Language and Phenomenology is a collection of 15 essays edited by Chad Engelland. Doing what it says on the tin, these essays cluster around questions about the relationship between language and phenomenology, in a range of different ways and with different axes of analysis in view. The text is bookended by Engelland himself. In both his Introduction and the essay that culminates the text he draws our attention to the fact that phenomenological discourse is itself a language with its own vocabulary and grammar. As Richard Kearney tells us in his contribution on linguistic and narrative hospitality, ‘a mother tongue has many children’ (267). The text exemplifies these two points in its form and content. If all the contributing authors are fluent in the language of phenomenology, there are nevertheless different dialects, or – to use Engelland’s own terminology – ‘inflections’ (273) represented.
Reading the text as a whole presents as a question the extent to which there is agreement or disagreement between the authors that it gives voice to. The collection seems to offer different conclusions about the nature of the relationship between phenomenology and language, but there is a question in this reader’s mind as to how much of this difference is ultimately terminological, rather than substantively philosophical. These questions of interpretation themselves find a mirror in the questions that are put to us in the text. As reviewing a work involves mediation and a kind of ‘translation’ of the authors, I am minded of Kearney’s observation that ‘…each dialect has its secrets, whence the legitimate double-injunction of every guest language cries to its host: ‘Translate me! Don’t translate me!’ (265). I will explore some of the threads, themes and tensions that the text presents, then, whilst recognising the limits of this ‘translation’.
Between them these essays variously look at the possible relationships and connections between speech and language, language and thought, language and meaning, dialogue and language, dialogue and mood, dialogue and perceptual experience, experience and judgement, language and normativity, language and self-consciousness, experience and interpretation, language and embodiment and language and truth. The most prominent scholarly figures in this text are Husserl and Heidegger, with multiple essays dedicated to exegeting both the early and late work of this prominent pair. Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer and others are also brought into these overlapping and intersecting conversations. All of the essays are rooted in the phenomenological tradition, but many find a natural conversation partner with analytic philosophy, drawing the likes of Wittgenstein and Frege. Aristotle is another figure who makes several appearances, offering another bridging point between traditions, as Heidegger’s analysis of language interacts and modifies Aristotle’s account of language.
This bridging of traditions is perhaps in part a natural feature of the subject matter itself, where the philosophy of language has more typically been seen to be the domain of the of the Anglo-American tradition. As Engelland highlights at the off, the domain of ‘phenomenology of language’ ‘initially appears empty’…While philosophy as conceptual analysis obviously involves a close interaction with language and problems of language, it is not at all clear that the same holds for philosophy as description of the structure of experience. What is the specifically phenomenological contribution to language?’ (1). This text seeks to be part of clarifying and constituting this contribution. It succeeds in offering a rich contribution to ‘phenomenology of language’ as its own domain, tracing some central threads about the fundamental presuppositions such a domain has to grapple with, whilst also making space for detailed reflection on the lived experience of our linguistic lives. In this task the form of a multiplicity of voices is a strength, offering a snapshot of this field in both its depth and breadth. This text would not suit beginners to phenomenology, as it assumes a ready familiarity with the tradition. For those already engaged in phenomenological ideas, the writing is largely very accessible and illuminating.
The text is split into two parts, the first titled ‘Language and Experience’, the second ‘Language and Joint Experience’. The second part therefore takes a specific slant on the over-arching theme of the text, namely the relationship between language and experience in the light of the fact that both are inescapably tied to our intersubjective interactions with others. These two parts, Engelland tells us, seek to track both the first-person and the second-person character of language in our lived experience.
The first section offers eight contributions: Daniel O. Dahlstrom argues that language is the ‘light’ by which objects are illuminated. Taylor Carmen evaluates Merleau-Ponty’s account of the connection between language and the expressive body. Dominique Pradelle explores a way of understanding the ‘pre-predicative’ dimension of experience. Jacob Rump argues that perception has normativity ‘baked in’ and outlines why this is relevant to an understanding of the relationship between language and experience. Scott Campbell offers that Heidegger’s understanding of ‘taking notice’ offers a way of speaking that discloses rather than conceals our experience. Leslie MacAvoy outlines how Heidegger modifies Aristotle’s account by shifting logos to perceptual experience itself. Katherine Whitby offers us eight possible ways that language can disclose the world to us, landing with the centrality of dialogue as world-disclosing. Anna Gosetti-Ferencei focuses on poetry as a particular form of language, exploring the phenomenology of poetry and poetry as phenomenology.
The second section is comprised of seven essays. As the focus here is on the intersubjective dimensions of language and experience, many of these authors interface their analyses with analyses in developmental psychology. The joint attention contexts of language learning shared by infants and their caregivers shed light on connections between intersubjectivity, language and experience which are others hiding in plain sight in our adult experience. Andrew Inkpin argues that neither individualism not social holism are adequate ways of accounting for language, but that both the individual and social aspects of language are compound, complex and co-constitutive. Pol Vandevelde draws on the work of Vygotsky to argue both that language scaffolds thought and thought scaffolds language. Michele Averchi uses Husserl’s distinction between expressions and indications to make the case that while there are non-linguistic forms of information transfer, only linguistic forms can function as truly communicative acts. Lawrence Hatab argues for the priority and necessity of language in all forms of world-disclosure. With a different emphasis, Cathy Culbertson argues that forms of play mirror and prefigure spoken conversation. Richard Kearney offers both an analysis and a manifesto for what he calls ‘narrative hospitality’, characterised by flexibility, plurality, transfiguration and pardon. Engelland culminates with a meditation on the ways that we learn a phenomenological language, arguing that this is grounded in, and a completion of, our ordinary language learning. He sketches a distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic forms of communication in terms of the capacity of the former to reach beyond presence to that which is absent.
Whilst the polycentric nature of an essay collection means that there is not a straightforward over-arching argument to analyse here, the key thread that runs through the text as a whole – as the section headings suggest – is that of the nature of the relationship between language and experience. There are at least three different possible positions one might take to the question of the fundamental relationship between experience and language. Broadly speaking these are: (i) Language is imposed on or secondary to the ‘raw data’ of phenomenal experience, where these are two distinct kinds of thing. (ii) Phenomenal experience is in fact linguistic ‘all the way through’, and there is no such thing as pre-linguistic experience – this is a myth. (iii) There is some category of (something like) pre-linguistic experience but this aspect of our experience is nevertheless still structured in a way that is congruent with or isomorphic to linguistic structure.
If we were to caricature phenomenology, we might be inclined to say that it preaches the first of these positions. One might suppose that in the Husserlian exhortation to get ‘back to the things themselves’ the phenomenologist is seeking to analyse that which is prior to language itself. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is not necessarily the case, and indeed, not the tack that most phenomenologists take, despite the emphasis on lived experience as a methodological starting point. This is both because language survives the bracketing process as part of the content of our experience of the world, but also because it becomes clear that (in some way) language is a condition of the possibility of our experiencing the world in the way that we experience it.
Most phenomenologists want a more nuanced account of the relationship between language and phenomenology, but what is the nature of this relationship – or set of relationships? As Engelland makes foreground in his Introduction, we see in the work of classic and contemporary phenomenologists both that: ‘Experience takes the lead but it is an experience widened by speech. One can thereby identify a basic tension within the phenomenological treatment of language: on the one hand, phenomenology subordinates speech to experience. On the other hand, phenomenology identifies the reciprocity of speech and experience’ (3). Further, phenomenologists want to be ‘mindful of the linguisticality of experience’ (13). Engelland here roughly lays out the three emphases above, highlighting that the phenomenological tradition has included elements that imply (i), (ii) and (iii). These positions, when laid out beside each other, seem mutually incompatible. What then are we to make of these competing emphases? What are the arguments in favour of each? This collection seeks to help us think through this question, by together taking a long hard look at these tensions. Each of the essays in their own way make an attempt to ascertain a coherent understanding of where and how language sits in both the form and the content of our lived experience.
On the face of it, it seems as though different authors in the collection come to different conclusions with respect to the question of whether experience is linguistic ‘all the way through’ or not. Contributors such as Hatab make claims in favour of ‘the priority of language in world-disclosure’ (229), emphasising the way that human beings always already dwell in language – which looks like option (ii). Others such as Pradelle argue that the pre-predicative dimension of experience is more primitive than the linguistic dimension, yet there is a form of logos that structures this ‘lower order’ (58) of experience which bridges it to the linguistic – which looks like option (iii).
Another way of framing the key question here might be: Is logos simply the domain of language? And if not, how are we to understand pre- or extra-linguistic logos, or ‘logos in its nascent state’ (72)? Or again to re-frame, in the inverse: If there is some logical structure to our pre-verbal experience, is this because this pre-verbal content is in fact still in some way ‘linguistic’, so tracks the logos of language (as MacAvoy seems to argue with the claim that ‘perception already speaks’ (120))? Or is there a logic that is genuinely and distinctly pre-linguistic here (As Pradelle and Rump both seem to argue)?
These different suggested relationships cash out in a particular way in the second section of book, which focuses on the intersubjective contexts of both language and experience. These papers focus on communication between people, including both pre-verbal forms of communication and verbal dialogue. Mirroring the questions above, we might ask – when we talk about ‘pre-verbal’, ‘extra-verbal’ or ‘non-verbal’ communication (including, for example tone, gestures and body language) are we saying that there is a kind of ‘grammar’ built into these forms of communication that is quasi-linguistic? Or do these forms of interaction have their own logic which is distinct from language, only secondarily entering into some kind of relationship with the linguistic elements of an interaction? Again, we seem to get different answers to this question. Averchi argues that there is a distinct logical and structural difference between verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, which shows up in the difference between language’s capacity to communicate the absent and the abstract – this looks like option (i). Hatab argues that all communication is linguistic and denies the possibility of experience not already shaped by language, which looks like option (ii). A seemingly different position comes through in Culbertson’s article. She looks at the structural similarities between forms of play and spoken conversation, making a case for a structural similarity, congruence and interconnection of pre-verbal and verbal forms of dialogue in this way. A slightly different take but a similar conclusion comes from Pol Vandevelde, using Husserl, who highlights the difference between ‘semantic consciousness’ and ‘phonetic consciousness’ (199). Semantic consciousness is the ‘perceiving-as’ that we are most familiar with: when I hear someone speaking in English, I cannot hear this as ‘mere noise’ but I non-inferentially hear the meaning of the words and sentences. Phonetic consciousness however highlights a slightly different layer of meaning in my reception of speech. Even when I hear someone speaking in a foreign language that I don’t understand, I still grasp it as speech. This maps onto the development of speech in infants, where an infant can recognise speech patterns as speech, and join in proto-dialogue, before understanding the meaning of the words themselves. In Vygotsky’s words, there is ‘a prelinguistic phase in the development of thought and a preintellectual phase in the development of speech’ (195). Vandevelde’s endorsement of this here looks like option (iii).
This central question re-framed yet another way asks: Is language a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the seemingly non-verbal) or is logos a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the non-linguistic)? And – what is at stake in this difference, if anything? This is where the question of the philosophically substantive vs merely terminological comes into play. Does it make a difference if we think about this dimension of our experience as structured by pre-linguistic logos or by pre-verbal language? Are these two ways of saying the same thing? If not, what further might be needed to distinguish these two ways of thinking? This is a genuine question, but I don’t think that the collection as a whole can land us either way.
A slightly different take on this central question asks whether language is necessarily objectifying of our experience, with this question is addressed head on by Campbell. Again, the caricature of the phenomenologist in our minds might say that all language is theory-laden, and it brings a distorting or at least limited and limiting lens to the ‘given’ of experience. This perspective, which has a clear alignment with option (i) above, might argue that language is always re-presenting what is presented in experience. However, there is another suggestion, that language can also straightforwardly present our experience, and successfully communicate this experience to another. Here we have the thought that different types of speech do different kinds of things, in different ‘phenomenological registers’ (109) and perhaps disclose or conceal the world in different ways. Campbell looks at Heidegger’s analysis of the writings of St Paul as a case of ‘taking notice’. Gosetti-Ferencei’s account of the ‘phenomenological moments’ (150) in poetry also offers a picture of language which ‘presents’ rather than represents. ‘Taking notice’ is ‘a kind of pre-predicative and non-propositional language, that is, a language that is evocative, perhaps even stream of consciousness, narrative and exploratory instead of theoretical and objectifiying’ (96). This kind of language is to be distinguished from Heideggerian ‘idle talk’, which conceals the lived reality of our experience. We might read Campbell’s interpretation of Heidegger as akin to option (ii), particularly where he contrasts this with his interpretation of Husserl, which looks more like option (iii). He says: ‘Husserl…thought that predicative language could bring to light the inherent meaningfulness in pre-predicative experience. Heidegger on the other hand, explored a way of thinking about language that was itself pre-predicative’ (110). Whether Campbell’s interpretation of both Husserl and Heidegger is right here is its own question, but even if Campbell is right here, this is not necessarily a point that forces a further dialectic, as both positions could be true. These two articulations of how language might disclose the meaning of experience are not mutually exclusive. There is nothing in this analysis which can arbitrate between option (ii) or (iii) for us. Again, we might wonder how much is ultimately at stake between them, if anything.
Part of the difficulty in assessing where philosophical differences lie and where differences are merely terminological is connected to the fact that both ‘language’ and ‘experience’ ae themselves such wide and contested terms. Each have a cloud of (overlapping) concepts associated with them, and how one understands these associations makes all the difference for the conclusions one draws about the nature of other associations. How one understands the relationship between, for example, dialogue and language will shape how one understands the relationship between dialogue and experience and therefore between experience and language. What gets defined into the relata in question defines what is claimed about the nature and possibility of the relationship. For example, whilst Hatab makes the strong claim that ‘the disclosure of the world is gathered in language, not objects, perception, thought or consciousness’ (299), we find that he defines ‘language’ in such as way that includes ‘facial expressions, touch, physical interactions, gestures, sounds, rhythms, intonations, emotional cues, and a host of behavioral contexts’ (236). This to say, Hatab defines a host of non-verbal embodied interactions into what he means by language. With all manner of embodied meaning brought under the umbrella of language, the claim that language is the sole discloser of the world no longer looks like the narrow claim it initially did. And as above, once language is given a wide definition, it is less clear what is at stake, if anything, between a position like Hatab’s and a position like Pradelle’s. Perhaps Hatab’s non-verbal ‘language’ and Pradelle’s ‘pre-linguistic logos’ are the same thing, and there are ways of seeing option (ii) and option (iii) as the same thing viewed two different ways.
This point about definitional difference noted, a more fertile way of exploring further the possibility of extra-linguistic dimension of our experience might ask: how are we to understand the nature and structure of a pre-linguistic logos (or a pre-verbal language)? The suggestion from a number of authors is that this is given by the normativity that is built into perceptual experience itself. The structure of consciousness as intentionality, which means that seeing is seeing-as, hearing is hearing-as, and so on, gives us the logos embedded in perception. What are the conditions of possibility for consciousness so structured? As MacAvoy gestures towards in her essay, the structure of the world itself is relevant here, and further analysis of the networks of meaning embedded in the ‘interobjectivity’ of things might be part of this further exploration. There is also a possible theological direction in view here, as Kearney indicates – ‘there is no pure pristine logos, unless it is God’s’ (265). Indeed, further exploration of the pre-linguistic logos might take the famous opening lines of St John’s gospel as its starting cue: ‘In the beginning was the logos.’ Language and Phenomenology offers a springboard to further exploration of this logos baked into to fabric of reality and the logic of phenomenal consciousness, though the conversation is still unfolding.
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.