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  • Levinas and Asian Thought ed. by Leah Kalmanson, Frank Garrett, and Sarah Mattice
  • David Chai (bio)
Levinas and Asian Thought. Edited by Leah Kalmanson, Frank Garrett, and Sarah Mattice. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2013. Pp. ix + 295. Paper $28.00, isbn 978-0-820-70468-5.

Levinas and Asian Thought, edited by Leah Kalmanson, Frank Garrett, and Sarah Mattice, is one in a long series of works on Levinas coming out of Duquesne University Press. Structurally, the editors have divided the work into three units: Selves and Others (4 chapters); Responsibility and its Limits (4 chapters); and Practices, Norms, and Institutions (5 chapters). Of these thirteen chapters, seven are on Buddhism while the remaining six comprise an eclectic selection of topics dealing with, for example, the samurai code of bushidō, Islamic ethics, the tea ceremony, and the war crimes trials in Cambodia.

Of the Introduction’s nine pages, only four are devoted to explicating the need for this book. It is here that the editors pointedly note a theme found in each of its subsequent chapters: that any comparison between Levinas and Asian philosophy must not only overcome the “double bind” of philosophy (p. 3), it must furthermore come to terms with Levinas’ disparaging views of non-Western cultures. The editors disown this “shortsightedness” of Levinas (p. 2) by directing our attention to the “many fruitful applications of the concept of alterity in postcolonial studies” (p. 2). What this has to do with the philosophical traditions of Asia is unclear, but it goes some way to explaining the preponderance of chapters on India. Another stated challenge for a comparison between Levinas and Asian thought stems from the “deep conceptual divides that separate the cosmological, ontological, and metaphysical underpinnings of his work from much of Asian philosophy” (p. 3). This issue is also conveniently avoided in that two thirds of the chapters are on ethics. A third stated challenge is the consideration of Levinas’ “deep indebtedness to Jewish theology” (p. 3), an indebtedness that is nowhere to be seen in this book. The fourth and final challenge pertains to “conceptions of subjectivity [that] reveal a divide between Levinas’s philosophical premises and mainstream Asian worldviews” (p. 3.) This is [End Page 639] without question the most relevant of the four issues and one that ultimately shapes the book’s methodology.

In light of the above-stated challenges, it would have been informative to know why the Japanese tea ceremony, for example, is taken as emblematic of Asian art and aesthetics and not, say, Chinese landscape painting. The same holds true for the chapters on Sima Qian (how is the historical narrative of Sima Qian able to stand in for the writings of Confucius or Mencius?), on Watsuji Tetsurō (how is an obscure Japanese thinker more qualified to represent an Asian “theory of mind” than the Neo-Confucian Wang Yangming or the Sufi Al-Ghazali?), on the war crimes trials of the Khmer Rouge, or on the honor code of the samurai (again, why is Japanese bushidō more appropriate than the Confucian ren or Sufi futuwwah?). What is more, topics one would expect to be included in a work of this nature are surprisingly absent: temporality, hermeneutics, altruism, and gender.

Another factor that contributes to the book’s unevenness stems from its many weak chapters. For example, the chapter by Frank Garrett on Levinas and Buddhist no-self uses the work of Nishida Kitarō, the founder of the Kyoto School of Zen Buddhism, to reveal Levinas’ ethics in that “the lexicon of Buddhist philosophy provides a fitting language with which to express Levinas’ own decoupling of the subjective I from the metaphysics of identity” (p. 13). In order to do this, Garrett uses three kōan to “put into question the totalization of subjectivism” (p. 13). Leaving aside the question of why Garrett feels the need for such questioning, the major issue is that he uses kōan from Linji (ninth century c.e.), a monk belonging to the Southern School of Chan Buddhism, to interpret Kitarō, while his reading of Kitarō is limited to but a single chapter of Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview (University of Hawai...


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