'The Levinas Reader' collects, often for the first time in English, essays by Levinas encompassing every aspect of his thought: the early phenomenological studies written under the guidance and inspiration of Husserl and Heidegger; the fully developed ethical critique of such totalizing philosophies; the pioneering texts on the moral dimension to aesthetics; the rich and s'The Levinas Reader' collects, often for the first time in English, essays by Levinas encompassing every aspect of his thought: the early phenomenological studies written under the guidance and inspiration of Husserl and Heidegger; the fully developed ethical critique of such totalizing philosophies; the pioneering texts on the moral dimension to aesthetics; the rich and subtle readings of the Talmud which are an exemplary model of an ethical, transcendental philosophy at work; the admirable meditations on current political issues....
|Title||:||The Levinas Reader|
|Number of Pages||:||377 Pages|
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The Levinas Reader Reviews
This collection brings together excerpts from many of Levinas’ noted works and speeches. Especially in the beginning, it focuses on Levinas reviewing the works of others, so it makes for a good summary of the work of Martin Heidegger, Marcel Proust, and others who have strongly influenced Levinas. Later in the work, more of Levinas’ original contributions are highlighted. Some of the works, particularly the reviews, are written in a difficult, inaccessible style, whereas the later portions tend to be easier to read. Levinas’ penchant for literary allusions do help to bring some of his more high-level prose back down to Earth (“the whole of philosophy is only a meditation of Shakespeare,” p 41).Overall Levinas’ phenomenological approach is insufficient as an explanation for ultimate reality, although he put it forward as such. In general terms, reality seems to exist only insofar as things are perceived by sentient beings (“the existence of things in some way refers back to the existence of consciousness” p 18), therefore Levinas’ explanation fails to account for the reality existing between two non-living objects, for instance. This may stem from his apparent wholesale and noncritical acceptance of Plato, the identification of reality with ideas.Although his philosophy fails to account for or explain ultimate reality outside of consciousness, it can still be useful as a reflection on perception, relationships, communication, etc. Perhaps Levinas’ most enduring contribution is his focus on the “Other” and especially his notion that each person bears a responsibility for the “Other” no matter what, a kind of responsibility that is more original than Original Sin. As Levinas explores during a debate recorded at the end of the collection, this responsibility does not necessarily help one decide how to intervene when there is conflict or injustice between multiple “Others,” it being more helpful as an ethical guide as to one’s own interactions with and attitude towards others. Even in this respect, Levinas unsatisfactorily fails to address how far that responsibility can or ought to be carried; should I favor Prohibition to save the poor “Others” from their own “bad choices” (to the mind of some) in terms of drinking alcohol, for example? C.S.Lewis gives a fine example in The Four Loves of a truly other-focused, sacrificial love that nonetheless seems almost selfish in its martyrdom and is most unwelcome among its recipients.Another key note for Levinas is the “between” where much of his “reality” takes place, that is, the space between one’s perceptions and another’s appearances. On a stylistic note, this is one of many examples where a simple foreign word (in this case the German zwischen) is left untranslated and overextended beyond its literal translation, used in an almost mystical, taboo method. The work would have been much simpler to read with English translations standing in for gratuitous foreign words turned into such totems. In terms of substance, Levinas’ assault upon art was hollow precisely because he neglected the between existing for the person appreciating the art and the art itself. Instead, Levinas criticizes the art for taking the characters or subject(s) out of time and trapping them in a timeless work, which, to his mind, sacrifices the real for the mere image (“Art then lets go of the prey for the shadow,” p 141). He then proceeds to (in a rather self-serving sort of way) praise criticism of art over art itself, as the criticism belongs to the Platonic world of ideas-as-reality.Levinas’ ideas about Judaism are interesting and well worth reading; they are generally written in the more accessible tone. Some of them are easy to criticize as well; his assertion that “Prayer never asks for anything for oneself, strictly speaking, it makes no demands at all, but is an elevation of the soul” (p 232) is easily refuted by multiple examples from the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament of protagonists praying for things for themselves. Likewise, his interpretation of the altar being built with stones not worked by iron tools as the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan as an indicator of peace is highly questionable, given they were explicitly crossing over to dispossess those living there through violence and even genocide (Deuteronomy 7, for instance). I would interpret the use of uncut stones as being in opposition to the precedent at Babel, that is, taking things as God provided them rather than contriving to be self-sufficient, though undoubtedly there may be other interpretations.Levinas speaks of God’s “need” of man in creating and sustaining the world, which seems to be directly contrary to any concept of God as perfect (a perfect God can have no deficiencies or needs), though he does not explicitly go that far. This is probably driven by his Platonic conception of reality as existing only insofar as human consciousness extends, or even the “between” area existing for multiple humans: “The direct encounter with God, this is a Christian concept. As Jews, we are always a threesome: I and you and the Third who is in our midst. And only as a Third does He reveal Himself.” (p 247)Levinas also treats the subject of Zionism, and this section is well worth reading. Although he recognizes the limits to cleaning up politics (“Ethics will never, in any lasting way, be the good conscience of corrupt politics,” p 295), he still embraces an almost blind faith that the state of Israel ought to legislate Jewish religious norms and regulations, and that this state will somehow be beyond politics, ideology, even religion. Throughout the work, Levinas displays an uncritical acceptance of Marxist assumptions (especially regarding the downtrodden Proletariat, stateless but firmly a single class, for instance) while rejecting Marxism in itself as an ideology. He also seems to accept Hobbes’ assumptions and therefore is predisposed toward state intervention. He criticizes Kant throughout, though this might be specific to Kant, it might also reveal a general hostility toward Liberalism. A Liberal approach to the Jewish religious question in Israel would be to advocate peaceful persuasion among the population to embrace Jewish restrictions voluntarily, for instance. So while Levinas is clearly in favor of the Zionist project and of the Israeli government enforcing Jewish religious law, he also highlights the Palestinian as the “Other” and therefore Jews’ responsibility toward them, without in any specific way showing how to reconcile these points.Despite the limitations and weaknesses in the work, it is filled with many astute observations, truisms, and bits of wisdom. Indeed, the weakness of some of his work on God and religion is Levinas’ tendency to assert some things without explaining, defending, or backing them up. Nonetheless, some of Levinas’ better moments are well worth sharing.In terms of “ultimate reality” or questions of the cosmos, Levinas’ philosophy simply is not up to the task. In terms of human perception or interpersonal relationships, Levinas has some value to add. For questions pertaining to the practice of Judaism in the modern world, he was definitely a provocative thinker worth considering.
Terrific thinker, though his highly philosophical style is clearly meant for hose well versed in the language of phenomenology. When approached from certain lenses however — philosopher of love (my approach), "theologian," Dostoevsky-lover — his work becomes much more accessible. His interpretation of the Other and our responsibility to them is, for lack of a better word, phenomenal, and his project to establish a sort of ethics as first philosophy speaks remedies many of my concerns with traditional western philosophy.