For a long time Western culture has thought about people in terms of individuals, atomistic individuals. The Hebrew Bible doesn't understand persons that way. Early Greek philosophy and its successor, medieval philosophy, understood the person to be part of an ordered cosmos and, therefore, also part of a human social order. To be ethical meant to accommodate oneself to the cosmic order and that order's manifestations in the world, such as state, church, community, and family. But beginning in approximately the sixteenth century, Western thought separated the person from the wider whole and took the individual to be the unexplained building block on which the family, community, church, and state are built.
In the atomism of modern philosophy, the individual mind is fundamental. It is metaphysically separate from the world and from all other people. The person is sundered from the whole, from an ordered cosmos that gives meaning. Indeed, the cosmos is no longer ordered. Except for the causal order of the material universe, all is primal chaos, and the Spirit of God no longer hovers over it. Adrift in an ethically chaotic universe, the good is no longer a matter of cosmic order. It can be no more than what Hobbes says it is, namely, "the object of any man's appetite or desire" (Leviathan I, 6). In a universe like that, attachment to other persons, as in friendship or love, is difficult to describe except, perhaps, as an act of will. But the act of will has no ground itself and can be revoked at any moment—as many seem to understand love today.
Just after the middle of the twentieth century, a French-Lithuanian philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, responded to the morally rudderless universe I have just described. He was hardly the first to do so. But Levinas took a radically different approach than others by arguing that the basic assumptions of modern thought about relationships between people are mistaken.
Levinas argued that in a world in which human beings are fundamentally independent from one another, meaning is impossible. (See, for example, Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis [Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969] 55, 93-94). Meaning, he says, presupposes that I am already in relation to someone else, someone who has made those meanings possible (Totality and Infinity, 261). My relation to the other person comes from that other person. My language doesn't come from me, but from another.
Notice an implication of what Levinas says: passivity - receptivity—rather than will is at the heart of human relationships with other persons and the world. Of course human beings can act, but we do not understand the possibility of meaning if we reduce our relationship to the world to that ability, ignoring our capacity to be acted upon, to receive. I do not know the world only because I have touched it, whether physically or mentally. I know the world because it first touches me. I am touched before I touch. And I am touched not only by the things of the world, but also be the other persons of the world. Against the background of this understanding of the importance of passivity to human being-in-the-world, Levinas' startling claim is that the physical loving relationship to another person gives rise to meaning.
In loving touches, lovers address themselves directly to the other person rather than to the idea of the other person or to the feelings that one has about the other. Startled cries of sudden pain are expressive but not yet about anything. Similarly, the cries and caresses of love are not about anything. They are the acts of love rather than its content. In those acts, one makes rather than means love, and one makes love to the person rather than to the idea of the person.
Levinas' understanding of the loving caress is important because it shows that we are in contact with what others have called "the thing in itself," though that with which we are in contact is no thing. We are in direct contact with other persons, not just contact mediated by our thoughts and ideas.
Equally important, our contact comes in being affected (affection) rather than in effecting. The Levinasian argument is that meaning arises from contact, primarily contact with the other person from whom we acquire language. The touch of the other person is not the only contact we have with things outside ourselves, but it is the most important. And, Levinas argues, the fundamental way of being affected by others is found, as the word affection suggests, in love.
Since the phenomenon of love has two aspects, the lover and the beloved, it is not something that I can create by myself. What I can do as a lover is not an act in the ordinary sense: I do not act on something else to bring about a result. Like the biblical prophets responding to God, in an act of love like a caress the lover says to the beloved, "Here I am." Obviously "Here I am" signifies more than the place of the lover in the world. It is an announcement of welcome; it says "please be my guest," the literal meaning of the word welcome.