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Two-sided Vulnerability

Robert Bernasconi is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Professor Bernasconi is the editor of two journals, Levinas Studies and Critical Philosophy of Race, and is known for his work on Levinas, race, and racism.  Anya Topolski, the night’s collocutor, is assistant professor of social and political philosophy at Radboud University, and has published on Levinas, Arendt, and race. The chair of the discussion is Simon Gusman, who is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Radboud University.

“If you have trouble hearing me, just wave your hand. If you want to fall asleep, fall asleep, I don’t mind.” It is with these somewhat misleading words that Robert Bernasconi, on a warm evening in June, opens his lecture on Levinas and vulnerability. A lecture in which he very successfully manages to engage a loaded room filled with involved listeners with the thought of French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.


After being introduced by Simon Gusman, professor Bernasconi immediately cuts to the chase by issuing a warning to his audience: vulnerability is in some way a very popular topic these days, but this poses a threat to the notion itself. This popularity inflates the term, and because of this inflation Bernasconi wants to reassess the meaning of vulnerability through the thought of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Professor Bernasconi emphasizes that there are different perspectives through which the notion of vulnerability can be seen. For instance, the social sciences regard vulnerability as a problem that needs solving: those that are vulnerable must be helped. The philosopher, however, asks whether vulnerability is a problem to be solved, or whether it is a part of the human condition.


Emmanuel Levinas, who studied under Husserl and Heidegger and was incarcerated as a POW during World War II, opts for the latter. From a Levinasian perspective, vulnerability is constitutive for being human. Through the thought of Levinas, vulnerability can be thought as a form of relationality. Bernasconi elaborates on this through an example: in modernity there is assumed that there is some kind of abstract individual, and seen through that lens, vulnerability would only say something about the other. But when vulnerability is thought as relationality, the vulnerability of the other would not only say something about the other, but rather also something about what that vulnerability means for me.

The Carnegie report

What does this mean, then? How should relational vulnerability be understood concretely? Bernasconi illustrates this by using a historical example taken from Tiffany Willoughby-Herard’s book Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability. In 1932, the Carnegie commission published a report which focussed on the status of poor white people in South Africa. The question surrounding this report is: why did the commission focus on the poor white people, and not on the poor black people (as well)? Bernasconi states that it are the poor white people, contrary to the economically prosperous white people, that threaten the ‘racial logic’ on which South Africa is build: the hierarchy between the white people with European roots and the ‘indigenous inhabitants’ of South Africans with non-Europeans is threatened because of the poorness of some of the white people. Bernasconi emphasizes that in a first reading, the Carnegie report seems to be on the vulnerability of the poor white people. However the report actually turns out to be about the vulnerability of the rich white people whose white privilege is being threatened.

The ‘two sides’ of vulnerability

The laws on segregation and education, and eventually some laws preceding apartheid, need to save these rich white people. When you see vulnerability in the light of relationality, you question not only your responsibility but also your relation to the other: how does the other’s vulnerability threaten me, how does it threaten the story I want to tell about (my) society? To what extent do I need the vulnerable? To what extent do I want to limit the vulnerable? The vulnerability of the other also shows something about your own vulnerability: the rich South African white’s concern with the vulnerability of the poor white people, shows their own vulnerability. The measures the rich white people supposedly take to help the poor white people fight their vulnerability, eventually turns out to be for the sake of protecting their own white privilege. The (then present) racial logic and hierarchy within South Africa are threatened when some of the white people become as poor as the black people already are.

An ‘enriched’ Levinas

Through the example of the Carnegie commission, Bernasconi wants to enrich the Levinasian perspective. He states that a response to the vulnerable is not only in affectivity, but also in outrage, in responsibility. Responsibility in Levinas means: we are all responsible, but I am more responsible than the others. If vulnerability is affectivity, we have to think about how we are to expose us to vulnerability in our life. A different perspective on vulnerability is needed for this. Bernasconi enriches Levinas’ understanding of vulnerability by stating that we must recognise that vulnerability is at its heart ambiguous. We want to live in a simplistic world: there is selfish and there is selfless. Surely this serves a lot, but what Levinas shows is that there is pain and enjoyment in the very case of vulnerability: doesn’t it also give a pleasant feeling, a kind of complacency, when you give money to someone in need?

Our own fundamental vulnerability

Bernasconi’s strong take-home message is that we must not think in terms of “there are the vulnerable” and maybe I’m sometimes vulnerable. No, it is through relationality that vulnerability must be thought: “we have to be always examining ourselves, in the sense of being aware of our own fears, of our own vulnerabilities. Of the way we try to breed fear and vulnerability in other people.” We let ourself to be persuaded by the idea that it are the immigrants that are the problem, because we want to maintain our position. But Bernasconi reminds us that we must not run away from our own fundamental vulnerability.

This report was written by Senne van den Berg, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.