"Before the Face of God One Must Not Go with Empty Hands": Transcendence and Levinas' Prophetic Consciousness

By Katz, Claire | Philosophy Today, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

"Before the Face of God One Must Not Go with Empty Hands": Transcendence and Levinas' Prophetic Consciousness


Katz, Claire, Philosophy Today


While the structure and the bare content of prophetic consciousness may be made accessible by an attitude of pure reflection, in which the concern for their truth and validity is suspended, the sheer force of what is disclosed in such reflection quietly corrodes the hardness of self-detachment. The magic of the process seems to be stronger than an asceticism of the intellect.... In the course of listening to their words one cannot long retain the security of a prudent, impartial observer.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (xvii)

Let justice well up like water,

Righteousness like an unfailing stream.

(Amos 5:24)1

And they shall beat their swords into plow-shares

And their spears into pruning hooks

Nation shall not take up

Sword against nation;

They shall never again know war.

(Isaiah 2:4)

Here I am; send me

(Isaiah 6:8)

Emmanuel Levinas' 1934 essay "Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism" warned us of precisely what others were unable to see, much less admit: Hitlerism was not simply an accident of evil, the acts of a "sick" man.2 Rather, its underlying logic permeates a type of thinking that puts into jeopardy, "the very humanity of man" (Levinas, 199Ob, 71). In this essay, Levinas reveals the two poles of thinking that provide the context for the tension between immanence and transcendence both as traditionally understood.

In 1990, fifty-six years after the essay first appeared in French, an English translation of the essay was published in Critical Inquiry. In a prefatory note, written expressly for the translation and republication of the essay, Levinas asks: "Does the subject arrive at the human condition prior to assuming responsibility for the other man in the act of election that raises him up to this height?" The prefatory note appears anachronistic because of his references to "election" and "responsibility to the other man," themes that emerge only later in his writings.3 This early essay tackles the dual problems of classical transcendence and immanence.4 How then could this essay be about ethics, a term not only absent in this early work, but also not mentioned until 1961 in Totality and Infinity?5 The claim that this prefatory note is anachronistic assumes that Levinas' interest in transcendence and immanence is simply philosophical-the result of a conceptual problem or puzzle in the history of philosophy that he needed to address. Further, this concern with transcendence might also suggest that Levinas' interest in ethics was not a primary concern; rather, it was a secondary concern, the result of seeing the ethical relation as the solution to the problem of immanence and transcendence.

Is the relationship between Levinas' early work and his later work simply the relationship between the posing of a philosophical question and finding its answer? In contrast to the view sketched above, this essay argues that Levinas' philosophical work follows a continuity of thought from his early concerns in the 1930s expressed in his essay on Hitlerism to his final works in the 1970s and 80s. My claim is that although we can mark changes in his use of vocabulary and the emphasis he places on different themes, his concern for and interest in ethics, religion, and social justice not only underlie all of his work, but motivate it. This paper proceeds as follows. I first examine Levinas' essay, "Philosophical Reflections on Hitlerism," in order to track the initial framing of the philosophical concern regarding the problematic relationship between immanence and transcendence. I then turn briefly to Levinas' 1946/47 lecture course, published as Time and the Other and his essay "The Trace of the Other" in order to suggest that Levinas' conception of time as the relationship to the Other is his solution to the problem of finding a middle way between immanence and transcendence. Finally, I turn to the notion of the prophetic in Judaism and Levinas' employment of the prophetic, especially in his later work, in order to suggest that his concern for ethics and social justice permeates his work from its beginning in the 1930s until his death in 1995. …

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