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.
Among the many poignant lines one encounters in Emmanuel Housset’s Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation, perhaps none gives more to think than does a passage in chapter two’s “Travailler et Œuvrer,” which, exhibiting this stunning work’s deeply spiritual undercurrent permeating every page, reminds us of the sacred responsibility our having received the gift of hands in turn entrusts us: “[L]a première préocuppation de la main humaine doit être la justice, et c’est elle qui fait de l’homme un collaborateur de Dieu. L’homme cultive le monde et Dieu cultive l’homme” (67). If, as Housset says elsewhere in the text, “le monde n’a pas d’autres mains que les notres” (153), this is because of our manual vocation to shelter and steward what encounters us as God intends. For as he states further on in one of the work’s middle chapters “Parler et Écouter,” “Le Créateur n’a donc pas donné des mains à l’homme pour remplir une simple function naturelle, mais afin d’assurer une tache spirituelle, qui est de répondre du monde comme totalité” (141). Thus, Housset will say of our hands what Jean-Louis Chrétien in The Ark of Speech has said of our voice. Making the parallel claim that human hands (no less than the human voice) are co-participants with God in creation, or better, laborers alongside God in the current task of restoring it from the Fall, Housset says that with them we can work to accomplish the establishment of the kingdom of God. Throughout its meditations on the hand’s innumerable dimensions, Housset’s work hence puts to us the same question gently but incessantly, one no human life ever succeeds avoiding from asking itself forever: Have you been working what is good, or not?
The hand speaks, says Merleau-Ponty. The hand listens, says Chrétien. So, too, it thinks, says Heidegger. These themes are for phenomenology far from novel, but Housset gives them new life, showing why they have justifiably commanded the philosophical attention they have for so long. As he notes at his study’s outset, and as he will underscore time and again in the chapters that follow, if the hand speaks and listens, its is a transcendence through which man encounters the world and its things, as well as others too. It is, to invoke the term he uses at least once, the “hinge” (charnière) between the world and ourselves. Neither a thing, an instrument, a mere organ, nor even the organ of organs par excellence, the hand is rather the power by which we touch and our touched, that with which we give and receive, build and make, release and grip, grope and explore. As Housset says, “La main n’est pas une simple partie du corps de l’homme et, à elle seule, elle peut manifester toute l’existence de l’homme dans son caractère charnel et temporel” (7). The hand both opens and discovers the world. And not only does it open the world through a transcendence that takes us beyond ourselves whereby we meet things and others, the hand possesses a past and so a future also, a time accordingly making the present one whose presence to the world is ours indelibly. As Housset with Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger never ceases to emphasize, the manual nature of existence means each of us expresses our individual unsubstitutableness through it, a distinctive style evident in the attunement toward being that very style exhibits, one incorporated in every gesture of the general posture by which we inhahbit the world and thereby decide to meet it. As Housset says of the hand,
“Elle n’est donc pas un outil d’outil, car elle ne se rencontre pas dans le monde, elle n’apparait pas dans le monde comme un organe dont je pourrais me servir. Son mode de donnée est tout autre: elle est ce qui ouvre au monde, le lieu d’une rencontre avec les choses” (159).
What, then, shall we say of this capacity of the hand to meet the world?
Placing the human hand within a frame of reference related to the question concerning the nature of man as a whole, Housset accordingly thinks starting from a number of themes explored by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Henri Maldiney, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Jean-Luc Marion. In so doing, however, Housset does not consign himself to exegesis. There is very little textual interpretation simply for interpretation’s sake in this work. His attention, rather, turns to what is visible in the world, not what remains just ink on a page. Enacting one of the work’s central theses (namely, that all writing and every writer have their styles), he transforms familiar philosophical material creatively, revealing subtleties we had not yet noticed, deepening insights we thought we already understood, and surprising us by bringing to words what we believed must remain unsaid, things we ourselves had felt before but struggled to express. In encountering what Housset shows, we find often that he gives clear voice to what we felt had persisently been eluding ours. And when these delightful moments of clarity dawn courtesy of his words, what a relief it is!
It is not by chance the work achieves everything it does that we are about to recount. The insights making it such a joy to read are won meticulously, with precision and remarkable attentiveness and foresight. Its unusual thoughtfulness is evident immediately from the start, in how for instance Housset self-consciously conceives of the treatise to begin with. In the introduction, he notes an astonishing fact. What, he asks, explains why there is no true philosophical treatise on the hand alone? As he says, “si la main est vraiment la synecdoque de l’homme, comment se fait-il qu’il n’existe pas un véritable traité des mains comme s’en étonne Valéry?” (7). There are many works that have touched on the hand, to be sure. Yet no comprehensive work on the hand as such exists. One might speculate such a treatise has not been undertaken due to a difficulty Housset himself had addressed a few pages previously in the work’s preface. Any study aiming to embark on an analysis of the hand in its totality, he observes there, must first ask itself whether such a treatise is even possible. The issue concerns a matter of access to the phenomenon, and hence a matter of method. How is one to approach the hand’s essence systematically and in a way that remains properly philosophical without reducing to an anthropological, biological, or cultural perspective? The task, then, is posing the question of the human hand without collapsing that question completely into one asking what man is. While the two questions do overlap, as Housset himself acknowledges, there still is something of a distinction between them worth preserving however intertwined they are. Housset explains,
“Néanmoins, dans mon projet d’ensemble d’une éluciation du caracère manuel de l’existence, je me suis heurté à deux difficultés: d’abord celle de l’immensité du champ à étudier et la nécessité de le circonscrire pour ne pas perdre. Le danger était que la question “Qu’est-ce que la main?” soit simplement reconduite à la question “Qu’est-ce que l’homme?” et que dans une étude indéfinie des representations de la main et de ses usages, ni l’essence de la main, ni l’essence de l’homme ne soient étudiées” (5).
In addition to this danger of obscuring the essence of both the hand and man himself by posing the question of the former in a way that eliminates it, by reducing it entirely to a question of the latter, Housset notes a further danger that must be avoided. One could make the mistake of dissolving the question of the hand’s distinctive sense into the more general question of what man is, yet one might also take too piecemeal of an approach to the hand itself. The danger here, in short, is taking an approach that gets bogged down in what amounts to an “analyse régionale” of the hand, one calling for the specialism of the art historian, anthropologist, or theologian. Were this to happen, the hand’s essence is lost amid the various analyses sketched of its figures from their correspondingly various theoretical perspectives. What Housset seeks, instead, is a truly philosophical account of the hand. And yet, this analysis also comes fraught with its own hazards. After all, even if one were able to approach the question of the hand from a strictly philosophical perspective, there is then the danger of traditional philosophical assumptions and prejudices about the nature of man (and hence the hand) intruding. Rather than revealing the phenomenon as it is, might not the philosophical tradition’s treatment of the hand obscure or even distort it? To uncover the essence of the human hand, thus, it will be necessary, Housset suggests, to question (and often abandon) the dominant philosophical horizons through which the question of our existence has been posed. And as for the hand itself, it will be necessary to find a logos that thinks it otherwise than how philosophy sometimes has. For Housset, this means first of all overcoming aspects of philosophy’s Greek and German anthropological inheritance:
“La deuxième difficulté était proprement philosophique: pour ne pas simplement raconteur des histories de mains, pour ne pas s’en tenir à des considérations anthropologiques, aussi importantes soient-elles, et pour parvenir à developer une ontologie de la main ou pour defender l’idée que la verité de la main est au-delà de l’ontologie, il me fallait une véritable these sur le devenir corps du corps, sur l’incorporation, et cela supposait de pouvoir montrer que l’identité de la main, comme identité d’exode, puisque la dignité des mains, leur glorie, est de s’oublier dans l’action, ne pouvait pas relever de la comprehension parméndienne de l’être. Ce travail a donc pris son temps afin de deployer une conception de l’incorporation qui ne soit ni grecque, ni nietzschéene, ni husserlienne, et qui défende l’idée qu’il faut manier pour voir, pour parler et pour répondre.” (5-6).
The aim, then, is to take an approach that liberates the phenomenon from whatever traditional philosophical assumptions are occluding it, while doing so in a way that gets to the heart of the hand as the regional analyses of other theoretical disciplines do not. In a word, Housset proposes a phenomenological treatise of the hand.
“En consequence, une parole philosophique sur la main ne peut être qu’une description phénoménologie de la main à partir de son mode de donnée propre; la main se donne à la conscience, après reduction, comme un ensemble d’actes: manipuler, apprehender, travailler, œuvrer, toucher, se toucher, parler, tâtonner, caresser, tendre, écrire, donner” (8).
As the first chapter “Prendre et Manipuler” makes clear, the resulting analyses exemplify that approach, for they are neither haphazard nor disjointed. There is a logic governing the hand’s acts to which Housset attends, a logic his exposition renders explicit by tracing the eidetic laws interconnecting the acts in question. In turning to the basic acts of taking and manipulating, for instance, Housset is doing so while simultaneously formulating a background question that he works out as the chapters progress. By first examining the acts of taking and manipulating, Housset invites us to wonder whether the paradigm of power they presuppose is truly the best way to understand the hand’s essence. Is this the deepest dimension of the hand? As Housset writes, “Tel est le cœur de la question: la main vraiment main est-elle celle qui prend, qui decide, qui impose, ou bien est-elle celle qui est toujours un dialogue, qui si comprend toujours comme une réponse dans la poignée de main comme dans le soin?” (10). In the same spirit of Heidegger’s own criticisms of representational thinking, here Housset thematizes the hand as something whose way-of-being undercuts the modern cult of power, control, and independence, the technological conception of man as the measure of things, as the one who gives to himself his own destiny by mastering what encounters him through his own desire and strength alone. As Housset says,
“Une telle question ne va pas de soi aujourd’hui et demande à être construite, dans la mesure où l’homme moderne, issue des Lumières, se prend pour la mesure de toute chose et, dans son reve d’un pouvoir fondé sur le savoir, il se définit d’abord par le projet de se prendre en main, d’être son propre projet et d’être ainsi le créateur de lui-même” (Ibid.).
Very early on, as we see, Housset is already carefully crafting the foundation for the work’s later critical reflections on the modern technological era’s mishandling of our humanity. For as he notes, any faithful description of the hand’s openness to the world entails a recognition of the limits to the hand’s powers, and so in turn our finitude. This recognition is one that we today, with the Enlightenment philosophical tradition epitomizing it, dislike to admit: “Cela dit, cette reconnaissance de l’essentielle finitude de l’action humaine est peut-être ce qu’il a aujourd’hui de plus difficile, car elle suppose un renversement complet de la représentation de son être” (11). Even when the hand is considered in light of its capacity to grasp or manipulate things, it must not be forgotten that this capacity presupposes a more originary receptivity to what already first encounters and solicits it. Whereas we tend to conceive of ourselves as subjects able to take and do, Housset’s opening chapter initiates a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the modern myth of the will to power. A self-understanding that sees itself as an autarkic being capable of creating itself by imposing its virility on its surroundings, as he says, overlooks the hand’s true fragility. In a comment reminiscent of Michel Henry’s observation regarding life’s inability to be the origin of its own powers, so Housset emphasizes how nobody has given his hands to himself. Furthermore, nor is anyone immune from the constant threat that its powers will suddenly abandon us: “Ainsi, la main n’est pas un bien don’t l’homme disposerait toujours déjà, mais une possibilité qu’il n’a qu’à la developer sans cesse, dans la conscience de pouvoir la perdre à tout moment, volontairement ou involontairement” (12). According to Housset, this fragility means the manual nature of existence is normative. One can succeed or fail at having hands! As he says, “nous devons apprendre à avoir des mains, comme nous devons apprendre à marcher et à penser, dans la conscience de leur fragilité” (12). By this Housset does not mean that everyone is (or is not) an amputee, is (or is not) a paralytic. Rather, insofar as the modern notion of self-sufficient and invulnerable man is a myth, Housset means to accentuate how in turn it falls to each of us to recognize and embrace that weakness. The point is we may do so to better or worse degrees:
“En effet, encore une fois, il est difficile et necessaire de déconstruire l’idéal modern de la main conquérante, invulnerable, qui sait trancher dans le vif, en montrant quelle image de l’homme est à l’origine d’un tel ideal, et cela de facon à pouvoir retrouver une certaine humilité des mains” (13).
This deconstruction of Camus’s Sisyphean rebel who persists in trying to forge meaning on his strength alone serves to underscore Housset’s original phenomenological purpose. The hand, we see indeed, is neither simply a thing, an instrument, or an organ, but a way of standing open to the world. Highlighting the sense in which the hand is something more, Housset alludes to the notion of style, a theme from Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s own philosophies to which he will often himself recur in the pages that follow:
“La main n’est donc pas une chose ni une partie du corps, mais elle un movement, un verbe, une puissance de manifestation du sujet agissant, et en cela elle est pleinement esprit et pleinment corps, sans qu’il soit possible de dissocier en elle ces deux dimensions de l’existence” (13).
Here already, if only obliquely, Housset has introduced into the account of the hand’s power to take and manipulate the more primary notion of style, a phenomenological notion denoting a fundamental dimension of human existence he in turn will explore at length in later chapters.
The hand, which thinks, and which is not simply the expression of a mind but rather the expression of the whole of one’s existence as man, cannot thus be reduced to a marginal or regional analysis. If we cannot think without hands, and if thinking itself distinguishes us from the animals, reflection on the human hand leads to a consideration of the ancient conception of the difference between man and the animals. Whereas man dwells and builds amid a world, animals simply live in an environment. The hand explains this difference, for in our case the hand possesses a power of touch whose sensitivity far surpasses what is known to the animals. Following Aristotle, Housset notes that of the five senses, touch is the most basic, for as the power of refinement and taste, it most marks the humanity of man:
“Ainsi, comme l’explique Jean-Louis Chrétien dans L’appel et la réponse, le toucher n’est pas d’abord pour Aristote l’un des cinq sens, mais ce qui fait que l’homme n’est pas un simple spectateur et qu’il est par le toucher engage dans le monde, cet enagement étant à la fois ce qui l’expose et ce qui lui permet d’agir dans le monde” (82).
Yet if Housset agrees with the classical distinction between man and animal, he is not completely satisfied with the common picture of it. At this point in the text, his many mentions of working and building will have brought to the reader’s mind Hannah Arendt’s famous analyses of these acts. And in chapter two, “Travailler et Œuvrer,” Housset indeed takes up Arendt directly. Man acts with his hands. He works with them. Such work takes many forms: work of the farmer, the surgeon, the writer, the carpenter, the painter, or the postman. What are we to make of this work? Were one to follow Arendt’s line of reasoning in The Human Condition, accepting its firm distinction between the private and the public, the oikos and the polis, and hence a corresponding further distinction between labor (travailler) and work (œuvrer), one will be inclined to conclude with her that, in our modern society, work as the ancients produced it no longer is. As Arendt and Heidegger (or Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman) have noted, today most of what we fabricate is not a work in the classical sense, but an object, a product made only with an eye to consumption. But if it is correct that the ancient work of art is irreducible to a product, must it be said with Arendt that only artists remain true handworkers? Housset is unconvinced, for he doubts it is so easy to distinguish the labor of the body and the work of the hands absolutely. Here he aims to subvert the Greek logos in the name of a view that instead sees value in all work, at least in principle. He says,
“La main chrétienne se distingue donc de la main grecque par cette idée que le travail n’est pas une simple nécessité, mais participe à l’accomplissement de l’homme et que le corps participe au salut dans l’union de l’homme à la terre” (58).
Overturning the modern myth of man as the measure, it is also necessary to jettison the idea according to which there is a clear dividing line between a domain of manual labor somehow less noble than work. In the name of a more thoroughgoing humility, it must be recognized such a distinction does not hold, for everything (evil excepted) done with the human hand has its dignity. Having encountered this stretch of text, one inevitably will have called to mind the biblical story of toil’s origin. A page over, Housset fulfills the reader’s expectation, mentioning the Genesis account explicitly:
“[S]elon Genèse I, 28 ‘Emplissez la terre et soumettez-la,’ le don des mains n’est plus le don par la nature de l’organe de tous les organs, mais un don de Dieu pour achever la Création […] le travail n’est ni une simple soumission à la nécessité, à laquelle il faudrait idéalement échapper pour être libre, ni ce qui simplement sauverait de l’oisiveté et de tous les vices quis sont liés” (59).
Work (and labor) takes on a spiritual dimension, says Housset, for in putting them to use, our hands become “armes de vertu, de justice et de beauté” (Ibid.). Against the Greek view, it is not that man attends to life’s necessities in the home only then to act freely in public. To the contrary, paradoxically, he is always already free in virtue of his placing himself in submission to God. Neither the servant of the world nor a human master (or today a corporate employer), he is the servant of God. It is this reversal of perspective on work that gives a new understanding to labor, and hence a greater exigency to even our most quotidian or unrefined of deeds. From the eternal perspective humbled in the sight of God, the smallest deeds are a work too.
In the opening segment of chapter three, “Toucher et Se Toucher,” Housset observes how the question of taking and work show that the hand opens us beyond ourselves while always returning to itself: “la main est à la fois ce movement de s’avancer vers le monde et de la ramener à soi” (79). Equally reflexive and transitive, the hand’s movement entails we recognize that touch is self-implicating and self-transcending. Housset’s rigorous account of the way the hands touch and are touched (and even touch themselves) is of such complexity that doing its nuance justice exceeds the scope of what is here possible. Better anyway for oneself to look and see what Housset does to rework a longstanding phenomenological problem that commanded the attention of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Maybe the greatest importance of Housset’s analysis of touch lies further on, when, in chapter four’s “Parler et Écouter” attention turns directly to a number of themes that occupy the book’s remaining pages: time, history, speech, listening, writing, and others. For if, as we read, “la main est en elle-même un movement de transcendence vers les autres et vers les choses” (158), far from being only what puts us in touch with things, the hand “elle est également ce qui lie l’homme aux autres hommes” (119). And an encounter with others is crucially different than one with mere things. It is because we are linked to others, for instance, that we have a personal history. For our encounters with others leave their mark: “Ma main en tant qu’elle est la mienne porte mon histoire, mais également ma manière d’être, le style de ma relation au monde” (124). And if the hand links us to others, giving us a history, this is so because the hand, which is itself entwined with the word, allows us to both speak and listen. Hence, in order to understand the hand’s history, its relation to others, and so with an eye to the later question of style, “pour la comprendre plus largement comme une capacité de parole et d’écoute” (124). Now as Housset notes, for someone as Husserl, one’s personal history is a matter of a temporal synthesis, one whose passivity sediments past perceptions and experiences into memories and thus a stable identity that in turn can serve as the basis for further free deliberative action and thought: “Sans reprendre ici les analyses de Husserl sur la synthèse passive, il est possible de s’appuyer sur elles pour élucider l’historicité de la main: elle a ses perceptions sédimentées, ses souvenirs, les actes qu’elle a poses” (125). Passive synthesis, as Husserl would call it, explains habit’s formation. Without it, the hand would not remember or know as it does. The Husserlian analysis is sufficient so far as it goes. It accounts for a crucial dimension of human embodiment successfully. According to Housset, however, it does not go far enough, for its description of manual habit as owing to temporal synthesis remains beholden to the idea that the hand is an expression of the mind, and hence still just an organ. But more importantly, Husserl’s account of the hand’s history overlooks a paradox Housset stresses must be addressed. It is one Housset describes as a circle: “Tel est le cercle: le monde ne peut apparaitre qu’à un sujet qui s’éprouve dans l’unité de son historicité, néanmoins le sujet ne peut se saisir dans son historicité qu’en agissant dans le monde” (128). Here again, for Housset the point is to see in this circle a radical fragility of the human hand and mode of being, one the myth of modern man discussed earlier neglects to acknowledge:
“Au-delà de toute téléogie organique ou rèflexive, l’expérience ne reconduit-elle pas à une absolue contingence du don des mains, à savoir qu’elles ne peuvent pas se réduire à une capacité innée du corps et de l’esprit, mais sont plutôt une capacité recue d’ailleurs?” (133).
The hand forges its identity by welcoming what lies outside itself and beyond its control. In this sense, it comes to be what it is, not through an auto-constitution, but through a movement of transcendence into the world where, meeting what it does, it answers to what has addressed it. The hand’s mode of presence to the world, thus, is not one of virility and initiative, but dialogue, as it always is in conversation with what it hears. As Housset says, “Elle devient radicalement autre, elle trouve son identité dans son envoi dans le monde, une identité qui est donc toujours fragile, sans point fixe et stable, car elle se construit à partir de l’appel des choses” (139).
If the preceding chapter four explores the eidetic link between hand and word, that bond inevitably leads to a consideration of writing, “dans la mesure où l’écriture engage toute la capactité du corps à render visible le monde” (153). Housset opens chapter five “Écriture et Style” by observing with Husserl (and Derrida too who comes up now and again) that “le champ d’écricture est un champ transcendental sans sujet actuel” (154). Writing assures the objectivity of ideality, by in effect establishing a repository of sense where such sense is available, waiting to be activated by anyone who comes across it. And yet, as Housset notes, there is an empirical fragility at work even here in the constitution of this transcendental language. Books, after all, can be lost, censored, buried, or burned. Housset will here criticize Husserl for failing to emphasize the sense in which even the incorporation of an ideal geometric language’s sense in writing is still for all that a work of the hand, or better, a work of the whole body. The blindness, says Housset, is due to Husserl’s decision to characterize the hands themselves in terms of the subject’s auto-constitution. Husserl, he will say, has introduced a kind of universalized architectonic where there is not one. The cost of this intellectualism, he continues, is evident in Husserl’s struggle in the Crisis to account for today’s epistemic, moral, and spiritual waywardness. Husserl fails to come to terms with radical evil. And if Merleau-Ponty himself never addresses the moral dimension of the hand squarely, neither says Housset does Husserl, who, despite his elaborate analyses of embodiment in texts as Ideas II, still maintains an ocular stance toward things. As Housset comments,
“Autrement dit, en dépit de toutes ses analyses sur le corps, Husserl en reste à une philosophie de la vision dans laquelle la seule réponse au mal est l’exigence d’une vision plus rigoreuse de l’universel. Il est possible de voir là un manque de prise en considération de la radicalité du mal, mal qui est plus qu’une erreur, un oubli ou une fatigue, et qui peut se comprendre comme une volonté délibérée de mainmise et de destruction, voire comme une jouissance de la negation” (157).
In the wake of this discussion of modernity’s inability to explain radical (but banal) evil, it is here that Housset takes up Heidegger’s later work on thought and speech explicitly. If, as Housset with Heidegger says, “Toute pensée est une œuvre des mains,” this is because the hand, which is more than an instrument to manipulate things, is “qui est une écoute du logos” (159). In an accompanying footnote to this stretch of text, Housset quotes with approval Heidegger, who himself in the passage in question emphasizes the essential connection between man and the hand: “Ce n’est pas l’homme qui ‘a’ des mains, mais la main qui porter l’essence de l’homme, car la parole comme domaine d’essence de la main est le fondement de l’essence de l’homme” (162). Now as Housset observes, if thought is a work, a work of the hands even, this is because of writing: “ce travail de la pensée, qui est un travail des mains, suppose l’écriture” (163). Housset’s early disagreement with Arendt should not be misunderstood. Here, it is clear how one should not take Housset’s criticism of Arendt’s position to mean he believes that there is nothing deeply disturbing about our modern condition. Far from it! Housset addresses this lingering potential misunderstanding when, emphasizing the interlacement between hand and word, he goes on to explain how modern technology attenuates that connection, thereby dehumanizing man. According to Housset, technology treats the hand as an organ. And what is the danger of doing so? If the Heideggerian formula according to which the hand thinks in fact is true, so too writing takes place with and through the hand itself. Housset’s concern, then, is that modern technology which veils our relation to being, leads us to forget writing is an act of the hand. And so, as he says, we consequently lose touch with our humanity: “Une main qui n’est qu’un organe pour taper sur un clavier, ou encore pour ‘textoter’, etc., réduit nécessairement le mot en moyen de communication et le perd comme espace de pensée” (167). Housset is mounting a criticism of the technological era’s thoughtlessness in terms of its corresponding mishandling of the human hand. In a world of touch screen devices, there is less space for the work of the hand, and so too there is an absence of thought. The hand, whose true integrity consists in its capacity to hear and respond to the word, instead is deformed into a machine tool that manipulates. Hence, thought recedes and language wanes.
“Sans entrer dans toutes les analyses du Gestell, il s’agit de montrer que l’essence de la technique modern correspond à une degradation de la main en simple organe qui s’adapte à l’évolution de la technologie, mais qui n’a plus sa place dans le travail de la pensée; elle ne fait plus apparaitre, elle communique” (165).
Alluding to a thesis that will be familiar to readers of Jean-Luc Marion’s account of love in Prolegomena to Charity and The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset for his part claims it is love that puts the hand to work in a way worthy of what calls it. Only then are the world and its things no longer reduced to unfeeling and thoughtless manipulation. To anticipate another gesture Housset will explore two chapters on, here it is a matter of the caress. One must have a loving touch: “Le main manie vraiment quand elle se laisse prendre et organizer par l’armour, donc dans le paradoxe d’une dépossession et d’une possession” (167). Love’s delicate touch, as Housset stresses, makes possible a writing that overcomes the banal communication of technological chatter, by instead showing what has not been seen or else reminding us of what we have forgotten. It turns us from a virtual world, redirecting our attention back to the visible world. Writing, then, when it accedes to its task of giving voice to the things which have spoken to it, lets things speak rather than cancelling out what they say: “écrire, ce n’est pas imposer sa mesure à la chose, mais c’est laisser la chose être sa propre mesure, c’est en user dans un respect, qui est une reconnaissance de sa parole” (169). Concurring with what Jean-Yves Lacoste has said in Thèses sur le vrai of Angelus Silesius’ rose or Gerald Manley Hopkins’ sky, Housset’s analysis reminds us the written word is able to show what we had not seen. True speech shows.
Following on this description of writing as a work of the hand, Housset turns next to the notion of style. For here, to begin with, the term is not to be taken in its “usage en rhétorique or en historie” but rather “comme une structure de l’existence.” Style, in the existential sense, is a matter of one’s distinctive being-in-the-world: “La question du don des mains va ainsi conduire à decrier le style comme une manière d’être au-devant de soi en agissant dans le monde” (171). Contrary to a line of argument that would dismiss the notion of style as unfit for philosophical analysis because of its ambiguity, Housset argues that the notion’s polysemy is precisely what makes it so fecund. Taken in a first sense, style is a linguistic feature. As Housset says, in that regard every writing bears a unique signature. Style in this way concerns the fluctuation around a norm—what Housset terms a “catégorial-objecif” notion concerning the work’s general form of expression and the singularity of the author. But Housset notes style, taken as a general structure of the intentional mode of being-in-the-world, does not alone suffice to explain how writing is an act of the hand. Further at stake, in short, is one’s personal history, but not, as we had seen with Husserl in the context of passive synthesis, a history constituted by oneself. Instead of an auto-constituiton of a self in its own history, Housset has in view an irruptive history, one that shattering the enclosure of the self exposes whoever it calls to a future which would otherwise have remained closed. Borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, Housset sometimes will use the term “verticalité” to denote this rupture. Now, if here existential style concerns a personal rhythm, it is an attunement no longer reducible to a subjective perspective of what is otherwise objective (as if style were a mere lens or gloss), but rather a mediopassive mode of encounter. This style is a “tonalité fondamentale,” a manner of adjusting oneself to the manifestation of being. With this other history freed, man stands open to a destiny calling him. Adjusting himself to the truth of being, the work of his hands accordingly becomes neither an act of prideful strength nor a pure act of freedom, but a free response to a call. As for writing, it becomes the hand’s vocation, our answer to what has first addressed us.
If in his reflection on style Housset mentions Husserl and Heidegger first and primarily, in turn he invokes Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty, Housset notes, not only observed acutely that style is an expression of our relationship to the world, but also that there is a connection between style and the hand. As readers of the Phenomenology of Perception know, for Merleau-Ponty a gesture’s meaning does not consist in some intention residing in the mind initially, for its sense is to be found nowhere else but in the gesture itself. The hand (or the entire body) speaks, which is why even the sleeping body, assuming the pose it does, is never entirely mute. It is this excess of sense underlaying the propositional domain of discourse that Merleau-Ponty claims the writer and painter express. According to Merleau-Ponty, the world itself has a style. Summarizing the upshot, Housset concludes,
“On comprend bien alors que le style n’est plus ici un écart par rapport à une norme ou un mode singulier de constitution, mais est cette charnière entre ma chair et la chair du monde qui m’envoie dans le monde; il est cette cohesion sans concept, antérieure à toute synthèse d’indentification et sans laquelle cette synthèse demeurerait une intellectualistation de la sensibilité” (185).
Housset’s study of the hand has to this point shown why the hand cannot be understood as a tool or an organ, a lesson chapter six’s “Tâtonner et Caresser” magnifies. Returning to the work’s earlier chapter on touch, here the issue is that of the caress. In keeping with the work’s central thesis that our existence takes form only in response to what encounters it, so here Housset will insist that this is so with the caress: “l’étude de la caresse va venir confirmer que la main est une capacité reçue de l’autre corps” (191). For as he continues a few lines down, if the hand in the caress “touche l’intouchable” (192) this is so because the hand is constantly groping for what always retreats in the face of the hand’s advance. Following Jean-Luc Marion’s paradoxical statement in The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset notes accordingly how the caress touches nothing: “la caresse il ne s’agit plus vraiment d’un contact, ou même du toucher, et on peut risquer le paradoxe selon lequel la main qui caresse ne touche pas une autre chair, puisque cette chair se dissipe quand on s’en approche” (201). As Housset goes on to say, it is this hand’s act of groping for what it cannot find that “donne à toutes les autres leur signification véritable” (Ibid.). In language deliberately reminiscent of Levinas and Ricœur, Housset attempts to pass from ontology to ethics, claiming that this constant retreat of what encounters the hand is nowhere felt more profoundly than in the encounter with the human other, who, no matter how close we get, still recedes as one approaches. As he explains,
“plus on approche l’autre la caresse, plus le mystère de son existence corporelle se dévoile. L’autre homme n’est pas une énigme qui se dissiperait peu à peu un fonction des syntheses d’identification successives, mais il se rencontre comme un mystère qui ne cesse de se refuser” (193).
In characterizing the reciprocity between call and response structuring the fundamental tenor of human existence, Housset shows how this conversation between things and ourselves is manual, ever unfurling through the hand that gropes for something to hold onto.
For this reason, Housset declares it is Levinas who above all has come the closest of the phenomenologists to revealing the hand’s truth. Unlike Husserl for whom the hand remains the power of perception and freedom, Merleau-Ponty for whom the hand is what gives things to be seen in the world, or Sartre for whom the hand participates in the drama of desire, Levinas sees how the hand’s fundamental dimension consists in “dolence, capacité à souffrir, à éprouver la douleur, mais également affliction par rapport à cette douleur” (211). Here Housset quotes with approval Levinas’s assessment of the hand in Totality and Infinity: “La main est par essence tâtonnement et emprise” (216). The hand trembles in its ache for contact. And so, the other is there, always appearing within the horizon of indeterminateness forever soliciting the hand that seeks to traverse its mystery.
Taking up the manual acts it has, Housset’s work as a whole, we have seen, undertakes a reversal of the modern myth of self-sufficient man, a deconstruction culminating in the work’s final chapter “Recevoir et Donner.” We grope for stability and assurance. And when we receive that assurance, it is always given to us, which is to say, it arrives as a gift we must receive. Now, the subject of the gift is not new to phenomenology. At least in the phenomenological context, indeed, the term has almost become synonymous with the work of Jean-Luc Marion, Housset’s own dissertation director. It is only proper, then, that a study of the human hand as this one should end as it does, with a meditation on receiving and giving and thus the gift, the very phenomenon to which the study owes its title. At the beginning of the last chapter, Housset will speak of “la main nue,” a hand having nothing but its own possibility of becoming what it will through responding to what it encounters. This is not the hand of a superhero, says Housset, but a fragile, humble, and weak hand dispossessed of everything. These are the hands of someone who has accepted the realization he has never given himself his own beginning. In this resulting humility of the hands abandoned to their own weakness, this powerlessness, says Housset, “ouvre sur une autre forme de puissance, qui est la puissance même de l’amour” (235). Love allows one to give without concern for a return. And just the same, love is also what strengthens us to receive, since, in impatience or pride where love is absent, too often we consequently refuse to receive what is offered us—there is nothing more pride despises than to be helped! This ingratitude, which here takes the figure of the modern subject who thinks he is in charge of himself, encloses itself within itself, refusing stubbornly to receive assistance from anything beyond itself or what its fellow man can provide. Such a figure, hence, refuses the greatest gift our hands may receive. For these closed hands refuse to receive grace. This, then, Housset will suggest so boldly, is the final position of the human hand that, succumbing to the cul-de-sac of defiance, knows no power but its own. This is the hand that does not take hold of God’s hand. Cut off from “l’amour de Dieu,” it is one that finds no destiny to which it is able confidently to consecrate its works. For, everything it does is destined only to fade.
Here, concluding our review with the gift and work in mind, what are we thus to say of Housset’s own work as a whole? Shall it endure? Bemoaning the embarrassing state of the philosophial literature of the time, Hannah Arendt in correspondence with Karl Jaspers said, “The academic journals are full of nonsense that not even the author believes but that is necessary for his career. None of these journals pays a red cent; very few of them are read.” Housset’s book is not nonsense; neither can the author’s sincerity, which can be felt on every page, be doubted; and his writing makes plain it was born of aspirations rising high above the petty ones known to those who write for an academic career. With a work as this, thus, it is entirely fitting to conclude with a note of prognostication. What future awaits this work? To be sure, Housset largely remains a name unknown to Anglophone readers. In the face of that unfortunate obscurity, an author could be forgiven the temptation to doubt the use of writing, especially when the truly philosophical works that result are bound to be less understood and appreciated now by reading audiences than in Arendt’s day. One imagines hearing Housset in Caen groaning: “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecc 2:11). Is, however, this sigh of futility warranted here? Perhaps not! In an age when a work as this one receives far less attention than it deserves, that very neglect just serves to underscore its importance, for the relative obscurity in which it is received belies its fidelity to the philosophical spirit. Work of good that it is, Le don des mains will stand the test of time, and it will be read long after so much else written today is not. May there be readers who enjoy it now!
 Analytic philosophy currently is undergoing an “normative turn,” particularly in ethics, moral psychology, and the philosophy of action. Meanwhile, in the phenomenological milieu, Steven Galt Crowell, my dissertation supervisor of record, has more than anyone explored the normative dimension of human existence, first, in Husserl, Heidegger and the Space of Meaning: Paths towards a Transcendental Phenomenology (Northwestern: 2001) and, again more recently, in Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (Cambridge: 2013).
 Hubert Dreyfus’s overview of technology in Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I (MIT: 1991) still provides an excellent statement of this concern that today everything increasingly is being reduced to the measure of flexibility and efficiency.
 Crucially, it should be noted that for an ideological program as transhumanism to succeed, it is as necessary for humans to become like machines as for the machines themselves to become humanlike. The melding of man and machine depends essentially on the dehumanization of the former.
 There are many fascinating overlaps between what Housset will say here of style and what Claude Romano, taking up the history of authenticity, says of Cicero, Castiglione, Montaigne, Rousseau, and others in Être soi-même: Une autre histoire de la philosophie (Gallimard: 2019).