It has been nearly two full decades since the death of Levinas, and we are not yet done with contesting some of his essential claims, even while the thinking that they support is applied with some result to topics as diverse as law, education, psychology, and the environment. The thinking that resists definitive interpretation and addresses more than the stated concerns of the thinker appears inexhaustible and continues to provoke. These are the marks of grandeur in philosophy. The present volume of Levinas Studies may appear as a modest case in point. Read in order, the essays undertake a sequence of debates internal to the philosophy of Levinas that do not cease to also investigate its bearing on a number of concerns that have held his attention only briefly, whether in passing, by way of conclusion, or by implication.
The volume begins with Rudi Visker’s “The Inhuman Core of Human Dignity,” in which it is asked, building on a series of previous investigations, whether one might hold fast to Levinas’s interest in grounding the politics of human rights in an ethics attentive to alterity, yet without accepting his claims for asymmetry and infinity. Drew Dalton’s essay, “Phenomenology and the Infinite,” is convivial, concentrating on the manner in which phenomenology seems bound, for methodological reasons, to attend to a givenness that is essentially finite. This claim has been registered against [End Page vii] Levinas (and others) most memorably by Dominique Janicaud.1 Its evident implication is that the Levinasian argument as a whole rests first and finally on his claim for the infinity of the infinite, as it reveals itself in the face of the other person. From this perspective, difficulty with Levinas as a phenomenologist goes hand-in-hand with the thought that the specificity of Levinas’s thinking lies with his manner of introducing the idea and the revelation of infinity into the ethical relation. As many interpreters have pointed out, this is a basically religious move, though not therefore a robustly theological one.2
But Levinas does not invoke the otherness of the other solely in and through his account of the human face. The birth of a child, he contends, is the eruption of the infinite into the finite; it is the appearance of another other, a new transcendence. What can be the relation of these claims — at first sight unsurprising, and yet attracting relatively little notice — with the more well-known claims about the other who is a stranger, a widow, and an orphan? In “Transcendence and Salvation in Levinas’s Time and the Other and Totality and Infinity,” Marc Cohen takes the view that the two are in some tension, and that it may be necessary to qualify some of the latter in order to reach a more consistent account of the former, more plainly ethical proposal. Cohen’s interest in what might be considered Levinas’s theory of kinship, or at any rate the conception of plurality that comes into view late in Totality and Infinity (though also earlier works), is shared by Jeffrey Hanson and James Mensch. Hanson’s “Woman as First among Equals” goes far to develop a notion of plurality that is not immediately evident, though perhaps not excluded, by Levinas’s account of “Woman” as the other by whom the world can be a home. Mensch’s “Eros and Justice” addresses the matters of erotic relations, fecundity, and filiality as phenomenological proposals with an evident political bearing, very much as Levinas plainly intended. In so doing, he returns the themes of middle passages of this volume to some of the concerns announced already at the beginning by Rudi Visker. [End Page viii]
But Mensch’s essay also takes up the theme of temporality, again as Levinas himself intended (the birth of a child, after all, is the advent of futurity). The gesture is to some extent repeated by Eric Severson in “The Missing Sequel: Levinas and Heidegger’s Unfinished Project,” though Severson’s willingness to place Levinas’s theory of time in complementarity with that of Heidegger is not to be found from Mensch’s perspective. In any case, the two together represent an...