The ethicist who looked the 'other' way

Entre Nous
June 4, 1999

For much of his life, Emmanuel Levinas was as a prophet in his own country. While his thought drew respect from philosophical friends such as Jacques Derrida, it went largely unrecognised by the intellectual community that was its natural home. But in recent years, Levinas has become fashionable, regarded by many as the moral philosopher of the continental tradition. Perhaps both facets of this reception are because of the strange yet compelling quality of his work, which grows out of a single, simple thought: meaning is derived from ethical responsibility to the "other".

Beginning as a student under Husserl in the 1920s, until shortly before his death in 1995, Levinas elaborated on this idea, refracting it through different philosophical angles, working out its connection with notions of reason, time, justice and God.

A Lithuanian Jew who lost most of his family to the Nazis, Levinas brought what must have been deep-rooted and pressing concerns to his life's work. Although allusions in his writing to the Holocaust are rare, he intimated that his philosophy was motivated and marked by it. Yet while he chose the language of philosophy as his medium, he subjects it to a thorough critique for its elevation of conceptual idols, such as "being", over the ethical. And in aspiring to express "transcendence", Levinas uncovers the inadequacy of theoretical language, a limit that his work reflexively highlights. The sense of being pointed "elsewhere", and the resulting ambivalence to philosophy, perhaps accounts for the distinctiveness of Levinas's thought: in a sense it is anti-philosophy that turns on something akin to faith.

This translation of Entre Nous , first published in French in 1991, brings something of the range of Levinas's thought to an English readership. Its 20 pieces show him meditating on a spread of themes, from love to Heidegger, yet always returning, in the way of an obsessive, to his core idea. One starts, for example, to read a talk in which Levinas bravely considers the significance of Jesus before a Catholic audience to find before long that, surprise, the "man-God" signifies nothing other than his ethically imbued account of the self.

This monomania is part of Levinas's charm, but it does make for repetition. In this collection, those familiar with his thought will find themselves retreading the same ground, while those seeking an introduction would be better served by one of the readers on the market.

One notable exception is "Useless suffering", a rich, compact essay that combines a phenomenological analysis of suffering with an exploration of the 20th-century problem of evil. It shows Levinas at his best, still true to the preoccupation that drives him but pushing it to develop something really original. But such reading experiences are hard won in this anthology.

Alex Klaushofer is lecturer in philosophy, Regent's College, London.

Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other

Author - Emmanuel Levinas
ISBN - 0 485 11465 8
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £45.00
Pages - 256

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