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Editor’s Introduction

Already long before Emmanuel Levinas’s death ten years ago, his work had been the subject of thousands of essays, book-length studies, and doctoral dissertations in dozens of languages.1 In the meantime, there are also several international associations dedicated to the proliferation of that work, bringing scholars together for seminars, symposia, and full-scale conferences. This torrent of scholarship seems not to have slowed, though it has certainly diversified. One thus hears talk of waves in the reception of Levinas: after (1) an early concern to situate him in relation to the phenomenological tradition he proposes to redefine in light of modes of intentionality that it will have hitherto suppressed, there was (2) a range of work somewhat more absorbed in questions raised mainly by Derrida, though also to some extent by Ricoeur, Lyotard, and others, and most recently there is (3) a growing effort to bring his thinking to bear on questions and problems in the way of concerted social action.2

In fact, we have not been able to decide whether Levinas ought to be read first in relation to phenomenology and fundamental ontology, deconstruction and hermeneutics, or social and political theory, and this is because those distinctions, which to be sure have their own importance, can seem to harbor others that Levinas would surely reject. Let us recall that it is the self-declared task of phenomenology to investigate the appearing of things but also to include the non-appearing of what [End Page vii] transcends being and appearing. Let us also recall that deconstruction exposes the unthematized infrastructures by which meaning is expressed and order is projected. And let us simply note that it is the business of social and political theory to describe, and where necessary criticize, the limits within which desired action between citizens either occurs or fails to occur. For Levinas, the positive transcendence that expresses itself in a human face that is more than its appearing has gone unnoticed and excluded by a Western tradition that has not held in question the powers of the subject, so that we fail to catch sight of a responsibility that precedes any attempt to submit it to a perspective or an order. In short, the argument in favor of radical responsibility for the other person opposes, together and at once, any primacy for being and appearing, seeing and interpreting, and even freedom and self-determination. The critique of line and light is always and already in solidarity with the critique of law and institution, and a claim for the priority of the stranger over oneself has evident moral and political stakes that cannot be without considerable reservations about any thought of universal principles or foundations.

This is certainly not to suggest that there is no use in reading Levinas from any number of perspectives, but rather that each such reading can and probably should take into account what is learned from the others. Perhaps it is true that we have all but exhausted the results of approaching Totality and Infinity mainly as a response to Heidegger and Sartre. But in some cases that sort of engagement has in turn opened the way to a deeper understanding of Levinas’s interlocutors’ own works—who has not been led by careful work on Totality and Infinity more deeply than before into the guts of Being and Time? — whereupon one may well expect a more penetrating sense of what truly divides the great texts. Likewise, it may be true that we have read and re-read Levinas straightforwardly on justice and plurality until there is little more to be said about the matters themselves. But again, in the meantime what has been learned there has shed new light on the real implications of positions taken by modern liberals and communitarians. Nothing prevents us from expecting a renewed conversation with them that might [End Page viii] yield a sharper sense of what Levinas’s thinking truly offers modern politics, and vice versa.

One could no doubt repeat this call with regard to virtually every author and theme that has held Levinas’s attention, and even a number that he gives no...