Page 123 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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mitment to think and to write even when no individual thought
or text, no attempt to tie it all together, no unified theory, is
capable o f enclosing the decisive experiences is again charac­
teristic of postmodern thought. Levinas offers philosophical re­
sources of the first rank in the continuing work of postmodern
Fortunately, a volume of shorter and generally more acces­
sible philosophical papers has recently appeared.
Collected Phil­
osophical Papers
,4provides us with a selection of important essays
from different periods in Levinas’s writing. We see the idea
o f the face and its challenge to me emerge in the essay “Freedom
and Command.” And then in the key discussion of “Philosophy
and the Idea of Infinity,” Levinas develops the idea that the
responsibility which is mine is the interruption of the infinite
into the world. In the face of the other I am called to serve
the other, and the more I serve, the more I am responsible,
the more my duties multiply. It is the recourse to metaphysics,
to the idea of infinity, which allows Levinas to avoid the op­
position of slave and master, because I may serve the other
freely only as a response to an infinity which is not opposed
to the finite.
In the longest of the essays in this volume, “Meaning and
Sense,” Levinas develops a theory of speech and language which
rests the power of signification — of one thing (a word) standing
for an other thing — upon the ethical responsibility I have for
the other person. Because I can be for the other, can suffer
for the other and give of myself for the other, speech allows
words to stand for others. This move switches away from a the­
ory where language is most of all a way of knowing the world,
or even one in which language is closed in itself and knows
only its own activities. The importance of Levinas’s move to
make ethics the model for language provides a postmodern eth­
ical view of language and of literature. Later in this essay, some
of Levinas’s relation to literary theory will be considered.
Levinas’s own problem with this ethical theory is that to write
about it is not the same as to do it, to give myself for the other.
One of his distinctive concepts is the trace. Levinas introduces
the trace in order to account for the absence of emphatic ev­
Collected Philosophical Papers,
trans. by Alphonso Lingis, Phaenomenologica,
Vol. 100. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1987.