Unforeseen History, by Emmanuel Levinas

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Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004. 150 pp. $34.95.

There is some room to question whether this collection of Levinas's essays is actually necessary. The three most important philosophical pieces within it -- "Some Thoughts on the Philosophy of Hitlerism," "On Ideen by E. Husserl," and "Reality and Its Shadow" -- have all already appeared in English translation. The others are articles and interviews so brief that they cannot really convey anything but a whiff of Levinas's thought. This may be a disservice to him, as it is all too easy to reduce his contribution to a few paragraphs about the significance of the other, ignoring the philosophical method he elaborated, intimately tied to the content, and without which that content becomes mere pious statement. Despite this not unsubstantial reservation, this translation of a prior French edition of this collection, published in 1995, turns out to be more thought provoking than first meets the eye.

It might at first seem that the greatest value of this volume would be to readers unacquainted with Levinas's thought. The essays span practically the whole period of Levinas's active intellectual life -- 1929-1992. They are rendered into a very readable English by Nidra Poller, the translator. Richard Cohen provides a lucid philosophical framework for Levinas's thought, in a language devoid of professional jargon, pinpointing his major concerns and his relationship to such 20th-century figures as Bergson and Heidegger. But despite these features, the book is not really meant for the uninitiated. In none of the three principal essays does Levinas make the philosophical moves that become characteristic of his mature thought. Each is a pleasure to read, and, no doubt for those who have read the later works, the continuities and discontinuities are fascinating, but for someone interested in an understanding of Levinas's elaboration of the relation to the other, neither the vocabulary nor the analysis are yet in place. The remaining essays and the interviews often do exhibit the typical vocabulary, but they are summary pronouncements Levinas made in this or that fleeting context, and not expositions of his thought. As mentioned previously, this could give the reader a false sense of familiarity with a body of work that requires much effort to penetrate.

But for readers already acquainted with the heart of Levinas's thought, this collection is interesting in several different ways. In the first place, precisely because the major philosophical essays in it reveal Levinas's concerns before they found their characteristic expression and emphasis, it is a little bit like knowing the end of a plot before the characters themselves can foresee it. There are, of course, foreshadowings and precursors, visible in retrospect, but it would have been impossible in 1929, 1934, even in 1948, to predict that any of the essays written at these respective times would lead to Totality and Infinity or Otherwise than Being. In this sense, this collection, apparently named by Levinas himself, although not assembled by him, is very aptly entitled Unforeseen History. There is no simple continuity between the earlier work and the later one. Something new, unexpected, leaped into the picture. Yet, are there not secret pathways in each of these essays to the major road of the later work? Bringing these three essays together in the same volume brings that question to the fore. …