Lévinas's Ethical Politics

Lévinas's Ethical Politics

Lévinas's Ethical Politics

Lévinas's Ethical Politics

Synopsis

Emmanuel Levinas conceives of our lives as fundamentally interpersonal and ethical, claiming that our responsibilities to one another should shape all of our actions. While many scholars believe that Levinas failed to develop a robust view of political ethics, Michael L. Morgan argues against understandings of Levinas's thought that find him politically wanting or even antipolitical. Morgan examines Levinas's ethical critique of the political as well as his Jewish writings--including those on Zionism and the founding of the Jewish state--which are controversial reflections of Levinas's political expression. Unlike others who dismiss Levinas as irrelevant or anarchical, Morgan is the first to give extensive treatment to Levinas as a serious social political thinker whose ethics must be understood in terms of its political implications. Morgan reveals Levinas's political commitments to liberalism and democracy as well as his revolutionary conception of human life as deeply interconnected on philosophical, political, and religious grounds.

Excerpt

Readers of Emmanuel Levinas will not proceed far in their study of his writings and his thought without coming across the criticism that his central idea about the face-to-face relation and interpersonal responsibility is irrelevant—to our daily lives, to social relations, and to politics. About ten years ago, in the course of writing Discovering Levinas, I cited the off-hand comment of Richard Rorty to this effect: that Levinas’s face-to-face is of no public, political, or social importance at all—simply a “mere nuisance.” This virtually gratuitous criticism of Levinas is but the most flamboyant and striking example of an objection regularly leveled against Levinas’s highly abstract and seemingly mystifying expressions and ideas. Unlike Rorty, who gave no indication of actually having read and studied Levinas with care and sympathetically, there are others who have and who still come away with such a criticism. To the student of Levinas, the criticism of his irrelevance to daily life and especially to social and political life hovers as a constant worry—or what ought to be. It certainly was for me, and while I was convinced that it was mistaken, it took a good deal of time for me to gather up the will and the effort to try to confront it head-on.

The immediate stimulus was a conversation with Seyla Benhabib in New Haven in the fall of 2012. At the time Seyla was immersed in the controversy in Germany over Judith Butler and the awarding of the Adorno Prize and, at the same time, was in the process of writing a critical review of Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. At lunch we talked about both, and I was surprised at Seyla’s willingness to accept Butler’s interpretation and use of Levinas and in fact to endorse it. To . . .

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