Annabel Herzog: Levinas’s Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality

David Ventura

Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality Book Cover Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality
Haney Foundation Series
Annabel Herzog
University of Pennsylvania Press
Cloth $55.00

Reviewed by: David Ventura (Royal Holloway, University of London)

In Levinas’s Politics, Annabel Herzog attempts to articulate whether there might be something like a positive and coherent political philosophy in Levinas’s thought. As Herzog is the first to admit, for many critics of Levinas this effort will seem doomed from the outset. For if it cannot be denied that Levinas’s works frequently mention politics and political reasoning, these considerations seem merely peripheral to what is generally considered Levinas’s ‘real’ philosophical interest, that is, the ethical (or moral) relation between the subject and the absolute alterity of the other person. What is more, Levinas regularly opposes this ethical relation to politics, seemingly emphasising only the essential violence and irrelevance of politics for morality. Indeed, one need only turn to the very first page of Totality and Infinity to find a clear expression of this sentiment: “The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every means—politics—(….) is opposed to morality, as philosophy to naïveté” (Levinas, 1979: 21).

From this standpoint, it might indeed seem that Herzog will be hard pressed to find a positive and nuanced conception of politics in Levinas’s work. As Herzog opens her book by countering, however, even in those texts where Levinas speaks of an opposition between politics and morality, there is more than a simple relation of mutual exclusivity between the two domains. In Totality and Infinity, for instance, this involvement between politics and morality is conceptually signalled by the “entrance of the third party”, who is said by Levinas to introduce the considerations of politics into the ‘dual’ ethical relation between the subject and the other. Crucially, far from conceiving this third party as wholly external and somehow posterior to morality, Levinas explicitly holds that its presence is always already felt in the ethical relation with the other: “The third party looks at me in the eyes of the other” (Levinas, 1979: 213). That being the case, the relation between politics and morality is certainly much more complex than Levinas’s own assertions on the opposition between those two domains might at first lead us to believe—and indeed, than some of Levinas’s critics give him credit for.

The majority of Levinas’s Politics directs itself to this intricate relation that  is posited between the fields of politics and morality in Levinas’s thought. Now, Herzog is of course not the first scholar to recognise that Levinasian politics and morality are in a certain sense “inseparable and contained within one another” (Fagan, 2009: 7, cited in LP 2-3). Instead, the major contribution of Levinas’s Politics consists of its attempt to explore this inseparability “in light of a close reading of [Levinas’s] Talmudic readings—that is, Levinas’s ‘Jewish’ works” (3).[1] As Herzog notes, the traditional approach to Levinas’s philosophy has tended to consider these Talmudic commentaries as distinct and separable from the more central ‘philosophical-phenomenological’ works. Following Levinas’s own insistence on the distinction between the two bodies of work, traditional scholarship has also tended to regard these ‘religious’ or ‘confessional’ writings as being of merely illustrative interest for the philosophical substance of Levinas’s thought. By contrast, Levinas’s Politics studies Levinas primarily from the perspective of his Talmudic writings, and it turns to the phenomenological works only in order to “document [its] interpretations of the readings, thereby inverting the traditional approach to Levinas’s work” (6).

In her Introduction, Herzog begins to defend this decision by insisting that both of Levinas’s corpuses should be considered philosophical. The distinction between the two sets of texts is not therefore that is one ‘philosophical’ and the other merely ‘confessional’. Rather, according to Herzog, this distinction is best understood in terms of differences in approach. “The ethical philosophy published in the phenomenological books expresses an unconditional and immemorial call [to responsibility] that can be considered ‘prophetic’. One hears the call and accepts it as it is” (7). The Talmudic readings, by contrast, are said to confront this apodictic and unconditional call to ethical responsibility with concrete situations. “The readings ask the question: What does ethics mean in situations that involve more than the ego and the other?” (9). In other words, though both sets of texts are similarly concerned with philosophical questions of ethical responsibility towards otherness, they each respond to these questions from a differing perspective: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impracticable ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5).

Herzog’s wager is that this difference in approach makes the Talmudic readings a particularly fruitful place to unearth Levinas’s positive conception of politics. Indeed, because those readings focus specifically on the meaning of ethics in concrete situations, they “constitute a genre subject to different constraints and impositions compared with Levinas’s phenomenological style” (10). That is, the situational focus of the readings gives Levinas the scope to think politics otherwise than through some of the guiding presuppositions of his phenomenological works. Significantly, they allow Levinas to “moderate” (10)  what the phenomenological texts call the absolute precedence of ethics: the idea that ethics is first philosophy, or that the ethical relation constitutes the primary reference point for any philosophical investigation. And in moderating this presupposition, Herzog argues, the Talmudic readings not only “manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (5, emphasis added), but they also offer a radically different conception of Levinasian politics. In Herzog’s own words: “In the readings (…), Levinas tried to do two things that he could not do in the phenomenological works: first, prevent politics from bringing about the failure of ethics; and second, construct politics positively, and not as the interruption and collapse of ethics” (10).

The first chapter of Levinas’s Politics begins to advance this political portrayal of Levinas by further reflecting on what distinguishes his Talmudic from his phenomenological writings. According to Herzog, the unique character of the Talmudic readings can be approached from the perspective of Levinas’s famous distinction between the “saying” and the “said”—that is, in terms of the distinction between “the manifestation of presence through discourse” (the said), and “a form of language that does not reduce (…) otherness into sameness” (the saying) (20-21). Following Ricoeur’s reading of this distinction, which emphasises a complex mutual interplay between said and saying, Herzog’s argument is that the form of Levinas’s Talmudic writings “must be understood as part of a larger expression of the relationship between ‘saying’ and ‘said’, in which ‘saying’ and ‘said’ cannot exist without each other—indeed must confront each other” (28). For whilst, as Herzog demonstrates, Levinas certainly considers the Talmud to be the expression of an ethical saying that is irreducible to the said, his Talmudic commentaries—because they seek the unity of the many disparate texts that make up the Talmud—can be regarded as attempting to “integrate these ‘sayings’ into a thematised philosophical ‘said'” (26).

Though somewhat technical, this discussion on the form of the Talmudic readings allows Herzog to successfully articulate some of the guiding threads of her political reading of Levinas. In particular, Herzog uses this discussion to posit an essential inseparability between the domains of ethics and ontology in Levinas: “The inseparability of ‘saying’ and ‘said’ comes from the concreteness of life itself, in which ethics and ontology develop together” (28). Now, for Herzog, this inseparability is crucial from the point of view of Levinas’s politics not only because politics and ontology are regularly equated in his philosophy. More broadly, the interplay between saying and said that is formally expressed by Levinas’s Talmudic writings also tells us something about their positive political content. Specifically, it points to a substantive conception of Levinasian politics—“a livable politics” (15)—where political activity is that which simultaneously confronts and materialises the irreducible ‘saying’ of ethics.

Herzog further expounds this Levinasian conception of politics in Chapter 2. Here, Levinasian politics is introduced as an institutional enterprise that concerns itself with how responsibility and goods should be shared across humanity. On this reading, Levinas defines politics neither as a monopoly of power, nor as the guardianship of individuals’ natural rights. Rather more starkly, the Talmudic readings define politics “as concern and care for people’s hunger” (40). “To think of men’s hunger is the first function of politics” (Levinas, 1994: 18). This means that in distinction to ethics, politics also does not consist of the absolute obligation to give oneself wholly to the other. Politics is not exactly “the duty to give to the other even the bread out of one’s own mouth”, as Otherwise than Being defines ethics (Levinas, 1998a: 55). Indeed, as Herzog states, though the other’s hunger is in a certain sense the problem that unites both politics and ethics in Levinas, each of those domains develops a radically different solution to that problem. “Ethics is the name of the principle by which the other has priority over the ego. (….) That is, ethics calls for giving the other everything, now” (LP 41). Politics, on the other hand, concerns itself with calculating how some hunger can be institutionally appeased “through the practice of sharing and distributing responsibility and goods” (41).

As well as elucidating this conception of politics, Herzog’s second chapter also offers the intriguing claim that Levinasian politics is that which  in a certain sense realises ethics. Taking her cue from Levinas’s text on “Judaism and Revolution”, Herzog’s argument is that “ethics alone has no materiality. It becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). Now, insofar as it finds clear textual evidence in Levinas’s Talmudic readings, this argument is largely successful in dispelling the “common misconception” that Levinas is wholly ‘against’ politics (42). Importantly, in pursuing this argument, Herzog also innovatively identifies a conception of Levinasian justice that finds no clear expression in the phenomenological writings: merciful or non-indifferent justice. Under this conception, justice “is synonymous with neither ethics nor politics but consists in the relation between the two” (11). Put differently, justice is that differential which expresses the extent to which the infinite responsibility of ethics has become fulfilled, or materialised, through the institutional calculation and distribution of politics.

Chapter 3 deals with another unique contribution of Levinas’s Talmudic work, namely, its conception of the social. According to Herzog, in works like “Messianic Texts” and “Cities of Refuge”, Levinas thematises a distinctive social domain that can be called neither ethical nor political. This social domain, which Levinas equates with both contemporary urban life and Western liberal democracies, is one that is characterised by individualism, conflict, and a lack of concern for others. In Herzog’s words: “the social [is] a domain of indifferent care for the self, unaffected by ethical responsibility” (54). As such, the social clearly distinguishes itself from both ethics and the political: “[it] consists of neither infinite responsibility nor the implementation of those laws of justice that that would transform the ethical demand into viable practices” (46). Nevertheless, far from being simply irrelevant to Levinas’s overall conception of politics, for Herzog, this conception of the social in fact further highlights the positive role that Levinasian politics can play in realising ethics. Indeed, Herzog’s conclusion in this chapter is that if there is never any responsibility or concern for others in the social, then “politics—understood as institutions and leadership [of shared responsibility]—is the sole way to concretely implement the ethical principle (….) the sole way, for Levinas, to give some materiality to ethics” (53).

Having in the first three chapters presented a mostly positive vision of Levinasian politics, in Chapter 4 Herzog begins to focus on the necessary connection between this politics and the problem of violence. Herzog opens this chapter by noting that the critique of politics that famously appears in Totality and Infinity—where politics is defined as the violent art of war—is not entirely absent from Levinas’s Talmudic readings (55). In essays like “The State of Cesar and the State of David”, Levinas continues to attribute an essential violence to politics: “‘By serving the State one serves repression’ (….) by which Levinas means that all State servants, like police officers, use or condone violence or repression” (60). But unlike Levinas’s phenomenological writings, Herzog adds, the Talmudic readings do not entirely reject the value of politics and the state. Indeed, despite continuing to describe politics as violent, Levinas’s Talmudic writings also insist that political violence is necessary for the task of fighting evil (60). In this particular sense, and as Herzog persuasively demonstrates, Levinas not only judges politics to be violent, but he also “accepts that the aim of political violence, namely, the fight against evil, is important and legitimates its means” (66).

In Chapter 5, Herzog further develops this account of political violence by reflecting on what Levinas understands by evil. Drawing on the notion of merciful justice introduced in Chapter 2, Herzog’s central contention in this chapter is that “evil in the Talmudic readings is the impossibility of justice” (64). Put differently, evil is a kind of disjunction between politics and ethics: it is the antithesis of that productive relation where ethics is realised or materialised by politics. “Evil is the situation of an unattainable relationship between ethics and politics, a situation in which politics and ethics cannot coexist” (64). Now, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas considers the phenomenon of evil to be possible in three different contexts. First, evil can occur when an individual—or its political community—chooses to build a private domain (or home) that is detached from otherness and collective action. Evil “is the attempt to build a fortified self—be it an individual or national home—erected against the world” (71). Second, evil for Levinas is what happens when the state, instead of fighting injustice and oppression, becomes dominated by “ideology” and “idolatry”—that is, by two deceptive forms of language that disguise themselves as moral reason, but which are in fact mystifications intended to oppress and dominate (74). Third, “evil is linked to animality, namely to a certain understanding of being” (65). More accurately, evil is what happens when we choose to give our biological and psychological inclinations—our ontological or animal desires—a preponderance over political responsibility (77).

As well as bringing Levinas into a productive dialogue with a number of significant political thinkers (including Arendt, Weil and Nussbaum), Herzog’s account of evil also begins to illustrate one of the key claims of Levinas’s Politics, namely, the idea that the Talmudic readings moderate some of the positions of Levinas’s phenomenological writings. In short, Herzog’s contention is that because the Talmudic readings conceive evil as “the choice of an order of things” (79), they are also able to develop more nuanced accounts of phenomena like dwelling and ontology than the phenomenological writings. Thus, for instance, because in the Talmudic readings “evil is not anchored in biological or psychological inclinations but in choosing to give these dispositions precedence over responsibility, (….) the extreme claim of Levinas’s 1948 book Time and the Other, that ‘Being is evil’, is, in the readings, moderated into a more complex view: Being is evil, but only when it is not subordinated to ethics” (78-79).

This line of thinking is extended in Chapter 6, which focuses on Levinas’s conception of nature in the Talmudic readings. Herzog opens this chapter by stating that due to their largely anti-Spinozist slant, it is not always easy to find an appreciation of the ethical value of nature in Levinas’s phenomenological writings, where “transcendence, or God, is not nature, and is other than nature” (81). Contrastingly, the Talmudic readings do sometimes connect the uncanny infinity of transcendence to the natural world. Indeed, as Herzog reveals, despite maintaining a distinction between the human and the natural, Levinas’s Talmudic writings do intriguingly consider non-human animals, like dogs, to in certain cases “sense or express ‘transcendence'” (88). Furthermore, this expression of transcendence in nature is not limited to the case of humanity’s ‘best friend’. Indeed, in what is this chapter’s main contribution, Herzog also attempts to demonstrate that “Levinas uncovers the complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). Specifically, Herzog sees the Talmudic readings as providing a unique notion of “elevation”, within nature as a whole, which makes nature more than a simple perseverance in being or conatus (93). In other words, for Levinas, there is “an otherwise than nature in nature” (94). And for Herzog, this idea is politically charged because it shows that Levinas’s philosophy can open onto a sort of “prudent environmentalism” (94). That is, with Levinas, we can reassess our political relation with nature, and come to regard it as a domain that mixes both conative, an-ethical struggles and moments of genuine ethical rupture.

In Chapter 7, Herzog turns to what is potentially the thorniest aspect of Levinas’s Talmudic readings: their defence of Zionism and the modern State of Israel. Herzog is of course eminently aware that such defences have led many critics to classify Levinas’s philosophy as anti-Palestinian and even racist. And in this chapter, Herzog by no means denies that there are certain problems with Levinas’s reflections on Zionism. However, and in response to such critiques, Herzog holds “that Levinas’s take on Zionism is a specific instance of his broader conception of the relation between ethics and politics” (96). In other words, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas’s thought on Zionism receives its broad outlines from the more general political philosophy of the Talmudic readings—and not vice versa. Thus, Herzog’s first argument in this chapter is that Levinas defends the State of Israel because he sees it as the only way to politically ensure the survival of the Jewish people, and thus, as the only way to concretely implement or realise the “particular version of justice” that is expressed in the Torah (99). However, Herzog also tries to demonstrate that, in line with the notion that politics is necessarily violent, Levinas repeatedly criticises and holds the State of Israel to account for its violent tendencies. As she puts it: “despite the fact that the State of Israel serves an ethical purpose and is, indeed, necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, it nonetheless puts Jewish existence in physical and spiritual danger because it entails an embrace of ontology—idolatry of the land, rootedness, conquest, and destruction” (102). For Herzog, therefore, the ‘problem’ with Levinas’s thought on Zionism is not its silence or failure to denounce the violence and oppression of the modern State of Israel. Instead, “the main weakness of Levinas’s Zionism” is that it still lends itself too readily to the dialectical Hegelianism that Levinas elsewhere so strongly criticises (96).

The final chapter of Levinas’s Politics continues to clarify Levinas’s relation to Hegel, but this time from the perspective of the general issue of political messianism. Herzog’s effort in this chapter is two-fold: first, to clarify the relation between Levinasian eschatology and concrete political laws; and second, to elucidate the relation between messianism and history. In both cases, Herzog’s key argument is that Levinasian messianism, despite signifying an anarchic divine Law that is entirely irreducible to—and even ‘ends’ the temporality of—political laws and historical realities, nonetheless relies on those same entities to find its expression in the world. As Herzog, quoting Levinas, writes: “the ethical law needs the support of political laws: ‘The Messiah is king. The divine invests history and the State rather than doing away with them. The end of History retains a political form” (116). In upholding this idea, Herzog argues further, the Talmudic readings also significantly nuance the conception of history that emerges in Levinas’s phenomenological works. Indeed, where in the latter Levinas frequently opposes ethical eschatology to history (cf. Levinas, 1979: 21), in the Talmudic readings “there is no contradiction between recognising the importance of political history and holding to an ethical messianism, because political history is the instrument that allows redemption to enter the phenomenal world” (120). Thus, for Herzog, even in their most ‘utopian’ of dimensions, that is, even where they speak of a Law that is in a certain sense irreducible to political realities, Levinas’s Talmudic readings remain political through and through.

Overall, Levinas’s Politics is a hugely successful text. Pace Levinas’s critics, Herzog’s text develops a compelling portrayal of Levinas as a thinker who does not exclusively consider politics and the state as hindrances to ethics and justice. Indeed, although from a certain perspective the aims of Levinasian politics and morality are indeed opposed, from another angle, as Herzog convincingly shows, those two domains in fact support and mutually complement one another. In this respect, there is indeed a political philosophy to be found in Levinas’s work. Furthermore, Levinas’s Politics persuasively demonstrates that this political philosophy attains a certain coherence throughout Levinas’s Talmudic writings, consistently manifesting itself in discussions of topics as varied as evil, violence, nature, and messianicity. In treating these and a breadth of other subjects with admirable clarity and succinctness, Herzog also demonstrates a commanding grasp of what is undoubtedly an underappreciated part of Levinas’s corpus. Readers of Levinas that are unfamiliar with the ‘religious’ aspects of his work will undoubtedly find a wealth of valuable new material in Levinas’s Politics, and they will likewise benefit from Herzog’s concise but supremely informative explanations of Levinas’s unique approach to religious material.

For all its scholarly richness and breadth, there are nonetheless some notable absences in Levinas’s Politics. Crucially, the text makes no reference to Bergson, a philosopher who Levinas famously described as one of the most important for his thought (second only to Heidegger and Husserl), and whose metaphysical conception of time as duration is well known to have influenced Levinas throughout his career. Yet, it is not exactly this metaphysical Bergson that might have been of interest to Herzog’s project, but rather the Bergson of The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. In that text, as Levinas himself explains in a 1988 interview, what Bergson had previously understood as the metaphysical intuition of duration becomes “interpreted as a relationship with the other and with God” (1998b: 244). Furthermore, in a move that bears a striking similarity with what Herzog calls one of the key ideas of Levinas’s political thinking, The Two Sources continually maintains that for this ethical relationship with the other and God to be upheld, it must find its “point of support” in, and even “pass through”, a set of concrete political organisations and instruments, which, in their isolation, can be seen as opposed to the aims of ethics (Bergson, 1977: 309-310). As Bergson writes, though politics has historically tended to promote violence and war, it is only “with the advent of [Western] political and social organisations which proved experimentally that the mass of people was not doomed [to hunger and poverty] (…) [that] the soul could open wide its gates to a universal love [of humanity or God]” (226-227).

Now, in fairness to Herzog, the avowed aims of Levinas’s Politics are interpretative more than they are historical (LP 9). In that respect, Herzog can be forgiven for not tracing every single one of Levinas’s influences in the political writings. That said, the conception of the interaction between ethics and politics that emerges in Bergson’s The Two Sources is clearly not without relevance to what Herzog considers to be one of the central theses of Levinas’s political thinking, namely, the idea that ethics “becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). At the very least, it seems that Levinas might have found inspiration for this political idea in Bergson. More strongly, we might say that just as the preface of Totality and Infinity famously considers Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption as being “too often present in [the] book to be cited” (Levinas, 1979: 28), so too, perhaps Bergson’s The Two Sources plays the same role for Levinas in the Talmudic readings—particularly if, as Herzog strongly argues, those readings establish a relation where morality, far from dispensing with politics, in fact depends upon it for its concretisation. In this context, a closer examination of Bergson’s influence on Levinas’s political thinking would not only have further enriched, but even seems to be demanded by, Herzog’s own chosen focus in Levinas’s Politics.

Another potential weakness of Levinas’s Politics concerns its treatment of Levinas’s phenomenological works. Unfortunately, and perhaps because Herzog is avowedly more interested in the “‘central unity'” of Levinas’s thinking (9), the text often speaks of works like Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being in a monolithic way, as if these were one and the same phenomenological text. For example, Herzog at times freely switches between the two texts as a way of explaining Levinas’s presumed ‘opposition’ to ontology (cf. 24). Now, it is true that in some respects, both Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being oppose ontology—particularly if by ontology we mean thematisation and the politics of identification this involves. But it is equally the case that in other respects Totality and Infinity ascribes a much more positive role to ontology than Otherwise than Being. This is especially true of the sections in the last part of Totality and Infinity where Levinas speaks positively of fecundity as “an ontological category” (Levinas, 1979: 277). Far from being opposed, ontological fecundity is there thought as that which “establishes [the subject’s] relationship with the absolute future, or infinite time” (268).

Now, it is true that these kinds of exegetical considerations are not where Levinas’s Politics claims to make its contribution to the scholarship. But these considerations are nonetheless important to Levinas’s Politics, and that is because, as Herzog herself concedes (LP 5-6), the text continually refers to the phenomenological works as a way of elucidating the ‘unique’ and ‘interruptive’ character of Levinas’s political philosophy in the Talmudic readings. For example, in the chapter on “Evil as Injustice”, Herzog asserts that Levinas’s Talmudic writings insist on the importance of the home for the project of justice (68). In Levinas’s own words: “There is no salvation except in the reentry into oneself” (Levinas, 1996: 190). Crucially, Herzog adds further that these remarks on the need for a home moderate and “contradict Levinas’s general critique of interiority formulated at length in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being” (LP 68). To be sure, in the very next line, Herzog shows some awareness that this thesis is perhaps more strongly upheld in the later text. But still left out of this analysis is the recognition that Totality and Infinity by no means contradicts the general affirmation that “a home is necessary to see the other” (68). Indeed, if, as Herzog claims, this idea appears in the Talmudic readings, likewise, in Totality and Infinity, not only is it dwelling which “accomplishes” the separation between the I and the Other (Levinas, 1979: 151), but even more strongly, “the whole dimension of interiority—the articulations of separation—are necessary for the idea of Infinity, the relation with the Other” (148).

These similarities are relevant for Levinas’s Politics because in a certain sense they blunt one of Herzog’s central claims in the text, specifically, the notion that “the readings manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (LP 5). As we have already seen Herzog claim, this challenge boils down to a difference in approach between the two bodies of work: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impractical ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5). But if what grants the Talmudic readings a ‘political’ and ‘pragmatic’ character are ideas like the necessity of a home for justice, then surely, if the phenomenological works can be shown to offer similar affirmations, they cannot be easily be characterised as wholly ‘utopian’ and ‘impractical’.[2] Perhaps, there is also a latent ‘politics’ and a latent ‘pragmatism’ in the phenomenological works themselves, particularly in those places—like the affirmations on interiority and the home cited above—where they come closest to the Talmudic readings. What this also suggests is that on some levels, at least, there is a greater reconciliation between the Talmudic texts and the phenomenological writings than Herzog’s reading of the essential ‘challenge’ or ‘moderation’ of one by the other is capable of accommodating. And perhaps Levinas’s Politics might have achieved an even more nuanced and unified account of Levinas as a political thinker had it further excavated these latent possibilities for reconciliation between the two bodies of work.

All that said, these criticisms will perhaps be of interest only to the expert, and they nowise undermine the immense of value of Herzog’s more general contribution to the field. More than any other scholar to date, Herzog has succeeded in dispelling the false idea that Levinas’s thought has nothing to contribute to the field of political philosophy. Indeed, Herzog has not only clearly shown that Levinas’s Talmudic texts do present a coherent political philosophy, but even one that is potentially valuable in highlighting the many tensions and opportunities of contemporary, Western liberal democracies. For these reasons, but also for its clarity, depth, and scholarly richness, Levinas’s Politics deserves to find a wide and attentive readership among Levinas scholars and political philosophers alike.


Bergson, H. 1977. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Translated by Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Bereton. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Levinas, E. 1979. Totality and Infinity: An Essay of Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. London: Martinus Nijhoff.

Levinas, E. 1994b. Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures. Translated by Gary Mole. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Levinas, E. 1996. New Talmudic Readings. Translated by Richard Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. 1998a. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. 1998b. Entre Nous. Translated by Michael Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ventura, D. 2020. “The Intensive Other: Deleuze and Levinas on the ethical status of the Other”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 58:2, 327-350.

[1] Herzog clarifies that by “Talmudic readings” she means “the body of texts related to the Talmud and other Jewish sources, which look different from Levinas’s phenomenological work” (5-6).

[2] Though for reasons of space I have here referred only to Levinas’s thought on the home, there are other points where the phenomenological works bear more similarity to the Talmudic readings than Herzog perhaps acknowledges. To cite another example, in the chapter “On Nature”, Herzog argues that where the phenomenological writings refuse to characterise nature as ethical, the Talmudic readings posit a “complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). But once again, this argument ignores that Otherwise than Being, for instance, also posits a complex relation of co-contamination between the realms of ethics and nature, particularly in those passages on enjoyment where Levinas insists that the immediacy of the sensibility to the elements is also the immediacy or the proximity of the other (1998a: 74). For a more extended account of this relation, see my: Ventura, 2020: esp. 341-348.

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