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1 INTRODUCTION Facing Nature after Levinas WilliamEdelglass,JamesHatley,andChristianDiehm Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) is widely considered the most significant ethical thinker in twentieth century Continental philosophy . Levinas regarded the demise of humanism, together with the horrific traumas that marked the twentieth century, as fundamental challenges to morality and ethics. In the famous sentence that begins the “Preface” to his first magnum opus, Totality and Infinity, he writes, “Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality ” (TI 21), and his response to the question of the meaning of morality (a response that begins and always returns to attending to the ethical dimension of alterity) is at the heart of the revival of ethics in recent Continental thought. His influence, though, has spread far beyond the porous borders of philosophy. Indeed, the discourse of otherness and alterity that he developed currently informs research across the humanities and social sciences, including especially work in literary studies, anthropology, sociology, education, religious studies, political theory, and theology. Until recently, however, there has been relatively little exploration of Levinasian possibilities for addressing environmental questions. Of course, this is not to say that these possibilities have been wholly ignored, as several Continental philosophers have engaged Levinas on the question of animals, as well as other questions of environmental philosophy. Levinasian ethical concepts, for example, have 2 William Edelglass, James Hatley, and Christian Diehm been featured in influential discussions of environmental philosophy by thinkers such as John Llewelyn, Edward Casey, and David Wood, and the themes introduced by these figures have been picked up, developed, and expanded upon by a number of younger philosophers , including those writing for this edited volume. Yet, for the most part, Continental philosophers have tended not to make issues of the environment and ethics central to their discussions, and when they have, they have been drawn less to Levinas than to some other figures in Continental philosophy. Martin Heidegger’s work, for instance, with its emphasis on letting nature be and the importance and richness of singular places, readily lends itself to certain kinds of environmental thought and was in fact embraced early on by the philosophical leaders of the deep ecology movement. Levinas, however, whose own life experiences made him acutely aware of the ways in which certain others can be regarded as unnatural and not belonging to the places where they live, was always profoundly wary of the rhetoric of nature and of connectedness to place. In fact, during his lifetime, he in no way characterized his philosophy as natural, environmental, or ecological . If anything, he labored ceaselessly to restore philosophical seriousness to discussions of the human vocation specifically in regard to other humans, as opposed to the natural world and its denizens. Writing under immense personal burdens during the Holocaust, Levinas radically recast the thought of Heidegger, of whom he had been a student, in a series of remarkable phenomenological meditations . These essays, eventually published under the title Existence and Existents, began in a German POW camp near Hanover, Stalag XIB. Often, for the Nazi’s victims, the very return of the seasons in the environs of crematoria and mass graves could seem a cruel joke, a proof of nature’s moral indifference to the vicious forces at play in human history. As Simon Wiesenthal notes, the sunflowers placed over the graves of Nazi SS officers bloomed heedlessly, with no regard for whom their beauty was intended.1 Thus in opposition to the Nazi celebration of and preoccupation with nature’s vitality and beauty, in his POW camp meditations Levinas describes the il y a, the “there is” of nature, an anonymously enduring, faceless, unfettered impulse to exist. The natural must be interrupted, Levinas argues, if human responsibility is to emerge into the light of day. Introduction 3 Like Heidegger’s writings, the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty has also generated considerable interest among environmentally minded Continental thinkers, largely because it has been seen to counter sharply dualistic Western trends by reframing humans as intertwined with nature and reframing nature as an active participant in a reciprocal dialogue that takes place between and among humans and the many entities that comprise what David Abram calls the “more-thanhuman ” world. Hence Merleau-Ponty’s thinking appears to require that we reconceive the relation between humans and nature in more participatory, perhaps more egalitarian, terms, and it is for this reason that it, too, has been compared to the literature...


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