other (cf. supra), this can never mean that the counsellor would let oneself be ‘killed’ (in any form whatsoever) by the client. That would a mistaken sense of responsibility: a detrimental form of altruism and ‘self-effacement’. Precisely because the therapist takes seriously the responsibility of the client for others, the therapist may and must protect his or her integrity in the therapeutic relationship.

Only thus does the therapeutic relationship fully embody what Levinas calls “the order without tyranny” (FC 23), and this in two directions. The ethical acknowledgement of the one (the counsellor) for the other (the counsellee) consists in questioning and avoiding all abuse of power and tyranny towards the other. In this sense the therapeutic recognition and promotion of the unique otherness of the other expresses the exigency of a non-violent face-to-face. Such a non-tyrannical relationship, however, cannot come from one side only, namely only from the side of the counsellor. It must likewise come from the counsellee. The client as other is vulnerable, indeed, simply by means of the fact that he or she appeals to a carengiver, a therapist or a counsellor. But the client can also abuse this vulnerability and even use it as a weapon of power not only to influence the counsellor (which can still be positive) but also to force the counsellor to take certain pronouncements, agreements or actions by means of some form of manipulation, humiliation, if not subtle terror. Hence, therapeutic counselling must be reciprocal on the ethical level: from both sides – not only from the counsellor but also from the counsellee – it must be non-tyrannical and non-violent. In that, both therapeutic counsellor and counsellee are radically equal and their relationship and dialogue must therefore be based on mutual respect (cf. also supra): “I recognize the other [the counsellee]; that is, I believe in her/him. But if this recognition were a submission to the other, the submission would take all its worth away from my recognition; recognition by submission would annul my dignity, through which recognition has validity. The term respect could be taken up here, provided that it be emphasized that the reciprocity of this respect is not an indifferent relation, and that it is not the outcome of, but the condition for ethics. To show respect cannot mean to subject oneself. The one respected is not the one to whom, but the one with whom one renders justice. Respect is a relationship between equals. And justice presupposes this original equality. All the slackness of the world filters in through friendly faces as soon as the relationship of mutual responsibility is suspended” (4ET 43-44, passim). Only in and through this ethical reciprocity, based on the ethical asymmetry of non-reciprocal responsibility – in the sense that the responsibility of the other for me doesn’t presuppose my responsibility for the other – the therapeutic relationship acquires its full meaning and quality, coming from the ‘I’ (therapist) towards the other and proceeding from the ‘other’ (client) towards me.


Concluding without concluding: Psychiatric care beyond therapeutic counselling

We certainly have not said everything that can said about psychotherapy as an ethical event. Due to the focus of this essay, we could not enter extensively into that. Yet we would like to call to mind a few aspects and view them, as in the foregoing reflections, in a Levinasian perspective.

Psychotherapy is not only a form of responsibility to ‘stand by’ the clients via counselling and to strive for an achievable form of ‘well-being’. Clients do not only need conversation and counselling but also care for their existence, their ‘being’. Hence, psychotherapy likewise needs to develop itself as a broader form of care wherein attention is given to the ‘being’ of the client. Counsellees are, after all, often people in ‘material’ need, usually as a consequence of their psychological disorder(s). They are also destitute creatures, marked by bodily shortcomings and needs… that as a result require deeds of assistance. “The other’s hunger – be it of the flesh, or of bread – is sacred” (DL XIV). And thus we cannot, ethically speaking, approach the other with empty hands; that would be a vain and hypocritical gesture. The relationship with the other does not take place outside the world like a sort of ‘elevated’ and ‘spiritual’ contemplation of his or her alterity or ‘mystery’, but only in and through the world. Our responsibility for the other is consequently entirely ‘earthly’ and thus requires the tangible, material gesture of ‘assistance’ to those in need, seeking an answer that is as adequate as possible to their needs. For that reason, Levinas labels this responsibility for the other become flesh as ‘work’ (HO 26-27) and  ‘diacony’ (HO 33). The word of acknowledgement must become flesh in deeds: ‘works of mercy’. The (often multi-faceted) ‘need’ of the other thus requires – demands – that we avail of all means and discoveries of a scientific and technical nature. In that way, responsibility by and for the other is transformed into goodness: “This is positively produced as the possession of a world I can bestow as a gift to the other – that is, as a presence before a face. For the presence before a face, my orientation toward the other, can lose its avidity proper to the gaze only by turning into generosity, incapable of approaching the other with empty hands” (TI 50).

The confrontation with the psychological suffering of the other, that mostly carries through to bodily – and psychosomatic – suffering, implies for psychotherapy the ethical demand to be more than the ‘answer’ of counselling, namely to develop itself into concrete forms of care and assistance. What is ‘peculiar’ – and at the same time the most evident – is that this tangible care for the destitute client – destitute as a consequence of or as an expression of his psychological problem – requires organised forms of assistance and aid. All sorts of goods and services are then concretely offered in the context of institutions and provisions, for instance psychiatric clinics and units or residential settings…. Here we arrive at Levinas’ view on the ethical necessity to organise the goodness of the one-for-the-unique-other in a social manner, and thus give it shape through ‘objective mediations’ (OB 157-159). The world is not only the two of us, but the three of us, the ten, the hundred, the thousand, the very many more. Hence, goodness must become fairness and justice whereby all people are treated equally. And since most others are ‘third party’, meaning to say not directly present, we have the ethical task to transform justice – which is inspired by goodness – into an organised, institutional, structural justice. Hence, giving shape to care for psychologically and psychosomatically injured people by means of institutions like psychiatric residential and care centres is not only a fact but likewise an ethical necessity. And this organised psychiatric care – in line with Levinas’ thought on organised responsibility for others ‘in the plural’ – cannot be left to the charitable generosity of a few and of private groups; it is likewise the ethical task of society as the structural responsibility of everyone and for everyone (OS 123-124). Here we come across what Levinas calls, following Aristotle, the ‘polis’ or the ‘political’ and the ‘state’.

But even with this affirmation of the ethical importance of organised psychiatric care that is worthy of the name humane, not everything has already been said. Time and again, Levinas emphasises that the final word never arrives, or rather should never be given to social systems, neither on the level of the state nor on the level of intermediary social, economic, financial, juridical organisations and structures. In support we cite a text by Levinas, which we slightly paraphrase in the context of his argument: “There are, if you like, the tears that a civil servant [and mutatis mutandis a representative of a social system] cannot see: the tears of the other. In order for things to work and in order for things to develop an equilibrium, it is absolutely necessary to affirm the infinite responsibility of each, for each, before each. In such a situation [of any social, economic and political order or system], individual consciences are necessary, for they alone are capable of seeing the violence that proceeds from the proper functioning of Reason itself. To remedy a certain disorder that proceeds from the Order of universal Reason, it is necessary to defend subjectivity. As I see it, subjective protest is not received favourably on the pretext that its egoism is sacred but because the I alone can perceive the ‘secret tears’ of the other, which are caused by the functioning – albeit reasonable – of the hierarchy [and administration] [in social organisations and institutions]. Consequently, subjectivity is indispensable for assuring this very non-violence that the state [and every social, economic, legal order] searches for in equal measure – but overlooking at once the unicity of the I and the other” (TH 23).

Hence for Levinas every political and social system needs to transcend itself, and thus every system of psychiatric care as well. A social system should never become a ‘definitive regime’ that determines and regulates in a total and absolute manner the demands for goodness and justice for everyone. Such a regime would be a totalitarian regime that pretends to know what the real and final Good is. Then the good is perverted into evil, in the name of the Good, which is unbearable. And those who have to undergo the system or collaborate with it will – hopefully – arrive at the moral indignation about the ‘evil of the system that elevates itself into the incarnation of the good’. Hence he points out the ethical necessity of questioning time and again every social system so that a better system can arise from it, without again labelling this improved system as the ‘final Good’…. Levinas does not refrain from arguing for a ‘permanent turnover’ in every social structure and organisation (). And hence in an open social system – in this case, an ethically dynamic psychiatric care system – there must room for appealing to human rights that primarily involve the rights of the vulnerable other. And appealing to human rights is not only a ‘right’ of the client but also and especially of the psychiatric caregivers. Precisely through the face-to-face dialogue with the client, the therapist is specially placed to discover how the psychiatric system works in an alienating or depersonalising manner on unique clients. This means that the therapist is faced with the appeal to give voice to the voiceless and to stand up for their rights within and against the system.

Last but not least, according to Levinas, those who bear responsibility in a social system, especially the individual caregivers and counsellors, are faced with the ethical challenge of the ‘small goodness’ (al petite bonté) (EN 199). This concerns a specific form of goodness as we have already described above, in relation to the social system, namely as the transcendence of the system, but also as the lever to lift and shake up the system so that it can become more humane. He calls this goodness ‘small’ because it proceeds from the unique ‘I’ (counsellor, caregiver) to the unique other (the vulnerable and injured client). It does what no other system, however well-organised, can do, namely address here and now the need of the singular other with a concrete form of assistance. This goodness is likewise small because it is everything but spectacular, because it wants to be everything but total. It is about a modest, partial goodness that does not pretend to solve everything at once and for all time, and thus create paradise on earth. With full enthusiasm and dedication, it does what it can, without wanting to have everything in its grasp. We can call this humility and modesty the parsimony of the small goodness. It is aware of its own vulnerability and finitude but for that reason it does not remain cynical or defeatist. It is this common, unremarkable goodness, however, that is and remains the ethical spark in a social system that time and again is inclined to stagnate. It protects the system from suffocating and thus suffocating or paralysing those persons involved – especially the clients but also the caregivers – through, among others, the temptation of comfort offered by ‘conventionality’ and ‘docility’ towards the system. Even though the small goodness is nothing more than a smouldering fire under the ashes, its flame can again bring about movement and change in an organisation, institution or structure running to a dead end.

To conclude, we let Levinas have the last word: “In the decay of human relations, in the social misery, goodness persists. In the relation of one person to another person, goodness remains possible. It puts all rational organization with an ideology and plans in doubt: the impossibility of goodness as a government, as a social institution. Every attempt to organize the human fails. The only thing that remains vigorous is the goodness of everyday life: the small goodness. This little kindness of one for another is a goodness without witnesses. That goodness escapes all ideology: it can be described as goodness without thought. Why without thought? Because it is goodness outside all systems, all religions, all social organizations. Gratuitous, that goodness is eternal. It is the feeble-minded [esprits simples] who defend it and work at its perpetuation from one being to another. It is so fragile before the might of evil [and before the might of the evil of good in social systems]. It is as if all the simple-minded would try to douse the worldwide conflagration with a syringe. For despite of all horrors man has brought about, that poor goodness holds on. It is a ‘mad goodness,’ the most human there is in humans. It defines humankind, despite its powerlessness. ‘It is beautiful and powerless, like the dew’ (Vasily Grossman). What a freshness in this despair” (AT 107-109, passim). Thanks to it, a social system – institution, organisation, structure – never acquires the final world on what is valuable and good. Thanks to it, the ‘ethical individualism’ (TH 24) of the responsibility of the one for the other – in this case, of the therapist for the client – gets not only the first but also the last word, without perverting into a promise of eschatological fulfilment and final realisation: “the good must be loved without promises”. Beyond the idea of the collectively organized Good a therapist incarnates, or better has to incarnate, “the goodness without regime, the miracle of goodness” (IFP 81): a pure goodness that promises nothing, but that likewise does not despair of the good. “The small goodness does not conquer, but likewise is not conquered” (EPA 47).


[1] In this context we cannot neglect referring to the impact that therapy – and thus the therapist throughout his or her counselling – has, not only on the client but also on the client’s ‘neighbours’. The face-to-face dyad of the therapeutic relationship cannot be isolated from its impact on the client’s ‘third parties’. Depending on the outcome of the therapeutic process, a number of others in the social network of the client are affected, for good or ill. For instance, it is possible that the emancipatory growth of the client due to therapeutic intervention means a loss for the partner or the family members of the client, or for the community wherein the client lives or works…. Even this relational and social ‘impact’ of counselling affects the responsibility of the therapist in the sense that this impact is likewise the ‘subject’ of the therapeutic dialogue.