Outside the Subject
More than a dozen books by or about the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who died at eighty-nine in December, have recently appeared in English translation. Why do so many people these days, especially literary theorists, seem to be reading the works of this once-obscure Talmudic scholar?
Although he has been recognized as a major Jewish thinker since the publication of Totalité et infini in 1961, in his early professional years before the Second World War he might have been mistaken for a mere explainer of the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. In En découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger (Discovering Existence with Heidegger and Husserl, 1949) and then more vigorously in Totalité et infini, however, he began to expound a philosophy of his own. (That it took him so long to do so, I suppose, is a measure of how difficult it was for him to reject his two major influences.) Since its publication Totalité et infini has been much discussed by Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-François Lyotard, Mikel Dufrenne, Maurice Blanchot, and other philosophers.
In Autrement qu’être, ou au-delà de l’essence (Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, 1974) Levinas gave an even bolder account of his thinking that earned him a still wider audience. As is the case with Derrida, on the other hand, how he is regarded by analytic or pragmatist philosophers is not a settled matter: it depends on the philosopher you ask.
One reason for Levinas’s tardy reception may be that while the philosophies of Levinas and Derrida deal with similar questions, Derrida was the first to attract wide attention. Both philosophers emerged from the phenomenological tradition pioneered by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and both came to question that tradition. Both believe that most philosophers pay too much attention to ontology (studying the nature of reality) and epistemology (studying the nature of knowledge). Both men believe that the language philosophy uses, and even language as a whole, are deeply flawed and need to be reexamined. Levinas’s response was to shift philosophy’s emphasis away from epistemology and ontology toward ethics. Derrida, conversely, launched a head-on attack against philosophy itself. Though some people found Derrida’s work liberating, many regarded it as sinister. He made people worry that their sons and daughters might be led into rebellion merely by going to college, so he had to be argued with or denounced. Levinas, on the other hand, doesn’t make you anxious about your children. Now that most literary intellectuals have taken sides for or against Derrida, Levinas’s work can be read for its own merits.
Marie-Anne Lescourret’s biography of Levinas gives the basic facts of his life and a good description of his intellectual evolution. She is a bit bemused that such a timid man has become more and more well known, while so many of his contemporaries in philosophy, including Gabriel Marcel, Jean Wahl, and Alexandre Kojève, have been drifting to the footnotes. She thinks that Derrida …