Michael Fagenblat, A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism

Here is a great review of a great new book on Levinas. The book is not an introductory volume but if one has already read some Levinas and some essays about Levinas then this is one of the first books that one should pick up from a Jewish point of view. One of the local rabbi- educators even gave a shiur this summer telling over Fagenblat without attribution.

Michael Fagenblat, A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism, Stanford University Press, 2010, $24.95
Reviewed by Kenneth Seeskin, Northwestern University

In the Preface to this rich and thought-provoking study, Fagenblat raises a good question: “Another book on Emmanuel Levinas?” But it does not take long for the reader to see that this volume is definitely needed. According to Fagenblat, Levinas’s fundamental project was to develop a post-Heideggarian account of ethics, which means an account that retains the binding nature of our most basic ethical intuitions. In Fagenblat’s words:Levinas sought to restore a new sense of an unconditional ethical imperative that could not be dismissed as merely abstract, formal, ahistorical, inauthentic, and ontologically inadequate. He did this by developing a phenomenology of the moral imperative that was derived not from the fact of Reason but from the face of the Other. (p. xix)

Against Heidegger and much of twentieth-century philosophy, Levinas was firmly convinced, as Fagenblat puts it (p. 14), that ethical judgment is exercised over history and not simply within history.

The problem is that for Levinas, the face of the Other is completely transcendent and thus cannot be captured by description, explanation, or narration. As Fagenblat rightly observes (p. xx), it can only be respected or desired, loved or hated. That is why Levinas thinks ethics is first philosophy: it is the source of all meaning and intelligibility and cannot be derived from anything more basic. I will postpone the question of what type of ethics this approach produces until later. For the present, the important point is that, according to Fagenblat, Levinas reaches this conclusion not by conducting an exercise in pure phenomenology but by drawing on sources from Jewish tradition. What results is in fact “a coherent philosophy of Judaism” (p. xxii).

… As Fagenblat sees it, critics like Badiou, Butler, Janicaud, and Rose accuse him of sneaking in religious considerations by privileging “pious and dogmatic” assertions of a non-rational Law that is immune from philosophic critique. Alternatively, Gibbs and Batnitzky accuse him of abandoning revelation by privileging Plato’s “Good beyond Being” or Kant’s Primacy of Practical Reason. For those in the first group, Levinas has no real philosophy; for those in the second, no real Judaism.

Fagenblat argues that both groups miss the point. “It is not a matter of collapsing Judaism . . . into philosophical discourse but of insisting on the constitutive and permanent possibility for radical interpretation of one by the other.” (p. 13) Rather than accepting a sharp dichotomy between philosophy and Judaism or Athens and Jerusalem, Fagenblat’s Levinas provides “a philosophy of Judaism without and or between.” (p. 14) The result is a deep and nuanced discussion of Levinas,

More specifically, Fagenblat sees a “seismic shift” between the Levinas of Totality and Infinity — Levinas 1 — and the Levinas of Otherwise than Being — Levinas 2. Whereas Levinas 1 is content to give a broadly metaphysical account of agency and transcendence that Fagenblat discusses in connection with the problem of creation, Levinas 2 offers a post-metaphysical vision, which turns out to be nothing short of a “Judaic ethical negative theology.”

To apprehend God is not to achieve mastery over a system of interrelated concepts but to treat one’s neighbor with the respect that is owed her. In the words of Jean-Luc Marion (cited by Fagenblat on p. 127): theology “is no longer a matter of naming or attributing something to something but rather of aiming in the direction of . . ., of relating to . . ., of composing oneself towards . . ., of reckoning with . . . — in short, of dealing with . . .”

Needless to say, Levinas is not as overtly theological as Maimonides. Rather than a negative theology of God, we have what one might call a negative theology of the Other. Like God in negative theology, the Other overwhelms thought, resists classification, and cannot be identified by a system of interrelated concepts. As Fabgenblat sees it, transcendence for Levinas is not something the intellect can grasp by means of properties or predicates; it is never positive and has no identifiable essence.

The most authentic response to transcendence is humility, which merits a whole subsection in Fagenblat’s Chapter 4. “Ethical negative theology,” he writes, “is a spiritual exercise that negates knowledge so as to acknowledge the Other.” (p. 118) It acquaints us with the finitude and partiality of anything that can be grasped by means of concepts. As Fagenblat observes, humility is a primary instance of Maimonides’ departure from Aristotle. Humility, or what Maimonides terms “lowliness of spirit,” is thus the negative theological virtue par excellence.

Let us now return to the question mentioned above: what kind of ethics does this approach give us? Classic thinkers like Aristotle, Kant, and Mill produced well-articulated theories with discussions of method, analysis of concepts, and elaborate accounts of the virtues.
If Fagenblat is right, we should not expect Levinas’s ethics to be anything like theirs, and indeed it is not. So let us ask our question again: what kind of ethics is this that defies explanation and description? Put otherwise, if the Other is as unknowable as Levinas insists, can there be an ethics at all? The ultimate outcome of Maimonides’s negative theology is a Jobian-like silence in the presence of God. Is this all Levinas wants for the Other?

As Fagenblat asks, “Without a more or less determined historical horizon of others, can ethics be anything more than subjective individualism and abstract humanism?” (p. 180) The question is particularly telling because subjective individualism and abstract humanism are exactly what Levinas set out to avoid. Again we face a Scylla and Charybdis situation. To the traditional theologian, Levinas has replaced God with the Other. To the traditional ethical theorist, he has replaced a constructive account of our moral intuitions with the dogmatism of the face.

Fagenblat responds by saying that for Levinas there are no formal ethical concepts and no pure ethical intuitions. Instead what we have is an account of the historical conditioning of our concepts and the hermeneutical character of our intuitions; in short, “a descriptive [i.e. phenomenological] argument about who we are” (p. 196).

As for Fagenblat, by any relevant criterion — depth, clarity, originality, or scholarly integrity — this book is first rate. Read the full review here.

3 responses to “Michael Fagenblat, A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism

  1. Is there a book or essay that one could recommend as an introduction to Levinas for a person like myself who has read one or two of Levinas’ essays but is not a professional philosopher. I did not understand what Levinas was saying and the few books I’ve tried to read about Levinas go over my head.

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