The year 2005 in France was a “Sartre Year,” the celebrated existentialist’s centenary. In Paris, bookstores were flooded with commemorative publications. Almost every newspaper and journal set aside space for a copious special issue on his work. The new, ultramodern Bibliothèque Nationale mounted a slick multimedia exhibition on Sartre’s life and times featuring salient memorabilia as well as rare video clips from his plays. The obligatory audio CDs of long-forgotten interviews appeared, strategically placed near the cash registers as a tempting impulse purchase for diehards and aficionados. And predictably, in France and abroad, there were countless long-winded academic conferences devoted to his work.
Yet paradoxically, no one seemed to know what to say. On the one hand, no one dominated the landscape of twentieth-century French intellectual life like Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, no one came close. But therein lay the main problem. After all, with the exception of poetry, Sartre excelled at every literary form imaginable. He wrote philosophical treatises, novels, short stories, essays, plays, biographies and political manifestoes. Many of them are still read and discussed today. In an age of mind-numbing specialization, Sartre was a welcome anachronism, a veritable Renaissance man. Moreover, after the war he inherited the coveted mantle of the engaged intellectual, a venerable French tradition dating back to the likes of Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola. In 1960, by signing the “Manifesto of the 121” protesting the brutal war in Algeria and urging French troops to desert, Sartre openly flouted French political authority. When President Charles de Gaulle was urged by his advisers to summarily place the gadfly philosopher under arrest, he responded emphatically: “One does not arrest Voltaire!”
How, then, might one go about commemorating Sartre, the quintessential polymath, a figure who, uncannily, excelled at virtually every endeavor he undertook? Who, in fact, is truly qualified to do justice to his manifold achievements and multifaceted oeuvre? When Sartre was alive, at least one could address each successive book, treatise or article serially, as they appeared. His death has deprived us of this rule of thumb. The possibilities for evaluation are dizzying and boundless.
But there is another reason the Sartre centennial seemed so deflating. Among intellectuals in today’s tepid political climate, Sartre’s concept of engagement has become a source of bad conscience. In many ways, he was what we are not–and what we, realistically speaking, can no longer be. Of course, Sartre committed egregious errors in political judgment. As late as 1973 he could still claim that the reason the French Revolution failed was that the Jacobins refused to kill enough people. Shortly thereafter, among French writers and opinion leaders, the so-called anti-totalitarian moment took hold. “Dissidence” became the new intellectual watchword. Sartre’s brand of political militancy went rapidly out of fashion. For a younger generation that had bid an unsentimental adieu to the temptations and delusions of “leftism,” Sartre represented the Marxist superego that had to be destroyed so that French liberalism could live. Lately, French intellectuals have recoiled in horror at neoliberalism’s injustices. Ironically, they have no one but themselves to blame.
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This year in France is a “Levinas Year.” The French philosopher was born in Lithuania in 1906 and died in 1995, just a few weeks short of his ninetieth birthday. There is something perversely appropriate about the commemorative sequence. In many respects Emmanuel Levinas was the anti-Sartre. Like the author of Being and Nothingness, he was enamored of German philosophy. And like Sartre, Levinas viewed himself as an heir to the phenomenological method conceived by Edmund Husserl and consummated by Martin Heidegger. But that’s more or less where the similarities end. It would not be an exaggeration to describe Levinas’s entire philosophical endeavor as a machine de guerre directed against Sartrean existential humanism. With Sartre, it is the “For-Itself,” or consciousness, that constitutes philosophy’s Archimedean vantage point. For Levinas, conversely, it is the “Other,” l’Autrui, in all its uncanny metaphysical strangeness.
Although the two men were born within a year of each other, Levinas’s anti-Sartrism bore a distinctively Oedipal character. Sartre’s version of existentialism needed to perish so that Levinas’s approach might live. In fact, for the generation of French thinkers who came of age during the 1940s and ’50s, Sartre’s presence was so titanic that slaying Sartre-the-father became an obligatory rite of passage. So thoroughly did he dominate every field of literary endeavor that his potential heirs felt they lacked breathing space. All of them–Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, as well as the two Jacques, Derrida and Lacan–at one point or another fired off venom-tipped textual explosives in Sartre’s direction. Under the cover of the “death of the author,” the structuralist thinkers were secretly hoping for Sartre’s early demise.
Levinas was nothing if not a late bloomer. His magnum opus, Totality and Infinity, appeared in 1961, when he was already 55. Philosophical acclaim came even later. Not until the 1980s, when Levinas was in his late 70s, did France, his adoptive homeland, take this prolific and illustrious immigrant to its bosom. France has a long history of embracing foreign-born intellectuals and scholars: Jean Piaget, Lévi-Strauss, Derrida and Julia Kristeva were all born outside metropolitan France. Sometimes it just takes a bit longer for them to be recognized.
In Levinas’s case the difficulties were compounded by the hazards of biography. In many respects, his philosophy of “Otherness” reflects his own distinctive itinerary as a perennial outsider. As a youth, Levinas was displaced from his native Kovno by the upheavals surrounding World War I. His family relocated to Ukraine, where Levinas attended high school. But the Bolshevik Revolution, and the civil war that followed, made it impossible to remain. The Levinas family returned to a newly independent Lithuania, where they hoped at last to find tranquillity. But Lithuanian nationalism had set in, making things uncomfortable for Russian speakers like the Levinases. Thus, in 1923 the family moved again, this time to Strasbourg, the French city geographically closest to Kovno.
In 1923 Levinas enrolled at the University of Strasbourg; he completed a dissertation on Husserl in 1930. But instead of pursuing a university career, as his mentors had urged in view of his prodigious philosophical talents, he took a post with the Alliance Israélite Universelle, an organization charged with acculturating Eastern European Jews and defending Jewish minorities. During the late 1930s Levinas joined the French army. In 1940 his unit was captured during France’s ignominious “strange defeat” at the hands of the German Wehrmacht. It was Levinas’s misfortune to sit out the rest of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp–yet another setback for his vocational aspirations as a philosopher–although for a foreign-born French Jew, things could have been much worse.
After the war, Levinas taught at the École Normale Israélite Orientale, a preparatory school for Jewish teachers. Only in 1961, the year he completed his thèse de doctorat, was he rewarded with a university position in the provinces, at the University of Poitiers. In 1973 Levinas, now 67, received a professorship at the Sorbonne–the pinnacle of French university life. Three years later, he retired.
If fame descended upon Levinas belatedly, when it did arrive, it came in spades. And although Levinas’s prowess and achievements as a philosopher are considerable, the reasons for his success are circumstantial. For it was Levinas’s philosophy that provided the much needed ethical dimension that had been so sorely lacking among the structuralists.
By the 1980s the structuralist wave had fallen upon hard times. The structuralists and their “poststructural” philosophical heirs, Foucault and Derrida, had wagered everything on a withering critique of “humanism,” by which they meant any theory that placed “man” at its center. (In this context it is pertinent to note that one of Sartre’s most widely read postwar texts bore the title “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”) In The Order of Things Foucault famously prophesied that “man” would soon be effaced like a drawing in the sand at the edge of the sea. The clear implication was that in the aftermath of man’s disappearance, we would be much better off. Yet during the 1970s and ’80s French intellectuals, disillusioned with communism and beguiled by Eastern European dissidence, had rediscovered “human rights.” At this point it became impossible to square the circle: One could not pose as a detractor of “humanism” and simultaneously sing the praises of “the rights of man.”
The rejection of the antihumanist paradigm gained momentum when the full extent of Heidegger’s pro-Nazi allegiance was revealed. For it was Heidegger’s radical assault on Sartrean humanism that had set the tone and provided the ammunition for the subsequent structuralist attacks.
In his 1941 essay “Recollection in Metaphysics,” Heidegger declaimed, “The history of Being is neither the history of man and of humanity, nor the history of the human relation to beings and to Being. The history of Being is Being itself and only Being.” Five years later, in his 1946 “Letter on Humanism,” which had been addressed to a French interlocutor, he claimed that the concept of “man” was a hindrance to anyone who wanted to understand the mysteries of Being. The “Letter,” a manifesto of radical “anti-Sartrism,” would in many respects become the foundational text of postwar French philosophy. For Heidegger’s resolute anti-Cartesianism–his rejection of Descartes’s cogito as the point of departure for doing philosophy–allowed French philosophers to escape the constrictions and limitations of their own indigenous intellectual traditions. In sum, it allowed French intellectuals to be un-French.
In France Heidegger’s star rose as Marx’s declined. His philosophy caught on during the 1960s among disenchanted leftists who belatedly realized that the Soviet Union was not the “radiant utopian future” they had sought. Heidegger’s French disciples concluded that Marxism, rather than being the solution, was part of the problem. They dismissed Marx’s theory of the proletariat as another failed variant of Western humanism. The working class was merely another incarnation of the “metaphysical subject” writ large. In this respect Heidegger’s growing popularity corresponded to the widely sensed social and political paralysis of De Gaulle’s “presidential dictatorship” (1958-1969)–a justification pro vita sua for a generation of French thinkers who had abandoned the barricades for the platitudes of 1920s German Kulturkritik.
By vilifying subjectivity and consciousness, concepts that Sartre prized, the French Heideggerians had fully imbibed the master’s crippling political passivity–a passivity dictated by the idea that all human action is ultimately fruitless. According to Heidegger, Being determines everything. The contribution of individual men and women is epiphenomenal and, for the most part, pointless. Hence, the only thing we can do, as Heidegger once claimed, is patiently wait for God, who “can save us.”
When French philosophers unwisely traded Marx for Heidegger, they simultaneously consigned the project of human emancipation to the dustbin. They exchanged “freedom” for the mysteries of “Being.” Heidegger’s philosophy is predicated on a radical criticism of reason and metaphysics. He once observed that “Reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought.”
But by rejecting reason, Heidegger and his French followers simultaneously severed the pivotal link between insight and emancipation. Socrates famously claimed that “knowledge is virtue.” In other words: Insight and reflection are the keys to a life well lived. As Socrates declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Without the association between insight and emancipation, neither the doctrine of Marx nor of Freud would be possible. For, like that of Socrates, their theories are predicated on the idea that knowledge and human freedom are intrinsically related.
As a recovering Heideggerian, Sartre understood the problem better than anyone. He realized that a philosophy like Heidegger’s, which demands unquestioning obedience to nameless, higher powers such as Being, the gods, fate and so forth, is a warrant for human bondage. By preaching submission, it is latently authoritarian. As Sartre astutely observed, a philosophy that “subordinates the human to what is Other than man…has hatred of man as both its basis and its consequence…. Either man is primarily himself, or he is primarily Other than himself. Choosing the second doctrine simply makes one a victim and accomplice of real alienation.”
By the late 1980s the moral vacuity of Heidegger’s philosophy stood fully exposed. Above all, it lacked an ethics. For Heidegger’s French disciples, ethics had seemed superfluous, redolent of the antiquated framework of Western humanism. Ethics implied the necessity of a return to “man.” It remained wedded to the paradigm of “subjectivity,” which both the structuralists and their Heideggerian allies had sought fervidly to negate.
Levinas’s philosophy provided Heidegger’s French disciples with exactly what they were looking for: a powerful ethical doctrine that was fully consistent with the premises of the antihumanist critique. Thus did a Jewish academic from Kovno become the improbable savior of a tradition founded by a former Nazi.
The various rhythms of Heidegger’s reception in France are the subject of Ethan Kleinberg’s rich and informative book, Generation Existential. Regrettably, Kleinberg’s narrative ends abruptly in 1961, with the publication of Levinas’s Totality and Infinity. But Heidegger’s dominance in French philosophical circles only occurs subsequently. Generation Existential‘s lead-up to these developments is edifying. Unfortunately, the payoff is missing.
And the payoff is this: Viewed politically, the reception of Heidegger’s work among the French antihumanists ultimately regressed behind the terms of Sartrean existentialism. Sartre’s philosophy remained wedded to the notion that human action in the world is meaningful. Unlike Heidegger, he sincerely believed that the problem of freedom still mattered. His oeuvre constituted a lifelong meditation on the significance and parameters of this fundamental moral and existential imperative. The turning point came during the 1950s, when Sartre realized the inadequacies of the Stoic-Cartesian conception of freedom presented in Being and Nothingness. Thereafter, in order to rethink the problem of freedom in light of the omnipresence of social injustice, he turned to history–and to Marx.
It has been said that all great philosophies can be summarized in one sentence. For Socrates: “Know thyself.” For Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” For Hegel: the unity of substance and subject. For Kierkegaard: “Truth is subjectivity.” For Levinas it would be: ethics as first philosophy.
In 1928 Levinas traveled to Freiburg to study with Husserl. But his enthusiasm for the author of Philosophy as a Rigorous Science waned quickly. In Levinas’s view Husserl’s philosophy, like that of Descartes, remained too beholden to the paradigm of the ego, or “consciousness.” What interested Levinas was a series of existential concerns that transpired outside the parameters of consciousness. Soon he was introduced to Heidegger, and his allegiances shifted entirely. As Levinas put it: “I had the impression that I went [to Freiburg] thinking to visit Husserl and found Heidegger instead.”
In Heidegger Levinas encountered a richness and philosophical daring that were otherwise wanting in contemporary thought. With Heidegger, philosophy transcended the self-referential confines of “consciousness” and acceded to the planes of “life” and “world.” Levinas felt that Husserl’s phenomenology remained wedded to the arid rationalism of the reigning neo-Kantianism. As such, it was narrowly focused on perception and cognition. With Heidegger’s philosophy, conversely, there was talk of “everydayness,” “authenticity,” “historicity” and “Being-towards-death.” Levinas found these topics highly stimulating–as did an entire generation of German youth who, upon hearing “the rumor of the hidden King,” flocked to attend Heidegger’s lectures. In order to keep the throngs of eager students at bay, Heidegger often had to hold his classes at 7 AM.
The young Levinas thought of himself as an orthodox Heideggerian. He attended the famous 1929 Davos debate between Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer, and enthusiastically applauded Heidegger’s triumph. For many, it signaled the passing of the baton from a staid neo-Kantianism to Heidegger’s invigorating brand of existentialism. During the early 1930s, Levinas wrote several pathbreaking articles on Heidegger’s philosophy. In one of them he enthused: “No one who has ever done philosophy can keep himself from declaring, before the Heideggerian corpus, that the originality and power of his effort, born of genius, have allied themselves with a conscientious, meticulous, and solid elaboration.” Having recently finished his dissertation on Husserl’s theory of intuition, Levinas planned to write a book on Heidegger.
Heidegger’s entry into the Nazi Party on May 1, 1933, changed all that. Heidegger had succumbed to the delusion that he could “lead the leader” (den Führer führen)–that he could play philosopher-king to Germany’s resident tyrant, Adolf Hitler. In this respect, Heidegger showed himself to be plus royaliste que le roi. He went on the stump for Hitler, declaring, “Do not let doctrines and ideas be the rules of your Being. The Führer himself and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law.” Soon he realized the error of his ways: The Nazi Revolution was not destined to make the world safe for “Being,” as Heidegger had hoped. Still, there are political errors a philosopher can make that implore forgiveness; then there is another, unforgivable kind. Heidegger’s enthusiasm for Germany’s Brown Revolution–a loyalty he refused to renounce–was of the latter variety.
In light of Heidegger’s commitment to Nazism, Levinas felt compelled to reassess his earlier, impassioned Heideggerianism. The problem was not merely that Heidegger the empirical individual had become a Nazi. It was that he felt compelled to justify his political choice in an idiom drawn from his own singular brand of Existenzphilosophie. The entire process led to a certain attitudinal schizophrenia on Levinas’s part. On the one hand, he felt that certain Heideggerian insights, such as the critique of the standpoint of the transcendental “subject,” remained valuable. On the other hand, given Heidegger’s intellectual proximity to Nazism, Levinas simultaneously sensed that the philosophy was rotten to the core.
Levinas sought to resolve or work through the problem in stages. In a 1934 essay “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” he condemned Nazism as a form of neopaganism that threatened the West’s Judeo-Christian traditions. One of the article’s targets was Heidegger, who early on had renounced Christianity and remained an avowed atheist. Later on, Levinas arrived at a deeper, more sweeping insight into the filiations between Nazism and Western thought in general. After the war, gruesome revelations about the death camps–in which most of Levinas’s own extended family perished–provoked him to reassess the Western tradition in toto. Why was it, he inquired, that Western philosophy, despite its manifest sublimity and grandeur, could do nothing to prevent the genocidal mania of the Nazis? Especially damning, in Levinas’s view, was the realization that in the face of the radical evil of Nazism, Western thought had demonstrated its own comprehensive impotence.
Levinas’s reflections on these dilemmas developed into a wide-ranging indictment of the Western philosophical tradition. The basic problem was that, from time immemorial, metaphysics had privileged “ontology”–the study of Being, or of what things essentially “are”–over ethics. In other words, our most intimate and valued philosophical traditions have cared more about “beings” and how to define them than about our ethical dealings with fellow humans. The watchword of Levinas’s mature philosophy, “ethics as first philosophy,” sought to remedy the gross injustice entailed by the West’s privileging of “theoretical reason” over moral concerns. Beginning with the Greeks, the West had embarked on a false path. Levinas sought to repose the question of “Athens versus Jerusalem,” philosophy versus theology. By opting for Athens, or “ontology,” the West, to its detriment, had demoted the importance of the biblical tradition in which, conversely, ethical commandments–Moses’ receipt of the Ten Commandments at Sinai; Jesus’ injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself”–received pride of place.
Through his conception of ethics as first philosophy, Levinas sought to redress this pervasive and debilitating imbalance. He discovered another important source of ethical inspiration in Dostoyevsky’s novels, which pit the spiritual power of “love,” or caritas, against reason’s instrumentalizing effects.
For Levinas, ethics derives from the claims of the Other, or l’Autrui. The centerpiece of his mature thought is the idea of the “face of the Other.” In Levinas’s view the face of the Other confronts us with an “infinite” moral claim, one that is anterior to all theoretical or intellectual judgments. He uses a series of dramatic metaphors–he frequently speaks of the Other’s “nakedness” and “destitution”–to drive home the point that he or she stands totally at our mercy. To dramatize that our debt to the Other is essentially unsatisfiable, Levinas frequently cites an unsettling maxim from The Brothers Karamazov: “Each of us is guilty before the other for everything, and I more than any.” Since, given our intrinsic limitations as finite beings, we can never entirely satisfy the Other’s claims, at issue is a relationship of “infinity,” or “transcendence.” Theoretical reason, conversely, aims at a type of totalizing comprehension, or “closure,” that Levinas belittles as “totality.” It is incurably egocentric and proceeds by reducing the Other to Sameness–in Levinas’s idiom, “ipseity.” Thus the animating opposition of his 1961 masterwork: “Totality” versus “Infinity.”
But the limitations of Levinas’s method also need to be highlighted. For in attempting concertedly to distance his philosophy from Heidegger’s errors, he may have enmeshed himself more deeply in the Freiburg philosopher’s approach. Levinas’s indictment of reason as “totalizing” betrays uncanny affinities with Heidegger’s later thought, which was also predicated on a rejection of reason as a form of domination simpliciter. And in both cases, the vilification of reason goes too far. In the annals of Western thought, reason has always contained strong utopian aspirations. It promises a rectification of social injustice, a righting of wrongs. The radical critique of reason that both Levinas and Heidegger advocate risks rendering social criticism impotent. For without reason’s capacity to make significant distinctions and cogent judgments, we would be deprived of the conceptual means of our own emancipation. We would stand speechless and impotent. Moreover, were their own philosophies to disregard communicative reason entirely, they would be unintelligible–in which case they would be, frankly, quite useless.
Moral reasoning provides us with a strong incentive to act in the world and to remedy oppression. Levinas’s quasi-mystical veneration of Otherness, conversely, resembles an “epiphany.” But it is nearly impossible to translate an epiphany into meaningful political action. As an experience of transcendence, an epiphany cannot be made into an object of legislation. Moreover, with Levinas, indebtedness to the Other becomes a relationship of exclusivity to the extent that it becomes physically and emotionally impossible to assume loyalty to multiple others. For these reasons, it is next to impossible to derive a meaningful politics from his ethical doctrines. Levinas confirms this suspicion when in Totality and Infinity he declares, “Politics left to itself bears a tyranny within itself.” His messianic reverence for Otherness denigrates all other forms of action, including political involvement, as sordidly “instrumental.” As such, it steadfastly resists generalization and leaves us in a type of political paralysis.
In his refreshingly lucid study Origins of the Other, Samuel Moyn aptly characterizes Levinas’s approach to ethics as “crypto-theological.” By this term Moyn highlights Levinas’s intrinsic ambivalence concerning the tension between his secular, phenomenological intentions and his covert eschatological aspirations. In response to the mood of profound cultural despair provoked by World War I, the 1920s witnessed a major theological revival. It is this phenomenon, Moyn contends, that formed the crucible for Levinas’s distinctive approach to ethics.
One of the virtues of Moyn’s book is that he discovers the origins of Levinas’s notion of Otherness where few before him have thought to look. Previous commentators have assumed that the major catalyst for Levinas’s thinly veiled theological ethics was Franz Rosenzweig’s so-called New Thinking, epitomized by his 1921 classic The Star of Redemption. But Moyn points out that Levinas never read Rosenzweig until the mid-1930s. Secondly, whereas Rosenzweig insists that we can gain something akin to reliable theological “knowledge,” Levinas’s notion of the Other expressly shuns cognitive methods and pretensions. Instead, the face of the Other possesses the status of a revelation: It mandates a prediscursive, wholly transcendent ethical claim.
In order to decipher the “origins of the Other,” Moyn suggests we examine instead the 1920s German Kierkegaard revival, as represented by Karl Barth’s “dialectical theology.” We know that Levinas avidly read Barth during the 1920s and ’30s. In steadfast opposition to the secularizing vogue of historical biblical criticism, Barth reconceived divinity, in Moyn’s words, as “qualitatively different from finite, everyday objects.” As “Other,” God is “‘transcendent’ and opposed to the immanent.” As Moyn perceptively concludes: Despite the philosopher’s manifold protestations to the contrary, “Levinas may never have given up the habit–the hankering for God’s command that he merely internalized to the human realm–of theology.”
Philosophically, Levinas has been accurately described as the “anti-Sartre,” and it is easy to see why. Whereas Levinas’s philosophy idealizes Otherness, Sartre’s thought inherently mistrusts it. In Being and Nothingness the Other signifies little more than a limitation or obstacle to the freedom of the For-Itself. In Sartre’s view, the Other’s gaze is inherently objectifying. It seeks to turn the For-Itself, or consciousness, into an In-Itself, or something inert. The literary pinnacle of Sartre’s suspicion of the Other is the play No Exit, where the realization dawns that “hell is other people.” Levinas’s anti-Sartrean animus helps to account for some strange philosophical moves on his part–to wit, the exaggerated glorification of Otherness.
One of the reasons behind Levinas’s immense popularity in France has to do with his copious writings on Jewish themes. Traditionally the French conception of citizenship has been rigorously assimilationist and thus unreceptive to considerations of “difference.” The classical statement of this view coincided with revolutionary debates during the 1790s over whether or not Jews should be recognized as citizens. As one delegate, Clermont Tonnerre, expressed it: “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.” In other words: The Jews are welcome to join us as long as they leave behind their particularity as Jews.
In the post-1968 years, however, this sentiment began to change. As has often been remarked, many ex-’68ers gravitated from Mao to Moses. Latching on to their long-repressed Jewish origins was a way of providing meaning and orientation once the wave of left-wing revolutionary fervor had subsided. The most celebrated example was former Maoist student leader (and Sartre confidant) Benny Lévy, who abandoned revolutionary politics for orthodox Judaism. Suddenly, assimilated French Jews, following the lead of North African Sephardic immigrants who had previously lived in self-enclosed religious communities, began to feel comfortable openly avowing their Jewish identities. Given the persecutions their families had endured at the hands of the Vichy regime, they felt they were entitled to recognition, not just as citizens but also as Jews.
Paradoxically, the new spirit of “Jewish communitarianism” found support in Levinas’s approach, which had managed successfully to straddle the fence between two very different cultural spheres: the world of French academic philosophy and that of Jewish religious traditions. For one of Levinas’s claims to distinction as a Jewish thinker was that he broke with prior generations of assimilated Jewish scholars–from Moses Mendelssohn to Hermann Cohen–who tried to demonstrate the compatibility of Jewish learning with the canons of European secular thought. Instead, Levinas’s uniqueness lay in his attempt, by recourse to phenomenology, to translate Old Testament ethical precepts directly into philosophy, while bypassing the Greek preoccupation with “first philosophy,” or ontology. In this respect, his influence on a younger generation of Franco-Jewish intellectuals that had matured in the postwar years was inestimable. Both Benny Lévy (who died in 2003) and the omnipresent philosopher-essayist Alain Finkielkraut studied with Levinas. Lévy’s final book, Être juif (Being Jewish), is a sustained engagement with Levinas’s religious thought. Six years ago Lévy, Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy, in a tribute to their late maître, established an Institute for Levinas Studies in Jerusalem.
Still, Moyn’s well-placed suspicion that Levinas never abandoned his original theological habitudes and longings raises some troubling questions about the uncritical veneration that has characterized the reception of his work. As with Heidegger, Levinas’s bloated rhetorical mode suggests privileged access to the ultimate truths of Being and existence. But this discursive posture is hardly conducive to open debate. Philosophy advances by the critical discussion and examination of truth claims. Instead, Levinas’s writing encourages an attitude of submissive adulation. Not surprisingly, most of the thousands of articles and monographs that have appeared on his work display a fawning exegetical reverence. It is as though one were dealing with Holy Writ or Scripture rather than a work of secular thought. Nor do Levinas’s proclamations concerning the “aristocratism of true knowledge” and the “necessity for a secret thought” inspire confidence in the democratic potentials of his philosophy. The Levinas reception seems terminally frozen in a quasi-adolescent cheerleader mode. As Nietzsche recognized, “One repays a teacher poorly if one remains a disciple.”