Ronald C. Arnett: Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics

Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics Book Cover Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics
Ronald C. Arnett. Foreword by Algis Mickunas
Southern Illinois University Press
2017
Paperback $40.00
334

Reviewed by: Simon Thornton (University of Essex)

Any attempt to practically apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy within the domain of normative or applied ethics is bound to be controversial. In considering recent attempts to apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy to the fields of nursing and psychology, for instance, Diane Perpich has argued that it is a mistake to think that Levinas’s philosophy can be read as a ‘constructive ethics that offers ethical norms that can be put to work in care-giving professions’ (Perpich 2012: 128): Levinas’s ethics, Perpich continues, ‘is not a defence of our inherently ethical nature nor a guarantee of our ethical responsibility’ (Perpich 2012: 128), rather what one finds in Levinas’s philosophy, above all, is a painstaking attempt to excavate the ‘constitutive uncertainty and fragility of ethical life’ (Perpich 2012: 128). That is, while the resonant – if often baroque – terminology employed by Levinas may seem eminently relatable to certain clinical settings, the metaphysical complexities and phenomenological ambiguities lying behind this terminology precludes any straightforward practical application. On first blush, then, the conception of Ronald C. Arnett’s Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics, which sets out to find ‘practical application of Levinas’s work…in explicating communication ethics’ (Arnett 2017: 4), is apt to invite considerable suspicion from Levinasians.

Yet, there are two reasons why such suspicion may be misplaced. Firstly, while some construals of communication ethics may aim at providing a constructive ethics composed of ethical norms for communication, construed more broadly communication ethics concerns the study of ‘communication phenomena from the standpoint of ethics and morality’ (Cheney et al. 2011: 1). And it is evident even from a cursory reading of Levinas’s key works, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being (1974), that Levinas himself was centrally concerned with the ethical significance of language and interpersonal communication. So the practical application of Levinas’s work in explicating communication ethics initially looks to be a more natural fit than those attempts to apply Levinas’s ethics to other practical domains isolated for criticism by Perpich. Secondly, the central insight Arnett that hopes to import from Levinas to the field of communication ethics is that ‘our responsibility to and for the Other has no demarcation or conclusion’ (Arnett 2017: 1). That is to say, for Arnett, ‘communication ethics from a Levinasian perspective admits the challenge, ambiguity, and necessity of learning in the performative enactment of responsibility’ (Arnett 2017: 2). Thus, what Arnett’s study promises to provide is an attempt to apply Levinasian insights concerning the constitutive uncertainty and fragility of ethical life to the domain of communication ethics. And, in this respect, Arnett’s study initially looks to be consonant with Perpich’s claim that ‘if practical professions are to make anything practical of Levinas’s thought, it is this fragility and vulnerability that must arguably become central to their self-understanding and to their appropriation of texts like Totality and Infinity’ (Perpich 2012: 129).

Importantly, then, the conception of Arnett’s study looks to be philosophically fruitful, in that it proposes a plausible application of Levinas’s ethics to a relevant practical domain, and exegetically sensitive, in that it resists the temptation to derive a system of norms from Levinas’s ethics and instead focuses on the uncertainty and fragility of ethical life emphasised by Levinas. However, in terms of its execution, Arnett faces some not inconsiderable difficulties: Centrally, we might wonder what, if anything, Levinasian insights concerning the fragility and uncertainty of ethical life can offer in terms of practical guidance for communication? On the one hand, to attempt to derive any practical guidance from such Levinasian insights risks descending into vague, pious exhortation. Yet, on the other hand, to refrain from proposing any direct practical applications of Levinas’s ethics within the domain of communication risks exposing the limited utility of a Levinasian perspective for explicating communication ethics, and, thus, the limited interest of Arnett’s study as a whole. Does Arnett manage to avoid these two risks in the execution of his study?

The book begins with a foreword by Algis Mickunas comprised of ‘a brief introduction to the main trends in Russian literature and aspects of phenomenology, relevant to understanding Levinas’s encounter with “the other”’ (Arnett 2017: vii). Presumably, the aim of the foreword, then, is to provide orientation for readers new to Levinas to his complex and involved path of thinking. As such, however, while not without interest, Mickunas’s strategy is curious and provocative. The majority of the discussion is devoted to developing the provocative claim that Russian literature, which Levinas often emphasised as being a formative influence on his thinking, occupies a ‘point of crisis’ between two worlds – the industrial, enlightened West and the spiritualized and provincial East.[1] Mickunas claims that it is from this point of crisis that a vantage point opens up within Russian literature whereby the comparative worth of these respective life-worlds is adjudicated by a third factor – namely, intrinsic human worth. Thus, Mickunas appears to be suggesting that Levinas’s philosophical focus on the pre-cultural ethical significance of the Other germinated in his readings of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. Both aspects of Mickunas’s argument – concerning the spiritual impetus of Russian literature and its effect on Levinas’s thinking – are contestable. But for the purposes of this review, the important point is whether this discussion provides a helpful and illuminating way in to Levinas’s thought. And it seems to me that it does not. This worry is only compounded by Mickunas’s comparatively brief and rather curious discussion of the ‘phenomenological issues’ at stake in Levinas’s thinking, which constitutes the second part of the foreword. Rather than providing a context for Levinas’s thinking within the phenomenological tradition, perhaps by explaining the ways in which Levinas critically appropriates elements of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s respective philosophies or the ways in which Levinas tests the limits of phenomenology by drawing on religiously loaded terminology, Mickunas engages in rather curious discussion of ‘corporeity,’ mythology and kerygma. Again, it seems to me that if the purpose of this foreword is to provide the reader with some orientation and context for Levinas’s thinking then it is not particularly helpful.

The main body of the text is composed of ten chapters which tend to repeat a similar structure: Beginning with a ‘case study’ relevant to the domain of communication ethics, Arnett then goes on to draw on different aspects of Levinas’s ethical thought in order to explicate the communication phenomena at stake in the case study before concluding each chapter by proposing a set of Levinas-inspired theses to be adopted by communication theorists. These chapters are framed in the introduction by two guiding principles concerning (1) Arnett’s basic conception of communication ethics and (2) his interpretive approach to Levinas. Concerning the former, Arnett writes that ‘this work understands communication ethics [as] an obligation to discover multiple means of understanding and ratifying communication ethics action in the depths of attentiveness to uniqueness and particularity’ (Arnett 2017: 5-6). Plausibly, this definition is already imbued with certain Levinasian emphases, but the point is nonetheless clear: Communications ethics, for Arnett, aims to make explicit the ethical significance of communication through careful phenomenological analyses of the interpersonal context of communication. As for Arnett’s approach to Levinas, he writes that ‘Levinas’s work has practical application when met as an awakening guide about responsibility that refuses to shelter “me” from accountability in my actions to and for the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 5). Here, the point seems to be that all interpersonal communication has ethical significance which can be specified in terms of a ‘rhetoric of demands’ (Arnett 2017: 9) made on the self by the Other. And Levinas’s ethical philosophy will be used in this text as a resource to give shape and definition – in the form of ‘awakening’ – to the nature of this rhetoric of demands putatively intrinsic in interpersonal communication. The aim of the following chapters, then, will be to bring Levinas’s ethical philosophy to bare on certain prototypical instances of communication in order to explicate their ethical significance.

Before moving on to the arguments, I want to register two ambiguities present in Arnett’s introduction. The first concerns to whom the arguments of the text are addressed: Is the ethical awakening putatively provided by Levinas’s philosophy an awakening for communications theorists or for us qua communicators? This question may sound facetious, but it is compounded by further ambiguities concerning Arnett’s heavy use of the term ‘rhetoric’ in his introduction. While Arnett admits that in Totality and Infinity, Levinas ‘offers a contentious response to rhetoric’ (Arnett 2017: 1), Arnett nonetheless asserts that, from a Levinasian perspective, ‘one must respond to the rhetorical demands of the face of the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 2). But, one wonders, isn’t this move exegetically illegitimate? In Totality and Infinity, Levinas states that ‘Our pedagogical or psychological discourse is rhetoric, taking the position of him who approaches his neighbour with ruse…It approaches the other not to face him, but obliquely…[I]t is pre-eminently violence, that is, injustice – not violence exercised on an inertia (which would not be a violence), but on a freedom…’ (Levinas 2012: 70). Given Levinas’s associations of rhetoric with a violence which, rather than facing the other tries to manipulate her and rob her of her freedom, Arnett’s claim – inscribed in the title of his book – that Levinas advocates for a rhetorical demand at the centre of interpersonal communication looks interpretively problematic. However, read in a different way, it might be the case that Arnett’s claim here is a subtler, reflexive one: Namely, that communication ethics as a practically-oriented discipline is a form of ‘pedagogy’ or ‘psychological discourse’ which, for that reason, must, in Levinas’s eyes, take the form of rhetoric. As such, the practical import of Levinas’s ethics to communication ethics is to impress on communications ethicists the limitations of their practice and to encourage greater restraint and sensitivity when it comes to proscribing codes of conduct for communication. In either case, the major claim of Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand is not made ideally clear in Arnett’s introduction.

The first chapter compares Levinas to the work of George Herbert Mead and Jeffrey Murray in developing the claim that ‘the human being is defined by ethics, not as first philosophy, but via a communicative first gesture of responsibility toward and with another’ (Arnett 2017: 38) in which ‘communication ethics is a primordial gesture that ignites a series of ethical events performed within a difficult freedom, a world without assurance or clarity of formulas that demands urgency of response from no one by me’ (Arnett 2017: 40). In other words, the work of the first chapter is devoted to emphasising (1) the primitive ethical significance of symbolic gestural interaction for communication and (2) the fragility and uncertainty intrinsic to such primordial forms of interaction. What is surprising about this claim is that Arnett seems to immediately discard Levinas’s central claim that ‘ethics is first philosophy’ in favour of Mead’s behaviourist theory of symbolic interactionism. It is left unclear what motivates this unexpected move and, indeed, whether Mead’s sociological method is at all compatible with the parts of Levinas’s phenomenology that Arnett seeks to appropriate.

In chapter 2, Arnett provides as his case study a rich and interesting discussion of Levinas’s life, aimed at describing how Levinas’s life influenced his ethical thinking. It is comprised of a discussion of Salomon Malka’s biography of Levinas, Phillipe Nemo’s interviews with Levinas, published as Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo, and Levinas’s autobiographical fragment, ‘Signature,’ published in Difficult Freedom. The chapter, ‘working under the metaphors of footprints and echoes, reminds us of the importance of concrete experiences in conjunction with ideas of weight and height that infuse time before time with ethical import’ (Arnett 2017: 65). While it is not ideally clear what Arnett means by this, the thrust of the claim appears to turn on Levinas’s distinction between the Saying and the Said. As Michael Morgan aptly describes the distinction, the Said refers to the construction of languages, ‘the form and content of linguistic systems of systems of symbols’ (Morgan 2011: 135), that enable interpersonal interaction, while the Saying is the ‘ethical matrix in which language as communication takes place;’ it describes the ‘social, concrete context for language’ which has at its core ‘the call of the other person to the self to accept and acknowledge it’ (Morgan 2011: 135). And, without wanting to be reductive, Arnett’s claim in this chapter could perhaps be summarized as arguing for the need to take account of both the Saying and the Said in the practice of communication ethics.

The third chapter meditates on Levinas’s claims concerning the enigma of the face of the Other and the ethical importance of remaining attentive to this enigmaticalness rather than reducing the Other to a caricature. The case study for this chapter is Levinas’s relationship with a fantastical and legendary Jewish mystic called Chouchani. Chouchani cultivated an air of mystery about himself; he ‘functioned as an enigma to those he taught; he intentionally kept his life a mystery from others’ (Arnett 2017: 71). The lesson Levinas drew from Chouchani’s cultivated mysteriousness, Arnett avers, was the importance of ‘patience and waiting’ (Arnett 2017: 77) – what Arnett sometimes describes as ‘existential trust’ – in interpersonal communication. That is, ethical communication requires cultivating in oneself a sensitivity to the thought that the Other always exceeds the pictures, theories and prejudices one may naturally impose on them, where the ethical task of communication is to refrain from imposing meaning on the other and rather to learn from them. As Arnett puts it, ‘the task was to learn from Chouchani, not to violate the infinity of learning. To understand from the enigma of Chouchani, one had to watch and learn without the assurance of one’s assessment of this man of difference’ (Arnett 2017: 84). The appeal to Levinas’s relationship to Chouchani is interesting and informative. But it leads me to wonder how much of an exemplar Chouchani actually is for communication ethics: Is cultivating a sense of mystery around oneself and refusing to answer other’s questions in a straightforward way ethically commendable? This seems debatable. Furthermore, to my mind, there is a philosophical worry arising from the lesson taught by Chouchani – at least as it is presented by Arnett – namely, that interpersonal communication requires patience and waiting. The worry is that by overstating the enigma of the Other, one will be lead to confusion and paralysis in one’s interpersonal communications. Surely there are many things about the Other that are self-evident? This is not to contest the important point made in the chapter, but just to urge caution and restraint in stating it: The point, surely, is not simply that we should behold the deep enigma of the other, but, more modestly, that we should remain sensitive to the other’s alterity in our encounter with them.

Chapter 4 looks to Levinas’s text Proper Names. The chapter is comprised of an informative reconstruction of the text, in which Levinas discusses his relations with the thought of figures that influenced his way of thinking, such as Kierkegaard, and his philosophical, theological and literary contemporaries, like Martin Buber. The philosophical point made in this chapter is that proper names occupy a particular place in language in that, while they are part of linguistic system of symbols that make up the Said, they resist full incorporation into the Said and retain a ‘trace’ of Saying. Arnett illustrates this point by way of an episode in To Kill a Mocking Bird in which Scout manages to keep an angry mob at bay by calling on the proper names of some of the members of the mob. In a sense, the philosophical point made here compliments and tempers the one made in the previous chapter: While there is an intrinsic enigmaticalness to the Other, they also have a name, and that name has an important ethical resonance that seems to bridge the distinction between the Saying – and the enigma of the Other more generally – and the Said.

The fifth chapter turns to a discussion of ‘the impersonal’ and ‘the sacred.’ The chapter aims to investigate ‘the pragmatic limits of a personal consideration that seeks to possess certainty of answers for the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 115). As its case study, this chapter looks to Gregory Bateman’s book Angel’s Fear: Towards and Epistemology of the Sacred. The central insight of Bateman’s text taken up by Arnett is the thought that it is sometimes important to leave certain dimensions of interpersonal communication inexplicit and unarticulated, where this sometimes involves acknowledging, rather than trying to overcome, one’s epistemic limitations and embracing forms of ‘metaphorical understanding’ (Arnett 2017: 119). Turning to Levinas, Arnett pursues a comparative discussion of Levinas and Kant based on Catherine Chalier’s text What Ought I to Do? Morality in Kant and Levinas. Arnett’s aim here is to elucidate Levinas’s emphasis on the importance of a disinterested – rather than self-interested – stance and the correlative importance of embracing an impersonal rather than personalized relation to the other in interpersonal communication. Arnett concludes by claiming that ‘for Levinas, the sacred embraces ethics devoid of reification and imposition. Ethics has an impersonal cast of disinterest that nourishes the sacred dimension of the human condition’ (Arnett 2017: 128). The difficulties of this chapter stem initially from the fact that it is not clear in what way Arnett’s introduction of notions such as the sacred, the impersonal and disinterestedness move the discussion forward: How does the conclusion reached in this chapter add to the conclusion in chapter 3 concerning the importance of remaining sensitive to the enigma of the Other? Moreover, Arnett’s introduction of such loaded terms as ‘the sacred’ and his comparative discussion of Levinas and Kant may seem to muddy the waters: The introduction of a dimension of the sacred into his discussion invites familiar worries concerning the secular intelligibility of Levinas’s theologically-inspired ethics, and his comparison of the impersonal in Kant, which is based in the impersonality of reason, with the impersonal in Levinas, which is based in the face of the Other, invites a different set of difficulties concerning the normative foundations of Levinas’s ethics.[2]

Chapter six concerns Levinas’s conception of justice, where Arnett draws on Umberto Eco’s celebrated novel The Name of the Rose as a case study. Arnett notes that justice is a protean term in Levinas’s oeuvre and, for that reason, is difficult to pin down. However, Arnett focuses on one core feature of Levinas’s notion of justice, namely, that it involves an attentiveness to ‘the Third,’ or the wider community of individuals, who temper the face-to-face relation in important ways. More specifically, Arnett emphasises that Levinas’s notion of justice draws our attention to the disempowered and voiceless members of the community. The importance of this point for Levinas’s philosophy and, Arnett suggests, for communication ethics more generally, is in balancing one’s immediate obligations to the Other in the face-to-face relation with the wider demands of the community – and specifically the oppressed and the voiceless within society. As Arnett explains, Levinas’s notion of justice introduces ‘a form of equality and measure’ (Arnett 2017: 147).  

The seventh chapter considers the News of the World phone-hacking scandal from a Levinasian perspective. The moral failings exemplified in the phone-hacking scandal are obvious: They reflected an intrusive invasion of privacy for the sake of producing sensational news stories that, in some cases, seriously affected the lives of those involved. However, from a Levinasian perspective, Arnett avers, the phone-hacking scandal ‘functions as an exemplar of Levinas’s critique of the West seduced by the demand for totality. This story displays possession at work with little resistive creative thought that invites space for reflection on the “should”; instead decisions emerge from the technological “can,” alone’ (Arnett 2017: 159). In other words, for Arnett, the phone-hacking scandal is seen to be symptomatic of a need to know everything, so to speak; to recuperate everything into the totality of the Same. And Levinas’s ethical philosophy ‘awakens’ us to this damaging tendency through his critique of the primacy of ontology. Construed as a chapter about the lessons to be learned from the phone-hacking scandal, this point is pretty uncontroversial. However, it seems to me that the force of this argument would be stronger if Arnett had devoted more space to explaining why Levinas’s ethical philosophy helps us to expose the distinctive wrongness of the phone-hacking scandal in a way that, say, the public reaction that led to the newspaper’s closure missed. As it stands, the specific Levinasian contribution to our understanding of the wrongness of the phone-hacking scandal remains unclear.

Chapters 8 and 9 consider Levinas’s fraught relation to Heidegger. Chapter 8 considers Levinas’s experience of, and subsequent reflection on, the infamous Davos conference, where Heidegger debated the prominent neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer. There are many dimensions to the discussion in this chapter: For instance, it involves a discussion of Levinas’s reflections on his own behaviour at the conference, of his relation to humanism and to Cassier’s cosmopolitanism; and of his relation to Heidegger’s meditations on ‘dwelling’ and enrootedness. However, the central point of the chapter is that, in contrast to Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of culture’ (Arnett 2017: 184), Levinas proposes an analysis of the ethical significance of the face-to-face encounter that is pre-cultural. Chapter nine continues the discussion of Heidegger by turning to Heidegger’s notorious rectorate address in 1933, which is often seen as the moment where Heidegger was most aligned with the Nazi project. In discussing Levinas’s response to Heidegger, Arnett claims that, on the one hand, Levinas was concerned to move away from the kind of existential phenomenology promoted by Heidegger – which focuses on dwelling and enrootedness – by ‘re-transcendentalizing’ (Arnett 2017: 214) his own philosophy in terms of an analysis of the transcendence of the Other. However, curiously, on the other hand, Arnett concludes with the thought that ‘Levinas understood ethics as dwelling within the concrete in contrast to Heidegger’s notion of dwelling, which is “spare” and seeks to “preserve”’ (Arnett 2017: 218). From an exegetical perspective, the claim that Levinas understood ethics as dwelling seems very dubious: While it is true that ‘the dwelling’ forms part of Levinas’s architectonic in Totality and Infinity, it is treated as a function of separated being – not as the place of ethics as Arnett implies.[3] Furthermore, when compared with Arnett’s earlier claim, that Levinas sought to ‘re-transcendentalize’ phenomenology, and, thus, move away from Heidegger’s focus on dwelling and enrootedness, Arnett’s argument in this chapter is apt to confuse.

The final chapter discusses Levinas’s thinking on death, as laid out in God, Death and Time, in conjunction with Jacques Derrida’s text Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. In contrast to Heidegger, for whom resolutely facing up to one’s own death is a central aspect of authenticity, Levinas emphasises the death of others. As Arnett puts it, ‘the death of another awakens my ethical responsibility, and my own death calls forth responsibility in another’ (Arnett 2017: 231). More specifically, on Arnett’s reconstruction, Levinas holds that the Other’s calling us to responsibility survives their death. We might think, for instance, how the memory of a loved one who has passed away exerts an influence on our behaviour. Then, without much ceremony, Arnett finishes his text, concluding that ‘communication ethics, for Levinas, resists an apriori metaphysic, the imposition of a code or procedure, and, fundamentally, the self-righteous smirk of a knowing do-gooder. Communication ethics dwells in an immemorial space before, beyond, and ever more powerful than death itself’ (Arnett 2017: 245).

In concluding this review, I will return to the framing questions specified in the introduction. Namely, (1) what, if anything, can Levinasian insights concerning the fragility and uncertainty of ethical life offer in terms of practical guidance for communication? And (2) to whom is this book addressed? Concerning the first question, Arnett’s book is successful in raising some important Levinasian issues relevant to communication ethics. In particular, Arnett’s discussions of the enigma of the face and its pre-cultural ethical significance are interesting and relevant. Yet, the practical applicability of these Levinasian insights always remains in doubt. Arnett should be commended for his inventive use of examples and illustrations in attempting to apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy to concrete communication phenomena: Attempting to illustrate Levinas’s high-altitude and often ponderous path of thinking through examples is a difficult task, and Arnett’s efforts in this direction are valiant. But, in the end, it seems to me that what Arnett’s discussion demonstrates above all else is the limited applicability of Levinasian ethics to practical domains: Levinas’s ethical philosophy is descriptive and speculative, and resists direct and prescriptive application to empirical events. Whether this signals a weakness in Arnett’s text or a limitation of Levinas’s philosophy, of course, remains debatable.

Concerning the second question, there seems to be an unresolved issue in the text concerning how much the discussion is supposed to constitute a critique of communication ethics as it is often practiced and how much the discussion is supposed to constitute a modification of it. If Arnett intended the former, then he certainly shies away from making this explicit. Yet, if he intended the latter, then lingering issues concerning Levinas’s reservations towards ‘rhetoric’ and the compatibility of Levinas’s methodological framework with the more empirically-focused resources and methodologies on which Arnett draws remain unanswered. Moreover, I feel the text often sacrifices the task of detailed exegesis of Levinas’s texts for the sake of discussions of empirical case studies and their Levinasian resonances. As a result, there is a surprising omission of any sustained discussion of Levinas’s important interventions into the nature of language and discourse in Totality and Infinity and communication in Otherwise than Being, for instance, where such discussions would, to my mind, have contributed to a more satisfying argument. Nonetheless, Arnett’s text contains many interesting and important insights and will surely stimulate further discussion within the field of communication ethics.

Bibliography

Arnett, R. C., Review of Ronald C. Arnett Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 2017

Cheney, G., et al., ‘Encountering Communication Ethics in the Contemporary World: Principles, People, Contexts’ in Cheney, G., May, S., & Munshi, D., Eds., The Handbook of Communication Ethics. London: Routledge. 2011: pp. 1-14

Janicaud, D., ‘The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology.’ Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn:” The French Debate. Trans. B. G. Prusak. New York: Fordham University Press. 2000: pp. 16-103.

Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo. Trans. R. A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 1985.

Levinas, E., Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. A. Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 2012.

Morgan, M. L., The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: CUP. 2011.

Perpich, D., ‘Don’t try this at home: Levinas and Applied Ethics’ in Davidson, S., & Perpich, D., Eds. Totality and Infinity at 50. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 2012: pp. 127-152

Stern, R., The Radical Demand in Løgstrup’s Ethics. Oxford: OUP. Forthcoming.


[1] Cf. Levinas (1985): 22.

[2] Cf. Janicaud (2000) and Stern (forthcoming), Ch. 9 for two examples of these criticisms.

[3] Cf. Levinas 2012: ‘The primary agreement, to live, does not alienate the I but maintains it, constitutes its being at home with itself. The dwelling, inhabitation, belongs to the essence –to the egoism – of the I.’ (143)

Dan Zahavi (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology, Oxford University Press, 2018

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology
Dan Zahavi (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £110.00
784

Daniel Giovannangeli: La Phénoménologie partagée, Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2017

La Phénoménologie partagée, Presses Universitaires de Liège Book Cover La Phénoménologie partagée, Presses Universitaires de Liège
Série Philosophie
Daniel Giovannangeli
Presses Universitaires de Liège
2017
Paperback 23.00€
142

Michela Summa, Thomas Fuchs, Luca Vanzago (Eds.): Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology, Routledge, 2017

Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology Book Cover Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Michela Summa, Thomas Fuchs, Luca Vanzago (Eds.)
Routledge
2017
Hardback £120.00
358

Jean Wahl: Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings

Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings Book Cover Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Jean Wahl
Fordham University Press
2017
Paperback $35.00
291

Reviewed by:  Guy Bennett-Hunter (University of Edinburgh)

 

‘Packaged as Meat, Frenchman Jean Wahl Flees Nazi Captors in Dramatic Escape’. So reads the 1942 newspaper headline reporting one of the more sensational escapades in the philosopher’s life (6–7, n. 15). Jean Wahl is one of a number of neglected existentialist thinkers who were opponents or victims of the Nazi régime. Philosophers in this tenuous position could no longer (if they ever had) regard their philosophy as separable from the concrete life that made it possible and otherwise informed it. For this reason, the editors’ thoroughly researched introductory essay, drawing on unpublished biographical material, is one of the most valuable features of the collection under review. After the Vichy Statute that excluded Jews from teaching, as the essay explains, Wahl continued to lead seminars from his hotel room on rue des Beaux-Arts. On the day that the area was seized by the Gestapo, Wahl, who was reading Heidegger with a small group of students, is reported to have quipped, ‘If the Gestapo comes, it will not hurt to say that we are studying Heidegger. The Nazis at one time thought highly of him.’ (4).

The memorable newspaper headline refers to Wahl’s eventually successful attempt to escape from occupied France in a ‘butcher cart’, ‘wrapped in the same kind of cloth that wrapped the sides of meat’ (Green cited on 6). This earthy image of the philosopher, the archetype of consciousness and reflective thought, packaged up as inanimate, unthinking flesh is astonishing and suggestive. It may even express the quintessence of the human condition. Is there not a sense in which to be ‘packaged as meat’ is simply to be human?

The question is at the centre of the main theme of this collection of essays: the relationship between transcendence and the concrete. In the volume’s final essay, Wahl explains his and his contemporaries’ preference for the word ‘existence’ over the more archaic ‘soul’:

it is because the soul was too often considered to be a permanent substance, was too clearly separated from the body, too clearly separated from the world. The union of soul and body, of soul and world—this is what is meant by the idea of existence. (267)

As the editors point out, Wahl was ‘a sensitive and insightful reader’ and interpreter of the work of his contemporaries (2). Notably, he promoted in France German philosophers, including Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers (24–5), but his own philosophical voice can be heard in the engagements with other thinkers’ work that are presented in this collection (2). Wahl’s extensive engagement with Jaspers is of particular interest (chs. 6 & 7).

The volume partially reprints ‘The Problem of Choice: Existence and Transcendence in Jaspers’s Philosophy’ (Chapter 6), in which Wahl engages in detail with Jaspers’s complex philosophical system, focusing on those aspects which are of most relevance to his own thinking and which matter to him the most. He begins with the important observation that ‘Jaspers’s philosophy is both the negation of every system and the affirmation that a system is necessary for the intensity of the life of the mind.’ (134) Jaspers’s thought, as Wahl sees it, is based on two propositions, the first of which forms the basis for the second, even as the two propositions oppose and strive to negate one another. Wahl thus makes sense of an otherwise puzzling feature of Jaspers’s work: the tension between its apparently systematic form and its profoundly anti-systematic content. ‘There is…a struggle,’ Wahl says, ‘between philosophy and the form of the system; it always stands outside of the system and breaks it.’ (136)

Wahl’s essay on Jaspers shows just how thoroughly this collection has been edited. References are given to the German edition of Jaspers’s three-volume Philosophy and also, where possible, to E. B. Ashton’s English translation (134, n. 4). The editors also provide an English translation of Wahl’s French translations of Jaspers’s German, which can differ significantly from the published English translations of Jaspers. They also helpfully correct apparent errors in Wahl’s references. However, sections III and IV of the Jaspers essay (‘Transcendence’ and ‘The World of Ciphers’) have been cut ‘for reasons of length’ (147, n. 46). This is unfortunate, because these are the sections that are of most relevance to the theme of the volume as a whole. In these excised sections, Wahl sets out some of the formulas used by Jaspers to articulate the relationship between ‘transcendence’, which is ineffable, and the essentially ambiguous and unstable ‘ciphers’ in which, for Jaspers, transcendence is embodied in the world of concrete experience. In the conclusion to the essay, Wahl holds up Jaspers’s ‘cipher of failure’ as a major link between Jaspers’s theory and some of his own deepest philosophical concerns. But, for Wahl’s explanation of that theory (which is located in the excised section IV), the reader must look elsewhere (147 n. 46). The editorial decision to omit these two sections of Wahl’s text left this reader with the sense that the editors have at times focussed on details at the expense of the broader picture.

‘Subjectivity and Transcendence’ (ch. 7), offering a valuable transcript of the December 4, 1937 session of the Société Française de Philosophie, shows Wahl in living dialogue with some of the most important philosophers of the day. We hear Wahl’s philosophy emerging out of conversations with Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Levinas and others—either in person or by letter. Of particular interest are the lengthy transcribed conversation between Wahl and his friend, Gabriel Marcel and Wahl’s insightful articulation of a particular reservation he has about Jaspers’s thought. On the latter, Wahl states:

it is a general theory of philosophies, it is the work of an observer of philosophies, it is not the act of a philosopher himself choosing his symbol, his cipher [chiffre]. Or, if it is such an act, it loses its general value and is no longer a theory of philosophies in general. (164)

While Wahl acknowledges the importance of Jaspers’s work, for the reason given above, he regards it as ‘no longer necessary to place his philosophy within the same framework as the others’ (164). Rather than being ‘one of the most serious reproaches one could make against Jaspers’s theory’, this is a profound insight into the distinctive nature of his philosophy (164). For what could ‘a general theory of philosophies’ be, if not itself philosophy? And is this not precisely the most authentic kind of philosophy that we need, as opposed to the unreflective choice of a particular cipher, made in ignorance of the fact that ciphers are what are being chosen or even (our inescapable rootedness in traditions notwithstanding) that there is a choice to make? As Jaspers says in his letter to Wahl (on a different point), ‘what you designate as dangers is exactly what I would like to achieve, at least as I conceive it’ (191).

Overall, Transcendence and the Concrete makes an important contribution to the study of the life and thought of Jean Wahl and his contemporaries. Its transcript of the 1937 session and detailed biographical essay will be of particular value to scholars and students working in the field.

Adonis Frangeskou: Levinas, Kant and the Problematic of Temporality, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

Levinas, Kant and the Problematic of Temporality Book Cover Levinas, Kant and the Problematic of Temporality
Adonis Frangeskou
Palgrave Macmillan
2017
Hardcover $99.99
XV, 225

Jens Meierhenrich, Oliver Simons (Eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt, Oxford University Press, 2017

The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt
Jens Meierhenrich, Oliver Simons (Eds.)
Oxford University Press
2017
Hardback £97.00
872

Rafael Winkler (Ed.): Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self

Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self Book Cover Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self
Rafael Winkler (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2016
Hardcover 96,29 €
XVI, 286

Reviewed by: Meghant Sudan (Colby College)

This collection of essays aims to show how questions about one’s identity (as a metaphysical entity, as a reflective knower, as a social-moral-political being) appear when difference is upheld as primary or fundamental. This approach is broadly characteristic of recent works in continental philosophy and through it the collection maintains a steady affiliation with phenomenological thought, although this is not its explicit focus. The reader is led through thoughtful explorations of topics such as how one’s self-conception is marked by a fundamental deception, or how a satisfying account of agency demands a thoroughgoing unity across my animal and my rational capacities, or how my being human and embodied entails my constitution through a dynamic of fragility. The collection contains eleven essays presented at a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, including many by local and younger scholars, and so represents philosophical work itself in a somewhat different setting.

In that very setting, the collection is timely too, since the issue of identity has recently inspired lively public debate and much soul-searching at prominent sites of the South African philosophical scene, some involving the editor and a few authors of our collection. The controversy originally arose over systemic racism many felt exists in the Philosophical Society of South Africa, and in part concerned an all-white panel on the topic of South African identity at its annual conference last year (the panellists include some authors in the present collection). The editor then broached the topic and responded to critics in opinion pieces in newspapers this year. The collection encourages several ways to think about one’s identity and deepens the debate that already took place in the newspaper columns but which naturally could go only as far as these allow. At the same time, the collection courts a like charge as that which embroiled the panel, since no anxiety about manifest tokens of racial representation seems to drive the contents of the volume, while the sole article attending to the question of South African identity argues expressly from the position of whiteness (a pressing conundrum regarding how white South Africans are to be white South Africans in a post-apartheid state). These issues of the personal and the political are truly large and urgent, and easily dwarf the fact, which I would also like to make transparent in the context of this review, that I am personally acquainted with the editor and we share philosophical interests.

It is fashionable to fret about the lack of unity in collections, especially one that is conference-based, where it is even more susceptible to such worries. I do not share these worries, and judging from the fact that Winkler’s brisk introduction does not invest great effort in imposing order on the proceedings, I do not think there was any worry about settling them either. The essays are organized along four themes: “Narrative Theory and Phenomenology,” “Politics, Authenticity, and Agency,” “Feminism,” and “Race and the Postcolonial,” but they often speak to each other beyond these divisions. For example, narrative theories of identity appear in the first section (as they must) but also substantively in the Feminism section; the formidable thought of Spivak reflecting on Irigaray reflecting on Levinas comes up in both the Feminism and the Race and The Postcolonial sections; an interest in philosophical skepticism emerges in the course of discussing Sartrean views of consciousness in the first section and leads into a historical discussion of skepticism in the next. Such conversations among the pieces are helpful and are highlighted below. An unevenness does dog the collection, however, and I will comment on this aspect in the end after briefly reviewing the individual contributions.

Dermot Moran surveys concepts of self, ego, personhood, and personality, as they travel through the history of western philosophy until their phenomenological treatments by Husserl, Heidegger, Max Scheler, and Edith Stein. After Locke, who gave the concept of personhood a strongly moral orientation, and Kant, who pressed the ego’s sensible-cum-rational entanglements as a problem, these founders of phenomenology strive in mutually responsive ways to articulate its complex and dynamic unity, and stress the following: its systematic and historical dimensions (Husserl and Heidegger), its moral and concrete individuality (Scheler), and its psychic and spiritual depth (Stein). While the essay succeeds several previous versions, it is clear that Moran’s practiced hand (the essay succeeds several previous versions) brings the various moments of this otherwise expansive sweep before us effortlessly and situates the chapters that follow.

Alfonso Muñoz-Corcuera enters debates about narrative theories of personal identity, which Moran touches on when closing his essay. Muñoz-Corcuera defends these theories against objections which disable easy transitions between literary characters and living persons, which hold that we neither understand ourselves through narratives nor is our identity in fact constituted through narrativization, and which raise concerns about diluting our practical exigencies by relying on strategies relevant elsewhere, such as writing fiction. These objections are shown to rest on a misunderstanding easily avoided by distinguishing diligently between literary and cognitive senses of “narrative,” where the latter indicates a mental framework for thinking of agency rather than formal features of sentences that count as literary narratives. The different positions in this debate are laid out in detail, but key points of Muñoz-Corcuera’s rejoinder are stated without explicit support even if they sound plausible enough, e.g., the claim that the cognitive sense somehow conditions how we construe the literary sense, or the claim that our own identity is constituted through the interaction between stories we tell about ourselves and stories others tell about us. Similarly, the formal-literary notion is a tad flat without an account of the material-historical conditions of that form itself, which would arrest misuse of that notion in thinking about ourselves.

David Mitchell makes a strong case for continuing the dialogue between phenomenological and narrative views of personal identity by examining Sartrean insights into how a dialectic of fiction and belief underwrites selfhood. It is hard to account for self-deception as a state of mind resistant to a Cartesian type of transparent self-consciousness. Freudian theories incur the paradox that the subject must be conscious of what it is to remain unconscious of in order to repress it and epistemological theories equating self-deception with ordinary adhesion to false beliefs in the face of countervailing evidence do not do justice to the distinctive features and deep conviction marking the former. Mitchell therefore appeals to Sartre’s quaintly charming psychological case-analyses, which show them as grounded in the structure of consciousness as elusive and in flight, and he offers an account of belief as essentially overcoming itself at a pre-reflective yet spontaneous level of awareness. I only wish that he set aside some of the time spent on the case-analyses to help readers learn more about the intriguing processes at work in the theory of mind according to this view.

Vincent Caudron reminds us that the desire for a seamless self, without gaps or distortions, overlooks discourses of authenticity, which dominated the early modern epoch and its tenor of religious and epistemological uncertainty, and which probed a radical incompleteness of the self. Caudron documents such views in Montaigne and Charron to show not only skepticism about a true self but also a constant pursuit of hypocrisy in oneself that drove a wedge within the self in the service of moral authenticity. Fortunately, we have a wealth of historical-philosophical literature available (elsewhere, in the area of early modern skepticism) that offers greater heft and nuance to the indications Caudron flags as important to consider.

Irene Bucelli, in the one chapter that engages analytic philosophy, proceeds in the other direction and wonders if the constitutivist views of agency championed by Korsgaard and Velleman create an untenable rift between animal-active and human-rational levels of selfhood and if an approach that synthesizes the two orders is not preferable instead. Bucelli believes that minimal self-awareness without higher reflective endorsement is not only necessary for being responsive to reasons for acting as her opponents grant, but also sometimes sufficient, which is evident in coping actions in which I am immersed. The evidence, so far as I see it developed here, draws from the more cohesive and permissive account of action that will eventually ensue from the proposed approach: cohesive inasmuch as various capacities can be integrated towards human action instead of attributing the latter exclusively to an autonomous rationality, which attribution is nonetheless supposed to depend on lower layers of mental awareness and ownership; permissive inasmuch as a continuum or spectrum of actions and mental states can fund an account of agency under more flexible circumstances than the sort that Kantian formalism permits.

Rockwell Clancy wants to deliver us from a more pernicious formalism he perceives in contemporary liberalism, which, in having freed itself from allegiance to natural law and human nature, has led, he feels, to conservative and fundamentalist reaction. He observes that disavowing political anthropology is neither possible, because the barest description of human agency is still one, nor is it desirable, because, as Clancy warns, this opens us up to vast dangers ranging from ISIS and David Cameron to Dawkins and Derrida (the warning is issued in the now recognizable style of holding postmodern playfulness responsible for the severe indifference to truth affecting public discourse today and thereby enabling whatever-you-fear-worst). In lieu of an abstract and exclusive universalism Cancy imagines an inclusive particularism that would approach human nature through a more fluid understanding of nature, which lets us collect everything needed to avoid said dangers from everyone from Mencius to Latour to build a better world (and a daunting bibliography).

Kathy Butterworth’s chapter outlines a program for conceiving a relative (she prefers “relational”) autonomy by using Ricouer’s narrative theory of personal identity, which allows for thinking of a subject, and its autonomy, as a process for permitting degrees of achievement and contextualization. We need such a concept because the post-structuralist critique of the subject, while it compellingly dismantles traditional notions of an invulnerable, all-or-nothing autonomy, thereby also imperils the resources it could provide for a post-identity subjectivity consonant with a broadly feminist perspective.

Louise du Toit eloquently argues for rethinking subjectivity through bodily vulnerability with the help of feminist legal philosophy and phenomenology. Rape, she says, is inadequately understood when we only consider its physical violence, or only its sexual side and exclusively under the concept of consent as a corollary thereof. Relying heavily on Debra Bergoffen’s work on international tribunals on war rapes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, du Toit explains, rather, that rape concerns a physically coded violation of dignity that places it on the same plane as other crimes against humanity such as torture and slavery. Comparative analysis of these enables a phenomenological interpretation inspired by Merleau-Ponty, which evokes the fundamental ambivalence of the embodied human as both object and subject and calls for a thinking in terms of our living sensuality and enmeshed erotics. The essay is laden with insights that await unpacking via critical confrontations with other feminist and phenomenological work touched on in passing or raised by suggestion.

Laura Roberts takes forward the question of erotics signalled by du Toit and frames a dialogue between Irigaray and Spivak (which is surprisingly helpful in clarifying their otherwise abstruse texts), in order to conceive a feminist ethics of solidarity that is synaptically global rather than universal in a way that subsumes the other under itself. Spivak finds in Irigaray’s concept of sexuate difference as an irreducible difference a point of departure for thinking of an ethical relation to another, and in the question of women’s pleasure an excess-within-difference that can develop it as a radically indeterminate moment moving bodies together (in love) and playing between discourses (in translation or teaching). This style of thought naturally resists straightforward exegesis, proceeds performatively, and baffles any mere spectator or reviewer, but may at the very least be taken as articulating the “sensible transcendental” conditions of possibility of a solidarity to come, if one were to press mundanely about the solidarity hereby made possible.

Sharli Paphitis and Lindsay-Ann Kelland broach the question of South African identity from the standpoint of white individuals and record their personal struggles with it. As it is avowedly a personal question, albeit posed in a collective and impersonal register, it could have occasioned reflection on the very decision to write together (along with others like the focus on their race and citizenship, rather than, for instance, their being women), even if one did not want (but why not?) to go to Spivakian lengths of autoanalysis. Paphitis and Kelland do reflect on their guilt and shame, taking these as two kinds of relationships determining identity, one with their forefathers (their word) and another with their black compatriots, and they find that, denials of history and denials of recognition respectively riddle their reflection. Yet, they refrain from using the analysis of this emotional experience to disclose any larger truths, say, about being and intersubjectivity, and accept that they have merely begun their journey of self-discovery.

Louis Blond closes the volume with a reluctant defense of Levinas against postcolonial criticism of the topic of alterity. The essay includes a useful genealogical sketch of this topic, thus bookending Moran’s own on identity, to lead us up to the basic framework of Levinasian thought and interventions by critics as well as sympathetic commentators. Although Levinas is celebrated for stressing the singularity of the other and ethical confrontations ensuing from it, critics object that this denies representational politics or repeats exclusionary gestures of a colonial extraction or they point to plain instances of bigotry. However, postcolonial thought is not always beyond reproach, especially in overstating the body’s passivity against the transcendent-spiritual orientation of Levinasian thought, while, Blond hopes, repairing blind spots in the latter can preserve its intrinsically valuable prioritization of the ethical and social relation.

As I hope to have shown, the collection is uneven: some chapters are stronger, some weaker, some are interpretive or analytical, while some are programmatically promissory or resolutely exegetical, some are dense and some lucid. Given the editorial decision to represent a variety of voices, this may even be welcome. An unevenness harder to specify, however, concerns their intended audience. For, a few chapters will appeal to philosophers searching for argumentative developments in their fields, while others speak to generalists looking for the big picture, and some to non-philosophers interested in introducing themselves to specific ideas and movements. The publisher’s blurb recognizes this and addresses itself to the humanities at large. Inasmuch as philosophers are accused of not doing so, the book corrects a fault and ably informs a diverse readership about the variety of debates prevalent today about identity, difference, and the self.

Andrea Staiti, Evan Clarke (Eds.): The Sources of Husserl’s ‘Ideas I’, De Gruyter, 2017

The Sources of Husserl’s 'Ideas I' Book Cover The Sources of Husserl’s 'Ideas I'
Andrea Staiti, Evan Clarke (Eds.)
De Gruyter
2017
Hardcover 109,95 €
450

Burkhard Liebsch (Hg.): Der Andere in der Geschichte – Sozialphilosophie im Zeichen des Krieges

Der Andere in der Geschichte - Sozialphilosophie im Zeichen des Krieges. Ein kooperativer Kommentar zu Emmanuel Levinas' "Totalität und Unendlichkeit" Book Cover Der Andere in der Geschichte - Sozialphilosophie im Zeichen des Krieges. Ein kooperativer Kommentar zu Emmanuel Levinas' "Totalität und Unendlichkeit"
Burkhard Liebsch (Herausgeber)
Verlag Karl Alber
2016
Paperback 40,00 €
432

Reviewed by: Anne Clausen (University of Göttingen)

Das 1961 erschienene erste Hauptwerk von Emmanuel Lévinas, Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’exteritorité, hat auch im Jahre 2017 nichts von seiner Aktualität verloren. Die darin behandelte Frage nach der Andersheit und dem Anspruch des (ganz) Anderen behält angesichts von Flüchtlingskrise, Terrorismus und kriegerischen Auseinandersetzungen in vielen Teilen der Welt seine thematische Relevanz, die zu dem Denken über Gerechtigkeit, Ethik und Ansprüche wie es etwa im Kontext von Habermas oder Rawls geschieht, eine ernst zu nehmende Infragestellung und Alternative darstellt.

Lévinas steht für ein Denken von Alterität oder Ander(s)heit, die sich jeder Verfügung entzieht und nur als Überschuss verstanden werden kann, der zugleich das Subjekt in seiner oder vielmehr als Verantwortung für den Anderen konstituiert. Er eröffnet damit den Blick für einen Bezug auf den Anderen, in dem wir schon stehen, bevor wir Verträge schließen und Politik treiben. So bringt er zur Sprache, was „‚zwischen uns’ geschieht, bevor es überhaupt zu normativen Fragen des Guten und des Gerechten kommen kann“ (Liebsch, 23). Der Andere begegnet dem Ich als Gesicht bzw. Antlitz und das Einzige, was positiv über ihn gesagt werden kann, ist gerade, dass er konstitutiv nicht in dem Eigenen aufgeht. Diese Fremdheit des Anderen macht zugleich seine Freiheit aus, die zu schützen die unbedingte Forderung ist, die an das Ich ergeht.

Die radikale Unverfügbarkeit des Anderen sprachlich zu fassen stellt ein Paradox dar, das Lévinas zu immer neuen Formulierungen an der Grenze der Sprache treibt. Dabei geht es darum, ein Jenseits des Seins zu denken bzw. den Anderen anders zu denken denn als „Teil einer als ‚Schauspiel’ aufgefassten Welt oder als ‚Theater’ eingestuften Weltgeschichte“ (vgl. Liebsch 46). Die Geschichte ist nicht das „Maß aller Dinge“ (Vgl. Lévinas, Schwierige Freiheit 151), sondern kann und muss von der Beziehung Von-Angesicht-zu-Angesicht her korrigiert werden (vgl. Liebsch 11), die sich der Totalität entzieht. Notorisch problematisch bleibt dabei die Frage, wie radikale Geschichtskritik und anti-historisches Denken der Alterität doch wieder mit der Geschichte und vor allem mit dem Politischen zusammenzubringen sind. Es resultiert das dringende „Desiderat, in diesem alteritätstheoretisch anspruchsvollen Sinne ethisches und historisches Denken zusammenzubringen“ (Liebsch 14).

Diesem Desiderat nähert sich Burkhard Liebsch an und fügt mit seinem 2016 im Karl Alber Verlag erschienenen kooperativen Kommentar der breiten Literatur einen neuen und informativen Beitrag hinzu, dessen Alleinstellungsmerkmal darin besteht, sich dem vieldiskutierten Werk in Einzelanalysen zu widmen, die sich chronologisch  den einzelnen Abschnitten des Werkes widmen. Der 400 Seiten starke Kommentar ist dafür in 16 Einzelanalysen plus Einführung und Nachtrag des Herausgebers organisiert, in denen bekannte Namen der Lévinas-Forschung jeweils einen kurzen Abschnitt des Werkes behandeln. Anstelle einer akribischen Interpretation bemühen sich die einzelnen Autoren und Autorinnen dabei, die Thematik des jeweils behandelten Abschnittes in einen größeren Kontext zu fassen und auf je eigene Weise zu fokussieren. Die einzelnen Analysen unterscheiden sich dabei erheblich darin, ob sie sich ganz auf den Ausschnitt beschränken oder diesen eher zum Anhaltspunkt für weiterführende Überlegungen nehmen. So entsteht ein sehr reichhaltiger Überblick mit detaillierten Einzelinterpretationen, der zudem – nicht zuletzt dem Schreiben von Lévinas selbst geschuldet – mit der Polyphonie der Stimmen ein Sagen und Wieder- bzw. Wider-Sagen der zentralen Motive beinhaltet. Die großen Themen wie der Genuss und die Sinnlichkeit des Subjekts, ein anderes Denken der Intentionalität, die Vorgängigkeit des Anderen und die Verantwortung für ihn, Ontologiekritik und das Jenseits des Seins und natürlich das Gesicht bzw. Antlitz werden so immer noch einmal neu perspektiviert. Im Gespräch mit Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, aber auch Proust und Beckett werden einzelne Diskursstränge herausgeschält, gesagt und wi(e)der gesagt. Neben der vorwiegend affirmierenden Lektüre richten sich dabei auch einige kritische Fragen an den Autor, die insbesondere die Implikationen des Alteritätsdenkens und die philosophische Haltbarkeit der vorgebrachten Thesen betreffen. So entsteht ein lebendiges, reiches und auch spannungsvolles Bild des Werkes, das zeigt, dass die Auseinandersetzung mit Lévinas auch nach mehr als 55 Jahren nicht abgeschlossen ist.

Zum Auftakt thematisiert Hans-Christoph Askani die Beziehung zum ganz Anderen, die das Ich sich selbst entreißt und die Lévinas als Metaphysik bezeichnet . Er zeigt, dass der hiermit angezeigte Bruch mit der Totalität sich in der Sprache und als metaphysisches Begehren ereignet, das dem (weltlichen, leiblichen) Bedürfnis entgegensteht. Dieser Bruch wird als Bedingung der Möglichkeit von Frieden ausgewiesen; es gibt aus der Totalität und d.h. vom Krieg „einen Ausgang, weil es in sie einen Einbruch gibt.“ (87)

Der Herausgeber selbst, Burkhard Liebsch, nimmt sich Lévinas’ „sozialphilosophisch gewendet[e]“ (89) Lesart von Descartes vor, mit der dieser  zu zeigen versucht, dass das Soziale, verstanden als Begegnung mit dem ganz Anderen, das Epistemische fundiert (vgl. 90f.). Diese Begegnung ist, so Lévinas, nur möglich in einem getrennten Psychischen, das sich der „Aufhebung in Geschichte“ (95) widersetzt. Das Begehren des Anderen bewirkt dann eine Umkehrung oder „Konversion“ des Seienden, in der es sein Glück, seinen Genuss, für den Anderen aufzugeben bereit ist. Liebsch stellt jedoch die beschriebene Selbstgenügsamkeit dieses Subjekts der Trennung in Frage – „Können wir wirklich in psychischem Leben derart bei uns selbst ‚zuhause’ sein […] ?“ (110) – die zudem in Spannung mit Lévinas’ späteren Andeutungen steht, denen zufolge das Subjekt immer schon ein Empfangenes, d.h. dem Anderen schon begegnet sei.

Bernhard H.F. Taureck gibt den wohl am wenigsten favorablen Ausblick auf Lévinas. Seine Analyse der Freiheit stellt „kritisch-polemische“ und „eklektische“ „Evidenzen“ heraus, die nur durch die weitere „Evidenz“ der „Verklärung“ eine gewisse Attraktivität erhalten, und sieht Lévinas letztlich in einer Komplementärstellung zu Beckett: „Wenn Levinas die Verwüstung verklärt, so wird hier die Verklärung verwüstet. […] Was der eine befestigt, reißt der andere ein und umgekehrt.“ (134f.)

Auf den dann folgenden Seiten stellt Sophie Loidolt die „Intentionalität des Genießens als Grundstruktur der Subjektivität“ (136) heraus, die sowohl zu der Intentionalität Husserls als auch zu der Sorgestruktur des Daseins bei Heidegger eine Alternative darstellt. Als „leben von…“ hat Existenz eine irreduzibel sinnliche Qualität, die es nur gestattet, eine Unabhängigkeit des Subjekts in der Abhängigkeit von etwas zu denken, die die Voraussetzung für die Begegnung mit dem Andern ist. In dieser Darstellung fährt Alwin Letzkus fort, der den Genuss als „die eigentliche, weil tiefste Wurzel der Intentionalität“ (161) herausstellt: Die Vorstellungen des Bewusstseins selbst sind vom Genuss getragen. Nur diese Konzeption eines nicht auf Intentionalität und Repräsentation reduzierten Bewusstseins soll es erlauben, die Transzendenz des Anderen zu denken.

Pascal Delhom arbeitet die „Struktur der bedingten Bedingung“ (186) heraus, die sich zuerst in der doppelten Vorgängigkeit von Gegenständen und Ich zeigt (176f.) und sich bezüglich der Begegnung mit dem Anderen wiederholt: Einerseits setzt diese die Trennung des Individuums voraus, andererseits ist diese Trennung aber nur möglich, weil das Subjekt dem Anderen bereits begegnet ist, d.h. von ihm empfangen wurde. Delhom sieht hier „jenseits aller Dialektik“ eine spezifische Verbindung von Aktivität und Passivität beschrieben, die die Setzung eines Ichs ermöglicht, das der Offenbarung des Anderen fähig ist (vgl. 187).

Auch Gabriella Baptist stellt die Vorgängigkeit der Begegnung mit dem Anderen heraus, durch die eine „Dimension der Aufmerksamkeit eröffnet [wird], die sich vom Genuss der Elemente und von den Bedürfnissen des Lebens und deren Nahrung befreien kann“ (192) und die letztlich auch die Enteignung durch den Anderen, nämlich das Geben, erlaubt. Die Autorin kontrastiert Lévinas’ Darstellung der Bleibe mit dem In-der-Welt-sein bei Heidegger, dem sich auch Antje Kapust noch einmal als der Bedingung und dem Anfange menschlicher Bezugnahme zur Welt widmet (vgl. 203).

Matthias Flatscher und Sergej Seitz gehen auf die Rolle der Sprache ein, die bei Lévinas „nicht in epistemologischer Hinsicht betrachtet, […] sondern als ein responsives Geschehen gefasst [wird]“ (220) und Transzendenz ermöglicht (vgl. 223). Der Andere sei kein Inhalt, der sich thematisieren ließe, sondern er wird angesprochen und drückt sich aus; ihm gegenüber steht das Ich in der Verantwortung, die es erst konstituiert. Gegen die Selbstkritik von Lévinas an seinem eigenen Werk schlagen die Autoren vor, „eines der produktivsten Momente von Totalität und Unendlichkeit [] [in dem] Anbieten eines alteritätsaffinen Seinsbegriffs [zu] verorten“ (234).

Der Frage, wie etwas zugleich Modalität des Bewusstseins und Exteriorität sein kann, widmet sich Alain David. Um diese paradoxe Qualität des Gesichts zu denken, muss – gegen Husserl und Heidegger – eine Sinnlichkeit gedacht werden, die die Intentionalität des Bewusstseins überschreitet und bei der es nicht um „die Offenbarung der Welt, sondern [um] diejenige der Sprache – als Sprache des Anderen“ (255) geht.

In einem stärker systematisch orientierten Zugang beleuchtet Werner Stegmaier die Destruktionen, die Lévinas vornimmt, indem er den Blick für die ethische Beziehung zum Anderen öffnet: An die Stelle des Spekulativen, des Prinzipiellen, des Theoretischen und des Definitiven rückt das Über-sich-hinaus-gezogen-werden des Denkens, die ethische Beziehung, die Umorientierung im Denken des Denkens, der Sprache und der Gesellschaft. Der Beitrag von Hans-Martin Schönherr-Mann hat eine ähnliche Stoßrichtung, indem er den Institutionen, dem Werk und der Geschichte, in denen das Individuum nicht als solches erhalten bleibt, den Pluralismus entgegensetzt, der sich in der Beziehung zum Anderen ereignet und durch die Geduld, die Epiphanie des Antlitzes und die Verantwortung expliziert wird. Wie der Autor zeigt, ermöglichen es diese Figuren, eine Subjektivität zu denken, die sich von sich selbst entfernt, ohne dass dies als Unterwerfung unter das Universelle zu denken wäre.

Vor dem Hintergrund eines Überblicks über die großen Themen, die in Totalität und Unendlichkeit verhandelt werden, – die Priorität der Alterität vor der Identität, die (Inter-)Personalität und Pluralität vor Universalität und Rationalität und die Individualität und Responsivität vor der Intentionalität und Totalität – gibt Christian Rößner ein Bild jener „Phänomenologie des Eros“ (313, nach einer Überschrift in Jenseits des Seins), wo die „Zweisamkeit zu keiner erotisch-platonischen Einheit“ (316) verschmilzt. Dabei stellt er heraus, dass dieser Teil des Buches, der vor allem feministische Kritiken auf sich gezogen hat, seine literarische Vorlage in Prousts Albertine hat. Christina Schües stellt die Fruchtbarkeit, die Lévinas im letzten Teil seines Werkes behandelt, als eine Möglichkeit heraus, Transzendenz zu denken, indem sich das Subjekt hier nicht „mitnimmt“ und damit die Einheit der Selbigkeit aufgebrochen wird. Der Sohn bedeute die Befreiung des Vaters und erlaube es, eine unendliche und diskontinuierliche Zeit zu denken, in der Vergebung möglich sei.

Dieter Mersch stellt im Sinne der „Konversion des Bezugs“ (351), die die Destituierung der Ontologie, die Priorisierung der Passivität vor der Aktivität und eine Ethik der Alterität beinhaltet, das „Von-Angesicht-zu-Angesicht“ als Quelle des Sozialen heraus, das einerseits dieses Soziale anders verstehen lässt – nämlich nicht als Gefüge von „‚Interaktion’ bzw. den Regeln interpersonaler Verständigung“ (359) – und andererseits eine „Ethik ohne Gesetz“ (369) begründet.

Und schließlich differenziert Alfred Hirsch zwei Stufen der Freiheit: zuerst jene willkürliche und einsame Freiheit des genießenden Subjekts und dann die moralische Freiheit, in die das Ich durch den Anderen eingesetzt wird. Hirsch sieht durch den Eintritt des Dritten die „Möglichkeit der Symmetrie, des Austausches und die Gerechtigkeit“ (386) gegeben, wobei es der „Asymmetrie des ethischen Anspruches durch den Anderen “ bedarf, die „verhindert, dass der Staat nicht zum Unrechtsstaat mit gutem Gewissen wird.“ (387)

Hiermit kehrt das Buch letztlich zu der Ausgangsfrage nach der Stellung des Anderen in der Geschichte zurück. Abschließend lässt sich sagen, dass es sich bei dem kooperativen Kommentar um eine solide Einführung in das erste große Hauptwerk von Lévinas handelt, die zudem an vielen Stellen Bezüge zu anderen Schriften des Autors herstellt und Verbindungen zu anderen Autoren eröffnet. Naturgemäß werden die bekannten Gedankenfiguren behandelt, die für Lévinas-Vertraute eher keine Neuigkeit darstellen werden. Darüber hinaus bietet das Buch aber auch Fokussierungen auf randständigere Aspekte des Werkes und besticht durch detail- und kenntnisreiche Analysen. Der im Titel angekündigte Geschichtsbezug wird dabei allerdings nur sporadisch aufgegriffen und darf durchaus auch weiterhin als Desiderat gelten