Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Levinas, Chauvinism, Disinterest

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Levinas, Chauvinism, Disinterest

Article excerpt

Europe, that's the Bible and the Greeks. It has come closer to the Bible and to its true fate. Everything else in the world must be included in this. I don't have any nostalgia for the exotic. For me Europe is central.1

The arrival on the historical scene of those underdeveloped Afro-Asiatic masses who are strangers to the Sacred History that forms the heart of the Judaic-Christian world.2

The yellow peril! It is not racial but spiritual. Not about inferior values but about a radical strangeness, strange to all the density of its past, where no voice with a familiar inflection comes through: a lunar, a Martian past.3

-Emmanuel Levinas


Levinas a chauvinist? To even pose the question in so direct a way risks resembling a sort of gossip. How can Levinas-the philosopher of the Other and of unconditioned giving-have failed so miserably? Worse than gossip, the question itself is perhaps loaded. In conventional usage, the term chauvinist connotes unfair and often assumed privilege given to the same. Whether this unfair privilege is granted to my gender, my nation, my culture, or my x, in each case it involves what I most identify with by comparison to negatively judged others. As such, it seems we are justified in asking: what are we to make of Levinas's above statements in light of the explicit meaning his philosophy stakes out?

As far as I've been able to ascertain, Robert Bernasconi was the first to broach this problem in the scholarship. In "Who Is My Neighbor? Who Is the Other? Questioning 'the Generosity of Western Thought,'" Bernasconi performs a nuanced analysis of the problems that emerge in relating Levinas's ethics to his dismissive references to other cultures. Bernasconi ultimately concludes that "if there is an answer in Levinas to the question of what judges cultures, it remains the classical Enlightenment answer, the idea of the West."4 Critchley concurs and hints that Eurocentrism "loom[s] large" in the overall problems of Levinas's politics.5 Sikka, too, insists that Levinas "privileges a particular culture in an insufficiently critical, and therefore irresponsible, manner."6 Finally, Ma, following McGettigan, asserts: "Levinas's ethics cannot be accepted as a neutral philosophical construction."7 But is there such a thing as a neutral philosophical construction? And what is responsibility such that Levinas fails at it here? Can we propose answers to these questions without straightaway performing prejudice? If we are irreducibly "cultural" beings, and if one persistent problem with European philosophy is its very claims to culture-transcending truth, it isn't clear that "neutral philosophical constructions" exist. One cannot, of course, retreat to some willy-nilly relativism or abstractly reject all context-transcendence to avoid the problem at hand. Indeed, will-to-power, the Seinsfrage, diffe?rance, 'care of the self,' etc. all make specific claims for what it means to mean (and not mean), claims that are potentially universal in scope. (Is Hinduism a species of the 'metaphysics of presence'? Buddhism a life-denying nihilism? Islam a biopolitical terror? etc.). Or take more self-consciously particularist traditions: if Confucianism "is a rather typical non-universalism, even though it does believe that its own doctrines are indeed the ultimate truth," then how do we interpret these truths in relation to the Yi,or "barbarian"?8 What does it mean to be a typical 'non-universalism'? Such questions suggest that the problem of prejudice in inter-cultural relations is more difficult then we normally assume. If we are to evaluate Levinas fairly, we must have some sense of what it means to be unprejudiced in an irreducibly inter-cultural world. Levinas's ethics in fact attempts an account of how this is possible, and this makes the question of his alleged chauvinism all the more pressing.

Levinas scholarship has presented three strategies for interpreting his apparently chauvinist statements. …

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