In Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other, Eric S. Nelson advances, via these two key interlocutors, a “materialist ethics of nonidentity” (14) that would critique nothing less than “contemporary capitalist societies in their complexly interconnected cosmopolitan neoliberal and neomercantile nativist and nationalistic ideological variations” (260). Such great expectations, and mouthfuls, populate the whole continent of this nigh-five-hundred-page tome, which, alongside its protagonists, surveys, enlists, or corrects thinkers as diverse and challenging as Enrique Dussel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Jacques Derrida, and Iris Murdoch. While such breadth – to say nothing of Nelson’s frequent and fascinating asides to Asian philosophies – reveals a deep erudition, the study’s verbosity often belies its chief argument: that Emmanuel Levinas’s phenomenological defense of ethics as ‘first philosophy,’ if informed by and reinterpreted through Theodor Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics, offers up a useful framework for rethinking our ethical obligations to dehumanized human and nonhuman Others in the Anthropocene. Admittedly, Nelson tips his hand quite late when he writes that “[t]he alternative interpretative strategies outlined throughout this work…point,” not to some reconstitution of “a republic of rational spirits or community of communicative and dialogical agents” à la Habermas and Honneth (Nelson’s whipping boys), but to an “an-archic and unrestrained solidarity…between material existents” (332). His concerns seem, in the final analysis, ecological, while his conclusions share a family resemblance with object-oriented ontology.
The text’s primary theoretical contribution is its concept of “asymmetry”: if ethics is founded on ontological equality, then one’s moral obligations to certain humans, and even more so to nonhuman or flat-out nonliving beings, is impossible. We must thus develop, Nelson claims, ways to think moral obligation in ontologically asymmetrical conditions. Even putting stylistic issues aside, the argument is vexed by a central difficulty, namely, an inability to articulate what sets its solutions apart from the behemoth it means to criticize. While he does offer some recommendations, Nelson frequently jumps from first-person phenomenological description to third-person, extremely concrete public policy positions, or puts forward an idea that “the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). The former confuses distinct levels of philosophical analysis, while – to echo Slavoj Žižek’s criticism of Levinas, one that Nelson himself considers (299) – the latter risks a sentimentalism unable to deconstruct global capitalism. Both fangs of this problem arise from Nelson’s underdeveloped account of the precise epistemological connection between phenomenology and critical theory, as well as from a conflation of liberalism and capitalism his own sources reject. The Ethics of the Material Other thus ultimately finds itself unable to decide whether liberalism’s wholesale rejection, or just its reformulation, is in order.
After an introduction meant mainly to acknowledge Adorno’s and Levinas’s diverging philosophical idioms, Nelson divides his study into three parts: “After Nature,” “Unsettling Religion,” and “Demanding Justice.” In “After Nature,” Nelson turns to Marx’s and Adorno’s idea that ‘nature,’ as an ideological category, is dialectically-materially constructed, first using this idea to critique Habermas and Honneth, and then suggesting it helps us get around Levinas’s anthropocentrism. The basic point here is easy to grasp. ‘Nature’ and ‘culture’ are not static ontological spheres; rather, ‘nature’ is itself historically conditioned, and, in late capitalism, serves as both “the environment,” a mere “background for human activity” (38), and as a fetishized reservoir for consumers’ ‘sublime’ experiences. The “natural and human worlds” should thus be rethought, Nelson argues, “as historically intertwined and mutually co-constituting” (46), with ‘nature’ now defined, with Adorno, as the material τόδε τι that confronts and resists reason’s dialectic. In contrast to Habermas and Honneth, then, for whom the Marxian “expression ‘domination of nature’…is [only] a metaphor extended to nature from the domination between humans in misshapen relations” (44), Nelson recovers Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s sense that, in fact, the real exploitation of nature grounds, and is interwoven with, specific forms of dehumanization. In other words,
[i]nsofar as humans are worldly bodily beings, with practical material lives, it is debatable whether the nondisposability of humans can be preserved in a world where everything else is disposable… In not listening and responding to animals, environments, and the materiality of the world… numerous human forms of life and suffering are silenced (48).
The extent to which Nelson himself actually embraces the “nonreductive, aporetic, and ethical praxis-oriented…materialism” (49) he finds in the older Frankfurt School is another question, as his examples of ‘natural’ phenomena still seem oriented by romanticism; we hear of “melting glacier[s]” and “polluted wetlands” (128), for example, but few of the more discomfiting candidates from radical ecology. Nelson wonders, for example, if “[i]t might be the case that there can be an ethics that is responsive to and responsible for animals, ecosystems, and environments without presupposing or requiring any concept or experience of nature” (114), without interrogating what concept of ‘nature’ underlies the three ethical subjects with which he begins that very sentence. The extent to which “bodily suffering” (81) motivates Nelson’s ethics – and restricts them – is likewise open to debate, and downplays, in his account, the extent to which ‘nature’ remains, for Adorno as it was for Hegel, an epistemological category. Nonetheless, Nelson’s use of Adorno to overcome Levinas’s alleged “antinaturalistic and antibiological” (91) is convincing. Levinas’s critique of ‘naturalism’ is indeed oriented by his desire to steer clear of anti-humanist romanticism, especially in its reactionary modes; if we jettison a romantic construction of ‘nature,’ then, granting an “alterity and transcendence to life and living beings insofar as they are ethically rather than biologically understood” (116) does become possible. This reinterpretation also dovetails with the one advanced by Megan Craig and others, namely, that Levinas’s descriptions of the ethical encounter are just extended epistemological metaphors, meant to ground a radical empiricism. This would fit nicely with Adorno’s own defense of empiricism, in his Metaphysics lectures and elsewhere, against idealism’s alleged hatred of the empirical.
In his study’s second part, “Unsettling Religion,” Nelson focuses on the notion of ‘prophecy,’ primarily in Levinas’s philosophical interpretation of Judaism. Before jumping into this, though, he begins by overviewing Ricœur’s three ‘masters of suspicion’ – Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud – and their critiques of religion. In what amounts to a methodological exercise, Nelson admits that while “[r]eligions operate as ideological disguises and hegemonic regimes of this-worldly power that demand ascetic and sacrificial practices and exact heavy costs in lives and suffering,” they are simultaneously “expressive of prophetically inspired hope for forgiveness, happiness, and justice” (150). He expends particular energy evaluating Nietzsche’s views on religion in On the Genealogy of Morality, affirming the Genealogy’s ‘prophetic’ elements while rejecting its crypto-virtue ethics and justification of suffering through amor fati. Nelson then turns to the meat of the argument in this part, which is Levinas’s confrontation with Kierkegaard over the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. For Nelson, this contrast illustrates two fundamental ‘religious’ modes: Kierkegaard’s, that of fundamentalism and theocratic tyranny, of “the religious constituting the suspension of the ethical,” as against Levinas’s ‘prophetic’ “interruption of [God’s] command by the ethical demand not to kill” (181). For Levinas, Kierkegaard’s positive valuation of Abraham’s decision in Genesis – to carry out God’s command to sacrifice Isaac despite its patent immorality and absurdity – shows that Christianity is “an egotistical and self-interested search for consolation, redemption, and salvation.” Judaism, on the other hand – which Levinas identifies with the angel intervening to stay Abraham’s hand – is “not even primarily about God” (184), but about “the humanism of the other.” This is “the ethical truth of monotheism,” which Levinas actually finds in the later Kierkegaard, in Works of Love, not “faith and its subjectivity” (183). Through this analysis, Nelson provides evidence for the theory that – as Samuel Moyn has argued – Levinas’s concept of ethics norms his construction of ‘Judaism,’ not vice versa. This is why, for example, he can praise “atheism” in one moment “as the break with mythic absorption and monistic participation” while lambasting it as “the denial and absence of the transcendent” (213) in the next.
Nelson then turns to Bloch, for whom the “the radical potential of prophecy in Judaism and Christianity, the prophetic denunciation of exploiters, despots, and masters… prepared the way for the communist communities of love from which” – on Bloch’s reading, at least – “primordial Christianity emerged” (230). Finally, “Unsettling Religion” concludes, in a somewhat disjointed way, with a chapter on Murdoch and the Danish Lutheran thinker Knud Ejler Løgstrup. Apart from Løgstrup’s apparently “underappreciated” (243) status in contemporary philosophy and his use of Kierkegaard, I found this excursus confusing, especially given that Nelson would have had to unpack Murdoch’s metaphysical commitments in a more sustained way to make the comparison of her and Levinas other than external. Also meriting scrutiny is the “category of the religious” Nelson claims his analysis has uncovered – namely, one that, “through its prophetic and redemptive moments and in its dreams, hopes, and visions formed and expressed in abject, damaged, and wounded life… heighten[s] the radical republican and social democratic alignment in the direction of equality (fairness), liberty (autonomy), and solidarity (love)” (259). After all, his frequent gestures to Asian religious and philosophical concepts notwithstanding, Nelson’s proponents of ‘prophecy’ here all work within one textual reception history – that of the Hebrew Bible. Can we cleave this ethically- and politically-oriented prophetism from its scriptural origins, ethos, and legitimation? If not, we may need to resist identifying it with ‘religion’ sans phrase; “messianism” (232), per Nelson’s own suggestion, may be more accurate.
“Demanding Justice,” the study’s final part, attempts to think through how a Levinasian ethics, having passed through the clarificatory crucible of the first two parts, might reorient contemporary political theory. I stress ‘Levinasian’ because, at this juncture, Nelson’s use of Adorno recedes into the background, even as earlier adversaries like Habermas and Honneth return as the “high priests” (to repeat Žižek’s quip) of global capital. Nelson’s guiding question here is whether “there [is] in the Levinasian motif of the ‘language of the other’…the possibility of an alternative to both the false universality of liberal and neoliberal cosmopolitanism and the false concreteness of communitarianism and racialized particularism” (320). These two frameworks are, for Nelson, secretly complementary: neoliberalism preaches universal equality and ‘human rights’ while materially erasing those distinct ways of life – human and nonhuman – unable to be integrated into the free market’s logic, and finds itself quite comfortable with new forms of nationalism and chauvinism that stratify intrasocietal wealth as long as global capital flows remain unimpeded. He takes especial issue with the classical Enlightenment concept of freedom, which he sees as having been perverted into an ideology whereby “appeals to one’s own freedom function to justify power over others and deny the freedom of others to live without coercion and violence” (285). Where this disfiguration is not carried out by the state, it is done so by the ‘culture industry’ and other homogenizing social and economic mechanisms, as diagnosed by Adorno, Horkheimer, and Alexis de Tocqueville. This ideology finds its quintessential expression in the fact that the modern subject is told her freedom is absolute while she finds the most primal experience of freedom – the freedom for meaningful political action – denied her. “Freedom from society robs the individual of the strength for freedom. Asocial freedom limited to an absolutized private self, and divorced from the sociality of the other, is…a denial of the freedom that participates in and helps shape society” (303).
Now, Nelson is aware that Levinasian ethics does not have an obvious answer to this problem; he repeatedly cites, for instance, Žižek’s objection that Levinas, by hyperbolically exaggerating the self’s infinite responsibility for the Other in the ethical encounter, just shifts the burden of society’s sins onto the atomized subject. Nelson claims in response that Levinasian ethics serves as a corrective to existing egalitarianisms rather than a full-blown political counterprogram. Because “Levinas’s political thinking is in multiple ways…an ethically informed and other-oriented transformation of French republican thought” (321), it aims at “disrupting and potentially reorienting self and society, immanently within and yet aporetically irreducible to being, its unity or multiplicity, or other ontological determinations” (332). “Instead of offering an ethical program of cultivating virtues or duties, or setting up procedural normative guidelines,” then, “Levinas speaks of the other as a who. This ‘who’ cannot be defined by ethics in the sense of a normative theory or moral code” (324). Nelson, however, and in a way that I will momentarily question, then turns to define and elucidate precisely such a theory: a “cosmopolitanism of the other,” one “not only concerned with universal and abstract justice” but with “the singularity and particularity of those forgotten and suppressed by the universal as incarnated in the current social-political order” (340). This new cosmopolitanism would “require…a radically an-archic res publica, a republicanism of unrestricted civic associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338). Moreover, it would extend from the human into the nonhuman world, “[n]ourishing and cultivating the life of material others…in fairer forms of exchange and distribution of goods and of intersubjective and interthingly recognition” (332). Ethics of the Material Other closes by suggesting that, although it has successfully gestured toward the ethical and theoretical foundations of this ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ only a “political economy oriented toward alterity and nonidentity” would complete its task. Such a political economy would “address” itself to the same themes – “the modern domination of nature that has resulted in disappearing species, deteriorating ecosystems, and the wounds of damaged life” (356) – with which Nelson framed the first part, underscoring the text’s ecological orientation.
Nelson’s fundamental contribution here is his use of Adorno to refine Levinas’s concept of alterity and thereby extend the latter’s phenomenology of the ethical encounter to explicitly include nonhuman Others. This detour through Adorno is not, strictly speaking, necessary. Otherwise than Being can, in particular, be read as an empiricist epistemological treatise, in which Levinas uses a prolonged interhuman metaphor to express the radical exteriority, objectivity, and claim on the conscience, not just of the human Other, but of the truth as such. Nelson’s decision to implicate Adorno is nonetheless insightful insofar as the latter’s later work not only concerns itself with the fact that the history of “metaphysical” (Levinas would write “ontological”) thought identifies the particular as negative and meaningless, but with the particular’s epistemological function, as the concretum of experience, without which reason loses contact with reality. The connection between human materiality and particularity on the one hand, and the functional meaning of these two terms on the other, is thus clearer in Adorno’s oeuvre than in Levinas’s, where Otherwise than Being has to flesh out the genetic phenomenology of reason that remains underdeveloped in Totality and Infinity. Nelson’s ‘asymmetry’ productively borrows this ontological-into-epistemological fluidity from Adorno. Asymmetry characterizes my relationship to the culturally, biologically, and, ultimately, even the epistemically Other, such that I might have, for example, an asymmetrical responsibility to a work of art, to my cultural traditions (‘the past’), or to coming generations or states of being (‘the future’). Access to the Other’s internal states or experiences, nay, even to their external characteristics, need not be a prerequisite for ethical relationship. That Nelson himself seems to sometimes ground these relationships in some shared quality – “sentience,” for example, as in “Buddhist ethics,” “or the equal consideration of interests in Peter Singer’s utilitarian animal ethics” (74) – suggests that certain political aims, such as environmentalism, motivate his project, but it does not obviate the fact that his conclusions align with some of our most important moral intuitions: the care for landscapes, landmarks, sacred sites or objects, and institutions. Whether or how these intuitions can be translated into political aims, however, is a more difficult question.
It is here that Nelson’s argument runs into its central difficulty, namely, in its attempt to map what is, for Levinas, a first-personal phenomenological description of the ethical encounter onto a third-personal normative prescription for political action. Otherwise than Being provides Levinas’s own account of how this transition takes place: although my obligation to the other is experienced as infinite, as soon as another other, “the third,” also places its unlimited demand on me, there takes place an ethical compromise whereby these two others’ needs are compared before I act upon them. This tragic but necessary choice, whereby I must not respond to the other’s infinitude for the sake of a ‘third’ just as transcendent, is the abiogenesis, not just of ethical speech, but of reason and language as such. It is in this paradoxical “comparison of the incomparable [that] there would be the latent birth of representation, logos, consciousness, work, the neutral notion being.” For Levinas, then, what marks any given politics’ ethicality is not whether it does in fact respond to each and every claim of alterity – an impossible task – but the degree to which it allows itself to be challenged by such claims at all. “It is then not without importance to know if the egalitarian and just State in which man is fulfilled…proceeds from a war of all against all or of the irreducible responsibility of the one for all… It is also not without importance to know, as far as philosophy is concerned, if the rational necessity that coherent discourse transforms into sciences, and whose principle philosophy wishes to grasp, has thus the status of an origin…or if this necessity presupposes a hither side…borne witness to, enigmatically, to be sure, in responsibility for the others.” What Levinas offers us in Otherwise than Being is a genetic phenomenology of human politics, linked to one of rationality. These are accounts of how all such discursive and social formations have in fact come about, as is evident from how Levinas explicitly juxtaposes them against two other universal accounts, namely, Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Levinas is not prescribing, then, a certain form of government, let alone specific policy recommendations – although, if his account is true, and rationality is born of the ethical encounter, then a politics that flouts its hetero-foundation may risk unreason and collapse, as natural law theory believes tyrannies do.
Nelson acknowledges this several times (277, 281, 282) only to then jump to specific cases; “the denial of healthcare” (296) and “the use of capital punishment” (323), for example, are said to be incompatible with Levinasian commitments, as is liberal capitalism. “[E]quality cannot be limited to symmetrical rational agents exchanging reasons or rights. Such an abstract ideal misses the reality of exchange as structured by desires and interests, relations of power, status, and wealth, and the social-economic reproduction of society” (283). This diagnosis of liberalism – shot through with unseen power dynamics and guided by bellicose competition – sits uneasily with Levinas’s genetic account for both structural and epistemological reasons. The structural reason is that Nelson’s argument effectively, in an odd Hobbesianism, hypostasizes the State; it places the State in what is, for Levinas, the subject’s phenomenological position, expecting the State to experience and respond to alterity in the way the subject does. The epistemological reason is that Levinas’s phenomenology, like phenomenology in general, assumes a transparency incompatible with a transcendental hermeneutic of suspicion applied to the same object of analysis. If we accept Levinas’s account of political formation, in other words, we cannot accept a (broadly) Marxian one at the same level.
We are left with three possibilities. Either (a) Levinas’s account is accurate, and liberalism is simply a social formation that necessarily forgets its ethical genesis; (b) liberalism is compatible with societies’ ethical genesis, but has only contingently forgotten it; or (c) the Marxian account of liberalism is accurate, and Levinas’s is an ideological concoction. Because Nelson’s study does not develop a rigorous epistemological link between their phenomenological and critical-theoretical analytic registers (in the vein of, say, Maurice Merleau-Ponty), it cannot firmly decide between these three options. Instead, Nelson wavers between them. Many passages seem to opt for (a): because liberal capitalism has so deeply failed morally, its normative presuppositions are shams. “Abstract liberal arguments against oppression that leave capitalist forms of power essentially unquestioned are complicit with systems of subjugation that exploit, marginalize, and systematically reinforce powerlessness and vulnerability. They are compelled to sustain the machinery of global capitalism” (341). Or, again: “The liberal priority of justice over care, charity, and republican and communistic solidarity functions as a veil of indifference for excusing injustice, given the structures of domination imbedded in the institutions and practices of social-political life” (323). Nelson, rhetorically at least, seems to prefer (a); not unproblematically, however, his conclusion’s writ actually leans toward (b) or (c).
Nelson himself provides an important formulation of (c) in the form of Žižek’s and Stephen Bronner’s objections to Levinas (299, 305): does Levinas’s ethics, by placing a burden of infinite moral responsibility on the individual, not surreptitiously excuse the State or society of their structural injustices? Secondly, does this shift not privatize ethical discourse, obviating the need for social critique and collective action? Thirdly, does a phenomenology of infinite indebtedness to the Other not preclude moral criticism of that Other, “turn[ing]” society, in effect, “into a set of competing cultural ghettos” (314)? Nelson does not provide robust answers to these concerns. His alternative to particularistic communitarianism, the ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ remains underdeveloped, its only seeming quality a promise to avoid the mistakes of past cosmopolitanisms. Even more strikingly, there are moments where Nelson’s interpretation of Levinas as a theorist of ‘small acts of kindness’ meshes with Žižek’s view of him as a bourgeois sentimentalist. In his chapter on Levinas, Murdoch, and Løgstrup, for example, Nelson embraces their idea that “the good can occur through both uncultivated and cultivated human attitudes and practices of goodness, such as the small everyday acts that all three philosophers elucidate to different degrees” (249). We are told that Levinas is, in fact, “the opposite of the moralizing and ethically privileged perfectionist imagined by his detractors. Ethics does not consist in moralistic perfection, not even as a regulative ideal, but in the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and the ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). Nelson’s emphasis on the quotidian may assuage Žižek’s worry that Levinas presses for a “hyperbolic yet ultimately empty responsibility” (272), but not its corollary, that “asymmetrical freedom is inherently conservative and elitist in negatively privileging myself over others, as if injustice were solely my responsibility” (299). Indeed, Nelson’s answer to this specific charge – that Levinas can be placed in the French republican tradition and was sympathetic to socialist causes, and hence would surely not endorse a “neoconservative” policy of American exceptionalism (319) – substitutes biography for philosophy. The question is not where Levinas’s personal political proclivities lay, but whether his ethics structurally endorses a quietism or separatism (as in Totality and Infinity’s phenomenology of family life) that frames individual political involvement as morally irrelevant or, at best, unfulfilling. Given especially Levinas’s known antipathy to Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenology of social life, Nelson could have probed this angle further.
In yet other moments of his argument, however, Nelson seems to opt for (b). Levinas, he says, does not proposes any formation to replace liberal capitalism and its grounds in Enlightenment universalism, but rather offers up the encounter with the Other as its continual corrective. “[A]symmetrical ethics signifies a way of correcting,” rather than replacing, “standard liberal and socialist categorizations of social-political equality.” Again: it “indicates a noteworthy way of revising the contemporary discourses of ethical and critical social theory.” Or, yet again: “Levinas’s articulation…is not so much a rejection as it is a critical transformation of the categories of modern universalism” (281). While these sorts of statements get closest to Levinas’s actual position, they are not compatible with Nelson’s siding throughout his text with (a). We cannot claim that encountering the Other urges us to revise our political priorities within an existing liberal framework while also claiming that liberalism is fundamentally an ideological obfuscation. This contradiction stems, in Nelson’s account as in many others’ in contemporary continental thought (including, say, Agamben’s), from a conflation of liberalism with capitalism. Defining ‘liberalism’ as just free markets, and the unitary state power that enforces these (333), makes this conflation possible. Liberal theorists like Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt (to name two of Nelson’s own interlocutors) argue, however, that liberalism requires, above all, ‘civil society,’ the ‘thick,’ face-to-face communities that make deliberative rationality possible. Nelson’s most programmatic gesture, toward “a republicanism of unrestricted civil associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338), fully fits into this richer concept of liberalism, his protests notwithstanding. Classing Levinas with Arendt among capitalism’s liberal critics should lead us, however, to a more nuanced parsing of the relationship between alterity and communality than what Nelson offers here. After all, the point Arendt makes about refugees and human rights in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which Nelson cites in this context, is not really one of “an inclusive republic that would welcome the stranger, the exile, and the stateless who have lost the very right to have rights” (321). (To be fair, Nelson’s misreading here is now so widespread in Arendt reception as to have become an interpolation.) Arendt certainly lauds such welcome, but her basic argument is Burkean. Universal human rights are an aspirational norm, but they are meaningless outside of a concrete political community; the nation-state’s particularism is thus the vehicle that realizes the universal. Arendt would agree with Levinas that “justice remains justice only, in a society where there is no distinction between those close and far off, but in which there also remains the impossibility of passing by the closest,” but would stress that said ‘society’ must be bounded if we wish to retain a lived and practical meaning for ‘passing by’ the neighbor. Ultimately, then, Nelson’s embrace of “unrestricted solidarities” (2) may contradict some of his sources’ terms. I can have an unrestricted sense of responsibility for every possible Other, or a solidarity with the actual others I encounter in my embeddedness in my particular context, but unless ‘the face of the Other’ is but a cipher for a universal ontological determination (which Levinas would surely reject), I cannot have both. It is past due for the ‘negative political theologies’ inspired by Levinas, Adorno, Derrida, Hent de Vries, and others to acknowledge this fact and so to begin shifting their analyses from the insistence on ‘alterity’ to asking what political procedures and norms make – or could make – regular encounters with the Other a feature of public life.
 Emmanuel Levinas. 1998. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974). Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, p. 158.
 Id., p. 159.
 Dominique Janicaud. 2000. “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology” (1991). Trans. Bernard Prusak. In Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate. New York: Fordham Univ. Press, p. 44.
 Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 159.
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.
The terms “mysticism” and “mystical experience” were commonly used in twentieth century scholarship, particularly in psychology of religion studies. These terms, highly loaded and ambiguous as they are, were gradually replaced by references to “religious experience” in English-language scholarship by the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. What is meant by “religious experience?” How is it distinguished from our other, everyday kinds of experiences – is it something that can be clearly separated from mundane experiences, and if so, how? Do such experiences vary cross-culturally, and are they conditioned by specific religious traditions? What of religious experiences that lie outside of institutional religious settings? These questions continue to cause controversy and lively debate from multidisciplinary perspectives. Applied phenomenology is particularly relevant for this ongoing mystery.
Related to these questions are the issues of context: what religious experience(s) are we referring to? How is this understood in theistic systems – and how might this appear in non-theistic traditions? is there such a thing as a universal human religious experience, or do these experiences differ cross-culturally and across world religious traditions?
The Problem of Religious Experience: Case Studies in Phenomenology, with Reflections and Commentaries, edited by Olga Louchakova-Schwartz, represents a massive, multivolume undertaking to address some of these contextual issues. An extensive study of the intersection of phenomenology and religious experience is much needed, and we are fortunate to be gifted such a voluminous work. The editor includes generous notes and reflections, including a detailed introduction, where she notes that this work stems from a collaborate research effort from the Society for the Phenomenology of Religious Experience. The editor is an extremely accomplished scholar who displays true expertise in the phenomenology of religious experience. Professor Louchakova-Schwartz clearly states a foundational question regarding this research in the introduction: “a question of what exactly makes religious experience what it is – that is, gives it a specific quality distinguishing it, for its subject, from all other experiences – remained open” (3). Given over a century of robust phenomenological studies, the question of subjective experience generally and religious experience specifically continues to invoke confusion and mystery, and this ambitious work turns to various case studies and theorizing to respond to this confusion.
The introductory section effectively sets out a cohesive structure for this multivolume study. An initial confusion I encountered in the introduction is: what is the scope of the analysis here? The word “God” is referenced, and it is made clear that Abrahamic and South Asian religious studies are included, as well as both phenomenological theory and theologically-centered studies. However, what religions are specifically covered in the comparative analyses, and what, if any, constraints and issues were encountered when including cross-cultural studies?
Relatedly, having so much material in one book may prove to be daunting. This is split into two volumes with four parts: the first volume containing The Primeval Showing of Religious Experience while the second volume is explicitly theological, entitled Doxastic Perspectives in the Phenomenology of Religious Experience. I am concerned about such a broad spectrum of content lacking cohesion; fortunately, dividing the book into parts and respective case studies helped to preserve an overall cohesive structure. The notion of the concretum or concrete aspects of religious experience is invoked in the introduction. Yet quickly in the introductory sections, a nearly incomprehensible web of nested phenomenological jargon is spun – this is clearly a common feature of modern philosophical theory, also a feature in the many phenomenological subtraditions stemming from the master of incomprehensibly dense prose himself, Edmund Husserl. This caused another concern; after I turned to the first case study presented in Chapter Two, I wondered if non-specialists in this subject would be able to make sense of the material. As the subject of religious experience is multidisciplinary, this work may attract those who are not specialized in phenomenological technical terms, such as the various reductions. Nonetheless, Professor Louchakova-Schwartz is particularly clear in her writing and unpacks the incredible amount of debate and abstraction surrounding the phenomenology of religious experience with deftly precise prose. She includes helpful reflections at the conclusion of each Part, from Part I – IV.
Proceeding the critiques of Cartesian mind-body dualism and subsequent focus on embodiment found in the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and modern thinkers such as Natalie Depraz and Thomas Csordas, the notion of embodiment and embodied religious experience is germane to this research. It is encouraging to see this topic approached multiple times, including in Chapter II of Volume I, “Reconnecting the Self to the Divine: The Role of the Lived Body in Spontaneous Religious Experiences” by Shogo Tanaka. This first volume, The Primeval Showing of Religious Experience, sets out what is to be “presuppositionless” accounts of religious experience, contrasted with theological or “doxastic” approaches found in volume II – hence the “showing” of experiences mentioned in the title.
Tanaka presents the oft-neglected domain of “spontaneous” religious experiences – those experiences falling outside the purview of institutionally-structured traditions. Inspired by William James’ famous analysis of mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience, Tanaka focuses on the notion of mystical “passivity” and how this may lead to shifts in one’s sense of embodied experience, also referred to phenomenologically as “the lived body.”
Beginning primarily with Plato and Parmenides among ancient Greek thinkers, thriving throughout medieval European Scholasticism and culminating with Rene Descartes‘ philosophy, the history of Western philosophy is that of dualistic tension: tension between the status of mind and matter, spirit and corporeality. Descartes‘ famous formulation of res cogitans and res extensa formalized the ontological separation of spirit or mind from “mindless” matter. The directly visceral experience of living itself is consistently denied in the Western philosophical tradition, brushed aside as irrelevant compared to the power of reasoning. A critique of this dualistic orientation is found initially in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological work, continued in the religious analyses of the “lived body” in Tanaka’s chapter. The role of embodiment is a crucial aspect within religious experience accounts that will hopefully continue to inspire future phenomenological religious studies.
Tanaka concludes his chapter with a critique of body-mind dualism and apt observations regarding a false dichotomy often posited in religious experience studies between “ordinary” and “nonordinary” states of consciousness: “. . . the distinction itself seems to reflect a tacit, dichotomous understanding of the sacred and the secular, the supernatural and the natural, the other world and this world, and the religious and the nonreligious. This dichotomy may foster the view that religious experiences are essentially different from ordinary experiences” (35). This essentializing of different modes of experience contrasts with Tanaka’s emphasis on spontaneous religious experiences, which may occur in perfectly mundane situations and contexts, outside any specifically institutional religious setting. One is reminded of the quotidian, simple imagery often employed in Zen Buddhist poetry and parables to refer to ultimate awakening – which is not fundamentally distinct from everyday experience.
One insightful aspect of this book is the clarification of phenomenological methods and key terms, including the often-invoked method of “reduction.” Espen Dahl defines and clarifies a few of these reductions in Chapter 4, “Preserving Wonder Through the Reduction: Husserl, Marion, and Merleau-Ponty.” These include Husserl’s Cartesian-influenced reduction, Marion’s reduction, and Merleau-Ponty’s method of reduction. Husserl’s notion of epoché, the “bracketing” of our presuppositions about what constitutes our universe, is described by Dahl as “the way inward” (60). This is certainly a fitting way to describe the process of bracketing, and it is a key feature that marks the unique orientation of Husserl’s innovative philosophy. Such an inward turning also parallels aspects of stilling the mind during certain meditation exercises, which is addressed in Chapter 5, written by Olga Louchakova-Schwartz. Louchakova-Schwartz focuses on the transmutation of emotion in numerous Buddhist meditation practices, what she refers to as “neo-Buddhist” practices. Processes underlying the emotional transformation in these practices are compared to numerous phenomenological methods, including the reductions and epoché. The array of comparative phenomenological studies is a particularly impressive feature of this anthology, and there is still much insightful cross-cultural analysis to be gained by applying the phenomenological methodologies to varied cultural religious practices.
Volume I continues with other nondoxastic approaches, focusing on themes of Lebenswelt or the “lifeworld,” intersubjectivity and transcendence. As previously stated, Volume II shifts the focus by including doxastic, explicitly theological frameworks. These by and large draw influence from Christian theistic perspectives and philosophers such as Kierkegaard, in addition to an intriguing analysis of Raimon Panikkar’s intercultural, pluralistic philosophies in Leonardo Marcato’s “Mystical Experience as Existential Knowledge in Raimon Pannikar’s Navasūtrāni.” The anthology is two hundred pages in by Volume II, and this book culminates with over three hundred pages. Despite this substantial amount of material and plethora of topics, the cohesively structured flow of thought is even more apparent by the end of Volume II. This is a particularly ambitious project to complete and subdividing the content into two main volumes helped to break the material into manageable sections, with clear demarcations in analytical foci.
I am quite impressed by the plurality of themes and lucid unpacking of densely abstruse phenomenological topics found within The Problem of Religious Experience: Case Studies in Phenomenology, with Reflections and Commentaries. Dr. Olga Louchakova-Schwartz’s commentary and original contributions greatly assist in making sense of this complex territory. There is an impressive array of cross-cultural religious analyses explored. Again, this ambitious work may overwhelm readers who are not previously familiar with the many developments of phenomenology within the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Nonetheless, the various methods, reductions, and “bracketing” are clearly explicated in relation to the ongoing mysteries of religious experience. This anthology leaves us with further reflections on wonder, mystery, transcendence – even with silence, outside the conceptually symbolic constraints of language itself. At the crossroads of these conceptual fringes, the explanatory methods of phenomenology can effectively shed light on the enigmatic nature of cross-cultural descriptions of religious experience.