Page 121 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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GIBBS/LEVINAS AND JEWISH THOUGHT
113
which first appeared in French in 1981. It gives an overview
of Levinas’s life and of his major philosophical works. It is not
an especially rigorous treatment of his thought, but for those
who want to get acquainted with the main themes and the vo­
cabulary it serves well.
What it introduces one to, ultimately, are the two major phil­
osophical volumes:
Totality and Infinity2
and
Otherwise than Being.3
These works are difficult but exciting and even revolutionary.
In
Totality and Infinity,
Levinas presents a phenomenology of
the face, the moment when someone looks at me. He argues
that I am responsible for the other person, but that the respon­
sibility is not symmetric. I am bound to the other, but I cannot
say that the other is similarly bound to me. Levinas rejects the
attempt to found ethics on reason and on universal obligations
or rights. He argues that this ethical moment, instead, is the
origin of reasoning and of speech. Thus the theory locates the
other person at the center of my responsibility, my speaking,
even my reasoning. The shift from myself as the subject who
thinks, acts, wills, to the other as the center of my concerns
is characteristic of postmodern thought. Levinas makes this shift
in a decidedly ethical way, daring to explore my vulnerability
to an other person. I am obliged independent of my own plans,
intentions, reflections, and so on. In a very real sense, Levinas
has provided a philosophical correlate to the notion of
chosenness — an election that makes me what I am and which
I cannot control. Through a phenomenology of perception and
language, Levinas discovers a philosophical account of being
chosen.
Totality and Infinity
also examines the person before and after
encountering an other. Levinas has an extensive discussion of
eros and sexuality which has sparked both negative and qual­
ified positive discussions from feminists (DeBeauvoir and
Irigaray, respectively). His account of femininity is hardly pro­
gressive, but it also raises philosophical and ethical issues about
the choice to not confront an other person, a choice which is
2.
Totalite et Infini.
4th Ed. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971 ( lsted . 1961).
Trans, by Alphonso Lingis as
Totality and Infinity.
Pittsburgh: Duquesne
University Press, 1969.
3.
Autrement qu’Etre ou Au-dela de I’Essence.
Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974.
Trans, by Alphonso Lingis as
Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.
The
Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981.