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  • Otherwise than Laïcité? Toward an Agonistic Secularism in Levinas
  • Mark Cauchi (bio)

Levinas and Secularism

Along with the so-called “return of the religious” in contemporary Western philosophy and politics, there has been a renewed effort in recent years to rethink secularism, the political doctrine of the separation of religion and politics.1 It would not be difficult to show that Emmanuel Levinas has been a substantial force in the resurgence of interest in religion among philosophers, but his impact on thinking about secularism is less evident. Part of the reason for this uncertainty, and part of the reason it is not taken up by scholars, is doubtless the fact that Levinas’s conception of secularism is difficult to discern.2 Although he often discusses religion, politics, and even their relationship, he rarely addresses the question of secularism directly. He certainly uses the term laïcité, and, especially in Difficult Freedom, often discusses both the place of Judaism in secular society and what he calls the “Christian atmosphere” of modernity, but he never articulates, either here or elsewhere, a complete account of the concept.

In addition to the paucity of Levinas’s writings on secularism, a further difficulty is that what Levinas does say about secularism can often seem contradictory and unclear. Consider, for example, his view [End Page 187] of the most basic issue of secularism: the separation of church and state. Is such a separation wholly compatible with Levinas’s thinking? On the one hand, Levinas is unambiguous about his endorsement of the separation. He writes in “How Is Judaism Possible?” (1959) that the separation “is the citadel that protects us [French Jews] against injustice,” and therefore that “we must beware of tampering with it.” And yet, as he will immediately add, the “luminous and incontestable formula” separating church and state must be given “its best content,” as if in its common understanding it does not possess its best meaning (DF 245). This specific double move, where he simultaneously endorses and criticizes the separation of church and state, is indicative of Levinas’s more general attitude from the 1950s onward toward the whole of the standard liberal conception of secularism.

What I mean by the latter conception will be fleshed out in the following sections, but it can be defined now, in a preliminary fashion, as the entire liberal enterprise of creating a culturally neutral state and public sphere for the sake of protecting the rights and liberties of the individual citizen. Because the individual citizen is defined as possessing the right to, or liberty of, thought, expression, and association—all of which together, in effect, produce freedom of religion, whether explicitly proclaimed or not—the state and public sphere must be constituted in particular ways to guarantee these liberties; in particular, they must be culturally neutralized so that any citizen, from whichever cultural background, can participate in public institutions without bias and thus without the violation of their liberties. Such neutralization is achieved by the reciprocal move wherein participants in these institutions—that is to say, individual citizens—are not allowed to bring their cultural frameworks with them into the constitutions and operations of these institutions, leading to the so-called privatization of religion.

Because Levinas criticizes this model of secularism while seeming to endorse some notion of it, what I would like to do in this essay is to determine what is precisely Levinas’s criticism of secularism and, in addition, what a “Levinasian secularism” might be. My central contention will be that the latter (Levinasian secularism) is not equivalent [End Page 188] to the former (his stated views about secularism). The reason for this discrepancy is that Levinas critiques standard liberal secularism on the basis of his more general philosophy of ethical alterity, but then reinstates liberal secularism (or an unspecified version of it) as the best way to protect institutionally ethical alterity. This double movement raises the question, how can ethical alterity at once be consistent and inconsistent with liberal secularism? The question is naturally related to the much-discussed one about the relation of ethics and politics in Levinas’s thinking. Levinas’s approach to the latter relation is consistently...


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