Eric S. Nelson, Antje Kapust, and Kent Still (editors);

Addressing Levinas (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005).

ISBN 0-8101-2046-1 (cloth) $79.95 / ISBN 0-8101-2048-8 (paper) $29.95

Eric S. Nelson and Antje Kapust, Preface (Draft Version, see publication for complete preface)

            The title of this anthology presents us with a seemingly simple question: How should his readers address Emmanuel Levinas and the collection of books, articles, and interviews that bear his name? Given the rapidly growing interest in Levinas, one might also ask: What is Levinas’s significance for us such that “we” need to address and be addressed by him? This question is not only an issue of addressing and being addressed but also one of responsiveness. It is a question of whether and how “I” or “we” can respond to our “other.” The question of the other is especially acute when it is not just any other, or pious and sentimental talk about the general other, but the concrete other who is encountered as radically different than myself. This is the other who I ignore, push-aside, marginalize, exclude, fear or despise—and it is this other for whom I am in some sense responsible.

What is the import of this word “address”? This question can be approached through Levinas’s early reception and later critique of Husserl’s phenomenology of intentionality (as discussed in more detail in the introduction to this volume) and Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology of care. The early work of Martin Heidegger already linked address (ansprechen as distinguished from besprechen, which is discussion “about” something) with the question “who?” Who is the being-there (Dasein) who is addressed? Heidegger replied that only that being that is a question for itself, that can address and be addressed, is a who—i.e., that being whose very existence is a response to the question “who?” Levinas famously throws Heidegger’s discourse into question for its violence and ethical poverty. This is not the place to examine the justice or injustice of his critique of Heidegger, particularly as a number of contributions to this volume investigate this question more fully. But it should be asked whether the responsiveness to things suggested by Heidegger fails to articulate the ethical core of the question “who?” We can still ask with Levinas whether the “who” and, as such, the address is primarily ethical rather than ontological. Heidegger’s failure to articulate the ethical character of address and responsiveness is perhaps itself closely connected with a deeper failure in ethical thought and conduct. This responsibility for the self, which is “each time my own” in Heidegger’s words, is questioned through a responsibility that grips me and refers me to the other such that responsibility is “each time my other.”

            Traditionally, in the history of Western philosophy, responsibility has been identified with autonomy or rational freedom. Levinas powerfully criticizes the failure of autonomy and spontaneity in Western ontology from the Greeks through Heidegger. These concepts are ethically inadequate insofar as they are intrinsically self-centered given the self’s ethical dependence on the other. Levinas speaks of passivity beyond passivity, even the most passive intentionality or synthesis, and dependence prior to all independence. But is such an ethical responsiveness totally incompatible with spontaneity? Is there anything immanent in the world or in the human being that allows it to be interrupted by and morally respond to alterity? Why should otherness ever appear as other? For Heidegger, the interruption of alterity—from the broken hammer to the uncanniness of my own death—always addresses some aspect of my being such that I can potentially recognize and respond to it. Appropriation is always tied to that which cannot be appropriated.

In the preface to Totality and Infinity, Levinas describes being and ontology as a condition of violence and war. One’s own being is tied to self-interest to the exclusion of concern for the other. The question of being is not the question of the other. Yet is there anything in being and in one’s own being that allows one to be addressed by the other and that allows the ethical to interrupt and challenge self-interest?  What is it about the face that singles me out and motivates me to act for the sake of that other? The ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi (Mencius), reformulating the ru tradition that we call Confucianism, argued for the possibility of a spontaneity which is intrinsically moral and inherently responsive to the concrete suffering and need of the other, no matter who they are. Prior to all reflection and calculation one is compelled to answer to the other in acting for her, as when one leaps without thinking to save a child who falls into a well or river without considering the risks or rewards of such an action. Could such an ethical spontaneity reflect the human side of the interruption of violence and war, of the “thou shall not kill” of the face?

Levinas’s criticisms of autonomy and inclusion of heteronomy should not be understood as an abandonment of freedom. Levinas was one of the first authors to develop a philosophical critique of National Socialism and totalitarianism, and this critique is informed by the notion of the freedom and spontaneity of the individual endangered by fascism. Levinas was not only influenced by the phenomenological and the Judaic, but by the French liberal philosophical heritage of the early 1900’s and the French Republican tradition with its vision of liberty, equality and fraternity for all. Levinas’s ethics can even be understood as a radical rethinking and deepening of the ideas of 1789. Instead of grounding liberty, equality, and fraternity in individual autonomy or rational self-interest, Levinas reorients this revolutionary trinity through the encounter of self and other in order to expose how these ideas have been devalued and deformed in Twentieth-Century political discourses and practices. Levinas is not only a thinker who applies ethics to politics but also one who shows an acute awareness of political realities from the rise of fascism to the Holocaust and from the Cold War to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question of responsibility is tied to the question of how to respond and, as such, the ethical is a way of responding to the reality and even cruelty of the political.

This brief reflection on the question of responsiveness already begins to indicate both the complexity of his philosophy as well as more subtle ways of reading Levinas. In the latest stage of the reception of Levinas, as found in the contributions to this volume, we can discover deepening articulations, criticisms and extensions of his thought. We can read and address Levinas as a philosopher not simply engaged in easy or naïve moral criticisms of political realities or mere reversals of traditional concepts. We can find a thinker who is not engaged in constructing static oppositions between autonomy and heteronomy, spontaneity and passiveness, totality and infinity, or ethics and violence. It is precisely the nuanced character of Levinas’s philosophy as well as his ethical directness and immediacy that should address us. It calls us to read him more critically and more thoroughly.

 Addressing Levinas accordingly indicates an on-going task that is not without its risks. This responsibility requires a critical encounter with his thought as well as unfolding possible responses to his critics. This is particularly necessary given how radically different his ethics appears to be in contrast to the ethical discourses dominant in contemporary philosophy. Both in Europe and in North America, the field of ethics is focused on questions of normativity and justification: What is the “ought” and how can it be legitimated? Levinas, however, does not seem to speak of generally binding norms and ethical foundations. Even worse, secular intellectuals fear the possible “divinization” of ethics, or re-smuggling of religion into ethics, when they see Levinas mention and discuss G-d, the Torah and its rabbinical commentaries.

Yet it should be argued that the different focus of Levinas’s ethics is salutary in the face of the emptiness of current ethical discourses that seem irrelevant to anyone’s actual ethical concerns. Levinas’s ethics has its own strengths and its difference in tone and substance is one of them. This also helps account for the increasing interest in his works. Levinas articulates the “ought” not at the general formal level so typical of contemporary ethics but in the relationality and asymmetry of self and other. Rather than challenging egoism with arguments about self-interest and consensus, which ultimately only reaffirms identity rather than opening up its questionability, Levinas traces how the ethical and the “ought” already occur in the encounter between self and other. Levinas advocates different ways of thinking about ethics when he shows that normativity and justification cannot be adequately articulated through notions of autonomy and self-interest, social contracts and consensus. The ethical event occurs prior to how we construct it. A number of the contributions to this volume pursue these questions further by developing Levinas’s relevance to moral and political theory as well as issues in applied ethics such as the environment and war.

            For Levinas, I am responsible. Responsibility is tied to responsiveness or how I respond to the infinity and alterity intimated in the face of the other. Yet can an ethics oriented towards the face of the other hinder the bullet, the bomb-jacket and missile, or the bulldozer? Of course, in one sense this question misses the point, since the face is not a phenomenal appearance or an empirical fact. The face, in its irreducible infinity and facticity, presents an ethical obligation according to Levinas. Nonetheless, some readers might want to pursue this question in another sense by asking whether Levinas, with his reliance on the language of Judaism and monotheism, is part of the current problem rather than offering resources to respond to it. How can an ethics so closely aligned with monotheism—as is the case with Levinas even in the most secular of readings—be of benefit to us when we see and experience so much of the apparent intolerance and perilous consequences of monotheistic religions in terrorism and war, violence and social-political injustice? How can speaking of G-d be helpful if it is discourses about God that are the problem?

Levinas showed the ethical character of Judaism and of monotheistic language in general—of G-d as beyond, as excess, and as other—in the face of the destructive and totalitarian paganism of the twentieth-century. He analyzed this paganism in the destruction and horror of Stalinism and especially National Socialism. The Holocaust was not just an accident of human history but it is part and parcel of the West, of its ontology, its anti-Semitism, and in particular its revival of pagan rootedness in blood and soil.

            Yet if National Socialism and the Holocaust are his questions, is not the question for us the violence and intolerance seen in the monotheism of the peoples of the Book and the Word? What of the physical and moral violence perpetrated by those claiming to represent the heritage of Christianity, Islam and Judaism? In other words: How can the face halt religious justifications of intolerance against homosexuals and militant excuses for war? How can the face halt someone using himself as a bomb or shooting children? How can the face halt a bulldozer destroying homes or rolling over a person? Given the dominant tone of contemporary discourses, where there is a God and everything seems to be permitted, it might be appropriate to ask what ethics is there in speaking of God, monotheism and religion? Don’t we need to keep these out of ethics precisely for the sake of the ethical?

Despite the failure of Levinas to confront injustices such as colonialism and neocolonialism, as Robert Bernasconi examines in this volume, it can be argued that Levinas’s approach is not in fact inappropriate given recent events but is all the more trenchant. For it is Levinas who demonstrated the ethical character of monotheism that seems to be in such danger of being forgotten. It is Levinas who articulated how the prophetic voice does not speak against the downtrodden and marginalized, as it might seem from the daily news, but it is precisely to witness and give testimony to these persons in their pain and their trauma without excuses. The prophetic voice speaks out of my responsibility for the other that calls me to respond. Levinas’s prophecy speaks specifically of those who have been ravaged and traumatized by war, terrorism, occupation, prejudice and injustice. Levinas at his most orthodox still articulates a moral challenge to the narcissism inherent in religious fundamentalism, since it fails to address and respond to the other. The radically ethical character of “religion” in Levinas forcefully calls unethical religious beliefs and practices into question. Levinas’s ethics calls us to a greater responsibility for the other, the concrete other no matter how foreign to us or vilified by us as the “enemy.” Although the political application of religion may appear to owe more to Carl Schmitt than Levinas, it is Levinas who contests the idolatry of a religion without the ethical and the construction of the other as an internal or external enemy.

This ethical challenge to our personal and national egoism and self-interest, including those of religiosity and faith, is for Levinas inherent in the language and practices of monotheism itself, which are oriented towards the other and to difference rather than the self and the same. If monotheism is the problem, Levinas suggests how it can also be a needed response. For Levinas, it is the alterity of G-d in and through the encounter with the human face who interrupts and places into question the belief in our own ethical superiority and our dehumanization of others. If the ethical is the religious and the religious the ethical, then his philosophical and religious writings—as well as the corresponding secular and religiously oriented readings of Levinas’s works—might have more in common with each other than is often thought. Levinas does not offer a religiously grounded ethics. He does not ask us to believe in God for the sake of the ethical nor does he preach being religious or ethical. He does, however, ask us to look at ourselves in how we relate to others, to look at the other in examining oneself. This other is not lesser than me; the other is not an indifferent equal. It is this concrete other who addresses me and calls me to respond and be responsible.

            The essays in this volume undertake in their own unique ways such an address and response. They wager a response by questioning and articulating the various dimensions of Levinas’s thought—the Judaic, the phenomenological, the ethical and political. The authors explore the philosopher's relationship to a wide range of traditions and issues, including the philosophy of culture and religion, Jewish thought from the Torah to his own contemporaries, psychoanalysis, the history of philosophy, phenomenology, deconstruction and contemporary feminism. Although they enact a critical encounter with Levinas, they also call us to think more carefully about what Levinas is saying beyond the reification and caricature of the said and stated. They show further possibilities for both thinking with Levinas and beyond him, of addressing Levinas as well as the excess and other of Levinas.<1>


1. We wish to thank Alice A. Frye and François Raffoul for their comments on a draft of this preface.