Friday, April 18, 2008

Session 4: Ontology vs. metaphysics; sacred vs. holy.

(Discuss pp. 307 of Guwy interview to end.)

A: Ontology vs. Metaphysics

1. Ontology. We have said that ontology is the study of being, and that it has been taken to be the basis of all philosophy. There are important connections between truth (normally considered to be in the category of "epistemology") and ontology, as even a casual consideration will illustrate. If I say that something "is" and it is not, then what I have said is false. Being is broken down into essence and existence, for the purposes of analysis, though it seems impossible for a given entity to be deprived of existence and still have an essence. Essence is the quality possessed by a thing, usually conveyed by the use of adjectives; existence or lack of it answers not the question what something is but whether it is. I is odd, but not nonsensical, to say that all unicorns have but one horn, even though there are in fact no unicorns. Levinas, as we have noted, transgresses the traditional separation of these two aspects of being, essence and existence, since he describes the existence of entities has "tenacious," and as resisting change. This notion of being that resists change is, by the way, considered by Plato as more "real" than things that change. There seems to be an element of negativity in change, and as we have seen; in the dialectic of Hegel historical change has a positive and a negative element. Contrary to Platonic thought, Hegel makes change the the motor of history. Change is history, whereas being and nothingness when they are not "mixed" to produce change are empty abstractions, and not "real" in the sense that changing historical reality is real. The empirical or physical world is ever in flux. This brings us to the notion of metaphysics.

2. Metaphysics. Metaphysics is what is "beyond" (Greeek "meta") the physical (Greek physis). The world of science is comprised of the physical, giving rise to the physical sciences. Pythagoras, the early Greek mathematician and mystic thinker, seems to have thought that "everything is numbers," i.e. literally made up of numbers. Today mathematics is looked upon as a way of describing and measuring what exists, but numbers themselves are thought to be "for us" rather than an inherent quality of nature. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason maintained that metaphysics was profoundly flawed, since it allows reason to ask questions that reason cannot answer. Incapable of solid progress, metaphysics should be abandoned. (He developed this view largely on the basis of David Hume's destruction of the notion of causality. He had originally set out to save metaphysics from Hume's doubts; he ended up finding room for what he called "categorical imperatives" and maxims for living a moral life, but moves ethical theory to his critique of "practical" reason.
Levinas's thought may be described as metaphysical speculation that has taken an axiological (i.e. ethical) turn. But rather than being "beyond" the physical it might be better to say that is is on the hither side (the side closer to us) of the physical world. Children's questions (Mummy where did I come from? or Mummy when did we have me?) seem to be naturally metaphysical. It may be said that they have not yet "reduced" experience to the physical, or even that they do not distinguish sharply between physical and psychic or even spiritual phenomena. One stumbling block to readers of Levinas is that this philosopher does not assume that all thought, all reason, all truth, is derived from our experience of the physical world.

B: Sacred vs. Holy (or Saintly)

These terms are the translation of the French sacré and saint. They constitute the title of a small collection of Levinas's Talmudic Readings (Paris: Minuit, 1977). During the later years of his life (after his encounter with the mysterious rabbi "Shushani," who also taught Talmud to Elie Wiesel and then disappeared into South America), Levinas gave public Talmudic lessons on aggadic passages every Sunday. Some have been published, notably those given at the Colloques des intellectuells juifs de langue française organized by the French section of the World Jewish Congress. The volume in question contains five Talmudic lessons, and is preceded by a short author's foreword, in which Levinas explains that the title is really only properly applicable to the third (of five) piece, titled "Desacralization and Disenchantment," which is based on a text from the tractate Sanhedrin, 67a-68a (Bavli).
The above-mentioned work was combined with another short collection (Quatre Lectures talmudiques, 1968) and translated by Annette Aronowicz as Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990). This extremely reliable and readable translation chose to translate the binary opposites under consideration here as "sacred" and "holy," respectively. Her solution has become the standard one for these two key terms. I follow suit in my translations, though I believe I translate "histoire sainte" as "sacred history" simply because that is the usual expression in English. Though I concur with Aronowicz's solution, it may be useful to point out that another solution, more obvious perhaps, for "saint" would have been "saintly" rather than holy. I suspect that the term "saintly" was probably rejected because it has taken on a Catholic connotation difficult to ignore. But Edith Wyschogrod in her Saints and Postmodernism uses the term Saint in a broader context, specifically in discussing such French thinkers as Levinas and Blanchot. In any case, my point is that "saint" and "saintly" evoke the human being, however exceptional, whereas "holy" might be used in such contexts as holy ground, holy water, etc. Hence for the purposes of close scrutiny of the sacré/saint dichotomy in Levinas, I will contrast the sacred and the saintly.
Let us begin by considering this passage from Levinas's Desacralizaton and Disenchantment (Nine Talmudic Readings, op. cit., 141). "I have always asked myself if holiness [sainteté], that is, separation or purity, the essence without admixture that can be called Spirit and which animates the Jewish tradition--or to which the Jewish tradition aspires--can dwell in a world that has not be desacralized. I have asked myself--and that is the real question--whether the world is sufficiently desacralized to receive such purity. The sacred is in fact the half light in which the sorcery the Jewish nation abhors flourishes."
The sacred is the negative term, and it includes sorcery, mystery, enchantment (particularly in the strong sense of casting spells or black magic). It is also associated with place, the sacred grove, the numinous of paganism. The holy or saintly is in the domain of my idealized relation with the other, and it suggests dis-interestedness, kenosis, humility, a yielding to the other, movement toward the irenic. In a tentative way, let me conclude by saying that this distinction is essential to our understanding of Levinas's critique of certain aspects of religion, and that philosophical thought can be helpful in separating the magical, the irrational, the cruel and primitive from that aspect of the "metaphysical" that moves toward the heights, in a "transascendence," as Levinas describes it (a movement beyond and upward). It also plays an important role in Levinas's articulation of his critique of Heidegger's nationalistic romanticism, which is based on a sense of enrootedness and a mystique of "local color."

Friday, April 11, 2008

Session 3: Being vs. beyond being; person vs. thing.

(Discuss pp. 302-306 of Guwy interview.)

A: Being vs. beyond being

All we have said thus far about being is that it is the object of ontology, and that it has generated the logical axiom: "aut dei sunt aut non sunt." (Either the gods are, or they are not.) The form of this sort of sentence is such that it is always true, whatever is substituted for the word "gods." It is called the law of the excluded middle. This could also be expressed symbolically as -(p & -p), where - means "not" and & means "and". The German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) viewed being and nothingness as twin abstractions, and used them to fuel the engine of history, in the sense that they were positive and negative moments in a dialectic movement, sometimes characterized as thesis (positive) and antithesis (negative); these were then sublated or gone beyond ("aufgehoben," literally "put up") or preserved/destroyed, in a synthesis. The latter was then viewed positively, as a new thesis, generating a further antithesis and synthesis, etc. Another way in which positive and negative appear in Hegel is as the definition or limitation of the entity by what it is not.

Moving on into the 20th century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) laments the emptiness of the abstract notion of being, and appears at once to attack the notion of the subject (an abstract version of the human being) or of subjectivity, and to transplant aspects of it into "existence." He used the phenomenological ideas of this teacher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) to describe the way things present themselves to us, and described human-presence-in-the-world or Dasein (Da = there, sein - being) as a being-toward-death.

Levinas was a great admirer of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927), but became increasingly disenchanted as Heidegger embraced Nazism. While championing Heidegger's new philosophical idiom, his existential/phenomenological analyses and renewal of ontology, Levinas became critical of the neutral, impersonal tone, and with few exceptions a lack of interest in ethics (the notion of Mitsein, or being-with, remains largely undeveloped). Levinas proposed to base his philosophy not on ontology but ethics. He characterizes being, for example, not as a neutral abstraction, but as a "conatus essendi" (Spinoza), Latin for the effort of being to continue to be. Consider, for example the following passage from the author's introduction to Entre Nous (my translation).

"To be: already an insistence on being as if a 'survival instinct' that coincided with its development, preserving it, and maintaining it in its adventure of being, were its meaning. The tensing of being back onto itself, a plot in which the reflexive pronoun, -self, is bound up. An insistence before all light and decision, the secret of a savagery excluding deliberation and calculation, violence in the guise of beings who affirm themselves "without regard" for one another in their concern to be.
Origin of all violence, varying with the various modes of being: the life of the living, the existence of human beings, the reality of things. The life of the living in the struggle for life; the natural history of human beings in the blood and tears of wars between individuals, nations, and classes; the matter of things, hard matter; solidity; the closed-in-upon-self, all the way down to the level of the subatomic particles of which physicists speak. But behold! The emergence, in the life lived by the human being (and it is here that the human, as such, begins--pure eventuality, but from the start an eventuality that is pure and holy) of the devoting-of-oneself-to-the-other. In the general economy of being in its inflection back upon itself, a preoccupation for the other, even to the point of sacrifice, even to the possibility of dying for him or her; a responsibility for the other. Otherwise than being! It is this shattering of indifference‑-even if indifference is statistically dominant‑-this possibility of one-for-the-other, that constitutes the ethical event."

Notice the inclusion of the three modes of being: things, living beings, human beings. In all three modes of being (and the second mode of being seems to subsume and include the first, as the third does the previous two), it is possible to give a descriptive epithet to being: this hardness of being, excluding the other beings in an effort to continue to be. In the human being, however, Levinas discerns the possibility of something higher, and "otherwise" than being. Or beyond being.

What can be said about this "beyond being"? As a phenomenologist (from Greek "phaino" I show, and our old friend "logos"), Levinas cannot leave the world of appearances. Even what is beyond being shows itself, in his view, and the prime example of this is in the human face. But the face, while being what shows itself par excellence, paradoxically reveals what is hidden.

I remember that in conversation with Levinas after I had finished translating a work of his (Entre Nous), he remarked that he really did not like the cover of the original French edition, which had on the cover a rather realist portrayal of a portion of a face (forehead, nose, eyes). This plasticity was not what he meant by the face! he said. I am not sure whether he ever saw the cover of the English translation, which had on the cover... a photograph of Levinas's face.
There is a passage in that work (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, page 232) in which he makes his meaning clear.

(Levinas) "In Life and Fate, Grossman tells how in Lubyanka, in Moscow, before the infamous gate where one could convey letters or packages to friends and relatives arrested for "political crimes" or can get news of them, people formed a line, each reading on the nape of the person in front of him the feelings and hopes of his misery."
(Questioner) "And the nape is a face..."
(Levinas) "Grossman isn't saying that the nape is a face, but that all the weakness, all the mortality, all the naked and disarmed mortality of the other can be read from it. He doesn't say it that way, but the face can assume meaning on what is the 'opposite' of the face! The face, then, is not the color of the eyes, the shape of the nose, the ruddiness of the cheeks, etc."

The otherwise than being or beyond being only makes itself evident (less than evident) in the trace, the vestige, a disturbance in being. The trace of a passage. This is what is behind Levinas's choice of the rather unusual expression "Of God Who Comes to Mind" for one of his works (French De Dieu qui vient à l'idée, 1982/1986; trans. by Bettina Bergo, 1998). God who "comes to mind" is not God, but the only God we can ever know.

B: Person vs. thing

For the medieval thinker it would seem that we have overlooked the third category of entity: angels. If you ask a college student today what the opposite of the humanities are, he or she would probably answer, the sciences. But when that division of study arose during the Renaissance its pendant was Divinities. We should be aware of this important paradigm shift. The modern world is considered to be made up of persons and things.
In the area of religious thought, over the long term, it seems to be the case that the divine or sacred has moved from the thing (idol worship) to an enhanced version of the human being. Psalm 135:16 may be taken as an indication in Judaism of this shift ("They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not..."). Christianity has adopted a man-god position, theologically refined into a trinitarian concept of the divinity. Judaism, from Maimonides to Hermann Cohen, has expressed wariness with respect to a rather apparent anthropomorphism in the Tanach. Emmanuel Levinas has shown little interest in attempting to understand what he refers to somewhere as "la vie intime de Dieu," or the private life of God. As Mme Guwy notes in the interview that has been distributed to you (p. 308), Levinas "turns away from philosophical and theological theories that want results and answers."
In closing let me say that for ethical thought there can be no neat separation between persons and things, given the conditions of human existence. As the Lithuanian-born Rabbi Israel Salanter said, "A person should be more concerned with spiritual than with material matters, but another person's material welfare is one's own spiritual concern." This is sometimes stated as "My neighbor's material needs are my spiritual needs." The intermediary between the world of persons and things, via need, is money. It has been said that ובכל-מאדך might be interpreted as (You shall love the Eternal your God...) "and with all your money." The struggle for economic justice, whether we think it better advanced on a personal or a collective basis, owes its ethical relevance to this role of money as mediation between man and the world of things--from which we are not free.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Session 2: Same versus Other, Saying versus Said

(Discuss first 5 pages of Guwy interview.)

A: Same vs. Other
Continuing our original approach of clarifying the core concepts of Levinas through a simple system of binary oppositions, we are about to approach the contrast same/other. This dichotomy is in fact present in Greek philosophy, with the important difference that what drew the attention of Greek philosophers was the identity of same and other, in the sense that the same can be considered the other of the other. In short, these were logical concepts: part the Logos, which in Greek means, interestingly, both logic and language. (We see the appearance of logos in the sense of language in “logotherapy,” or the talking cure, developed by Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: in the sense of logic it appears in the various “ologies.” such as ontology (the logic of being, biology, the logic of living things…). What is new and vital to Levinas's philosophy the connection made between same and self, as opposed to other qua other person. If the foreigner, the stranger, is “other” to me, that “otherness” (also referred to as alterity) is all that is different than me. I am, for myself, the same. If I see something odd, disturbing or puzzling, I am likely to make every effort to integrate this unknown into what is already familiar to me. It may be said that I attempt to reduce otherness to the same. I may explore the object or person in question and end up concluding they are but new variants of what I already know. “I is only, or just, a new kind of ....” To know is to recognize. If it is a foreign language, I “master” it. I assimilate otherness, I make it my own. An acquisitive mind is one that acquires, or takes. I grasp your meaning, I “comprehend” it (from Latin cum + prehendere, to take [several things] together).

The fact that knowing is a form of taking or assimilating or mastering is of no particular moral significance when we are dealing with things. But with people it is otherwise. If this is what knowledge is, this imperialism of the self, leveling otherness to sameness, the question arises: “Is it appropriate to know another person?” Certainly we get used to other people, and there is a sense in which we get to know them. But perhaps the well-known phenomenon of the adolescent turning to a parent with an impassioned "You don't know me” really means—“You are trying to make me in into a variant of yourself. I am no longer that person you thought I was. I am alive. I change. I am not a thing to be understood. You imprison me in your knowing. I am what I become.” (Of course few adolescents would be able to articulate these things. The silence of separation does its tragic though perhaps necessary work of distancing young sensitivities from the tyranny of “understanding.”) Or consider the following excerpt from an essay on the novel Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, by Marguerite Duras. “This assertion by Hold that the two women's femininity is similar to his own could initially be read as evidence of a desire on his part to appropriate their radical alterity, to reduce the Other to the Same. Yet, far from seeking to deny sexual difference, to close the gaps which Lol has opened in his life (and in his discourse), Hold displays a remarkable willingness to hollow out the gap, to dig it deeper. He accepts unreservedly, for example, that « ne rien savoir de Lol était la connaître déjà. On pouvait, me parut-il, en savoir moins encore, de moins en moins sur Lol V. Stein » (p. 81). Seen in this light, the narrator’s statement that the voice of the women's femininity strikes a chord in him suggests that he is receptive to—rather than appropriative of—the otherness they represent.” (From Mairéad Hanrahan, « Je est une autre: Of Rimbaud and Duras », MLN 113.4 (1998) 915-936.) The French passage quoted above may be translated as: “to know nothing about Lol was already to know her. One could, it seemed to me, get to know even less, less and less about Lol V. Stein.”

This aspect of same vs. other in Levinas's philosophy has been described by Wlad Godzich as a reaction to the gnostic tradition (which is taken to underlie later forms, such as seventeenth-century rationalism, in the following terms. “The most consistent denouncer of the gnostic position in our day has been the French philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Lévinas, who, in a work that spans nearly fifty years, has rigorously argued for a notion of truth that is at considerable odds with the dominant rationalist one, a notion that relies upon the category—or, more accurately within the Lévinasian framework, upon lived experience—of the other. Against a notion of the truth as the instrument of mastery being exercised by the knower over areas of the unknown as he or she brings them within the fold of the same, Lévinas argues that there is a form of truth that is totally alien to me, that I do not discover within myself, but that calls on me from beyond me, and it requires me to leave the realms of the known and the same in order to settle in a land that it under its rule. Here the knower sets out on an adventure of uncertain outcome, and the instruments that he or she brings may well be inappropriate to the tasks that will arise. Reason will play a role, but it will be a secondary one; it can only come into play once the primary fact of the irruption of the other has been experienced. And this other is not a threat to be reduced or an object that I give myself to know in my capacity as a knowing subject, but that which constitutes me as an ethical being; in my originary encounter I discover my responsibility for the existence of the other, a responsibility that will lie at the root of all my subsequent ethical decisions” (Certeau, Michel de. Heterologies: Discourse on the Other. Theory and history of literature, v. 17. [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986], xv-xvi).

B: Saying vs. Said
This dichotomy was expressed in Levinas's original French as "le Dire" and "le Dit." It would be more literally but not necessarily better translated as "the To-Say" and "the Said," since the first element is the infinitive of the verb to say. This circumstance may be of some importance, since the "infinitive" form is thus called because it lacks such specifiers as person and number, and is thus less "finite" or defined than the conjugated forms. Indefinite rather than infinite, the form Dire (=to say) may well be related in Levinas's thinking to the infinite, since he wishes to express by it a pure enunciation or an intended utterance without the defining traits we are forced by the grammatical conventions of language to furnish. But leaving these considerations as for the moment, let us accept the fact that English uses the present participle form "saying" in place of the more literal "to say" as the first element of this conceptual opposition.

What is the Saying? Before we fall from silence into words, on the verge of speech, there is a nebulous intentionality we wish to convey or express. That pure intentionality is the saying. A possible example would be "Hello." What does it mean? It is a recognition of the other person. Just that. Of course timing and intonation, "affect," may nuance even this minimal acknowledgement of the other person. This undefined, indefinite or infinite acknowledgment of proximity to the other is the mother of pearl of speech, the placenta of whence the life of language issues. But the very fact that I can communicate these thoughts to you is dependent upon a different aspect of language, namely "the Said."

What is the Said in Levinas? It is the richness that is made possible by embracing definition, limitation, differentiation. Meaning thrives on context, and the excitement of the exploration of the logos, the concatenation of reasoning, the endless search for a more adequate expression of nuance--these are the aspects of language that engender all literature, poetry and philosophy.

But behind and at the source of the Said is the inexhaustible fecundity of a silent proximity to the other, endless approach, metaphysical desire that is only deepened ("creusé," says Levinas, dug deeper) by the Saying. "La monnaie de l'absolu," in André Malraux's phrase. Making change for the absolute.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Detailed Course Notes, Session I

Distribution of Guwy interview with Levinas.

1. Bio-bibliography; totality vs. infinity. See link to Levinas bibliography on left of this blog.

Emmanuel Levinas was born in Kaunas, or Kovno, Lithuania, in 1906, and died in Paris in 1995. He becomes a student at the University of Strasbourg in 1923, aged 18, and in the course of his studies does a semester in Freiburg, where he met and studied briefly under Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and Martin Heidegger, who became much better known after 1927, when he published Sein und Zeit, or Being and Time, in which he developed his Existenzphilosophie, or philosophy of existence, later known as existentialism, a term used by a the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Levinas defended his thesis at the University of Strasbourg in 1930. It was titled The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's Phenomenology. In France in those days one did two theses, the "little thesis," and then a state thesis, which made one aggrégé, basically a state employee of the university system. But to do so you needed time for further study, and a reading knowledge of classical Greek, and to pass not an exam, but a "concours" or competitive exam in which only the top contenders or "winners" were accepted, according to the number of vacancies. Levinas did not have the money for that. Another factor may have been his desire to remain close to Judaism. He chose instead to take a job as student supervisor, petty adminsitrator and part-time teacher of philosophy at the AIU (Alliance Israélite Universelle). I have here a copy of Les Cahiers, which is the name of their official publication, dated 1996, in which a former student (Ami Bouganim) under Levinas there wrote a piece tited "Lévinas Pédagogue," a short excerpt of which I translate here. In this passage, Bouganim describes a Sunday course on Rashi, open to the general public and not yet very large. "A pupil, seated in front of him, with his back to the public, would read the text, and this great admirer of Rashi took a mischievous pleasure in covering no more than two or three verses in an hour to show the richness of the Torah, and to savor at leisure the genius of its commentator. He took delight in commenting on the text, surprised at rediscovering with us what in a sense he was putting into it. A magician of meaning, for the glory of Rashi and our happiness." Bouganim then proceeds to quote (from memory, apparently) what he calls "that key phrase." "In order for the permanent values of Judaism, contained in the great texts of the Bible, the Talmud and their commentators, to be able to nourish our souls, they must again nourish our minds." Of the authors Bouganim read with Levinas in the philosophy course he says, "those writers Monsieur Levinas presented to us have not ceased soliciting us. Those encounters seemed to say that even when doubts had invaded everything and an eclipse passed over God, and we found ourselves without a sky above our heads, we could still inhabit the texts.... Monsieur Levinas encouraged us, in the spirit of Maimonides, to take to philosophy the better to come to terms with our Jewish perplexity..."

When Levinas was taken prisoner (1940-1945) and sent to a work camp as a woodcutter in the Black Forest with other French Jewish soldiers (Levinas had been serving as a German interpreter in the French army) , he discovered to his horror on his release that his two younger brothers and both parents had been murdered in Lithuania by Nazi collaborators. His wife Raïssa (the daughter of his neighbors in Kovno, whom he had married in 1935) and his daughter Simone had been hidden by his friend Maurice Blanchot in a convent, and survived. Shortly after the war Levinas had a son, Michaël, who is now a noted French composer who lives in Paris. Levinas returned to working at the A.I.U., and was made director of the École normale israélite orientale (E.N.I.O.), a school whose mission was mainly to educate Jews from North Africa. He lived in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, in Auteuil, close to the school.

There are several works extant on Levinas's biography. The most thorough is Emmanuel Levinas by Marie-Anne Lescourret, apparently not yet translated (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), and Soloman Malka, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2006). Levinas eventually taught at Nanterre (1967-1972), and then Paris IV (1973-1976), till his retirement. He spoke at Johns Hopkins University, visited Canada on one occasion, went to Switzerland to participate in yearly meetings with Christian theologians. By and large, however, it is my view that he was never particularly comfortable in the academic world by the time it became open to him. His most intense and perhaps happiest intellectual moments seem to have been in writing philosophy books and essays and in company of close friends. He seems not to have been much stimulated by polemics. But I will say no more in a systematic way about Levinas's life for the moment, though I may return to it casually from time to time as it relates to the subject matter, because I would like us to use our time focusing on Levinas's philosophical thought itself.

Levinas's two major theses are Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (1961), and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974)The Greek vs. the Judaic side of his writings, and their interrelatedness.Talmudic Readings. Hegel (1770-1831) and the Totality--Closure, finitude, system, organic whole, organism.The notion of Infinity--Openness, endlessness, אין סוףWhat is at stake for Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and then for Emmanuel Levinas in the difference between these two terms? Subjectivity.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Session One Notes: 4/2/08

Who is Emmanuel Levinas? He was rather discreet about the biographical details of his life, though there has been a fair amount gathered in the course of interviews. At the end one of his works, Difficult Freedom, there is a biographical piece titled “Signature.” It is prefaced by the following conversation, which Levinas says he overheard in the subway.
“The language that tries to be direct and name events fails to be straightforward. Events induce it to be prudent and make compromises. Commitment unknowingly agglomerates men into parties. Their speech is transformed into politics. The language of the committed is encoded.”
“Who can speak in a non-coded way about current events? Who can simply open his heart when talking about people? Who shows them his face?”
“The person who uses the words ‘substance,’ ‘accident,’ ‘subject,’ ‘object,’ and other abstractions…”
I did not realize until I began thinking about my question-title for this mini-course why Levinas placed that mysterious bit of conversation, inspired by the muse of the métro, at the beginning of his biographical note. I now think it was as if to say: “My most personal self (not necessarily the one my neighbors knew, nor even my close family) is expressed in my philosophical writings.” He might then have gone on to correct the false impression that his “Talmudic Readings” are not, in a sense, a part of his philosophical writings, since for him the Talmud represented precisely the endeavor to prolong and go beyond (see his Beyond the Verse) the biblical verses by reason.

1. Bio-bibliography; totality vs. infinity. See link to Levinas bibliography on left of this blog.
Levinas's two major theses:
1. Totality and Infinity (1961)
2. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974)
The Greek vs. the Judaic side of his writings, and their interrelatedness.
Talmudic Readings

Hegel (1770-1831) and the Totality--Closure, finitude, system, organic whole, organism.
The notion of Infinity--Openness, endlessness, אין סוף
What is at stake for Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and then for Emmanuel Levinas in the difference between these two terms?

Course Schedule and Meeting Topics

Adult Education Spring Offering
Who is Emmanuel Levinas? A four-session presentation by Riverdale Temple member Michael Smith of the work of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995). Each session will begin with a 15-20 minute presentation of an aspect of that author’s thought; the rest of the session will consist in class discussion. Session content: 1. Bio-bibliography; totality vs. infinity. 2. Same vs. other, saying vs. said. 3. Being vs. beyond being; person vs. thing. 4. Ontology vs. metaphysics; sacred vs. holy.
The mini-course follows closely my book on this subject: Toward the Outside: Concepts and Themes in Emmanuel Levinas (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2005), a copy of which will be placed on reserve in the Riverdale Temple Library.
Class meeting times. 8:15 PM to 9:30, April 2, 9, 16 and 30 (Wednesdays)
Place: 4545 Independence Ave., Bronx, NY 10471 Tel. (718) 548-3800