- Morality in the LaboratoryAn Interview with Emmanuel Levinas by Josy Eisenberg
The interview with Emmanuel Levinas that we have published here for the first time was originally broadcast on French television on March 26, 1978. It appeared in the program entitled “La Source de vie,” which was produced and hosted by Rabbi Josy Eisenberg, a popular and amiable representative of Judaism for the French public. The interview marked the occasion of the publication of the second edition of Difficult Freedom (1963, first edition; second edition 1976), and is the only video document devoted entirely to that work.
In the interview, in clear and accessible language, Levinas invokes themes that are at the center of his “essays on Judaism” (the subtitle of Difficult Freedom): the critique of the sacred, of the numinous, and of myths; the materialism in accordance with which “the Other’s material needs are my spiritual needs”; the ethics in which the relation of infinite responsibility to the Other is the very source of meaning.
Levinas’s responses also clarify his position regarding rationalism. Critics of Levinas have often claimed that his theory, insofar as [End Page 1] it identifies the tradition of Western philosophy with violence and seeks to go “beyond knowledge,” inevitably falls back into the irrational. This contention is mistaken. Although it is of course true that Levinas, as early as The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, which appeared in 1930, called into question the primacy of theoretical reason, a question that was repeated two years later in “Martin Heidegger and Ontology,” where Levinas contested the priority that the theory of knowledge (as developed by Ernst Cassirer and the neo-Kantian school) gives to the thought of being, Levinas was never tempted, unlike some of his contemporaries, to give in to the seduction of the irrational. Even if it is admitted that he saw in philosophical reason and argument certain limitations that his own ethics was precisely devised to go beyond, the point remains that Levinas remained unwavering in his commitment to the best that the tradition inspired by Cartesian rationalism has to offer. As he put in the preface to Totality and Infinity, “The aspiration to radical exteriority evinces [this book’s] allegiance to the intellectualism of reason” (TI 29).
In the interview this allegiance takes the form of an adherence to science and its “rigorous exercise.” Levinas argues forcefully that it is now the laboratory that is “the place of morality and of holiness.” The remark rehearses almost verbatim a formula that he had used in an article that appeared in Le Monde just a few days before the interview:
Despite all that may have been said against science, we must not forget that, amid the deterioration of so many human orders, scientific research remains one of the rare domains in which man controls himself, bows to reason, is not wordy or violent, but pure. These are moments of research, constantly interrupted by the banalities of everyday life, but moments that, conjoined, have their own duration. Is not the place of morality and loftiness henceforth the laboratory?1
The example of science is not idiosyncratic. Levinas always remained faithful to the rationalism embodied in the work of his teacher, [End Page 2] Léon Brunschvicg, to whom he had dedicated in Difficult Freedom a vibrant homage. In one of his earliest publications, and the only one he wrote in his native Lithuanian tongue, Levinas described the spirit that animated the philosophy of Brunschvicg: “For Brunschvicg, mathematics is true inner life, more profound than the intuitions of the mystics or the delirium of the ‘enlightened’ ones.”2 In the interview of 1978, Levinas expressed in similar terms his admiration for the “special interiority that is the interiority of the mathematician.” Levinas makes a clear case against the sacred and magic, and the violence that they conceal, as well as “another form of the irrational” in contemporary thought, namely, the mythic.
But if Levinas, like Brunschvicg before him, embraces rationalism as a way of rejecting the violence of the sacred and the idea of supernatural forces, he does...