Levinas: A Guide for the Perplexed
Aiming to achieve 'a balanced clarity of insight and intuition that is much needed in the study of Levinas's thought today' (p. vii), this advanced introduction describes Levinas as 'undoubtedly one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century' (p. 12). In a series of short, often dense chapters, it then runs through some of the principal issues with which Levinas deals: freedom, violence, language, scepticism, time, good and evil, suffering, justice, religion, technology, art, eroticism and gender. The stakes of Levinas's work are high, and Hutchens displays an assured philosophical touch across an impressive range of topics. Throughout, he endeavours to give clear, judicious definitions of problematic terms, emphasizing the ambitious nature of Levinas's thought but never simply accepting him on his own terms. In fact, this study turns out to be more polemical than one might have expected of an introduction, as Levinas's shortcomings are scrupulously exposed. Hutchens argues from an early stage that, 'treacherous as it may sound in an introduction to a fine visionary thinker, it is respectable to entertain that Levinas's masterly vision is not relevant to contemporary ethical theory' (p. 35); Levinas's notion of ethical responsibility may be no more than an empty caricature (p. 54); and his influence on the philosophy of religion is 'even less substantial than his influence on ethical theories' (p. 112). Readers might begin to wonder why they should bother with Levinas at all. Hutchens finds a few intriguing, even fascinating ideas, but has little sympathy for the grander claims sometimes made by Levinas's admirers. The final chapter outlines some of the 'massive difficulties in interpreting [Levinas's] thought as relevant and contributive' (p. 155); there are problems of scale, relevance and detail, his notions are 'hazy' (p. 156) and his concepts are 'nebulous' (p. 157). The chapter ends by outlining Alain Badiou's devastating criticisms of Levinas, and a brief Conclusion summarizes a few ideas that might be worth taking further, but which Levinas himself did not or could not develop. This is a very challenging approach to Levinas, perhaps too challenging to fulfil the role of an introduction. Rather than assisting uninitiated readers to tackle the extraordinary difficulties of Levinas's prose, it might persuade them that the effort is barely worthwhile. Its demand for intellectual clarity might also miss the fundamental point that Levinas's obscurities, ambiguities and hesitations contribute to the philosophical importance of his [End Page 417] writing rather than diminishing it. In the end, it may be that different philosophical outlooks remain incompatible, despite everything that has been done to bridge them. What Derrida and others so admired about Levinas — his restless, relentless, inconclusive probing at the very foundations of thought and ethics — is what for some makes him frustrating and unreadable.