As Steven Cassedy notes in the introduction to this fascinating, wide-ranging, and unique book, meaning is everywhere, and yet it seems no one ever stops to define it (1). Through a series of chapters tracing the history of “meaning” from ancient Greek and Hebrew sources to contemporary English usage, Cassedy tells a story in which notions of meaning were originally limited to words, signs, and interpretation, but usage gradually expanded to a present-day context in which meaning means… well… almost everything. The book succeeds in something that, in my view, is not often enough done in contemporary philosophy or intellectual history: connecting past philosophical ideas—in broad, easy-to-understand brushstrokes—to popular culture and the popular uptake of those ideas in the present and recent past.
The book is, indeed, more appropriately considered a work in intellectual history than in philosophy in a narrow academic sense. Cassedy works in comparative literature, and the primary method of the work is close reading rather than philosophical argument. His overarching claims are developed via helpful etymological discussions and readings of texts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German, and Danish, as well as selective attention to secondary literature on these figures and associated key texts. These treatments, taken as a whole, offer an extremely helpful overview of the evolution of the notion of meaning over the longue durée of Western intellectual history, with some fascinating (if necessarily selective) detailed accounts of key ideas and authors.
I begin with a chapter-by-chapter overview of the more broadly historical Chapters One through Five, then turn to more detailed critical treatment of some major themes, where I also survey Chapters Six through Nine, which are devoted to more recent and popular treatments of meaning.
The concept of meaning as we have come to know it in contemporary English is more recent than we might expect, and does not, on Cassedy’s reading, have an exact equivalent in ancient writings. Chapter One, as its title suggests, argues that the ancient world “got along without” meaning “until the rise of Christianity.” Cassedy surveys Hebrew and Aramaic terms appearing in the Hebrew Bible and concludes that there is simply no word corresponding to our “meaning” to be found there, though there is some interesting discussion of translations of Ecclesiastes using “meaning” in an attempt to get at the sense of value or “meaning in life” that Cassedy is interested in (14-15).
Cassedy then turns to ancient Greece, where he finds significant semantic commonality with regard to the English verb to mean, and ample evidence of diverse theories of signification, signs, interpretation, and the function of language in authors like Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and as far back as Heraclitan fragments about the Delphic Oracle. But the focus remains on the verb, and on the notion of signification: Cassedy finds little evidence of a noun form of “meaning,” and little attention paid to the “something that gets signified” corresponding to a sign (19). Cassedy also insists, with regard to Platonic forms (ideai) that “nowhere are they likened to a meaning that we retrieve as we do from words in a written text” (23).
It is only in Chapter Two, with Latin-language authors of early Christianity, that we “first find meaning used as the object of a metaphysical interpretive quest into a mysterious, invisible realm separate from the realm of direct experience” and where the meaning of “meaning” begins to expand beyond the literal. The key notion here is “the readability the world,” and Cassedy largely follows the work of Hans Blumenberg and New Testament scholar Harry Gamble in his extended analysis of meaning in Augustine. Here, helpfully, we find an early touchstone for the distinction between natural and conventional (“given”) signs (30)—a distinction that would be important in twentieth-century accounts from Husserl (2001, I.§2) to Grice (1957, 378-79). Divine scripture for Augustine consists of given signs with authorial intent, but the interpretation of those signs involves usage of “ideas/thoughts/meanings (sensa) by means of signs, and those signs relate to our various senses (sensūs)” (31). This anticipates the idea—central to Cassedy’s interpretation of the German Sinn as discussed below—of a close relationship and intermingling between meaning and sensation. It also introduces the important distinction, central to Augustine, on Cassedy’s interpretation, between the actual reading of books, such as the scriptures, and the figurative “reading” of the world or nature, and ultimately of heaven, whose signs are—at least for human beings— “shrouded in mystery and subject to interpretive acts that can never be guaranteed to reveal an absolute truth” (33). This for Cassedy is the central step that clears the way for the contemporary usage of meaning in phrases like “meaning in life.”
Cassedy then notes a shift from the medieval idea of reading the “text of the world” as well as written passages to the later idea—which Cassedy argues, following the historian of science Peter Harrison, arises as a result of the Protestant Reformation—of reading as applying to passages only: “under the older conception, both words (in Scripture) and things (in the world of nature) had meanings. Under the new, Protestant conception, only words had meaning; objects didn’t” (37). The result, according to Harrison, was that “The natural world, once the indispensable medium between words and eternal truths, lost its meanings, and became opaque to those hermeneutical procedures which had once elucidated it. It was left to an emerging natural science to reinvest the created order with intelligibility” (Harrison, qtd. in Cassedy, 37).
The notion that the world itself contains meaning is reasserted, Cassedy argues, in Berkeley’s work on perception. Following Kenneth Winkler, Cassedy finds in Berkley a “semiotic theory of vision,” “founded on the notion that seeing is a matter of recovering meanings from signs whose connections with those meanings are purely conventional and arbitrary” (39). This notion is reminiscent of medieval “book of nature” ideas, but with the crucial difference provided by Berkley’s (in)famous immaterialism, which, Cassedy argues, sets the stage for idealism and romanticism.
Chapter Three, “Idealism and Romanticism,” was for me the most intriguing and the most helpful of the book. It begins from an extended discussion of Johan Georg Hamann, who “embedded language in the very fabric of the world itself, which he viewed as God’s text” (44). This leads a naturally to the idea of a close connection between the perceptual senses (die Sinne) and sense (Sinn), an idea which Cassedy takes up in the next subsection of the chapter. His short history of the German Sinn invokes its early connotations of movement, change of place, and direction, and traces its development through to a more modern conception that builds in a certain “fuzziness” or indeterminacy.
Chapter Three focuses especially on one of the twenty four definitions of Sinn provided in the Grimm Brothers’ mid-nineteenth-century Deutsches Wörterbuch, which notes that “[i]n modern times, Sinn is customarily and commonly [used] for the meaning [Bedeutung], the opinion [Meinung], the spiritual content, the intention [Tendenz] of an expression, a work, or (more rarely) an action, as distinguished from its wording [Wortlaut] or its outward appearance” (qtd. in Cassedy, 49). In this later usage, Cassedy notes, Sinn is most often connotative, whereas the German bedeuten and Bedeutung—like the English meaning—is more likely to be denotative. This of course tracks both the well-known distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung as marked by Frege in the essay of that name (Frege 1892), and also discussions of denotation and connotation in English from, e.g., Mill (1843, I.2.§5). Puzzlingly, there is no treatment of these obvious touchstones in this chapter or elsewhere in the text, despite the fact that Frege’s is concerned with precisely the same German terms, and Mill falls into precisely the same historical period as the German authors discussed in Chapter Three.
Chapter Three then further traces the notion of Sinn in Kant, through pre-Critical writings such as Dreams of a Spirit-seer and into the first Critique, where “Like the Latin sensum/sensus/ sentientia, Sinn conveys both the receiving, sentient mind and the properties of objects that the mind cognizes and interprets” (56-7). Kant’s use of the term stands in stark contrast, Cassedy reports, to that of later romantic-era figures such as Novalis (whose “grand, mysterious statements” about meaning are treated by Cassedy at great and somewhat puzzling length), Goethe, Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and Herder. It is in these romantic-era figures that we first encounter sustained engagement with the German phrase “Sinn des Lebens,” the philosophical and intellectual precursor to contemporary English’s “meaning of life,” and with the call to rediscover the original sense or meaning of the world by re-enchanting or romanticizing it (64). Herder’s 1772 Treatise on the Origin of Language is given strikingly brief treatment—especially in contrast to the expansive discussion of Novalis—and is discussed only in the context of its influence on Schleiermacher.
Chapter Four begins with a brief treatment of Kierkegaard, due to his explicit invocations of the “meaning of,” and sometimes “in” “life” (74-75), but his usage of these phrases is dismissed as relatively “uneventful.” (The influence of broader themes in Kierkegaard’s work on twentieth-century writers, due to the appearance of English translations of his work, is returned to in more detail in Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight). The bulk of Chapter Four consists of extensive discussions of Thomas Carlyle, including Carlyle’s engagement with Novalis, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Carlyle’s work represents for Cassedy the movement of German culture into British culture over the course of the nineteenth century (77), and in his partly satirical novel Sartor Resartus we find what Cassedy suspects to be the first use of the phrase “the meaning of life” in English, “where the phrase refers not to the meaning, or definition, of the word life but to the meaning of life itself” (82).
Emerson brought Carlyle’s novel to the United States, where it was influential for the American Transendentalists. Emerson was also influenced directly by earlier German mystics such as Novalis, as well as by the uptake of German romanticism in Coleridge, from whom he took the notion of the “book of nature” that would be influential in Emerson’s extended engagements with the theme of nature and humankind’s place in it. Emerson, Cassedy plausibly argues, “envisages a world in which we ‘read’ (metaphorically speaking) and interpret not just actual books but, well, that world itself, which he implicitly represents as yielding up meaning, significance, sense to our acts of interpretation” (90). This amounts to a form of idealism reminiscent of Berkeley and Kant, but in which “the mind or consciousness always bleeds over into a mysterious spiritual realm that appears to be simultaneously coextensive with and hidden from it” (92). For Cassedy, such a mystical, book-of-nature connotation of “meaning” in English is a major component of our contemporary usage and understanding of the term.
Chapter Five turns to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, including some intriguing comparison of the Russian smysl and the German Sinn (95). From Tolstoy’s increasingly religious writings—especially due to their popularity with readers of English-language translations appearing in the early twentieth century—and in references to Tolstoy in well-known works such as James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, we first get the close connection between meaning and purpose that is also part of our contemporary understanding of the word. Due to Dostoevsky’s existentialism and the centrality of mortality for so many of his characters, Cassedy suggests, readers find in his works a more secular treatment of meaning in life than in Tolstoy, despite Dostoevsky’s frequent association of the phrase “meaning of life” with the immortality of the soul. “‘The meaning of life,’ with its enormous potential for ambiguity, is a phrase that allows the secularist to form at least a partial understanding of what a person of putatively pure religious faith actually believes” (118).
As the above overview suggests, the real focus of Cassedy’s book is not the notion of meaning as such, but the way in which the word has come to be associated with concepts like value and purpose, as in the phrase “the meaning of life,” which would seem to be quite far from the ancient Greek usage of the verb “to mean” and from its later European-language verbal and nominal relatives. In all these earlier cases, “meaning” is primarily a matter of signification, of what signs, words, and language do (15). Cassedy thus seeks to understand the relationship between what we might call the semiotic or semantic connotation of “meaning” and its more recent purposive or axiological connotation. In this regard, the book is both original and important: he is one of very few recent authors who appears to have thought carefully and extensively about the relationship between meaning in these two senses. As Cassedy puts it, in a glib criticism of a passage from Charles Taylor, “telling us first that meaning means ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ and next that it means the same thing that it means in the phrase ‘the meaning of life’ doesn’t really narrow things down very much” (2).
Even in contemporary academic philosophy, discussions of these semantic and axiological conceptions of meaning continue to be worlds apart, with discussion of the former located in particular sub-domains of the analytic philosophy of language or (post-?) post-structuralist pontifications about signs and signifiers, whereas discussion of the latter is located primarily among philosophers writing in the domains of ethics, social-political philosophy, and related areas of value theory. The fact that philosophical treatments of meaning have become so divergent is intriguing and alarming, at least if Cassedy is right that these notions are related in more than merely homophonic ways. In this sense, I think the book can be read as a kind of call to action for the reintegration of philosophical (and not merely pop-cultural) investigations of meaning. This call to action is to be applauded, in my view, and indeed is one I have tried to take some small steps toward in my own work. I return to this theme toward the end of this review.
Unfortunately, Cassedy’s treatment of this issue is limited to a more-or-less genealogical account of how the change came about: the book answers the question, “How does a word that fundamentally has to do with signs, words, stories, and other things that, well, mean or signify something come to mean ‘purpose’ and ‘value’? How does it come to mean all the other things it appears to mean, apart from ‘signify’?” (4). While Cassedy offers us a detailed (if not always balanced, as I note below) historical account of the emergence of these additional connotations of the word, he doesn’t offer much beyond that genealogical account as to why this divergence occurred.
But perhaps this is part of his point: that there is really nothing ultimately beyond the genealogical account—there is no deep reason, at least none available to human beings—for why meaning came to have the meaning that it now, in Western popular culture, has. There is, perhaps, only something like the Nietzschean revaluation of values that it signifies (I’m putting words in Cassedy’s mouth here; there is actually strikingly little engagement with Nietzsche in the book, given its theme, and that minor engagement is only indirect, appearing in the context of discussions of Paul Tillich). This claim would seem to fit with Cassedy’s explicit thesis about the ambiguity of the contemporary usage of “meaning”: “what we mean when we talk about meaning” is ultimately, necessarily, “polyvalent” (8, 33, 182). “It’s the very fluidity that gives meaning its peculiar resonance and mystique and that allows it to live with equal comfort in the writings of secular scientists and the official decrees of Catholic popes. That’s the ambiguity that lends this word its peculiar and characteristic power—what makes it the quintessentially modern word” (10). The power of this polyvalence is that it allows meaning to refer to whatever it is that fills a void in the existential dimension of our contemporary lives, just as philosophical-religious figures like Tillich and Ulrich Barth suggested it should.
Hence the book’s extensive focus, in the twentieth-century portion of its historical genealogy, on such popularizing philosophical-religious figures—a treatment that turns increasing toward the popularizing, and increasingly away from the philosophical, with its coverage of each subsequent decade. For Cassedy, the meaning of “meaning” began to fracture in the twentieth century alongside (and perhaps because of) its more popular uptake. The fracturing begins, as discussed in Chapters Six and Seven, with the extensive employment of the term in the English-language writings of Tillich, Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr, and increases in the oft-announced “age of anxiety” in American culture—a term that Cassedy traces to W.H. Auden’s poem with that name published in the U.S. in 1947, and a term which was firmly entrenched in popular discourse by the early 1960s. “Meaning” has by this time come to serve an increasingly therapeutic purpose, a panacea for a variety of existential woes characteristic of modern American life in the post-war period. With regard to the source of these woes, Cassedy has much to say about contemporaneous changes in mainstream religious belief, but relatively little to say about the effects of the second World War, the Holocaust, or an increasingly capitalist, consumerist American society. In any case, in the post-war period, the term “anxiety,” like the “meaning” that is popularly believed to contain its cure, has come “to denote a remarkably wide range of things” (131).
In Chapter Eight, Cassedy documents a shift from religious to more popular, scientistic, and therapeutic conceptions of meaning, and a corresponding expansion of its usage as both cure-all and catch-all term. This change is tracked via an account of the development of existential psychotherapy in figures such as Victor Frankl and Rollo May (Frankl is singled out for particularly extensive and trenchant criticism, about which I am not qualified to comment), through treatments of recent biochemical approaches to meaning such as the work of Barbara Fredrickson (approaches about which I am skeptical, but again not qualified to comment), and in the contemporary proliferation of works that give center-stage to the notion of meaning, while hardly ever defining it, in the contemporary self-help movement (about which I think no additional comment necessary). Thus, Cassedy argues, from the late 1960s to the present, at least in mainstrem American society, meaning increasingly becomes “a suggestive term, undefined, unspecific, and preponderantly secular, designed to conjure in our minds the idea of something grand, mysterious, and unnamed that, owing to our particular life circumstances, we must strive for” (140).
In this light, Cassedy’s polyvalence thesis is both unique and refreshing, and certainly speaks to the era of human social and intellectual history that we find ourselves in today—an era which, Cassedy convincingly argues, has been presaged by the enormous uptick of concern with anxiety and meaninglessness beginning in the early twentieth century. However, there are points in the book where Cassedy’s polyvalence thesis comes off like the hasty conclusion of a student who has closely read the relevant texts, but not moved much beyond a survey of positions (with requisite fascination and awe) to the analytical work of crafting an original and nuanced thesis about them: the thesis is simply that they differ. The overarching claim that the meaning of meaning is ambiguous because it has to be thus comes off—at least to this reader—sometimes as thoughtful and sometimes as glib.
At some points, the book reads like a collection of essays held together loosely by their relation to meaning and more generally by the fact that the author happened to want to write and reflect on the texts they interpret. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, of course—all academics do this to some degree—but in this case it results in a book whose treatment appears uneven. While the entire period of Western thought from Augustine to Bishop Berkeley is surveyed in a single chapter, the period from the end of the second World War to the present takes up approximately one third of the book. This is natural, of course, given that things are often more interesting to us as we get closer to the present, but what is less natural is the change in focus as the book moves chronologically. Up through its treatment of the “Russian Titans” Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, in Chapter Five, the book deals entirely with what we might call “high intellectual culture” figures, from the worlds of theology, literature, and philosophy. But beginning in Chapter Seven, and even to some degree in the first treatment of Tillich in Chapter Six, Cassedy’s chronological narrative turns almost exclusively to a more “popular culture” orientation, discussing sources like self-help books, popular psychology, references to “meaning” in Time magazine, etc. This, in part, reflects Cassedy’s thesis: that in the later twentieth century, the obsession with meaning became a mainstream phenomenon, making its way, in light of growing existential concern in the “age of anxiety,” into popular culture and even into the marketplace via the contemporary self-help industry.
But the book almost entirely neglects the fact that meaning never diminished as a topic of conversation in more “high culture” domains in the twentieth century. There is no mention of, e.g., the linguistic turn in philosophy or the resultant projects of linguistic or conceptual analysis in the analytic tradition, and no substantial account of the consideration of meaning in late nineteenth and twentieth-century continental figures such as Dilthey, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, except as minor precursors to the thought of Tillich and Barth. There is, by contrast, extensive treatment of Tillich, and especially of his more popular writings, including his article in the 1966 issue of Time magazine with the iconic “Is God Dead?” cover, despite its status as, in Cassedy’s words, “quite possibly, in the history of American popular periodical literature, the most famous article that no one actually read—or remembers having read” (119). We are told that, by the time of the appearance of Tillich’s article in 1966, the word “meaning” “has traveled a winding path, in its guise as the German Sinn, from the nineteenth-century German philosophy and theology that we’ve examined so far, through such twentieth- century German and French thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Camus, and Sartre” (128-9). But little further treatment of these figures is offered, except, occasionally, in the footnotes.
Indeed, there is only the briefest mention and quick dismissal of Sinn-analysis among phenomenologists and neo-Kantians: in a discussion of German philosophical accounts of Sinn as influences on Tillich, Cassedy assures us that “[w]e can safely set aside the philosophical genealogy of the concept (it stems from Edmund Husserl and an obscure philosopher named Emil Lask), whose details need not concern us” (122). It’s not clear why this dismissal is “safe.” Why needn’t these details concern us, and in what sense are figures such as Lask too obscure to merit discussion? Given that earlier chapters of the book discuss historical philosophical figures—even less well-known ones such as Hugh of St. Victor (34)—in some depth, the decision to gloss over large swaths of late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth-century philosophical work that would seem relevant for Cassedy’s overall thesis and aims in the book seems to stem more from the whims of the author’s own reading than from any serious scholarly research strategy. It’s as if the robust and highly influential discussions of meaning in the twentieth-century analytic and phenomenological traditions never happened. This omission would be understandable in a book devoted to popular, rather than academic-philosophical conceptions of meaning throughout Western intellectual history, but given its extensive discussions of figures such as Augustine, Berkley, and Kant in earlier chapters, the sudden shift to exclusively popular conceptions of meaning in the twentieth century is quite jarring. Even if Cassedy’s point is to show how meaning in the twentieth century went mainstream, it seems odd for an academic monograph to downplay the persisting deeper academic undercurrents.
I do not doubt that there is much to learn from the way that the term meaning has functioning in the popular American imagination in recent decades. Indeed, I found the treatment of this theme in the last four chapters of the book to be both enjoyable and edifying. But earlier chapters are not limited to the American context, and do not offer extensive accounts of the usage of meaning in the popular imagination of, e.g., the farmer of the Middle Ages or the industrial worker of the nineteenth century. If the “we” in What Do We Mean When We Talk About Meaning? refers to popular rather than academic culture in the later decades of the twentieth century, it’s not clear why Cassedy addresses it with regard to the latter rather than the former in his treatment of previous centuries.
Cassedy returns to academic (as opposed to popular) work on meaning, to some degree, in Chapter Nine, “Meaning Bridges the Secular and the Sacred.” The chapter focuses primarily on appeals to meaning in the contemporary faith traditions of Catholics, Evangelicals, and Hasidic Jews (171-180), focusing on texts from Popes John Paul II and Francis, evangelical Pastor and popular author Rick Warren, and Rabbi Simon Jacobson, director of the Meaningful Life Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a philosopher and not a theologian or scholar of religions, I will not comment on these discussions, except to note that this chapter provides a nice bookend to the treatment of meaning in medieval theology in Chapter Two, and seems largely interested in exploring the relation between the secular and the sacred for its own sake, rather than primarily as a point of confluence in recent popular discussions of meaning.
Chapter Nine also includes some discussion of Charles Taylor (163-171), including a helpful tracing of Taylor’s diagnosis of contemporary “disenchantment” to the usage of that term in Max Weber’s 1919 “Science as Vocation” (166-168), and brief discussion of Phillip Kitcher’s recent work on secular humanism (169-171). At this point in the book, the reader might expect a return to the focus on philosophical and theological treatments present in the first few historical chapters, but this time from a contemporary academic perspective, and perhaps a more detailed treatment of the relation between the semantic and axiological senses of “meaning” noted above. Surprisingly, however, there is very little detailed treatment of the upswing in recent decades in philosophical literature on the meaning of/in life (e.g., Richard Taylor, Thomas Nagel, John Kekes, Susan Wolf, Terry Eagleton, Thaddeus Metz, John Cottingham, etc.). Metz, Cottingham, and Eagleton are discussed briefly in the introduction, where Cassedy admits that they have written whole books on the concept of meaning and living a meaningful life, but they are quickly dismissed for not offering summary definitions of the word “meaning,” whereas recent popular treatments are discussed at great length, even though the definitions on offer from these sources are often found to be “not helpful” (144, 179) or completely lacking (154, 158, 161, 169).
Throughout the book, Cassedy is laser-focused on definitions of the word “meaning,” and on which words (e.g., “purpose,” “goal,” “value,” “significance”) various authors appear consider synonyms. This is the primary form of evidence given in support of his polyvalence thesis, and perhaps this focus stems naturally from his training and orientation as a scholar of comparative literature. But Cassedy seems to neglect the possibility that—excluding the more popular treatments featured in the final few chapters, in which cases ambiguous usage is perhaps more permissible— “meaning” is not given a simple, easily quotable definition in the works modern philosophical or theological figures not because it is ambiguous but because it is complicated or beyond words.
This is, indeed, a central lesson of twentieth-century phenomenological treatments of meaning. Allow me to dwell on this point in concluding, given the venue of this review. Unlike their analytic counterparts, phenomenologists (especially, e.g., Husserl and Merleau-Ponty),
refused to limit their conceptions of meaning to simple definitions or even to accounts of linguistic meaning. This broader, phenomenological approach to meaning is a central component of the philosophical genealogy of Sinn that Cassedy assures us—as noted above— “we can safely set aside,” and “whose details need not concern us” (122). By refusing to treat meaning exclusively within the confines of a philosophy of language, phenomenologists such as Husserl indeed presage, in an intellectually more rigorous, if necessarily more complicated way, the very move to consider meaning as the antidote to existential crises in the later part of the twentieth century that Cassedy presents in painstaking detail in the second half of the book. What is Husserl’s Crisis, if not a call to recover the level of meaning that belongs originally not to our language or our systems of scientific abstraction but most fundamentally to the lifeworld of everyday experience, the “general ‘ground’ of human world-life” (1970, 155).
For Husserl, it is through the ongoing synthesis of sensory givens arising from individual perspectives that we uncover—and make—law-governed determinations of meaning:
[A]s bearers of ‘sense [Sinn]’ in each phase, as meaning something [Etwas meinende], the perspectives combine in an advancing enrichment of meaning [Sinnbereicherung] and a continuing development of meaning [Sinnfortbildung], such that what no longer appears is still valid as retained and such that the prior meaning which anticipates a continuous flow, the expectation of ‘what is to come,’ is straightaway fulfilled and more closely determined. (1970, 158)
In its focus on the concrete details of lived experience, phenomenology interrogates precisely the point of intersection Cassedy emphasizes in Augustine and later idealism and romanticism between sense (Sinn, sens) as the modality or content of perception (sensation), and sense as the basic unit of meaning or meaningfulness. Without simply equating meaning with sensory givenness, and thus avoiding the dreaded “myth of the given,” phenomenology insists on interrogating their complex and difficult connection. Seen in this light, phenomenology appears to be the ultimate return to the readability of the world, rather than just of the text, if ever there was one!
Indeed, in this light, classical phenomenology can also be interpreted as offering the last great attempt—prior to the hyper-specialization of philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century that made such attempts almost impossible—to theorize the relation between the axiological and semantic or semiotic dimensions of meaning. Meaning pertains both to language and to the value in living a life not simply because our experience is often mediated by language and concepts (though of course it is), but because lived experiences are themselves enactions of meaningfulness and value or “axiological nuance” (Scheler 1973, 18). Human beings are not just language-animals (Taylor 2016), concept-mongerers (Brandom 1994, 8, 620) or meaning-users, but meaning-makers. Our making sense of the world is a necessary component of our life projects. If sense (meaning) were not made, but simply found, our lives could not be meaningful—could not even, ultimately, make sense—for we could have no life projects. This point of connection between the axiological and semantic or semiotic is obscured when we think of meaning-making exclusively via models such as defining, naming, reading, writing or conceptualizing. It becomes much clearer when we include models of meaning-making that more fully reflect our ways of being in the world, such as ritual, dance, or everyday embodied movements like the blind man navigating the world via his cane, which is for him not merely a “sensitive zone” but also the “primary sphere” in which “the sense of all significations [le sens de tout les significations]” is given (Merleau-Ponty 2013, 143-44).
I do not mean to suggest that the phenomenological tradition has definitively explained this connection—I don’t think it has—but it may well be the last major movement in Western philosophy that seriously tried, without defaulting to the comfort of more isolated problems limited to examination in the domain of value theory or the philosophy of language. Cassedy’s neglect of this thread of the history of what we mean when we talk about meaning thus seems to me most regrettable, if perhaps understandable given the enormous ambition and historical scope of the book.
These criticisms aside, What Do We Mean when We Talk About Meaning? is an original, thoughtful, well-written, and wide-ranging examination a theme of major importance both for academic philosophy and for understanding our wider contemporary lifeworld. It should have broad appeal to philosophers, intellectual historians, students of comparative literature, and even theologians and sociologists. It helpfully synthesizes a wide breadth of historical and contemporary sources and is a welcome contribution for all of us interested in the perennial question of the meaning of meaning.
Brandom, Robert. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment Harvard University Press.
De Santis, Daniele and Danilo Manca, eds. forthcoming. Wilfrid Sellars and Phenomenology: Intersections, Encounters, Oppositions. Series in Continental Thought. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Frege, Gottlob. 1892. “Uber Sinn Und Bedeutung.” Zeitschrift für Philosophie Und Philosophische Kritik 100 (1): 25-50.
Grice, Herbert Paul. 1957. “Meaning.” Philosophical Review 66 (3): 377-388.
Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by David Carr Northwestern University Press.
Husserl, Edmund. 2001. Logical Investigations. Translated by J. N. Findlay, edited by Dermot Moran. Paperback ed. Vol. I. New York: Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald A. Landes. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Mill, John Stuart. 1843. A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive. University of Toronto Press.
Ogden, C. K., and I. A. Richards. 1923. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and the Science of Symbolism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
Taylor, Charles. 2016. The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. Harvard University Press.
 All parenthetical citations are to the reviewed text unless otherwise noted.
 Especially pertinent, given the Cassedy’s titular focus, is Ogden and Richards (1923).
 Along related lines, another issue that merits mention—this is not a shortcoming of the book by any means, but a necessary limitation—is that Cassedy’s treatment, while it focuses on historical precursors in a variety of Western languages, is ultimately focused on the English-language word “meaning.” The book is clearly intended primarily for an Anglophone readership, and while there are some helpful treatments of various senses of, for instance, the French sens and the German Bedeutung and Sinn (though, as already noted, no discussion of Frege’s important account, and only passing treatment of Husserl’s), these are offered as part of the historical-genealogical story rather than as standalone treatments of contemporary French and German authors and usages. And there is no comparative treatment of terms similar to meaning (historical or contemporary) in non-Western languages. In this sense, Cassedy’s treatment is necessarily (and, again, excusably) incomplete.
 On this important challenge to phenomenological approaches meaning, perception, and knowledge, see especially the essays collected in De Santis and Manca, forthcoming.
In “Being Towards Death: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East”, Sylvie Avakian (19) considers Martin Heidegger’s thought in relation to Orthodox Christianity by dealing with the “early Fathers of the Church”, as well as the “religious existentialism” of Nikolai Berdyaev (19).
Heidegger’s most central themes of “being, openness to the Mystery, freedom, the human being, the human condition, death, letting be, authenticity, existential falsehood” are all compatible, according to Avakian (17), with central theological concerns and especially with the works of Berdyaev and the Orthodox theological heritage. Avakian emphasises also that methodically, Heidegger and Berdyaev share a style of writing that “challenges the abstract-speculative constructions of most philosophical and theological enterprises and aspires to attain meaning and inner (spiritual) freedom” (1).
Indeed, Berdyaev’s strong focus on personal freedom and human creativity made him a very “unorthodox” Christian thinker. In a footnote (49) that should perhaps be in the main text (19) of her “Introduction”, Avakian states that Berdyaev was a critic of conservative approaches in Orthodoxy. For Berdyaev, no institution (secular or sacred) and no fact (psychological, sociological, scientific or historical) can grasp or explain the unique mystery of the human personality. As a personalist philosopher, Berdyaev had an intense belief in the unique and absolute value of every person, which is the cornerstone of his philosophy. In Berdyaev’s work, we see the inextricable link between truth and personal experience. Berdyaev saw personal involvement as crucial to theology and philosophy (4).
In her attempt to solidify the relation between Heidegger and Berdyaev, and in a ‘personalist’ vein, Avakian refers to Heidegger’s own close relation to Christianity with the support of a quote drawn from Heidegger’s “Mein Bisheriger Weg” (1937/38). Despite being part of the intricate fabric of his youth and upbringing, Heidegger simultaneously sought to free himself from Christianity (18). Heidegger’s struggle against the dogmas of religion led him to an interminable quest to find an absent God.
On the relation between Heidegger and Berdyaev, Avakian (13) starts by making the following preliminary remarks and assumptions (13):
- both authors shared sources harking back to ancient Greek philosophical writings, towards early Christian thought, Meister Eckhart and Jacob Böhme and to Friedrich Schelling. For instance, both authors followed Schelling’s focus on existence, the primacy of being and the limits of human reason (7, footnote 17; 297, footnote 165).
- Berdyaev referred on several occasions to Heidegger’s works, whereas the same cannot be said of Heidegger.
- Heidegger might not have been “aware of the compatibility of his thinking with the Russian Orthodox tradition; yet several thinkers who influenced him, such as Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), were deeply indebted to Russian thought” (13). In a footnote (38), Avakian mentions that Heidegger also did not acknowledge the “great influence of Rilke” on him (13).
- both thinkers “played the role of spiritual resistance, whether against Soviet Communism or against the highly technical-objectified world of modernity in Europe” (13).
Like the thinkers she tackles, Avakian (32) aims to represent theological claims in a way that is free of the dogmas of religion, the ideologies of politics and the systematisations of science. The main title of Avakian’s own book indicates a resistance to ‘orthodox’ perspectives, considering that Orthodox Christianity is centred on “rebirth” and “resurrection” rather than the crucifixion of Christ. Specifically, the book seeks to open dialogue in contemporary theology by arguing that Heidegger’s phrase “‘being towards death’ is the core and true nature of the Christian faith” (20).
Avakian associates ‘being towards death’ with “becoming”; as a bridge between “temporality and eternity”; a unification of the material and immaterial worlds (2). As Avakian rehearses in her “Introduction”, the Heideggerian phrase ‘being towards death’ is not to be regarded as a journey to a final static destination (2-3). Life and death are intertwined, as phenomena. In addition, ‘being with others’ and ‘being towards death’ are inextricably linked. The human acquires an openness towards others as well as itself, by ‘being towards death’. Avakian says that
“[t]he human being who experiences ‘care’ in the world necessarily experiences ‘being towards death’ and only then does one truly comport oneself towards one’s inner reality” (2).
The person who cares has an increased awareness of human finitude by anticipating threats and recognising the fragility of human existence. According to Avakian’s relational emphasis on Heidegger’s notion of ‘being towards death’, human beings are never alone in dealing with mortality. In addition, ‘care’ and openness to others are important conflictual dimensions of the human being’s trajectory towards authenticity and “inner reality” (2; 181-184).
Central to Avakian’s book is the connection she sees between Heidegger’s ‘being towards death’ and Berdyaev’s path to ‘spiritual freedom’ (303). ‘Being towards death’ is ‘being towards freedom’. Both involve the movement of the self to the unknown, to the Other (God or the other person), or being as such, and then, the return to the free, genuine self. ‘Being towards death’ enables a twofold movement: a mutually dependent move involving the divine and the human (304).
In her conclusion, Avakian takes the liberty of adapting William J. Richardson’s (1962, 75) neologism (“mittence”) for her theological purposes:
“the journey that ‘being towards death’ entails is, then, essentially a mittence, a sending to an Other, which being, or God, conveys to the person as it bestows itself/Godself on him/her. And yet, in order for the journey to occur, the human subject must let him/herself be seized by being, or God, as by offering itself, being, or God, entrusts the person with guarding the Mystery which it itself is” (306).
For Avakian, being a Christian does not mean looking to ‘God’ for stability; it does not involve a purely intellectual endeavour of abstract theorising; it is a gift. ‘God’ is mysteriously and immanently found in the depths of historical life. Avakian claims that the nature of ‘God’ can only be caught sight of in a historical journey of self-disclosure.
Most significantly, throughout her book, Avakian places much emphasis on poetry (also by originally composing her own to close all chapters). She takes care to highlight the importance of the German poets Friedrich Hölderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke on Heidegger’s thought. Thanks to Hölderlin, Heidegger understood that it is only through “letting-be – that is through death – that one can allow being as such to come to presence through beings” (31). Poetry can express what Avakian calls ‘divine Mystery’, or the non-objective, non-empirical presence of God in faith (1). Heidegger saw poetry as a potentially powerful resource for the theoretical project of articulating Christian faith from ‘within’.
Overall, Avakian’s project aims to overcome the rift between religious fundamentalism and what she (32) calls a “fear of religiosity”. Where can the Christian of today stand when faced with the “popular religiosity of the pre-modern – or anti-modern – era and the implicit religiosity of a ‘religious-less’, secular age” (17). The author seeks to find a balance between apparent extremes and to bring
“philosophy and theology together, the West and the East, Europe, Russia and the Middle East, as well as Christianity in its relationship with other religious traditions, so that the Christian is addressed as a free spirit – in the world – and Christianity is perceived as authenticity and freedom” (20).
She wishes to promote dialogue in contemporary theology through an existential focus, symbolic perception and an openness to the “divine Mystery” (20).
Throughout her book, Avakian equates philosophy and theology, as they both, in her view, lack a direct object of inquiry. Neither ‘being’ nor ‘God’ can be scrutinised ‘as such’, and both must accept their own inadequacy regarding the attainment of absolute or certain knowledge (12).
In her first chapter “Openness to the Mystery” (34-78), Avakian starts by sketching how Berdyaev conceives “true theology as mystical and apophatic, as it is about the spiritual perception of divine Mystery” (35). The apophatic view is that God is not objectifiable, because God is the ultimate mystery with no possible rational concept. Apophatic theology accepts that theological language is unable to demonstrate divine truth. Maintaining the analogical-symbolic nature of all theological assertions, it claims that absolute mystery is beyond human grasp (15). Unlike cataphatic theology, apophatic theology “requires the abandonment of all knowledge of beings, so that the divine is truly beyond every affirmative description, namely it is the nothing” (21).
Avakian links the apophatic-mystical approach of Eastern theology to Heidegger’s view regarding the incomprehensible nature of being as such. For Heidegger, the “human being remains incapable of any knowledge of its essence, maintaining that the true path is a mystical path” (36). Avakian emphasises that in Heidegger’s work, ‘pure thinking’ is conceived as openness to mystery and astonishment (52-58), which involves passion, suffering (54-55) and inwardness (57) – this is because things or beings “emerge from their own ground” (73). ‘Being’ or ‘truth’ in Heidegger is necessarily related to an ongoing process of “revelation” or becoming unhidden (45).
In the final section of the first chapter, “The Mystery and the Necessity of the Leap” (71-80), Avakian scrutinises Heidegger’s quest to find a realm free from modern science and reason. With regards to Heidegger‘s reformulation of Leibniz’s “Principle of Sufficient Reason” (“Der Satz vom Grund”), Avakian discusses Heidegger’s play on the German word Grund (which can either mean reason/justification or ground/foundation). According to Avakian (74-5), Heidegger subverts Leibniz’s Principle by claiming that:
“being as such is the ground of every being, and things carry within themselves their own grounds and reasons, without their need to supply any reasons for their existence. Thus, the basic question for philosophy – and theology – is the question of being (or God), which is simultaneously the same as the question of truth. This basic question is, however, of a particular kind, since it has to be approached ‘without why’” (74).
In chapter two, Avakian goes on to delineate Heidegger’s view that a “true understanding of technology, science and art” belongs essentially to the poetic way of being in the world rather than the mere objective perception of the world (83).
Furthermore, regarding especially the question of technology, Avakian says “Heidegger resorted to particular theological language and terminologies, though through an abstruse and veiled framework” (106). The themes of science and technology enable Heidegger to address major theological questions: “God the Creator, the whole of creation as a gift, the human being – the creature – in his/her relation to the Creator, and the question of salvation” (106).
Taking a clear position with regards to Heidegger, Avakian (103) says that his critique of technology is not altogether satisfying. Berdyaev went further than Heidegger, because he saw that when technology is used unreflectively it conceals and distorts the real, and brings “the human being into an illusionary world and forged relations” (104). What Avakian means by “forged relations” becomes clearer thanks to a quote by Berdyaev pertaining to how (104) “the mechanization of life” results in an artificial “collective reality” which inaugurates the end of individual existence (104). For Berdyaev, man now comes second to technology.
Technology does not enable the real (or ‘being as such’) to manifest itself; it does not merely allow the human to control nature. Technology permits humans now to have power over people’s lives. Avakian (104) says that Berdyaev understood the crisis of his day as being a matter of technology, and he saw this as a “primarily spiritual crisis”. Berdyaev calls on Christian theology to wake up to the new human reality by intensifying “the inner spiritual power of the human being” so that the spirit does not “become a tool used for the purposes of technical organizations” (104). In contrast to Berdyaev’s clear verdict on technology, Avakian suggests that several statements by Heidegger seem to be too optimistic (104).
In addition to dealing with Berdyaev and Heidegger’s views on technology (98-106), their critiques of rationality and science (88-98), Avakian also dedicates chapter two to a discussion of art (106-111), freedom (130-5) and poetry (142-6).
Chapter three (“The Human Spirit and the Divine”) goes on to deal with the role of “spirit” in Berdyaev and Heidegger, a notion which Avakian (176) claims permeates all of Heidegger’s work even when not directly referred to. Berdyaev’s immanent conception of the divine also collapses the opposition between the divine and the human, the spiritual and physical world (161). In addition, religious revelation is conceived in his work as an interactive, rather than a passive, top-down experience (166).
While considering the relation between theological language and the poetic, Avakian discusses the distinction between symbols, allegory, signs (168-171), with the overall aim of bringing to light the relation between revelation, art, meaning and spirit.
Avakian concludes (181) chapter three by linking Berdyaev and Heidegger’s analysis on the “fallenness” of the human being (which is defined as the failure to know the self as spirit). Avakian regards “fallenness” as a comparable but a highly preferable alternative to the problematic notion of sin, which she claims in a footnote (129) has a “disadvantageous history” (184).
The subsection “Spirit and Human Consciousness as Care and Resoluteness” (190-201) starts with an important discussion of “care” in Heidegger’s work and reconstructs its Kierkegaardian lineage (191-2). Avakian explains that the “human being in the world is necessarily there for an Other, and, hence, his being is actualized in and though care in relation to that Other” (192). In this respect, Avakian raises the distinction between care and humanism: unlike humanism, care does not simply focus on the “objective existence of the human subject”, it draws persons towards their “essence” (193) As opposed to care, humanism “fails to realize the appropriate dignity of the human being” (193).
Both care and freedom are based upon experiencing life as openness (194). It is in this context that Avakian goes on to discuss how care in Berdyaev is expressed through “the biblical notion of love” (194) – for him, it signifies, also in a Kierkegaardian vein, “carrying within oneself the pain and the injustice that the whole of mankind goes through” (194).
The subsection “The Call of Conscience” (194-199) explores how “guilt” is key to understanding the notion of the “spirit” in Berdyaev. Similarly in Heidegger, the call of conscience is the call to the realisation of guilt (199) which in turn leads to the authentic self. In addition, an authentic being in the world and being-with-the-Other requires a process of resolutely being ready for anxiety. In this resoluteness, “one takes upon oneself one’s utmost potentiality for being, that is one’s ‘being towards death’” (200).
This smoothly inaugurates the next chapter four, entitled “Christianity as Authenticity”, in which Avakian turns specifically to her main theme (and the title of her book) ‘being towards death’, before relating it directly to the central concerns of Christian theology, including the meaning of creation, incarnation and resurrection.
Avakian recapitulates the link between ‘being towards death’, care and authenticity, (203-4) all of which are based upon the importance of the existential acceptance and inner consciousness of one’s death and of the temporality of being. Avakian links Heidegger’s notion of ‘anticipatory resoluteness’ with Berdyaev’s notion of ‘spiritual development’ (205), which both involve a resolve to progress to that which is still outstanding (death). This is the “responsibility of the inner self and the free and creative nature of one’s spirit” (205).
Chapter five (“Temporality and Eternity”) (253) deals with how “movement, repetition, temporality, finitude and eternity – lie in (sic) the foundations of ‘being towards death’”. Avakian starts the chapter with a discussion of how Berdyaev’s work conceives of “eternity” as the guarantor of meaning. Eternity, emphasises Avakian on two consecutive occasions, does not refer to a “natural” realm and cannot be “objectified” (254; 255). Neither is eternity a separate otherworldly dimension, outside of time as it “has its past in every moment…It has its present and future elements in like manner” (255).
Berdyaev’s sense of eternity is Kierkegaardian in Avakian’s eyes as it is not based upon the denial of change and becoming. In the subsection on “Movement and Repetition” (256-265), after a short overview of time and motion in Plato and Aristotle (257-8), Avakian thus goes on to provide an exposé of Kierkegaard’s notion of “becoming and continuous movement” (258-264). Importantly for the purposes of the book, Avakian notes that “Kierkegaard’s thought and philosophical concerns correspond significantly to the spiritual theology of Eastern Orthodoxy, which has the early Greek Fathers of the Church as its foundation” (259).
Avakian makes special references to Clare Carlisle’s work on Kierkegaard’s “philosophy of becoming” (257-8; 260-3) in order to conclude that “Kierkegaard set existential and spiritual becoming in sharp contrast to pure metaphysical speculation, and thereby overturned the dominating philosophical-metaphysical project and gave room for introspection and spiritual passion” (263).
As mentioned above, Avakian dedicates sections of her book to presenting and reconstructing how Kierkegaardian elements are mobilised in the works of Heidegger and Berdyaev, especially with regards to the concept of care and temporality. This is because, as Avakian rightly states (31) in her “Introduction”, Heidegger and Berdyaev’s works do not sufficiently acknowledge the influence of other thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, Eckart and Nietzsche, on their philosophy (see also footnote 18, on page 151). In her “Conclusion”, Avakian again mentions that both Heidegger and Berdyaev do not make the ‘origins’ of their thinking clear. References to previous thinkers are minimised and their importance reduced (301).
As the Kierkegaardian notion of “movement and repetition” discussed by Avakian attests to however, and although it is indeed important to clarify influence (one might even reveal how a work is merely derivative or the effect of an original cause) – this does not say anything of the unity and strength of the work at hand. The character of all significant thought after all is that in repeating the influences upon it, it makes something else of them. As Avakian herself puts it: “after repetition the being no longer remains the same, but becomes another” (271).
Via Kierkegaard’s sense of “movement and repetition”, Avakian links Berdyaev’s notion of ‘eternity’ with Heidegger’s concept of ‘authenticity’, both of which involve the present, past and future. In Berdyaev, when one encounters death without fear or anxiety one “is given to experience eternity” (254). “[I]t is through the willingness of the person to take upon oneself his/her own death that he/she conquers death itself” (255).
Similarly, in Heidegger, “it is only through such being towards one’s end that the human subject exists as ‘authentically whole’, and it is this perception of the self that makes ‘being towards death’, or ‘care’ possible” (274). Authenticity (like ‘eternity’ in Berdyaev) hinges on the resolute acceptance of one’s ‘being towards death’ and nothingness. Ontologically speaking, death is the possibility of no-longer-being-there, and at the same time, it is what makes our being-in-the-world possible. Being towards death opens up possibilities ontically for Dasein because it is the projection to what lies beyond actuality and what is positively there. The human being moves from the past towards his/her self as “authentically futural” (274). This also implies that any understanding or discovery of the self aspires repeatedly to approach otherness.
“Being Towards Death: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East” is a post-doctoral degree (Habilitationsschrift) completed in January 2018 for the Protestant faculty of the University of Tübingen. In Germany, most candidates qualify for a university professorship by means of such a habilitation process – and this includes writing a habilitation treatise to certify the ability to teach in an academic subject.
In the spirit of ‘personalist philosophy’, Avakian begins her work by emphasising her personal background, involvement and justification for the project (20) and she occasionally intersperses contextual paragraphs appealing to the practical fallout of her work, e.g., regarding her aim of addressing and bridging the divide between what she calls a fear of religiosity vs fundamentalism (17; 190).
The habilitation-turned-book (published by de Gruyter) was not however conceived with a wide audience in mind or even scholars in general. The research is of a tightly knit scope. The insular style intertwines thematic interconnections between Berdyaev and Heidegger, makes explicit the influence of key figures such a Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and establishes original in-depth links between Heidegger and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the 5th century Christian theologian and “father of mysticism” (21-2; 29; 60; 242; 306). Since mysticism is a major theme of her study, Avakian could also have widened her contextual scope by referring to commentators who draw parallels and differences between Heidegger and Asian mysticism.
Carlisle, Clare. 2005. Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Becoming: Movements and Positions. New York: State University of New York Press.
Gungov, Alexander. 2012. “From Living Tradition to Cosmic Transfiguration: Six Elements of Eastern Orthodox Theology.” Bulgarian in Religiya, tzennosti, ortodoksalnost i interculturen dialog, Idei filosofsko spisanie, Sofia (Religion, Values, Orthodoxy and Intercultural Dialogue, Sofia), a supplement to Philosophical Journal Ideas, pp. 54-63.
Kockelmans, Joseph. 1973. “Heidegger on Theology.” The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 4, No. 3, Heidegger Issue (Fall, 1973), pp. 85-108. University of Arkansas Press.
Law, David R. 2000. “Negative Theology in Heidegger’s ‘Beiträge zur Philosophie.’” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Dec), pp. 139-156 Springer.
Miller, James. 1996. “Heidegger’s Guilt.” Salmagundi, No. 109/110 (Winter-Spring), pp. 178-243. Skidmore College.
Richardson, William J. 1962. “Heidegger and the Problem of Thought.” Revue philosophique de Louvain, Vol. 60, pp. 58-78. Peeters Publishers.
Zernov, Nicholas. 1948. “Nicholas Berdyaev.” The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 27, No. 68 (Dec), pp. 283-286. The Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
 William J. Richardson’s (1962, 75) writes: “Being is conceived as sending itself unto its There. We may speak of this self-sending as proceeding from Being and call it a ‘self-emitting’ , or if we may be permitted a neologism to designate a completely new concept, a ‘mittence’ (Geschick) of Being” .
The Oxford Handbook of Levinas provides another key step on the way to entrenching the possibility of continued scholarship on the rich thought of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as well as providing an accessible entry-point into the ever-growing body of commentary on his works. Although at times the structure of the handbook makes gestures toward necessary contributions that are currently absent, both in outlining the field of Levinas’s influences or interlocutors, and in terms of key engagements with contemporary concerns, it has also amassed an exciting range of discussions from a diverse array of scholars. Contributions are well-researched, insightful, and make Levinas’s notoriously difficult thought comprehensible and intriguing. Further, certain departures with conventions of reference texts in the composition of contributions—he articles being of comparable length to those of scholarly journal’s—creates space not only for informative but critical treatments, as well as facilitating dialogue and challenge.
The editor, Michael L. Morgan is a prolific scholar in his own right in Jewish studies and on Levinas specifically. He has authored other introductory texts including Discovering Levinas (2007), The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas (2011), and recently published on his ethico-political thought and practice in Levinas’s Ethical Politics (2016).
There are certainly benefits to a handbook both of this magnitude and this breadth. The text is a nearly nine hundred page collection of thirty-eight entries, including contributions from notable Levinas scholars such as Robert Bernasconi, political philosopher Annabel Herzog, Levinas translator Bettina Bergo and editor of The Levinas Reader (2001) Seán Hand. Also certainly, a text of this kind provides a crucial opportunity for a multiplicity of scholars of varied backgrounds to contribute—scholars of history, religion, philosophy, ethics, politics, classics and art, who contextualize Levinas’ expansive works and biography through critical, interpersonal, dialogical, feminist, hermeneutic, theological frameworks. It is divided into six section with entries on a wide range of topics and themes by which one could enter into scholarship: covering Levinas’ life and influences, key philosophical themes, religious thought, ethics, and critical assessments of his work.
One of the potential drawbacks of a ‘handbook’—and consistent with all genres of reference texts more broadly—is the prefiguration of a conversation as one in which specialists communicate information to non-specialists, rather than opening the possibility of dialogue and interpretation. The pragmatic context of a ‘handbook’ still makes it unlikely that professional scholars will refer to this text as an entry-point into key controversies and as a site of engagement even over more specific collected volumes. A text like this, then, fills the space of a general reference and guide into the multiplicity of avenues that Levinas’ thought might open, and in its capacity as a general reference book it does well, even though it is competing with a number of more specific works on Levinas—whether reference volumes, essay collections or single-author monographs—that are also available for Anglophone scholars with an equally wide breadth; works on Levinas’ engagements with Martin Buber and other Jewish thinkers, with Asian thought and with ancient philosophy, on Levinas’ contributions to hermeneutics and theological exegesis, a swath of texts on Levinas’ ethics, on his interlocutions with poststructuralist and deconstructive thought, and texts that (re)situate and seek for his ethics to speak to their own and our socio-political contexts. In this way, a reference text of this sort helps best to locate oneself in relation to a veritable library of Levinas scholarship, and to identify those signposts, even if often as an index to an index.
Accordingly, the handbook attests to an emerging polarization of Levinas scholarship concerned with two key conceptual constellations in his ethical thought; on responsibility and vulnerability. The former has perhaps been considered the central aspect of Levinas’s work traced to the importance of the text most often called his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (2011 ). Not merely the outline of ‘responsibilities,’ Levinas’s conceptualization of responsibility grounds his fundamental claim that ethics is first philosophy. Not just in the content of responsibility, but in the provocation or the desire (later he will call this intrigue) to respond to and respond for the Other, Levinas finds the opening of ethics as an infinitely asymmetrical relation grounded in the unconditional command to be for the Other. In its poetic force and uncompromising gesture, one’s responsibility for the Other and on their behalf is perhaps the aspect of Levinas’s work that draws most scholars to him. It also becomes the rich ground from which he rejects conventional and general practices of philosophy as projects of securing, organizing and reorganizing both ontology and metaphysics as the totalizing structure of ‘the Same.’ Beyond the sort of A=A identity, the structure of the Same is all that operates under the heading of ‘Being’ and at the disposal of the privileged Self. Thus, where philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular meet, Levinas finds a notion of the Self within a world that they might appropriate, incorporate, or otherwise violate as if it were exclusively ‘their own.’
In contrast, Levinas finds an entirely unappropriable and thus infinitely transcendent disruption of the structure of the Same in the encounter with the Other, where the face to face meeting and the very face of the Other themselves, escapes all such appropriative attempts to fix them in place within the horizon of the world of the Same. Instead, the face of the Other seems to call to the Self with a commandment, the fundamental interdiction “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” further disrupting the absolute enjoyment (jouissance) that would otherwise be the prerogative and entitlement of the Self within its own world. In place of this enjoyment is the unsatisfiable desire to be with, and be for, the Other, the ground upon which an infinite and unconditional responsibility emerges. Then, all subsequent thought is a matter of bearing out the implications of this unconditional and infinite responsibility for the Other in its applications and tensions.
Incrementally, this picture, as outlined by readings of Totality and Infinity, has expanded as more scholarship has turned toward the ‘other pole’ of Levinas’s work as represented by Otherwise than Being (2016 ). No longer willing to accept the ‘Self’ as originally in a position of comfort, chez soi, or at home with oneself, Levinas reconsiders the place of the encounter with the Other as both fundamental for thought and fundamental to the very existence of the subject before subjectivity can be claimed. In the exchange of the ‘word’—even the word that proclaims ‘I am I’—the Self is less so in proximity to an unchallenging world of their own, than they are in proximity to an Other. In this most basic sense, vulnerability is the fundamentally disruptive trauma of recognizing that the self comes after an encounter with the Other (see Bergo’s chapter as well as Staehler’s). Robert Bernasconi theorizes vulnerability in two particularly interesting ways. On the one hand, he notes that responsibility operates on the subject as disruptive enough to veritably tear the subject apart, what Levinas calls dénucléation. He explains, “Dénucléation is apparently a word used to refer to the coring out that doctors perform when, for example, they remove an eyeball from its socket while leaving everything intact. Levinas used this same word to describe breathing as a dénucléation of the subject’s substantiality, albeit in this context it also has an association with transcendence” (pp. 268-69).
Although Bernasconi will motivate a reading of Levinas that prefigures the need to defend both the subject and its subjectivity, he summarizes his exploration of the notion of vulnerability that is too traumatic to ignore: “I showed that he went out of his way to say that the exposure to outrage, wounding, and persecution was an exposure to wounding in enjoyment. This is what qualifies it as a “vulnerability of the me.” It touches me in my complacency. But vulnerability extends to the trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point where that hostage identifies with others, including his or her persecutors” (p. 269). He continues that this fact of vulnerability, then, is compelling enough to enact an experience of substitution in the subject, as if the subject is provoked to experience themselves as Other.
Following these considerations, I would like to make note of two particularly useful aspects of the handbook, and to applaud Morgan and the contributors for them. Firstly, some of its richest content is the contribution to an Anglo-American readership on the scope of Levinas’ writings of which we currently do not have complete access. Pieces by Sarah Hammerschlag and Seán Hand rectify this condition with stimulating discussions of his wartime notebooks and his early poetry and novel fragments respectively. Still an English-speaking public does not have access in particular to either the Carnets de captivité, nor to his wartime literary works in Éros, littérature et philosophie, both of which were recently posthumously published in French.[i] With Hammerschlag’s survey of Levinas’s wartime notebooks, though, (spanning, in fact, from 1937-1950), and Hand’s reconceptualization of Levinas in light of the literary dimensions of these personal writings, they make stellar contributions to Anglophone Levinas scholarship by filling those gaps. For this alone, the handbook is already an invaluable resource for scholars of all sorts.
Secondly, the fourth section of the handbook, dedicated to applications of Levinas’ thought beyond his own sphere is truly effervescent. Special attention should be paid to this section in its eclectic reach, where the very notion of a foundation (the presumed objective constraining any ‘handbook’ faces) opens up into a display of generative and rich ideas. Exactly where the ‘cut and dry’ necessity of a text of this kind breaks down, we are treated to an array of interventions and interpretive supplements that carry Levinas scholarship forward in great leaps. Again, Seán Hand’s resituating of Levinas’ works in light of early literary engagements is a delight, as well as Kris Sealey’s far-reaching discussion of Levinas’s contributions to critical race theory (which I will discuss further below). Moreover, not a single contribution in this section fails to illuminate and extend the possibilities of scholarship—from more traditional surveys of the possibilities of attending to philosophical thought within other domains of academic inquiry, such as psychology (David M. Goodman and Eric R. Severson), law (William H. Smith) and Levinas’ comments on war (Joshua Shaw), as well as his contributions to pedagogy (Claire Elise Katz), film (Colin Davis), and his use of food metaphors (Benjamin Aldes Wurgraft).
Similarly, Kevin Houser’s attempt to position Levinas across the Continental-Analytical divide is admirable. This is similar to Morgan’s attempts himself to have Levinas’ work placed in proximity to Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Christine Korsgaard, Stanley Cavell and others. In this piece, Houser finds Levinas speak to concerns of linguistic objectification embedded in the notion of reason as metaphysics against which he poses what he calls the ‘absolute interlocutor.’ He extends this discussion by placing him in conversation with P.F. Strawson on freedom and resentment. Houser’s claim is that “de-facing reason,” and not “reason itself as the practice of de-facing generalization,” is what is at issue in Levinas’s work. However, perhaps Houser’s reading can come off as reductive given that he seems not to be willing to take his own critical stance as far as Levinas would. That ultimately an analytical account of reason is valorized through a complementary reading of Levinas and Strawson would also be a grounding condition for the possibility of such reconciliation between reason and the face of the Other. Yet, this is something Levinas seems consistently to reject, and why Houser must work so hard to reconcile the positions in the first place; the position of reason itself with the positioning of a refusal of reason (not merely an ‘unreasonable’ or even ‘pre-rational’ stance).
Houser’s final discussion regarding the generalizability of ‘reason’—as something that is specifically not my reason, but a reason (p. 604)—bears many possibilities to build from, perhaps also anticipating a challenge to Levinas by deconstructionist linguistics. One can also imagine such a reading figuring importantly into the prefiguration of Otherwise than Being, which seems to bear out the not-yet-subject specifically in light of the pre-existence of language in the demand to speak as ‘giving reasons’ (see Baring, Coe and of course Bernasconi’s chapters). It also helps to reconcile how, for example, in Oona Eisenstadt’s chapter, she finds Levinas capable of saying that three rabbis in the Talmud—Ben Zoma, Ben Nanus and Ben Pazi—can offer three different answers to the question, “which verse contains the whole of the Torah?” where each will make a different universal claim as a manner of expanding upon the last (p. 462). Nevertheless, it would seem that the reason-and-objectivity oriented language of analytical thought does not prepare one to bear out this tension between the particular and the general in a way that is non-totalizing; it answers the question of responsibility rather than responding to it. As such, it substitutes the sphere of representational description in place of the vocative dimensions of language as address. In the end, even capturing the dialogical subject in relation to the absolute interlocutor, one is still speaking about language as if no one else is there, a sort of monological ‘dialogue,’ lest the reason they give may be contradicted. The Other seems to have faded into the background.
I would like to address, though, a potential drawback of the handbook. What is at times a lack of much needed general study of Levinas’ engagements not merely with particular thinkers—both predecessors and contemporaries, if not friends but fields of scholarship—can often leave the reader without proper orientation. No doubt, the task of presenting an exhaustive groundwork specifically for Anglo-American scholarship is at best aspirational, and to his credit, Morgan himself identifies certain oversights in the handbook that should be noted. In terms of groundworks, he rightly mentions that the handbook would have benefited from contributions that survey Levinas’s engagements with foundational Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Buber and Rosenzweig. There is also no specific account of Levinas’s debts to Russian literature. Finally, general overviews of both Levinas’s situation within French thought broadly from the 1930s to the 60s would have been extremely helpful to orient readers, even if they still find much needed context especially in Kevin Hart’s discussion of the relationship between he and Blanchot, and Edward Baring’s account of his encounters with Derrida. This is so as well for the absence of a general account of Levinas’s predecessors ‘at large,’ although one is able to orient themselves with texts on Husserl (Bettina Bergo), Heidegger (Michael Fagenblat), as well as Platonic or Aristotelian thought (Tanja Staehler), early modern thought (Inga Römer), and the German Idealists (Martin Shuster).
There are other oversights that a large reference text is especially beholden to ensure don’t go unnoticed that we might categorize as ‘essential additions’ to these groundworks. Increasingly important is a critical appraisal of eurocentrism and colonialism. It would also be imperative to outline Levinas’ reading of the Torah on ‘Cities of Refuge,’ something only tangentially touched upon by Annabel Herzog in her daring discussion of Levinas and Zionism. One might argue that Levinas’s statements on the State of Israel in particular are critical for understanding some of the most recent explorations of a sort of Levinasian cosmopolitanism—especially where it intersects with Jacques Derrida’s (1999) explorations on the issue (and because it would seem Derrida’s encounter with the notion of cosmopolitanism is in large part due to their relationship). This is perhaps a particularly difficult oversight to reconcile because, as Morgan notes, readers of Levinas “…are drawn to him by the centrality of his insight that our responsibilities to others are infinite. To them, Levinas is the philosopher of the dispossessed, the displaced, the refugee, the impoverished, the suffering, and the hungry. He is the spokesperson for the weak and the oppressed; his philosophy, for all its difficulty and obscurity, in the end speaks to our most humane and caring sentiments” (pp. 4-5). Unfortunately, these concrete engagements are conspicuously absent in the handbook.
Kris Sealey has the sizeable task, then, of orienting readers looking for critical responses to Levinas relating to Eurocentrism, colonialism, and theories of race and racism. In that measure, Sealey does a spectacular job finding inroads between Levinas with both critical race and postcolonial scholars including Paul Gilroy, Orlando Patterson, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Michael Monahan. She also performs such an important task of bridging scholarship on critical race theory and Levinas studies by focusing her discussion on a review of literatures published in the 2012 volume of Levinas Studies contending with race, which included contributions from Lisa Guenther, Oona Eisenstadt (also present in this handbook), John Drabinski and Simone Drichel.
Sealey’s contribution, though, may also give pause especially insofar as there remain some crucial tensions in her work with Levinas’s. Particularly, she draws her conclusions in a way that notions of race are ‘reified’ not on biological but communal and relational grounds that are perhaps difficult to square with Levinas’ statements on the ‘nudity of the face’—as much as they are in tension with Paul Gilroy’s (2000) rejection of both biological and cultural formations of ‘race.’ Sealey’s turn toward Michael Monahan seems to authorize the possibility that, “we can be against racism without being against race” (p. 653 n. 41). The statement from which this note arises is quite important, and perhaps should be quoted at length:
In an important sense, a creolizing subjectivity bears witness to her rootedness in the world, insofar as she is constituted by the ways of that world. But, as creolizing, she also bears witness to her transcending of that world, insofar as her antiracist praxis will invariably be an active contestation of the meaning of race. In other words, she is both obliged to her materiality and positioned to take a critical stance against that materiality as well. That critical stance calls for a vigilance that never ends, lest she succumbs to the inertia of a purity politics and the racist structures for which it codes. Might we not see, in this, echoes of what Levinas calls for in “The Philosophy of Hitlerism”? Is this not a recognition of incarnation (of one’s rootedness in, or entanglement with, history) without the essentialization and stagnation of biological determinism? (p. 644)
Here we might identify a key contention—the ground for what may be a generative controversy in the transposition of Levinas’ thought to an Anglo-American context. Levinas’ contention against the ideology of Hitlerism is not reducible to its relation exclusively to biologism, but speaks to a desire to escape the very notion of ‘incarnation’ itself (see Eaglestone, Fagenblat, and Giannopoulos’s chapters). Hitlerism itself is not exclusively a biologist ideology; rather it binds a notion of spirit with the materiality of the ‘body as much as it fetishizes that body as the material symbol of ‘racial purity,’ or the ‘spirit of a people,’ as an incarnation—the becoming-flesh of spirit. It’s not clear if any notion of identity, not even one proposed to be hybridized, socially and historically determined, or relational escapes this logic. One might point out how Sealey’s creolizing subject, recognizing their rootedness and transcendence, isn’t necessarily difficult, as both are already coded as positive identifiers in an unambiguous metaphysical structure, even if they contradict one another, and occlude the disruptive primacy of the Other. Being rooted—rather than being imprisoned or entangled—and transcendence—above, beyond, outside of the world—both already speak to their own ideals. But one finds in Levinas’ work instead both a potentially failed desire to escape (On Escape [2003/1982]being an aptly titled expression of this unabiding arrest in his early works), and an uneasy navigation of the rooted interior of identity.
We find further that the not merely biological implications of Hitlerist ideology entails also that—as Annabel Herzog notes of Levinas’ critical stance against the State of Israel—the entrenchment of the ‘Self’ within the soil (as in the Nazi slogan, ‘blood and soil’), and the attachment to land or territory remains also a critical site upon which Levinas rejects this manner of reification. That is, rather than being—or under the pretense that one ‘recognizes themselves to be’—rooted in their world, Levinas finds instead in political practices of justice a certain exilehood on Earth represented in the call of the Other and the asymmetrical responsibility that follows. This grounds the particularity of his claims on Judaism and often against the State of Israel (see below), even when he concedes that an otherwise uncompromising ethic needs account for survival. Thus, there remains a tension between justice and survival that is not comfortably set aside in order to commend one’s being ‘rooted in their transcendence,’ but always uneasily attested to as the disruptive and traumatic condition upon which a foundational ethics preceding ontology, an ‘ethics without ground’ which refuses to appeal to the world and the comfort of being rooted in it is asserted.
We might fashion two contrapuntal examples of scholarship that refuse these dynamics in the extremely careful readings offered by Annabel Herzog on Levinas’s relation to Zionism and Cynthia Coe’s feminist analysis of his works. Herzog has quite admirably explored a controversy well beyond even the scope of the academy by contending squarely with Levinas’s writings on Zionism in relation to his conceptions of ethics and politics. Even in the form of her analysis we can see a principled refusal to allow her representation of him to be anything other than embroiled in a complex set of concerns, where she presents first his defense, and then his criticism of the State of Israel. Of the former, it would seem that Levinas finds in the State of Israel the every-present possibility—a particularist possibility for Judaism—for the concrete actualization of his ethical ideal as justice. Such a state could make an ethic of dialogical solidarity, refusal of violence, and refuge for the Other practically real. It is also one that merges these ideals with the enduring need for survival following the Holocaust. Perhaps this rendering bears similarities to Sealey’s account of a creolizing subject.
On the other hand, though, the State of Israel is also always in a position to reject or neglect these ideals; where notions of space and place are re-instituted in the territory, in the very soil, or where the Other is banished from that territory. This is much like Sealey’s comment that valorizations of the logic of ‘race’ demands constant vigilance lest one find themselves once again under the inertia, and in the realm of a politics of purity. Herzog cites a telling instance in which Levinas refused to leave the tour bus while attending a conference on Martin Buber after hearing that Bedouin communities in Be’er-Sheva were required to burn their tents to be eligible to receive stone houses from the government (p. 478).[ii] She follows this tension up until the events of the First Lebanon War, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 when his statements on the matter of Israel become dispersed and infrequent, even if he does not waver in his defense by the time of his 1986 interview with Francois Poirié. It would seem, in this case, that the vigilance Sealey advises, and the enduring possibility of ‘purity politics’ reemerging finds a real example in Levinas’s subsequent silence. But leaving this possibility open seems already to speak to the need to refuse attenuation of a Levinasian ethic in the first place both in practice, and in the theoretical refusal of ‘rootedness’ or ‘incarnation.’
Cynthia Coe’s reading of Levinas is equally nuanced in its ability to balance a careful analysis of his works with an unwavering commitment to feminist scholarship. This is so even where she marks a delineation between—and within—texts of his that represent heterocentric and masculinist presumptions in his philosophy, and where concepts and arguments are coded in gendered language, while also being potentially capable of disrupting those structures. Particularly early Levinas (as Simone de Beauvoir attests regarding Time and the Other) seems to find ground for a narrative framework where a masculine protagonist is compelled to depart from totality. He does so by situating him in the dichotomy of a conception of the feminine as inessential and inabsolute alterity to a totalizing and interiorized masculine counterpart.
However, in this, and especially in her reading of Otherwise than Being, there remains a seed from which the disruption of this framework is enacted or can be enacted. Firstly, the reversal of values in Levinas’s work—rejecting totality in favour of a more ambiguous infinity, and subsequently masculinity for the feminine—begins this process, if in a way that remains deeply flawed. Secondly, Levinas’s subject is increasingly characterized, even by the time of Totality and Infinity, by events and experiences that are wildly outside of their control, not least of which is the face to face encounter with the Other. Thus, the notion of a masculine subjectivity ‘always in control’ is undone by their vulnerability to the Other. Finally, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas begins with the incomplete subject, one who is subjected to a responsibility primordial to themselves, before themselves as a traumatic disruption Coe also terms vulnerability. As well, she finds in Levinas (without romanticizing) the possibility that a mother might pass away in childbirth to be an expression of vulnerability which demands one reckons with a responsibility that interrupts their self-possession. This, by the way, is rendered also in Giannopolous’s discussion of Levinas and transcendence in terms of ‘paternity’; where one—coded as the ‘father’ in this case—must reckon with the birth of their child as “a way of being other while being oneself” (p. 230).[iii]
Potential tensions one might identify in one or another contribution are perhaps another way of branching some key difficulties the handbook faces on a structural level with its own self-contextualization. Morgan identifies the handbook as being a resource specifically for Anglo-American scholarship on Levinas—perhaps because in English-speaking contexts globally, or in the European context, Anglophone philosophy is already in proximity to Francophone and multi-lingual continental thought to ignore it. However, the reductive potential of such a translation—not merely into an English idiom, but into an Anglo-American one—seems to allow the possibility that conclusions like Housers’s which valorize rather than critique a notion of reason, and Sealey’s which affirms rather than contending with the logical structures of race, find little response in other places in the handbook. Morgan should be lauded for gathering together a diverse array of scholars from many backgrounds, even when he already notes that most are located in North America. It is also, perhaps, not feasible to engage a global scope of scholarship for a project like this. However, the implications of a foundational reference-work bearing such absences are reflected in the non-universal dialogue that manifests itself within its pages.
Even with these problems in view, there is no doubt that The Oxford Handbook of Levinas makes an important contribution to scholarship in the diversity and richness of its philosophical engagements, and in the explorations and controversies attested to. If it is any indication, studies of the profound works of Emmanuel Levinas are likely to continue, and perhaps even to expand in new and unforeseen ways. If so, this handbook will stand as a testament and signpost for all those looking to enter the field.
Derrida, Jacques. 1999. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
Gilroy, Paul. 2000. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 2003. On Escape. Translated by Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
———. 2009. Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses. Edited by Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.
———. 2011. Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites. Edited by Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.
———. 2011 . Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
———. 2013. Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, Edited by Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.
———. 2016 . Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Malka, Salomon. 2006. Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy. Translated by Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Morgan, Michael L. 2007. Discovering Levinas (2007). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2016. Levinas’s Ethical Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Morgan, Michael L. ed. 2019. Oxford Handbook of Levinas. Oxford University Press.
[i] Emmanuel Levinas, 2009, Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses, ed. Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). Emmanuel Levinas, 2013, Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, ed. Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). These two texts were issued as part of a (currently) three-part collection by publishing house, Éditions Grasset, of the complete works of Levinas. The other volume gathers early lectures given at the invitation of jean Wahl to the Collège Philosophique. See: Emmanuel Levinas, 2011, Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites, ed. Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur).
[ii] This anecdote was quoted from: Salomon Malka, 2006, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 217.
[iii] The passage is a quotation from: Emmanuel Levinas, 1969, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 282.