Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas Between Revelation and Ethics
By Samuel Moyn
Cornell University Press, 268 pages, $29.95.
Humanism of the Other
By Emmanuel Levinas, translated by Nidra Poller
University of Illinois Press, 136 pages, $18.
The belief in the human soul is perhaps the most enduring remnant of traditional religion. Even those who have rejected religion entirely, or never practiced it to begin with, still hold the indefensible, illogical belief that there is something intrinsic, inalienable and essential about the individual human soul — that spark that makes each of us special.
If you think about it closely, however, this belief is nonsensical. Everything you are, each decision you make and every thought in your mind, each has its own causes and conditions, from genetics to what you ate for breakfast this morning. The causes are uncountably manifold, and impossible to know, but of course they exist. Western religion and our own experience may suggest that there is a “ghost in the machine,” a soul lurking within the passages of the cerebral cortex, but neither faith nor intuition is fact. We are, in Carl Sagan’s memorable phrase, “starstuff” — nothing less, but also nothing more.
In the early 20th century, Western philosophy began to work with this materialistic understanding of the human being, finally coming to reject the conventional idea of the individual. In a movement known as phenomenology and led by philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, the human being was presented not as a separate self but as a momentary “mote of Being” — part of, not apart from, the rest of the cosmos. In our time, such notions are more generally associated with the New Age, but 100 years ago they were the vanguard of continental philosophy.
But the theory had unforeseen consequences. If there is no intrinsic value in the individual, if human beings are merely parts of larger realities, then surely the interests of those “larger realities” trump those of their insignificant individual constituents, correct? To fret about a single “mote of Being” rather than the progress of Being itself would be like preserving a rotten tooth rather than saving the mouth from decay.
The consequences were as immediate as they were obvious. In 1933, just six years after publishing his philosophical masterpiece, “Being in Time,” Heidegger joined the Nazi Party. He disavowed his mentor, Husserl, who had been stripped of his university privileges because he had been born a Jew, and cast out his many illustrious Jewish students. For Heideggerian philosophy, if not for Heidegger himself, National Socialism was a step forward for humanity; if certain individuals suffered for the greater good, so what?
Answering that question became the great task of postwar European philosophy. And one of Heidegger’s abandoned students, a man named Emmanuel Levinas, would become one of the greatest philosophers of the century by offering a very different answer from that of his teacher.
For Levinas, born in Lithuania and educated in Germany but a French intellectual for his adult life, the ethical answer to Heidegger is “the Other.” As discussed in Levinas’s mature philosophy, particularly in his masterpiece “Totality and Infinity,” we may experience Being as undifferentiated, and people as part of some larger whole, but when we “gaze into the face of the Other,” that experience is interrupted by someone we cannot know, cannot totalize and cannot reduce to a quantity to be measured against the greater good.
This “Ethics of Alterity” is an answer to both Heidegger and Auschwitz, and it is, as many have suggested, a very Jewish answer. Not simply because Levinas was Jewish, and drew on the work of fellow Jewish philosophers Franz Rosenzweig, Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas, but because to many scholars, placing our responsibility to other human beings over the experience of Being (or God) is a very Jewish thing to do. Yes, we Jews have our mysticism, the theory goes, but our greatest literature has been ethical: the Talmud, the civil laws of the Torah, as well as the general notion of ethical monotheism that God wants the good. Heidgegger had “Being,” but Levinas had responsibility.
Levinas is also regarded as a distinctly Jewish philosopher because of the impact of the Holocaust on his life and thought. This is true even in Levinas’s later work. “Humanism of the Other,” for example, a collection of late essays published this year in a new edition, shows a Levinas in between his two masterpieces, “Totality and Infinity” (1961) and “Otherwise Than Being: Or Beyond Essence” (1974), having long since taken sides against the anti-humanist readings of phe-
nomenology, but also aware of new challenges from existentialism and poststructuralism. Yet even in his later work, Levinas seems haunted by the Holocaust. Not just because he lost much of his family in the massacre, and himself was a French prisoner of war, but because he defines humanity ethically; we become fully human, in the serious, philosophical sense of the word, only when we become aware of suffering.
At the same time, Levinas claimed to be not a religious theologian but a secular philosopher. His “encounter with the other” — a formative moment when one encounters another human who is irreducibly different, and, Levinas says, “infinitely transcendent” — is meant to be a philosophical, not theological, event. And yet, to anyone acquainted with the philosophy of religion, especially Jewish philosophy of religion, these are very familiar terms: The encounter with the transcendent is ordinarily the province of revelation.
It is because of this tension between theology and philosophy that “Origins of the Other,” a new study by Columbia University assistant professor of history Samuel Moyn, argues that, essentially, Levinas’s project doesn’t work. Moyn attempts to show, on historical and philological grounds, that both the grammar and the vocabulary of Levinas’s ethical philosophy are lifted straight from Franz Rosenzweig’s theory of revelation, as well as from the work of German theologian-scholar Rudolph Otto, Danish religious philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and others. For example, Moyn claims that “Time and the Other,” Levinas’s first major work, “often reads like an only slightly distorted translation into phenomenology of Rosenzweig’s ‘The Star of Redemption.’” It’s simply a matter of substitution: Where Rosenzweig had encountered God, Levinas encounters the Other.
These are fighting words for Levinas scholars, and for secularists generally. Secular humanism may be a popular outlook today, but those who make ethics their profession know that it rests on extremely shaky foundations. Why must we be ethical? Why may we not — or why ought we not, as Ayn Rand and others would argue — be selfish? What is so significant about human beings? With Jewish, Christian, Kantian and Hegelian answers to these fundamental questions all discredited for various reasons, Levinas proposed an alternative: an ethical revelation that depends not on God but on the core sociality of human existence itself. But if Levinas is really just papered-over theology, then secularists are back where they started.
There is no denying Moyn’s philological analysis. His book carefully traces the doctrine of the “wholly other” in Otto, Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, and the concept of revelation in Rosenzweig, and leaves little doubt that Levinas was strongly influenced by all of them. Moyn also provides an exceptionally accessible introduction to the often dense and obscure problems of phenomenology, and to how Levinas and others went about trying to solve them. One of the advantages of reading an intellectual historian as opposed to a professor of philosophy is that the former, since he has to actually trace how ideas develop over time, is apt to be a better extractor of logic from rhetoric. “Origins of the Other” is thus an exceptionally clear book.
But one of the weaknesses of the historical approach is that by showing what is old, it can miss what is new. Moyn claims that Levinas “draws on Rosenzweig’s portrait of love by reversing the original intent of his predecessor’s thought and attaching it to relations between humans.” This is, in part, true. But if the encounter with the other is a philosophical truth, does it matter that its historical lineage is religious? Put another way, if it is indeed the case that when I encounter the face of the other (or the Other, if you like), I find myself obligated not as a moral sentiment or rational proposition but as a definitional aspect of my being in the world — is that philosophical situation undermined by the historical facts of its discovery? Or is Levinas, notwithstanding his having been influenced by theological writing, not saying something important about the human condition?
Levinas may indeed have transplanted theological ideas onto philosophical ground in an almost desperate attempt to find an answer to the sinister Heidegger, but if the plant takes root and grows, the “origins of the other” may not matter as much as the fruits it bears.
Moreover, as Moyn acknowledges, Levinas is as much a break from theology as a continuation of it. For Rosenzweig, love between humans is derivative of love between God and man, a view that Moyn calls a “humiliating genuflection before a higher and other divinity.” But in Levinas, Moyn says, “God is human rather than divine.”
Whatever the origins of his ideas, Levinas’s star seems to be rising in the philosophical world. In the 1950s and ’60s, he was overshadowed by Jean-Paul Sartre and the French existentialists, whose individualistic philosophy took the world by storm. And in the 1960s and ’70s, the dazzling feats of Derrida and the poststructuralists captured the imagination of the academy (and evoked bewilderment or scorn from many others). But Sartre and the existentialists soon came to affiliate with Marxism, and the post-structuralists have had difficulty generating anything resembling a moral philosophy. Levinas, who always privileged humanism over individualism, morality over utopia, has provided a more sober counterpoint to each.
For some, Moyn’s critique may be devastating: If God is the grammar of Levinasian ethics, then without the Deity, we’re back, again, to a world without souls. But perhaps these distinctions are, themselves, inapplicable to Levinas’s “secular” Judaism. After all, it’s no coincidence that Levinas favored the Talmud over the Kabbalah, since it is the former that finds God in the business of ethics. Perhaps to say that “God is human” in Levinas assumes too much about what God should and shouldn’t be.
Levinas called Judaism, approvingly, a “Talmudic science of the continual unfolding of the ethical order.” Perhaps he’d seen enough of mystical claims and meta-narratives. Or perhaps Moyn is right that Levinas saw revelation, even Divine revelation, in the details of ethical obligation. In one of the many lesser-known sources that Moyn brings to light in his book, Levinas writes what could be talmudic philosophy after the destruction of the Temple, or spiritual autobiography after the Holocaust. “The adult’s God is revealed,” he says, “precisely through the void of the child’s heaven.”