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  • The Il y a and the UngrundLevinas and the Russian Existentialists Berdyaev and Shestov
  • James McLachlan (bio)

Western philosophy coincides with the disclosure of the other where the other, in manifesting itself as a being, loses its alterity. From its infancy philosophy has been struck with a horror of the other than remains other — with an insurmountable allergy. It is for this reason that it is essentially a philosophy of being, that the comprehension of being is its last word, and the fundamental structure of man. . . . The God of the philosophers . . . is a god adequate to reason, a comprehended god who could not trouble the autonomy of consciousness, which finds itself again in all its adventures, returning home to itself like Ulysses, who through all his peregrinations is only on the way to his native island.

— Emmanuel Levinas, “The Trace of the Other”

Levinas is well known for his assault of the history of Western ontology and its allergy to otherness. In seeing all in terms of Being, philosophy subordinates ethics to ontology by reducing the other to an object of knowledge within Being. Recent work by Fiona Steinkamp, Joseph Lawrence, and Drew Dalton has called attention to a possible [End Page 213] dialogue between Schelling (especially the middle Schelling of Philosophical Investigation into the Essence of Human Freedom and The Ages of the World) and Levinas.1 Joseph Lawrence shows both Schelling and Levinas struggle with the difficulty of thinking the Good beyond being. Schelling thought that the very quest for reality forces us to philosophize from the point of view of practical rather than theoretical reason. He thought there is no adequate theoretical refutation of solipsism but there is a perfectly good practical refutation: to the extent that I treat others as real they reveal themselves as real to me. Lawrence points to Schelling’s claim in Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, “This is the secret of love, that it unites such beings as could each exist in itself, and nonetheless neither is nor can be without the other.”2

The parallels between Schelling and Levinas are rooted in the latter’s appreciation of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption. In the introduction to Totality and Infinity, Levinas famously notes that Rosenzweig’s masterpiece was “too often present in this book to be cited” (TI 28). Rosenzweig’s debt to Schelling is well documented. He carried The Ages of the World to the front with him in World War One and refers to it in correspondence. He even wrote, “It’s a great book to the last, had it been completed nobody except the Jews would give two hoots for the Star.”3 This is, without doubt, the correct historical stream to follow in connection with the relation between Schelling and Levinas and the proper way to see the connections between such Levinasian notions as the “there is” and hypostasis and the Schellingian conceptions that reflect similar ideas as the Ungrund, the emergence of the personal from the impersonal ground, and, above all, the importance of the practical ethical move beyond ontology.

But there were also contemporaries holding such philosophical views in the Paris of the 1930s, and they can be seen to reinforce such positions. What is more striking is they come from Levinas’s fellow émigrés: Lev Shestov, Nicolas Berdyaev, and Alexandre Koyré. In one way or another, each either championed positions that emphasized the emergence of the particular from the general, rejected ontology, [End Page 214] or attacked the entire Western metaphysical tradition stemming from Parmenides for reasons similar to those held by Levinas. Levinas’s appreciation of Dostoevsky is also an important in connection to some of the ideas shared by Levinas, his fellow émigrés, and Schelling.4

The Russian émigrés Shestov and Berdyaev were both Dostoevsky disciples; each offered major and influential studies on Dostoevsky and each viewed the novelist in quite different ways through the lens of each one’s philosophical position that had, in part, been formed by each thinker’s reading of Dostoevsky.5 Levinas’s friend, a student of Edmund Husserl, the philosopher of science Alexandre Koyré’s 1929 dissertation later...


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