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Reviewed by:
  • Emmanuel Levinas
  • Sarah Cooper
Emmanuel Levinas. By Seán Hand. (Routledge Critical Thinkers). London: Routledge, 2008. xiv + 138 pp. Pb £12.99.

In this concise introduction Seán Hand consolidates his reputation as one of the leading commentators on Emmanuel Levinas’s work. Hand’s contributions to Levinas scholarship — most notably the edited volumes The Levinas Reader (1989) and Facing the Other (1996) — have long established the wide-ranging and erudite nature of his engagement with the Lithuanian-born philosopher’s œuvre. Conforming now to the remit of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series, Hand outlines in clear expository style both the intellectual and the socio-historical contexts for Levinas’s life and writings in order to introduce the key issues of his philosophy in eight short but well-structured chapters. The book begins with a brief biography before taking readers through Levinas’s formative encounter with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, which was to remain important to him throughout his career even as he gradually took more distance from their work to found his own original ethics. Separate, successive chapters are then devoted to the two best-known texts, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being (1974), before Hand examines in turn Levinas’s views on the work of art, his Talmudic readings, his relation to politics, and his legacy to contemporary critical thinking. In addition to guiding readers skilfully through the most salient concepts and arguments of Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being, Hand also attends to expression and style: he addresses the ethical ambition of the earlier text that fell short because it was written in the language of ontology, and he discusses the contorted, demanding prose of the latter, which sought to perform the very ethics that the first book aimed to describe. The chapter on the artwork is particularly impressive, since it takes on board the arguments of the contentious early essay ‘Reality and its Shadow’ (1948) without allowing its negative vision of the aesthetic dimension to occlude the more enabling relation between ethics and aesthetics that does eventually emerge through Levinas’s work. The chapter on politics is also noteworthy for the attention paid to infrequently discussed post-war writings. Hand’s defence of Levinas against his critics is compelling, especially in the section devoted to his legacy, in which critiques of Levinas by Badiou and Ž ižek are subjected to incisive counter-arguments. Yet this is no hagiography. Hand’s remarks on Levinas’s problematic treatment of the feminine, for example, show a necessarily critical take on his subject that will reappear in modified form in the more fractious context of Levinas’s discussion of Zionism and the State of Israel. Here and elsewhere, Hand’s judicious remarks encourage ethical vigilance towards whatever we read, Levinas’s ethics included. The text concludes with a helpful annotated list of further reading, which will be an invaluable resource for its target student audience. The book succeeds in presenting challenging texts in introductory fashion without oversimplifying their complexity. Indeed, Hand makes the writings of this difficult thinker enticing and accessible simply by explaining why Levinas’s work is so important. [End Page 368]

Sarah Cooper
King’s College London


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