Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

ACHTENBERG, Deborah. Essential Vulnerabilities: Plato and Levinas on Relations to the Other

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

ACHTENBERG, Deborah. Essential Vulnerabilities: Plato and Levinas on Relations to the Other

Article excerpt

ACHTENBERG, Deborah. Essential Vulnerabilities: Plato and Levinas on Relations to the Other. Evanston, HI.: Northwestern University Press, 2014. Cloth, $99.95--Has the reader ever had the occasion to drive two eminent and fascinating people to a location, and to have listened to their conversation in the back seat? Such is the overall experience of reading Deborah Achtenberg's masterful presentation of the thought of Plato and Levinas on key related topics. Achtenberg would be, of course, the driver. The book is not an imaginary dialogue, nor is there anything fanciful about it. It works as a serious discussion of Plato and Levinas under the explicit headings of violence, freedom, creation, knowledge, beauty, time, the self, glory, and shine. There are more topics than these, of course, not least because the book's gestalt communicates that very openness to the other that is the overarching theme of the book. So it is that the topics discussed flow from the gestalt. Essential Vulnerabilities is internally structured in two parts: the first is centered on Levinas's Totality and Infinity, and the second centers on his Otherwise Than Being, both in tension with Plato.

"Essential violence" is the topic for the opening discussion of vulnerability. It's worth noting the following as characteristic of the book. Platonic themes of love as "disruption" and "knocking down" (drawn primarily from the Phaedrus) are considered and measured against Levinasian themes of resistance and breaking open. The extended quotation here adequately conveys Achtenberg's skill as a writer and thinker as she brings together her insights toward the end of the chapter. She writes of Plato and Levinas that each "considers human beings to be essentially, shockingly, and marvelously open, vulnerable, and responsive rather than closed, self-sufficient, and self-involved. Each finds the solution to the problem of violence in that openness to an other. At the same time, the type of responsive relatedness described by each different: one type is cognitive and takes place though mutual beholding of what is [Plato], which the other is accomplished by bracketing cognition of what is and relating to the other as singular [Levinas]."

On one level, this is a scholarly compare-and-contrast work. However, on a deeper level, what Achtenberg has achieved is not merely another academic presentation of the finer points of some philosophers' works, but a genuine encounter in book form. Essential Vulnerabilities is written by someone who is so in tune with the existential thrust of both writers--to this reviewer's mind--that the reader, who authentically engages with the book, finds himself in the very presence of a Plato-Levinas encounter through these topics. It is expertly done, and that is credit not only to Achtenberg's scholarship but, one senses, to her openness to what a such an encounter could be. It follows then that Essential Vulnerabilities is a text that can be read, on the one hand, for scholarship, as one will certainly learn something about the works of Plato and Levinas. On the other hand, it can and should be read for the "trace" of the "infinite"--eternal or new--that is present and absent in the effort of the book itself.

To go back to the metaphor of listening to the encounter of Levinas and Plato in the backseat, it certainly seems as though it is Levinas who is taking the initiative in leading the conversation. …

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