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French Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


In Proximity: Emmanuel Levinas and the Eighteenth Century by Melvyn New, Robert Bernasconi, Richard A. Cohen (Texas Tech University Press) In a world in which everything is reduced "to the play of signs detached from what is signified," Levinas asks a deceptively simple question: Whence, then, comes the urge to question injustice? By seeing the demand for justice for the other‑the homeless, the destitute‑as a return to morality, Levinas escapes the suspect finality of any ideology.

Levinas's question is one starting point for la Proximity, a collection of seventeen essays by scholars in eighteenth‑century literature, philosophy, history, and religion, and their readings of Spinoza, Kant, Goethe, Wordsworth, Behn, Defoe, Fielding, Sterne, Diderot, Laclos, and Mendelssohn. The title In Proximity alone speaks volumes about Levinas's philosophy and its relevance today. "If it is true that we are, through technology, moving closer and closer to one another," writes editor Melvyn New, then "the importance of proximity and our response to it cannot be overstated." For the contributors to this volume, the question of whether we may, ethically, appropriate the object of study for our own causes has become vital. Levinas asks us to see ourselves, our own reading, "in proximity" to what is not ourselves, not our understanding of the world.

The dialogue created among the essays themselves establishes an enormous diversity of texts and ideologies to which Levinas can contribute something of significant value.

Driven Back to the Text: The Premodern Sources of Levina's Postmodernism by Oona Ajzenstat (Duquesne University Press) Most of the scholarship on Levinas treats either Levinas the Philosopher or Levinas the Jew. Driven Back to the Text is one of the first extended studies to treat the two as one: Levinass philosophy through Judaism, and his Judaism through philosophy. Beginning with a clear introduction to Levinas, the book argues that if, as is accepted, contemporary continental philosophy is heavily influenced by Levinas, and if Levinas is heavily influenced by traditional Jewish texts, then contemporary continental philosophy is at least to some extent influenced by Judaism.

Oona Ajzenstat holds a postdoctoral fellowship with the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, where, previously, she was the Ray D. Wolfe postdoctoral fellow in the Jewish Studies Programme. She is currently working on a book on Jacques Derridas Judaism.

At the core of Ajzenstats work are three examinations of Levinas reading and rewriting. In the first, she suggests that the sequence of biblical references used by Levinas in Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence form a subtext of midrash that grounds and illuminates his ideas at every turn. The second proposes that the images that Levinas draws upon in Otherwise and Totality and Infinity of mystics Abraham Abulafia and Isaac Luriaimages of rupture and healingare central to his thought. And the third offers an interpretation of one of Levinass talmudic lectures and discusses the way the ideas raised therein form a framework for the ethics of difference he presents in all of his work. Driven Back to the Text demonstrates that what is at issue here is the Holocaust, and how it drives Levinas back to the Bible, the Kabbalah and the Talmud to fight against Hegelianism, totalitarianism and modern progressivist liberalism. This very return suggests a certain hermeneuticone that both brings out of the texts what the readers society needs to hear as well as one found in the texts; that is, it is an ethical hermeneutic and is part of the texts ethics.

God, Death, and Time by Emmanuel Levinas, translated by Bettina Bergo and Jacques Rolland (Meridian: Stanford University Press) The texts we shall read here reproduce the discourse of two lecture courses taught by Emmanuel Levinas in the academic year 1975‑1976. These were the last of his regular teaching duties at the Sorbonne. One of the lectures was given from 10:00 A.M. to 11:00 A.M., the other from 12:00 P.M. to I:00 P.m., on every Friday. The lectures' proximity in time is like the materialization of their philosophical proximity. Now, a few remarks are in order, several of which will be taken up again and explicated in the Postscript to this volume.

The proximity of the two courses is explained by the fact that, although one chose the intersecting themes of death and time, while the other questioned the "word beyond measure" that is the Name of God, both courses work along the lines of the philosopher's coming to grips with the question that beats at the metaphoric heart of his thought: the interhuman relation, understood as an ethical relationship. It is on the basis of the ethical relationship that the three concepts just named pose a question within Levinas's written work and determine the progress of the discourse in these two series of lectures. This amounts to saying that, while they were not written out by Levinas himself, they can and should be considered an integral part of his philosophical work. Let us specify all the same that they belong to the style (in the sense in which one uses the term for a painter)‑begun immediately after the publication of Totality and Infinity (Duquesne University Press: 1969; hardcover)that found its most overwhelming philosophical expression in the harsh and intrepid Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (Duquesne University Press:1974) and in a few shorter essays most of which were collected in Of God Who Comes to Mind (Stanford University Press1982). The reader is entitled to know (as Maurice Blanchot would say, a question of methodological probity) that these lectures should be studied in their strict connection with the texts of this period.

"These lectures should be studied": let us pause a moment on this point. First, it should be emphasized that, in this edition, we have carefully preserved the actual character of lectures (with references to dates, the recollection of previous lectures, the occasional foreshortening, summaries, and digressions, and, in the case of "God and Onto‑theo‑logy," the indefatigable recovery of the question itself), because these constitute one of the rare traces of the philosophical teaching of Professor Levinas. But it should not be imagined that this "oral teaching" contains some radical novelty in the way that we suspect, in Plato, an oral "esoteric" doctrine that is different from the "exoteric" one, which the tradition transmitted to us. No: Levinas's case would be closer to that of Husserl, regarding whom the former considers that the unpublished material contributes nothing new in relation to the published works.' We should point out straightway, then, that the same thinking that was written in the books and essays mentioned above is found here. This is of no small importance, in other words, when one has to do with a thinker so attentive to the question of language and to the marvel of speech.' Indeed, this can be surprising when we think of Heidegger, in whom it is difficult, and perhaps ultimately useless, to distinguish between essays and lectures (to recall a title).'

In other words, yes: of no small importance‑but here, our "other words" are doubly "otherwise." Indeed, we must point out to the reader, before he or she engages in the reading of these pages, what differentiates the two courses, which seem so close to each other that they appear at times to enter into a reciprocal competition. Each course poses and re‑poses, recovers and repeats the question of the Other as a question addressed to me in the face of the other man: the very heart of Levinas's work. However, the first lecture course does so in order to conjoin two concepts, death and time, whose harshness was dulled at the very moment that they became concepts as philosophy, seized hold of them. Now, these concepts came back as first questions with Hegel and especially with Heidegger. As questions, they compelled certain figures to the task of thinking. These thinkers went unrecognized as philosophers by Heideggerians, which is not the case with Levinas. I mean here Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, Buber, Bergson, and others. This is why the course unfolds in its principal part in the form of a dialogue with the philosophical tradition, that is, in the first person, with philosophers welcomed, each one, in his or her own right and name. This is an exceptional case in Levinas, who, as a professor, sought essentially to teach the history of philosophy, but who, as a writer, worked as if to imply this history without "conversing" (to borrow a surprising expression from the second lecture course) with his partners.

The second lecture course tracks a unique concept par excellence and, for all of philosophy, the highest of all concepts‑which Heidegger, once again, showed to have turned thinking from its proper task and likewise from its true home: God God who is, par excellence, but who is to such a degree that he hides being and the question that being harbors; the summum ens, according to the classical or traditional name, which crushes and offends the esse, or rather the eivat with all its supremacy. Assuredly, Levinas responds. But a question arises: who lost in this game? Was it being ‑or God? If Heidegger insisted upon proving that the first response was the right one, Levinas will attempt to question the second eventuality. He will do so as a pioneer, and in a certain fashion, for although philosophy has known a few "flashes" in which God glimmered like an enigma; the philosophy of Greek origin was above all given to betraying him and taking him for a foundation. Consequently, the lectures of the second course do not follow a progression in the form of a dialogue or as a conversation, but rather make a sign toward the history of philosophy in the way that Levinas does in his "written teachings." The second course's lectures above all unfold, or seek to articulate in solitude, this unique question. This is a face‑to‑face of the unique before the Unique!

This likewise explains why the two lecture courses each required a battery of notes of different natures. For the first course, it was necessary essentially to locate and situate the themes of thinkers with whom Levinas converses ad infinitum [dinfini]. This was necessary in order to give their themes back to them in letter and in name.

As to the second course, it was above all a matter of making explicit certain clusters, turns, stations, and bright points of this patient exercise in thinking that is questioning. We must again alert the reader' that this questioning represents an otherwise said of one of the most adventurous and frightfully difficult essays of Levinas's entire corpus, "God and Philosophy."

ALTERITY & TRANSCENDENCE by Emmanuel Levinas, translated by Michael B. Smith ($29.50, hardcover, 195 pages, European Perspectives, Columbia University Press; ISBN: 0231116500)

The New York Times, December 27, 1995 eulogized

Levinas' thought influenced several generations of French philosophers and, bolstered by his reflections on the Talmud, won an admiring readership among Jewish and Christian theologians, among them Pope John Paul 11, who often praised and quoted his work .... His writings were filled with strikingly phrased insights and with key terms and concepts .... Liberation termed him 'a man of four cultures': Jewish, Russian, German, and French. The World Jewish Congress hailed him as a philosopher who 'never ceased to pursue his quest for a world morality following the Holocaust.'

Internationally renowned as one of the great French philosophers of the twentieth century, the late Emmanuel Levinas remains a pivotal figure across the humanistic disciplines for his insistence, against the grain of Western philosophical tradition, on the primacy of ethics in philosophical investigation. ALTERITY & TRANSCENDENCE, the first English translation of a series of twelve essays, offers a unique glimpse of Levinas as he defines his own place in the history of philosophy. As such this work is a pivotal introduction to his thought as it reflects on some of the principle thinkers in the western tradition as they deal with the functional meaning of transcendence.

Published in his maturity between 1967 and 1989, these writings, including two interviews, exhibit a refreshingly accessible perspective. Without presupposing an intimate knowledge of the history of philosophy, Levinas explores the ways in which Plotinus, Descartes, Husserl, and Heidegger have encountered the question of transcendence. Later, in discourses on the concepts of totality and infinity, he locates his own thinking in the context of pre-Socratic philosophers, Aristotle, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, and Descartes. Always centering his discussions on the idea of interpersonal relations as the basis of transcendence, Levinas also reflects on the rights of individuals (and how they are inextricably linked to those of others), the concept of peace, and the dialogic nature of philosophy. Finally, in interviews conducted by Christian Chabanis and Angelo Bianchi, Levinas responds to key questions not directly addressed in his writings. Throughout, ALTERITY & TRANSCENDENCE reveals a commitment to ethics as first philosophy obliging modern thinkers to investigate not merely the true but the good.

In Levinas's incisive model, presented in ALTERITY & TRANSCENDENCE, transcendental notion often forgotten in the contemporary world is indeed alive, not in notions of our relationship to a mysterious, sacred realm but in the idea of our worldly, subjective relationships to others.

ENTRE NOUS: On Thinking-Of-The-Other by Emmanuel Levinas, translated by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav($35.00, hardcover, 256 pages, Columbia University Press, ISBN: 0231079109)

ENTRE NOUS (Between Us) is the culmination of Levinas's philosophy. Published in France a few years before his death in 1995, it gathers his most important work and reveals the development of his thought over nearly forty years of committed inquiry.
Along with several trenchant interviews published here, these essays engage with issues of suffering, love, religion, culture, justice, human rights, and legal theory. Taken together, they constitute a key to Levinas's ideas on the ethical dimensions of otherness. Working from the phenomenological method of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Levinas pushed beyond the limits of their framework to argue that it is ethics, not ontology, that orients philosophy, and that responsibility precedes reasoning. Ethics for Levinas means responsibility in relation to difference. Throughout his work, Levinas returns to the metaphor of the face of the other to discuss how and where responsibility enters our lives and makes philosophy necessary. For Levinas, ethics begins with our face to face interaction with another personseeing that person not as a reflection of one's self, nor as a threat, but as different and greater than self. Levinas moves the reader to recognize the implications of this interaction: our abiding responsibility for the other, and our concern with the other's suffering and death. Situated at the crossroads of several philosophical schools and approaches, Levinas's work illuminates a host of critical issues and has found resonances among students and scholars of literature, law, religion, and politics. ENTRE NOUS is at once the apotheosis of his work and an accessible introduction to it. In the end, Levinas's urgent meditations upon the face of the other suggest a new foundation upon which to grasp the nature of good and evil in the tangled skein of our lives.
Translator's Acknowledgments
Author's Preface
ONE Is Ontology Fundamental?
TWO The I and the Totality
THREE Levy-Bruhl and Contemporary Philosophy
FOUR A Man-God?
FIVE A New Rationality: On Gabriel Marcel
SIX Hermeneutics and the Beyond
SEVEN Philosophy and Awakening
EIGHT Useless Suffering
NINE Philosophy, Justice, and Love
TEN Nonintentional Consciousness
ELEVEN From the One to the Other: Transcendence and Time
TWELVE The Rights of Man and Good Will
THIRTEEN Diachrony and Representation
FOURTEEN The Philosophical Determination of the Idea of Culture
FIFTEEN Uniqueness
SIXTEEN Totality and Infinity. Preface to the German Edition
SEVENTEEN Dialogue on Thinking-of-the-Other
EIGHTEEN "Dying for..."
NINETEEN The Idea of the Infinite in Us
TWENTY The Other, Utopia, and Justice

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), a pioneer of the phenomenological method, exerted profound influence on prominent postmodern thinkers including Derrida, Lyotard, Finkielkraut, Irigaray, and Blanchot. Among his seminal works that have been translated into English are ENTRE NOUS (Columbia, 1998), Ethics and Infinity (Duquesne University Press, 1985), Totality and Infinity (Kluwer Law International, 1980) Time and the Other (Duquesne University Press, 1990), and Existence and Existents (Kluwer Law International, 1978).

Introductory anthologies to his work are well represented in English by Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings (Indiana University Press, 1997) and more technical collections in Collected Philosophical Papers (Duquesne University Press, 1998).

Levinas contribution to general religious thought is represented by Of God Who Comes to Mind (Stanford University Press, 1998). We have a review pending.

Also Levinas important Talmud commentary is now appearing and ought to broaden his appeal of his thought. Both New Talmudic Readings (Duquesne University Press, 1999) and Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures (Indiana University Press, 1994). Reviews pending.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR: Michael B. Smith is professor of French and Philosophy at Berry College in Georgia. He has translated several of Levinas's works, including Outside the Subject (Stanford University Press, 1993) In the Time of Nations (Indiana University Press, 1994), and Proper Names (Stanford University Press, 1997), and, with Barbara Harshav, ENTRE NOUS (Columbia, 1998).

EMMANUEL LEVINAS Basic Philosophical Writings, edited by Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi

Indiana University Press

$15.95, paper, 201 pages, notes, index



This reader offers a key selection of Emmanuel Levinas’s most important philosophical writings. Ten of Emmanuel Levinas’s most important philosophical essays, five of which are translated here into English for the first time.

" ... An important aspect of Levinas’s relevance lies in his relationship to Heidegger. Without ever denying his great debt to this master, Levinas has been the first and fiercest critic of Heidegger’s thought among the French philosophers of this century. Although his interpretations of Heidegger are sometimes debatable, Levinas’s criticisms and his proposals for a drastic transformation of philosophy cannot be ignored. For many French authors, including Ricoeur, Derrida, Marion, Nancy, and Chretien, Levinas’s work has become seminal in their endeavor to develop a post-Husserlian and post-Heideggerian philosophy.

"Levinas’s discussion of the classics of philosophy provide a critical diagnosis of Western civilization. His critique has no doubt been intensified by his own experience of victimization and genocide in our enlightened but murderous century. Levinas’s oeuvre offers itself as a possible guide for those who think that a certain kind of philosophical wisdom is still possible. In light of his personal experience and thought it is not surprising that this guide encompasses profound analyses of the relations of ethics, religion (especially Judaism), and philosophy...." —From the Introduction

This book presents the essentials of Levinas’s philosophical thought through a representative selection of texts Levinas wrote after his rupture with Heidegger in the 1930s. The editors have added introductions and notes to each piece; to justify the selections. Here are noted briefly some aspects of the texts chosen which make them appropriate as an introduction to Levinas’s thought.

"Is Ontology Fundamental?" (1951), is Levinas’s first explicit and extensive criticism of Heidegger’s philosophy; the reasons why Levinas, despite his lasting recognition of and respect for Heidegger, takes leave of "the climate of that philosophy" are clearly stated and remain constant in all Levinas’s later work. "Transcendence and Height" (1962), is programmatic in character. Here Levinas summarizes the main lines of argument in Totality and Infinity from an epistemological perspective and discusses with members of the Societe francaise de philosophic some of the problems this argument raises. "Meaning and Sense" (1964) can be read as Levinas’s discourse on method; in a critical confrontation with Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, Levinas shows how his style of thought differs from phenomenology, a philosophical method which he continues to practice as an obligatory passage to any thinking beyond phenomenology. "Enigma and Phenomenon" (1965) resumes Levinas’s discussion of the phenomenological method. Against Husserl and Heidegger, Levinas contends that the dimension of the phenomena cannot be the ultimate; he analyzes the enigmatic character of a revelation that is not a phenomenon and indicates how we can approach it in philosophy. "Substitution" (1968) is the first English translation of the essay that Levinas heavily revised to make it the core of Otherwise than Being, a core to which all interpretations of his work should refer. "Truth of Disclosure and Truth of Testimony" (1972), supplements "Meaning and Sense" and "Enigma and Phenomenon." Through a critique of the Greek-European conception of truth, Levinas shows the necessity of a prophetic truth that surpasses, precedes, and transforms this conception without destroying it altogether. "Essence and Disinterestedness" (1974), is a summary of Otherwise than Being in which the argument and the connection between its topics is stated. "God and Philosophy" (1975) answers the difficult question of how we must understand the statement in Totality and Insanity that the alterity of the Other is both "the alterity of the human Other and of the Most-High." The essay is essential for an accurate understanding of Levinas’s view on the relationships between first philosophy, ethics, and religion. "Transcendence and Intelligibility" (1984) is probably the clearest and most succinct statement of Levinas’s thinking about thinking. In just a few pages it contains the core of his metaphilosophy. "Peace and Proximity" (1984), may be read as a conclusion that opens a way to the future. The essay indicates how Levinasian "ethics" can be developed into an account of politics. At the same time it sketches the ethical orientation according to which Europe might overcome its particularisms and move toward peace.

Abbreviations of Works by Levinas
1. Is Ontology Fundamental?
2. Transcendence and Height
3. Meaning and Sense
4. Enigma and Phenomenon
5. Substitution
6. Truth of Disclosure and Truth of Testimony
7. Essence and Disinterestedness
8. God and Philosophy
9. Transcendence and Intelligibility
10. Peace and Proximity


Emmanuel Levinas's Ethics as First Philosophy

by Robert John Sheffler Manning

Duquesne University Press

$38.95, cloth; 267 pages, notes, bibliography, index



Manning's study of the French Jewish philosopher Levinas's insistence that all philosophy be grounded in ethical concern before it assumes any position, is a radical response to the moral agnosticism of his mentor Heidegger. This study of Levinas is a lucid introduction to a still under appreciated philosopher of the first order. It is accessible and introductory.

Emmanuel Levinas major works available in English include:

Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings (Studies in
Continental Thought) by Emmanuel Levinas, Adriaan T. Peperzak (Editor), Simon Critchley (Editor). Published by Indiana University Press.

The Levinas Reader (Blackwell Readers)by Emmanuel Levinas, Sean Hand (Editor). Published by Blackwell.

Outside the Subject (Meridian : Crossing Aesthetics)by Emmanuel Levinas. Published by Stanford University Press.

Proper Names (Meridian-Crossing Aesthetics) by Emmanuel Levinas, Michael B. Smith (Translator). Published by Stanford University Press.

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures by Emmanuel Levinas, Gary D. Mole (Translator). Published by Indiana University Press

Discovering Existence With Husserl (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) by Emmanuel Levinas, Richard A. Cohen (Translator). Published by Northwestern University Press.

Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority by Emmanuel Levinas. Published by Kluwer Academic Publications.

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