Botwinick, Aryeh. Emmanuel Levinas and the Limits to Ethics: A Critique and a Re-Appropriation

By Marder, Michael | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Botwinick, Aryeh. Emmanuel Levinas and the Limits to Ethics: A Critique and a Re-Appropriation


Marder, Michael, The Review of Metaphysics


BOTWINICK, Aryeh. Emmanuel Levinas and the Limits to Ethics: A Critique and a Re-Appropriation. New York: Routledge, 2014. xiii + 248 pp. Cloth, $118.33--Aryeh Botwinick's new book is a refreshing addition to the Levinas scholarship for at least three reasons. First, the author's thought is not overpowered by Levinas's own peculiar conceptual vocabulary, as happens in much of secondary literature. Instead, Botwinick is able to carry out a lucid analysis and maintain critical distance to the discussed materials throughout his work. Second, and relatedly, Botwinick's dual expertise in the history of Western philosophy and in Jewish religious thought allows him to compare Levinas's insights, in equal measure, to Plato and Maimonides, Rabbi Akiva and Machiavelli, Rawls and Rashi, among many others. Third, the explicit alignment of Levinas's ethics with key texts of classical liberalism betokens a high degree of intellectual honesty. Unlike other commentators, such as Adriaan Peperzak,

Botwinick does not tacitly impute liberal features to the Levinasian Other, but avows a substantial reading of Levinas through the prism of classical liberalism. Indeed, he argues that "an egoistically-grounded liberal ethics is ethically superior to Levinasian ethics." Whether one agrees or disagrees with this argument, it is necessary to acknowledge its rigorous, thought-provoking, and critically vibrant development in Emmanuel Levinas and the Limits to Ethics.

Divided into ten chapters, the book alternates between a thematic treatment of ethical and metaethical issues stemming from Levinas's thought and a series of comparative studies that relate Levinas's thought to that of other philosophers and Talmudic scholars, both ancient and modern. To set the tone for his approach, Botwinick explores the "routes to the ethical" that have guided Levinas's philosophy. Botwinick demonstrates how the Same continues to serve as the ultimate point of reference in place of the Other, and how the notion of infinity obfuscates more than it reveals, to the extent that it relies on a "rhetoric of religious thought and practice," rather than on a sound philosophical argument. As a result, the primacy of the ethical in Levinas is far from assured: epistemology triumphs in the form of a negative hermeneutics (as a variation on negative theology) and in the guise of consistent skepticism that must be also skeptical toward itself.

Further instances wherein the discourse of the Other reverts to the Same abound throughout the book. For example, the concept of power in Machiavelli is said to display the same ambiguity as the Levinasian Other, "poised somewhere between tautology and objective description. …

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