Ori­gins of the Oth­er: Emmanuel Lev­inas Between Rev­e­la­tion and Ethics

Samuel Moyn
  • Review
By – June 25, 2012

French-Jew­ish philoso­pher Emmanuel Lev­inas (1906 – 1995) was the most impor­tant eth­i­cal thinker of the 20th cen­tu­ry, as well as per­haps one of the great­est Jew­ish philoso­phers (along with Buber) since Mai­monides. An Ortho­dox Jew (though a rather het­ero­dox one) and a polit­i­cal pris­on­er in a Nazi-admin­is­tered labor camp, Lev­inas is hard­ly known at all in this coun­try, let alone in Jew­ish cir­cles. Moyn, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry, has writ­ten a thought­ful book on Levinas’s cen­tral con­cept, the Oth­er.” Lev­inas tried to describe an eth­i­cal face-to-face” rela­tion with the Oth­er, which, while imme­di­ate and sin­gu­lar, is nev­er­the­less tran­scen­dent. Respon­si­bil­i­ty for the Oth­er before one­self is what con­sti­tutes authen­tic­i­ty. After review­ing the influ­ence of Hei­deg­ger, Rosen­zweig and Mar­cel, Moyn makes the sur­pris­ing claim that Protes­tant the­ol­o­gy may have been the main source of Levinas’s con­cept of the Oth­er. A well-writ­ten, jar­gon­free schol­ar­ly study, Ori­gins Of The Oth­er is large­ly for the Lev­inas spe­cial­ist or devo­tee. The main lim­i­ta­tion of this book is that it only deals with Total­i­ty and Infin­i­ty and not Levinas’s sec­ond major mas­ter­piece, Oth­er­wise Than Being, in which Lev­inas fur­ther describes the face-to-face rela­tion­ship, sen­si­bil­i­ty, respon­si­bil­i­ty and speech, sub­jects per­ti­nent to under­stand­ing the his­to­ry of the Other.”

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