The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, by Michael M. Morgan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 259 pp. $24.99.
Much has been written in praise of Michael Morgan’s previous book Discovering Levinas (2007). The book has correctly been hailed as having filled an important gap in Anglo-American readership of Levinas. In his former book, Morgan strives to connect and relate Levinas with Anglo-American philosophy. Morgan’s recent book, The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas (2011), is a further helpful contribution to Levinas scholarship, although it is admittedly an abridged and revised version of the former.
Morgan opens the first chapter of both books through a reading of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a favorite literary reference for Levinas toward the end of his career. This exposition is a helpful portrayal of Levinas’s ethical concerns in a nutshell. Morgan’s opening presentation of Levinas’s ethics through Grossman’s novel is both original and sensitive and offers a glimpse into Levinas’s unique philosophy. Nevertheless, although this chapter worked well in the previous book, the repetition of this episodic appeal to Grossman’s novel in the first chapter of an introductory book is not an obvious choice. Morgan chooses to plunge into the depths of Levinas’s ethical metaphysics early on, hoping that new-comers will bear with him.
The second chapter deals with questions of Levinas’s method and approach to ethics, offering an extensive discussion of the face-to-face relationship. The main issue Morgan explores is whether the face-to-face relation is a transcendental condition for the possibility of meaningful experience or a concrete experience that is empirically produced in everyday life. Morgan presents both arguments comprehensively, balancing between commentators who offer interpretations for the different readings. The chapter discusses Levinas’s face-to-face in its relation to phenomenology and to transcendental philosophy, leading to an understanding that Levinas, similarly to Wittgenstein, does not fit comfortably into conventional descriptive categories.
Chapters Three and Four deal primarily with ideas central to Totality and Infinity and other essays dating from around its publication. Chapter three deals with the ethical content of the face, focusing on the self’s encounter with the other as that which bestows priority to ethics over language and community. Morgan mentions Bernard Williams’ reference to “thick” moral concepts as a helpful term in understanding Levinas’s “face,” as well as Stanley Cavell’s concept of “acknowledgment” as exceeding the scope of knowledge. Morgan then turns to Levinas’s later writing and the new terms associated with the face, such as obsession, substitution, and hostage. Chapter Four once again takes up the way the face is primordial, whether as transcendental or as occurring within everyday life. The focus here is on Levinas’s treatment of philosophy as totality and the role of infinity in breaching it. Morgan starts by structuring the discussion around modernist and postmodernist outlooks, relating them to Levinas’s concepts of totality and infinity. The discussion addresses Descartes’ famous third meditation, which Morgan relates to Charles Taylor’s treatment of shame and Franz Rosenzweig’s critique of totality.
Chapter Five deals with subjectivity, presenting Levinas’s early and later versions as essentially continuous. Morgan does not see a rift between the versions but rather a development. He presents the later version as Levinas’s effort to rethink rather than replace anthropocentrism. In Morgan’s view, Levinas at first presents the self as existing prior to the face-to-face and later argues that the self is always already in a social setting. How the difference between these views is to be reconciled is not addressed.
Chapter Six concerns the relationship between God and ethics. Morgan investigates Levinas’s appropriation of religious and theological language. Once again Morgan is of the view that Otherwise than Being elaborates and develops what appeared earlier in Totality and Infinity, rather than changes his position.
Chapter Seven looks at time and history. Morgan surveys Levinas’s early treatment of time in Time and the Other. He tries to make sense of Levinas's discussion of objective and subjective time and of the importance of the future for Levinas’s thought, especially as it appears in eschatology of Totality and Infinity. The second part of the chapter turns to Levinas’s later works, which relate predominantly to the idea of the immemorial past and its ethical implications.
Chapter Eight focuses of Levinas’s idea that Western culture unites the biblical and Greek intellectual heritage, mainly through a reading of the relation between Judaism and humanism in Difficult Freedom. Morgan also discusses the role of the great political upheavals of the twentieth century for Levinas. He shows how these prompted Levinas to reject all attempts at theodicy on account of the dissonance between our intellectual faculties and the reality of suffering and evil. Morgan further discusses Levinas’s stand on education, Messianism, and Zionism.
In the final chapter Morgan makes the important point that Levinas’s thought is not only a moral philosophy, for the claim “ethics is first philosophy” is a claim about how we should understand human existence. He then outlines some of the major criticisms often raised against Levinas and suggests possible arguments in response.
There are two points which seem to me worth noting in light of the fact that this book strives at being an introduction to Levinas. First, although the book is aimed at an audience mostly familiar with the analytic tradition, Levinas’s thought is hard to grasp outside the context of historical motivations and development. This is especially relevant for considering Levinas’s lifelong contention with Heiddegger. In fact, many of his concepts are not coherent out of this context. Heidegger is mentioned sporadically throughout the book, but a clear exposition of Levinas’s reaction to and divergence from Heidegger is both crucial and yet missing in this introduction.
The second comment is methodological. Morgan has addressed this book to those coming to Levinas for the first time. As he himself admits, he found Levinas’s work “impenetrable” earlier on in his career and put it aside after managing only a few pages. Levinas’s writings are often marked by hyperbole, exaggeration, and paradox, which may exasperate and confuse—so the challenge here is clearly to simplify and unravel. Unfortunately, in my opinion Morgan has achieved only partial success in simplifying Levinas for the first-time reader. It seems to me that the chapters lack a progressive quality which would present and explain basic concepts (such as totality, infinity, the face, the other) before moving on to elaborate these themes. Many of Levinas’s central concepts are often used in passing from the start, only to be clarified later. This assumes reader resilience or prior acquaintance, which would seem inconsistent with the book’s aim and target audience. Even so, the fact that many chapters could stand alone as independent essays has benefits of its own.