We are not in the habit of drumming philosophers out of the canon because of unfortunate political opinions they happen to hold; on the contrary, the philosophical canon, however it is delimited, includes misogynists, racists, and xenophobes. But for each important philosopher — and particularly for those who have found their way into the standard repertoire of philosophy departments in the course of the twentieth century — there is a process of reflective consideration in which the life is weighed up against the thought, a period during which the scholarship turns its attention to the question of how large the thinker’s biases should loom in an interpretation of his ideas. In the case of Heidegger, for example, this period began in the mid-1980s and to some extent continues: it remains necessary for Heideggerians to ask whether his Nazism can be understood as contingent to his philosophy; and, if the answer is no, the philosophy falls.
Levinas scholarship moved into its period of reflective consideration beginning in the last decades of the twentieth century, the first wave involving analyses of the problematic nature of his account of the feminine, and the second wave involving what might be called exposés of his Eurocentrism. This second wave is now at an apex. The accusation of Eurocentrism is made at almost every academic meeting on Levinas’s work: his more problematic statements are quoted and misquoted, and stories, some of them hearsay, are told [End Page 43] and retold. And while the scholarship on Levinas’s attitude to women is balanced — with defenders and detractors both making compelling and well-sourced arguments — I have not been able to find many scholars defending him from the second charge. Instead, the strongest essays on the question tend either to argue that Levinas’s Eurocentrism renders the very most basic structures of his philosophy dubious, or that we can defend those structures but only in a post-Levinasian form.
Two scholars who stand for the positions I’ve just described are Rudi Visker,1 for the position that Levinas’s Eurocentrism renders the basic structures of his thought dubious, and Robert Bernasconi,2 for the position that the basic structures are solid but have to be adapted in a way Levinas would not have accepted. I take up these two not just because I find their work to be masterful, but because their essays on the question seem to me representative — while others, too, have shown great insight on the matter, such as Simon Critchley and Judith Butler — but together Visker and Bernasconi seem to encompass what is most crucially at stake here.
Why is it we take Levinas’s Eurocentrism so seriously? Why is it that the world of scholarly continental philosophy, for the most part comfortably able to bracket out Heidegger’s Nazism, is up at arms when Levinas tells us that Europe is the best of cultures? Why are many of us unable to remind ourselves that, unlike Heidegger’s, Levinas’s is not actually a criminal position, and put it behind us? The beginnings of an answer, as Visker suggests, are found in the fact that discussions of the question bespeak a sense of betrayal, and at times a consequent resentment, and I add that, where such sentiments exist, the reasons for them depend on one’s interpretations of Levinas’s politics. Leaving aside those who simply misinterpret his politics — those who find in the otherwise than being an ideological plan for the formation of better institutions the range extends from those whose readings require Levinas to be an absolute political minimalist to those whose readings emphasize his criticisms of Western philosophy and read this as a generalized critique of the West. On the one hand, we [End Page 44] have people inclined to see in Levinas no prescription whatever, and who argue that ethics enters the sphere of politics only in the form of critique, and who would therefore be distressed by any expression of political certainty and all the more so by praise of Europe, as the ethical critique of politics ought surely to begin at home. On the other hand, we have those whose eyes were...