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Unjustifying Pain: Levinas’s Philosophy of Useless Suffering

Ended Jun 18, 2023

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Full course description

Friday, June 9th, 2023 | 1-4pm (ET) | Fully Online Workshop

Eligible for 3 CEs for Psychologists, LMHCs, and Social Workers. 


Levinas’s philosophy provides a remarkably focused and prolonged attempt to present a singular idea. The suffering of the other person, he argues, renders me responsible without qualification, evasion, or limitation. All of his innovative ideas about time and language are developed in his ongoing attempts to articulate this singular and unique idea. His relentless return to suffering has made his work appealing to psychologists, whose work would be trivial and academic were it not for the very real events of psychological suffering. Patterned after medical models for healing, the language surrounding suffering has been dominated by attempts to comprehend the cause and purpose of suffering. Healing, in medicine, is often maximized by comprehensive knowledge of the injury. Levinas resists this model, and psychologists who read his work find themselves torn between two different worlds. He claims that both suffering and responsibility transcend words and understanding, but we must surely speak of suffering in order to engage in any kind of responsibility for it.

This seminar takes its orientation from Levinas’s article “Useless Suffering,” in which Levinas makes the striking claim that suffering can be “meaningful in me, useless in the other.” Our conversations will focus on the paradoxical problem of suffering and words we might use to label and address it. Levinas turns vehemently against the use of theodicy to justify suffering - or protect God from responsibility of it - but his point is not particularly theological. He’s out to undermine all efforts to apply meaningful labels or paradigms to the suffering of others. When it comes to speaking about suffering, or speaking with those who suffer, how might Levinas help us confront the pervasive and harmful legacy of psychological disciplines which operate under tremendous pressure to comprehend, explain, quantify, and treat human suffering?

Learning Objectives:

At the conclusion of this presentation the participant will be able to:

  1. Evaluate the language used to describe suffering in psychological diagnoses, and the relationship to this linguistic genre and the critique of Levinas.
  2. Evaluate the language used to describe suffering in the parlance of routine conversations in psychotherapy, particularly in light of Levinas’s claims about ascribing “use” to suffering.
  3. Analyze the vocabulary utilized to describe and address suffering in light of the dangers raised by Levinas’s critique.

Timeline and Requirements:

The workshop will take place on Friday, June 9, 2023. This workshop is presenter-led and is a fully online experience. This will be conducted synchronously online via Zoom from 1:00 pm-4:00 pm (ET). 

CE Sponsorship: 

University Counseling Services of Boston College is approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists. As a co-sponsor of this program, University Counseling Services of Boston College maintains responsibility for this program and its content. Participants will be eligible to receive 3 CE units from University Counseling Services of Boston College. 

The Lynch School of Education and Human Development is providing sponsorship for CEUs for Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC). Participants will be eligible to receive 3 CE units. These credits are accepted by the Massachusetts Board of Registration for Licensed Mental Health Counselors (Category I contact hours in Content Area I).

This program has been approved for 3 Social Work Continuing Education hours for relicensure, in accordance with 258 CMR. NASW-MA Chapter CE Approval Program Authorization Number D91801.

Participants must attend the workshop in full and complete the post event survey to be eligible to receive CEs.

Fees & Policies:

Payment is due by credit card at registration. Registration closes June 9th at 1pm. Refunds will be granted only up until the start of the workshop. No refunds will be granted for registration or technical errors on the participant's part (such as incorrect name/email, login failure, etc.).

This workshop is made possible through the support of Grant 62632 from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed by these presenters do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

The Center for Psychological Humanities and Ethics is happy to offer a 75% discount to graduate students at institutions associated with the Cura Psychologia Project (Boston College, Holy Cross, Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and Seattle University), made possible through the support of Grant 62632 from the John Templeton Foundation. Please contact for further information about discounted pricing.

We strive to host inclusive, accessible events that enable all individuals to engage fully. If you need to request an accommodation or ask a question about accessibility, please contact

Additional offerings from the Lynch School Professional & Continuing Education Office can be found on our website. 


Eric Severson is a philosopher specializing in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. He is author of Before Ethics (Kendall Hunt, 2021), Levinas's Philosophy of Time (Duquesne University Press, 2013) and Scandalous Obligation (Beacon Hill Press, 2011), and editor of eight other books. Severson teaches philosophy at Seattle University.