Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas between Revelation and Ethics

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Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas Between Revelation and Ethics, by Samuel Moyn. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 268 pp. $29.95.

Academic interest in the work of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95), the Lithuanian-born philosopher who articulates "ethics as first philosophy," has reached a critical mass in the last several years. Samuel Moyn, Associate Professor of History at Columbia University, sounds a cautionary note to this wide-spread and often uncritical attitude by tracing the philosophical roots and historical progression of Levinas's thought, its sources and influences, up until Totality and Infinity in 1961.

Against the laudatory or even hagiographical interpretation of Levinas as the ethical philosopher par excellence, Moyn seeks to contextualize the development of Levinas's thought by showing how it emerges out of specific historical situations and philosophical controversies. Moyn's itinerary begins with Levinas's academic apprenticeship in the 1920s and early 1930s in the shadow of Husserl and particularly Heidegger, his philosophical development during the European conflict of World War II, and the consolidation of his thought in the post-war period. Central throughout Moyn's analysis is the legacy of Heidegger's turn toward National Socialism in 1933, and most crucially and perhaps controversially, Moyn argues that Levinas cannot be understood "except as a secularization of a transconfessional, but originally Protestant, theology of encounter with the divine" (p. 12). That protestant theology of encounter is found in the work of Jean Hering and Karl Barth, and Moyn argues that Levinas "retrojected his creation [of the other] into the foundations of his own particular faith" (p. 12). Levinas's own faith is, of course, Judaism.

Moyn's Origins of the Other follows a chronological outline along two parallel paths, one emphasizing philosphy and the other theology/ethics. Chapter One, "True Bergsonianism: Beginnings of a Philosopher," begins with a brief biographical sketch designed to correct the view of Levinas as a talmudic scholar reacting to antisemitic violence from the outset of his life. The point of Moyn's reconsideration of Levinas's cultural and educational origins is to insist that Levinas's tutn toward an intersubjective ethics of the other was an immediate product neither of his early religious education nor of his initial philosophical study. Chapter Two, "The Controversy over Intersubjectivity," details Heidegger's critique of Husserl and then analyzes two of Heidegger's own students, Karl Lowith and Hanna Arendt, and their different appropriations of their teacher's thought. Chapter Three, "Nazism and Crisis: The Interruption of a Trajectory," focuses upon Levinas's reaction to Heidegger's 1933 membership in the Nazi Party, for Heidegger's Nazism forced Levinas to seek a path different from Heidegger's."Totaliter Aliter: Revelation in Interwar Theology," Chapter 4, parallels the earlier chapters in that Moyn traces a path through the "First Quest" for the historical Jesus and early 20th century Protestant theology, primarily Rudolf Otto and Karl Barth, before turning to a fine, detailed re-reading of Franz Rosenzweig's 1935 Star of Redemption. The next section, Chapter 5, "Levinas's Discovery of the Other in the Making of French Existentialism," concentrates on Kierkegaard's reception in France and the impact of the Danish Christian existentialist's thought upon those in Levinas's circle. In Chapter 6, "The Ethical Turn: Philosophy and Judaism in the Cold War," Moyn attacks the idea that the Holocaust caused Levinas to consider the relation to the other as an ethical demand. Instead, Moyn claims that the Cold War, rather than World War II, is determinative for Levinas's evolution into an ethical philosopher.

Moyn is at his analytical best in detailing the intricate philosophical connections between Levinas and his influences, and he is at his argumentative best when he tackles detailed readings of Levinas's texts, but despite Moyn's fulsome accounting of Levinas's philosphical development, I am left with several reservations. …