Identity, Alterity, and Ethics in the Work of Husserl and His Religious Students: Stein and Levinas

By Hutt, Curtis | Philosophy Today, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Identity, Alterity, and Ethics in the Work of Husserl and His Religious Students: Stein and Levinas


Hutt, Curtis, Philosophy Today


In this essay I shall compare and contrast the work of Edmund Husserl with that of two of his most famous students, Edith Stein and Emmanuel Levinas, on "identity" and "alterity" in the constitution of the "same" and the "Other."1 The implications of their respective theories of the intersubjective, of how any "we" can be posited, on ethical formulations will be explored. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Stein or Levinas, who belonged to different generations of Husserl's students, ever met or corresponded with one another, their mutual interest in these topics is great. Each has offered critiques of their teacher's portrayal of empathy (Einfühlung-"in feeling"), in addition to proposing their own unique positions. They also engaged actively in debate over the proper relationship between individuals, between individuals and communities, as well as between communities and states. I will argue that in rebutting Stein's work on empathy, Husserl himself made way for Levinas's later contributions. At the same time, a number of Levinas's criticisms of Husserl are prefigured in Stein. Clarifying Levinas's own views vis-à-vis Husserl is itself a complicated affair and requires explication. At times, Lévinas praised Husserl as having opened the door to his own elucidation of the Other. This was accompanied, however, by a number of criticisms of Husserl's approach-some of which I shall dispute. In the end, I will highlight not only intriguing assertions which Stein and Levinas held in common, but also the middle ground between the two-more or less congruent with that maintained by Husserl himself.

In many respects, the biographies of Stein and Levinas are similar. Each was drawn to Husserl's philosophy after reading his Logical Investigations very early in their careers. Each played critical roles in the dissemination of Husserl's thought. Stein, who served as Husserl's assistant for eighteen months from 1916 to 1918, prepared a revision of the sixth Logical Investigation, edited Ideas II, and compiled what became the basis for On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917)-more famously "edited" by Martin Heidegger. Neither of these texts was published by Husserl while Stein was in his employ, and she complained that it was difficult to get the ever busy Husserl to review what she had done. When he did get to her work, new questions and developments forestalled completion.2 Levinas was also well-known to Husserl. This is important to establish, not only for biographical reasons, but because it increases the likelihood that Levinas had knowledge of Husserl's earlier unpublished texts on intersubjectivity and perhaps even of disagreements between Husserl and Stein. Levinas translated part of the fourth and the entire lengthy fifth Cartesian Meditation, introducing Husserl's texts to French speaking philosophers.

Both Stein and Levinas in the years after these contributions underwent religious "conversions" of differing sorts. Stein was baptized as a Roman Catholic Christian in 1922. It is important to note that Stein believed she was "integrating" Judaism and Christianity-two aspects of the same-in taking this action.3 She too, then became a translator, but of John Henry Cardinal Newman and St. Thomas Aquinas.4 In 1934, Stein entered a convent as a postulant and subsequently became a nun of the Carmelite order adopting a new name-Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Forty-five years after her death as a Jew in Auschwitz on May 1, 1987, she was beatified-declared worthy of public veneration as a holy, blessed person-in a ceremony performed by Pope Jean Paul II.5

Emmanuel Levinas followed another distinctly religious path. After World War II from 1947 to 1951 he studied under the mysterious Mordechai Chouchani-to many like Elie Wiesel, a surviving link to the worlds of Talmudic learning before the Shoah.6 Even though Levinas at different times claimed to "universalize Judaism" and bridge Greek and Jewish thought,7 as a philosopher who effectively constructed a fence (gezeirah/siag) around Otherness he was not a proponent of any religious or cultural integration, much less assimilation.

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