chapter
6 Pages

WHY LEVINAS?

Why Emmanuel Levinas indeed? This Lithuanian-born philosopher (1906-95) presented an uncompromising ethics that was grounded in both a pure phenomenological training and a deep Judaic heritage. In an age of spectacular and populist theorizing, he seemed to represent an educational and social past. Born in an age of Empires, he was the director of a modest teacher-training school; a diligent if hardly famous teacher and administrator; a university professor whose career began very late; and an observant Jew who for most of his life had little recognition or status within the official Jewish community of France. As an ex-student of Husserl and Heidegger who was at least credited with introducing phenomenology into France by way of early explanation and translation, but whose major works could be linguistically and intellectually tortuous, he suffered often from the insinuation that it was others who had really developed and popularized these radical ideas. Moreover, in Levinas’s later years, some of his assumed positions came to be criticized as Eurocentric, politically and socially conservative, and implicitly sexist. His involved and even obsessed philosophy also seemed too difficult in form and too subtle and agonizing in message for any excited and media-savvy commentary, relying as it did on a deep knowledge and re-examination of the canon of Western philosophy and literature, and the core texts of the JudaeoChristian religious tradition, in order to produce a demanding lesson

about an ethics beyond all ethics. In short, the old-fashioned mannerly phrase: ‘After you’, which Levinas used sometimes as a small illustration of moral vigilance, could be accepted quite literally by some more fashionable critical theorists.