chapter  5
Emmanuel Levinas, Literary Engagement, and Literature Education
Pages 18

There are important moral presuppositions . . . which belong to a changing “climate of ideas.” . . . Literature is soaked in the moral, language is soaked in the moral. (Murdoch 1997, quoted in Conradi, 21 and 254)


Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy has had a signifi cant impact on the humanities and social sciences in recent decades, challenging us with a new understanding of the ethical nature of self-other relationships and placing into serious question the theoretical and practical foundations and dimensions of our academic disciplines. In the domain of literary studies, Levinas’s writings have supported a deep rethinking of the assumptions and methods which underlie critical engagements with literature. They have invited a compelling dialogue concerning literary engagement and interpretation between contemporary scholars and Western traditions. As such, they have also opened the door to a reconceptualization of the moral and ethical underpinnings of literature curricula and pedagogy at the school, college, and university levels. Yet, in the measure that we consider Levinas’s philosophy within the context of North American literature education, we must also take into account the diffi culties of this task. Levinas’s own disparagement of literature, art, and criticism shadows new considerations of the educational possibilities for these fi elds of engagement. Some literary critics, in signifi cant ways, have begun to challenge Levinas’s suspicions and critiques. My intent in contributing to this timely edition is to offer readers who are new to literary and educational theory insight into how Levinas’s philosophy has energized a longstanding debate concerning the interrelations among literature, ethics, and education. In what follows, I outline this debate, introduce the tenets of Levinas’s philosophy and his problematic views on art, literature, and literary engagement, and discuss how literary theorists have variously taken up his views. Finally, I consider certain implications of his views and those of his literary followers for North American literature education.