Levinas and the Crisis of Humanism

Levinas and the Crisis of Humanism

Levinas and the Crisis of Humanism

Levinas and the Crisis of Humanism


Reexamining Emmanuel Levinas's essays on Jewish education, Claire Elise Katz provides new insights into the importance of education and its potential to transform a democratic society, for Levinas's larger philosophical project. Katz examines Levinas's "Crisis of Humanism," which motivated his effort to describe a new ethical subject. Taking into account his multiple influences on social science and the humanities, and his various identities as a Jewish thinker, philosopher, and educator, Katz delves deeply into Levinas's works to understand the grounding of this ethical subject.


In many ways, I have been writing this book since I was an undergraduate discussing education with my grandparents when I shared Friday night dinners with them. My grandfather, z”l, a retired college professor and a fan of John Dewey’s philosophy of education, was a formidable interlocutor. My grandmother, with an advanced degree in library science from Columbia University, could hold her own. It was around their kitchen table that they pressed me to refect on the college education I pursued. From my freshman year, which began with my interest in computer science, to my senior year, when I completed a degree in philosophy, my grandparents watched me transform from a student interested in mathematical puzzles to a citizen engaged in the world, obsessed with questions about ethics and justice, fascinated by philosophical problems, and convinced, even if naïvely so, that education was the answer to all of the world’s ills.

Influenced by these discussions, I traded my interest in law to pursue the Master’s degree in the Philosophy for Children program. I remain convinced of the program’s ability to improve critical thinking and engage young people in philosophical questions such that they are able to find meaning in the world around them and the lives they live. But I am no more convinced that this program is sufficient to make children “better people,” where “better” means more ethical, or that my own humanities education made me or any other humanities student a better person.

Engaging the humanities might enable us to be more reflective, to ask critical questions, to consider different perspectives, and to think more creatively. I do not believe, however, that it creates the desire or establishes the motivation for us to act ethically or justly. Yet, the view that the humanities do in fact accomplish this task has become part of humanities education rhetoric. Moreover, this view frames the narrative that is often told to those who are responsible for funding—and frequently suspicious of—higher education. The aim of this book is not to provide a manifesto for or against the humanities. Rather, I wish to take a step back and examine what informs the way an individual might receive that education. Who is this person before she engages the humanities?

When I teach Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophical project, the question my students ask me repeatedly is the following: How does one become the ethical subject that Levinas describes? Some might say this is the wrong question to ask. The question presumes that the strict phenomenological reading is limited and that Levinas is not simply describing who we are. After reading his essays . . .

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