Morgan, Michael L. Levinas's Ethical Politics

By Cohen, Richard A. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Morgan, Michael L. Levinas's Ethical Politics


Cohen, Richard A., The Review of Metaphysics


MORGAN, Michael L. Levinas's Ethical Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016. xix + 410 pp. Paper, $40.00--Michael Morgan's second book on Levinas supplements his first, Discovering Levinas (2007), by moving from ethics to politics, an itinerary first traveled by Plato and Aristotle and apt for Levinas who for all his radical contemporaneity remains closer to classical reason than to modern rationality. The present book, like the first, is primarily an epistemological inquiry, driven by exposition, argumentation, and truth-value adjudication. It engages the usual eminent thinkers of the Western and Jewish intellectual canon, who are also Levinas's interlocutors, as well as more recent political theorists such as Raymond Geuss, James Nickel, Charles Beitz, and James Griffen.

Morgan, a distinguished professor and prolific author in both philosophy and Jewish studies, concentrates quite fittingly on the same in Levinas, who himself was seamlessly both philosopher and Jewish thinker. The book is neatly organized, beginning with part 1, "Overview," which is comprised of two introductory chapters, one on philosophy and the other on Jewish topics. Part 2, "Philosophical Articulation," takes up the former in four chapters: "The Third Party: Transcendental Ethics and Realistic Politics," "Ethics as Critique," "Responsibility for Others and the Discourse of Rights," and "Liberalism and Democracy." Part 3, "Ethics, Politics and Zionism," pursues the Jewish line, also in four chapters: "Teaching Prophetic Politics: Ethics and Politics in Levinas's Talmudic Lessons," "Zionism and the Justification of a Jewish State," "Ethics, Politics, and Messianism," and "Levinas's Notorious Interview."

The last chapter by itself would make the book worthwhile. It provides a much needed brief and reckoning concerning the lamentable controversy that followed a few remarks Levinas made during a radio interview of September 28, 1982, about the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres in Lebanon, which had occurred just days earlier. Morgan judiciously exposes the distorting biases and outright errors of the several commentators--especially Howard Caygill, who misreads Levinas, and Judith Butler, who misquotes him--zealous to excoriate the ethical Levinas for being unethical (mimicking--but still as tragedy--Derrida's earlier detournement of 1964 exposing Levinas's pacific ethical discourse as violent).

The book favors topics current in Anglo-American political theorizing: rights, liberalism, democracy, and law. Textually punctilious, Morgan presents Levinas as defender of "liberal democracy," whereas a more sensitive reading, I think, would have discovered behind this term the "social democracy" that Levinas actually supports. Regarding democracy and the future of justice, the impact of Mendelssohn's Jerusalem is overestimated, whereas the influence of Buber's Pathways in Utopia and Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia is missed, as is the profound import of Bergson's Two Sources of Religion and Morality, especially its concluding pages.

Familiar with the full range of Levinas's writings, Morgan's exposition is diligent, as is his assessment judicious, a welcome tonic in Levinas studies, which have for too long suffered from postmodernist impositions. …

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