Lev­inas and the Cri­sis of Humanism

Claire Elise Katz
  • Review
By – January 14, 2013

Accord­ing to the author, a philoso­pher of edu­ca­tion, The aim of this book is to trace Levinas’s philo­soph­i­cal project, which describes a rad­i­cal revi­sion of eth­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, and the nec­es­sary role his essays on Jew­ish edu­ca­tion play in the suc­cess of that project.” Put suc­cinct­ly, Katz’s goal is to illu­mi­nate the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­i­ty for an indi­vid­ual to receive an edu­ca­tion that can make him an eth­i­cal sub­ject, that is, a per­son who main­ly puts being for the oth­er before being for one­self. As Lev­inas says, respon­si­bil­i­ty is the fun­da­men­tal struc­ture of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty,” and the ide­al in his phi­los­o­phy is to be a per­son who cul­ti­vates good­ness” or holi­ness” as his exis­ten­tial base. Good­ness,” says Lev­inas, con­sists in tak­ing up a posi­tion such that the Oth­er counts more than myself.” Katz believes that it is Levinas’s writ­ings on Jew­ish edu­ca­tion that best illu­mi­nate the nuts and bolts of how to trans­form a per­son from main­ly being for him­self’ to being for the oth­er” before one­self in his exis­ten­tial ori­en­ta­tion.

To accom­plish her task, Katz reviews main­ly Levinas’s so-called Jew­ish writ­ings as opposed to his for­mal philo­soph­i­cal works, though the lat­ter are infused with a Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty and ref­er­ences. For Lev­inas, Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, and by this he main­ly means the rig­or­ous study of Tal­mud, is the roy­al road” to eth­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. For as Lev­inas says what makes Judaism so spe­cial is: The har­mo­ny achieved between so much good­ness and so much legal­ism con­sti­tutes the orig­i­nal note of Judaism.” Thus to Katz’s ques­tion, What would [sec­u­lar] edu­ca­tion look like if we rethought it in light of Levinas’s con­cerns?” the answer seems to be for those who are charged with edu­cat­ing our chil­dren, to embrace a Lev­ina­sisan cal­cu­lus that views the cul­ti­va­tion of good­ness” and holi­ness” in stu­dents as its gov­ern­ing par­a­digm.

While I found Katz’s book to be an inter­est­ing and worth­while read, it could have been deep­ened and strength­ened if it had addressed the fol­low­ing points such as: (1) What con­sti­tutes good­ness” and holi­ness” is con­text-depen­dent and set­ting-spe­cif­ic, that is, and how the eth­i­cal is instan­ti­at­ed is a judg­ment call, there­fore, who is to decide what con­sti­tutes the eth­i­cal? Trou­bling as it may be to some, to a sui­cide bomber and his com­mu­ni­ty, his killing oth­ers is a supreme eth­i­cal act of self-sac­ri­fice for the sake of the oth­er. (2) Katz does not show us what Lev­inas is say­ing that has not been said, and well researched in the psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly-based moral edu­ca­tion lit­er­a­ture. That is, there is a huge psy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture for exam­ple, on moral rea­son­ing, altru­ism and proso­cial behav­ior, empa­thy and the like that Katz does not inte­grate into her cen­tral argu­ment. Katz also does not show how what Lev­inas is say­ing is any dif­fer­ent than what many of the major reli­gions have been say­ing and doing for thou­sands of years. Name­ly, attempt­ing to cul­ti­vate in their fol­low­ers an eth­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of good­ness and holi­ness. (3) Katz does not show us how in the con­text of real life in the class­room, a teacher incul­cat­ed with a Lev­inasian sen­si­bil­i­ty would edu­cate chil­dren dif­fer­ent­ly than a human­is­ti­cal­ly ori­ent­ed mas­ter teacher.

Not with­stand­ing my crit­i­cisms of Katz’s book, Katz has raised some very impor­tant ques­tions for ped­a­gogues, edu­ca­tion­al schol­ars and par­ents con­cern­ing the val­u­a­tive attach­ments that could, or as Katz seems to believe, should under grid any edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence that aspires to cre­ate not only func­tion­al but decent human beings. For as Lev­inas said some­where, it is the teacher, both in the class­room and the home, and oth­er places too, who best express­es love as respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Oth­er: The oth­er is… the first ratio­nal teach­ing, the con­di­tion of all teaching.” 

Paul Mar­cus, Ph.D., a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is the author of Being for the Oth­er: Emmanuel Lev­inas, Eth­i­cal Liv­ing and Psy­cho­analy­sis and In Search of the Good Life: Emmanuel Lev­inas, Psy­cho­analy­sis and the Art of Living.

Discussion Questions