restricted access Introduction

From: Levinas Studies
Volume 6, 2011
pp. vii-xiii

Philosophy Documentation Center colophon
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The attentive reader of Levinas is familiar with the fact that his considerable effort to free ethics from ontology and politics includes an insistence on rationality over and against any appeal to passion, emotion, or personal desire. Such a reader has also certainly noticed frequent hints toward a philosophy of religion in his argument for the primacy of ethics. Of course, the philosophical works intent on ethical metaphysics are paralleled, since the 1950s, by numerous essays, commentaries, and reviews that are explicitly Jewish and monotheistic in their concerns. Yet the word “God” does indeed appear in the philosophical works as well, and not infrequently by the end of the 1960s. Would there be any connection between Levinas’s commitment to rationality and his suggestion of a religious, perhaps even monotheistic, dimension of ethical metaphysics?

As a matter of upbringing and religious outlook, Levinas seems to leave little doubt about the influence of the intellectual Judaism in which he was raised. Lithuanian Judaism was predominantly mitnagged Judaism, which is to say a Judaism that is opposed to the passionate enthusiasms of the Hasidic Judaism that was then widespread in Poland and western Russia. Indeed, opposition to sentimental or fevered elements of religious life lies at the root of a vigilance, present throughout Levinas’s work, against any sign of what he judges to be primitivism, whether it is a matter of pagan frenzy, an alleged tendency in mysticism toward fusion, or even the idolatrous impulse whereby classical theology risks subverting authentic transcendence. It is especially the suspicion raised against theology (in which the [End Page vii] absolute God would become available in images or concepts) that renders the movement toward ethics as first philosophy highly significant for philosophy of religion. For it is there, as it were in a single thought, that emerges simultaneously the definition of being as radically plural and of “God” as a name for the fact that that plurality is bound together in human relations. To be sure, the argument is proposed according to a manner and a progression that are phenomenological: in the encounter with the other person, my neighbor, there erupts a transcendence that is not merely the not-me or the always-more, a transcendence which is fully absolute and in that sense properly divine. Without becoming theology, phenomenology thus discovers a new exigency to meditate on the word “God.” Moreover, this exigency is also thought to register in ordinary human experience, as when the face of the other person singularizes me without isolating me: my responsibility is truly, inescapably my own, and yet, “thanks to God” there are Others who also have their radical responsibility to bear, including for me (OB 159 / AE 202). Levinas thus finds God in the fact that plurality is not dispersion, and responsibility not a formula for solitude. Some of the deepest movements of Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence invoke a “matrix” and a “plot” (une intrigue) whereby we are left ordered to one another. It is a thought that moves within the apophatic tradition and beyond it: in this ordering of one-for-the-other, one catches sight of the passing of God (17–18 / 14–15). Anachoresis, the very absoluteness of the absolute, issues in ethics.

As for ethics, we know it is embedded in sensitivity to the vulnerability to the Other, whose face is defined by an exposure to violence. We also know that that face awakens me to a responsibility that is anterior to my freedom because it signals the proximity of one who is in an important sense closer to me than I am to myself—one who is there already before I begin to care for myself. As a call for help and a summons to action, this responsibility could destroy me, since limitless responsibility is readily all-consuming. Famously, Levinas at this point appeals to his conception of the third person, the other [End Page viii] Other whose simultaneous call for help places a check on my care for this one Other person who faces me here and now. In simpler terms, it is the extreme demands of my responsibility for one person that saves me...