Emmanuel Levinas, photo by Bracha L. Ettinger

What do you want to talk about?

Will Essays 2 Comments

It is always interesting to get reviews, even if they are not entirely favourable — or perhaps particularly if they are not entirely favourable — and so I was pleased this morning to see that my book Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling  (the original title, incidentally, was the much nicer Troubled Tales, but Bloomsbury, alas, overruled me!), has had received an interesting, although somewhat ambivalent, review from Jeffrey Di Leo, over on the excellent Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Given the ambivalence of the review, and given that it is both careful and thoughtful, I thought it might be both fun and interesting to respond at length; but time at the moment is not on my side, and so I will have to leave such a response to a later date. Instead, I thought I’d update this blog with a few brief reflections. The first thing that I should say is that, at the age of forty-two, it is nice to be referred to as a “young philosopher.” But having said this, I start to worry that this compliment is perhaps a little double-edged. “Young,” of course, can also be understood as “naïve”. And if this is the suggestion, then I think that Di Leo is on to something, because there is something rather naïve about my project. My PhD dissertation, after all, back in 2007, was called Naïve Phenomenology: Thinking Ethics Through Stories, and I invoked the idea of naïveté back then in the hope that sometimes naïveté can get to places that sophistication cannot. I still think that this is true.

But leaving this on one side, what strikes me above all about Di Leo’s review is this:  he and I do not really want to talk about the same kinds of things. In other words, it seems to me that Di Leo wants to talk about Levinas’s philosophical development, about his place in twentieth century thought, about the relationship between Levinas and Derrida, and about the fine detail of the relationships that exist between Levinas’s various works. He also wants to talk about a number of errors that he has identified in the bibliography. And these, of course, are precisely the kinds of errors that I really should have picked up on (shame on me) and that I can only put down with a sigh to a certain naïve inattentional blindness to scholarly apparatus. All I can say here is that, having had these pointed out, in the unlikely event of a second edition they will be corrected. “Must try harder,” as my school reports used to say. And Di Leo also wants to talk about how this book reads as a kind of Bildungsroman, or philosophical coming-of-age story (which in a way it is, but only insofar as this is just one of the stories at play in the book, and far from the most important). Finally, he wants to talk about how developing some of my ideas in dialogue with contemporary narrative ethicists such as Martha Nussbaum, Stanley Cavell, and Alasdair MacIntyre might be fruitful. It is in relation to this last point that I have the strongest sense that here is something we both would like to talk about, although I’d like to throw into the mix anti-storytellers such as a Galen Strawson as well.

But whilst all of this made for interesting reading, it didn’t really touch on many of the things that I really wanted to talk about in the book. Instead, what I really wanted to talk about were all kinds of questions that didn’t appear in Di Leo’s reading of the book at all. I wanted to talk about the peculiarity of the commitment, shared by Levinas and by many of his commentators, to the notion that existence is inherently tragic. I wanted to talk about how this tragic vision might cramp our approaches to ethics. I wanted to talk about the weirdness of Levinas’s philosophical project in which, early on, he poses the problem of violence, and then much later  responds with the notion of violence that is set against violence as a solution. I wanted to say: no, this violence-against-violence is inadequate as a way of talking about ethics, and we need new approaches that are not to be found in Levinas, or in Derrida, or perhaps in this whole tradition of ethical reflection. I wanted to suggest ways it might be possible to reflect on ethics beyond this turbulent maelstrom. And I wanted to talk about how ethics is a matter not just of argument and counter-argument, but of life and lives (which is why I had the perhaps unfortunate habit of what Levinas himself called breaking through the “screen stretched between the author and the reader” and why the book might read like a simple account of philosophical development), and to suggest how texts about ethics might shape real, actual lives.

At the end of his review, Di Leo says, “this project raises more questions than it answers,” which pleases me immensely, because I always find questions more bracing than answers, although I’m aware that this, for a reader who might want answers, again this is something of a double-edged sword. He goes on to add, “Ultimately, this book is an account of one philosopher’s struggle to make sense of Levinas — and a record of what the author takes to be success.”

Here I find myself wanting to say that if this is what I seem to be talking about, it looks as if I have failed to get my message across. Because insofar as this book is an account of a struggle to make sense of Levinas, it is a only this to the extent that this making sense of Levinas might be a means to a further end. Call me naïve, but I have always seen philosophy as part of the struggle (part, I should stress, and not the whole of the struggle) to make sense of ethics, to make sense of life. And whilst Levinas has helped illuminate a great deal for me, I see him neither as the alpha nor as the omega of ethical reflection. I see Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling more as a marker on the way than as record of success — a marker that may prompt some readers, at least, into intriguing new directions.

As for success or otherwise, well… what can I say? In this struggle to make sense of life, it seems to me that success, at best, is only ever partial.

Comments 2

  1. I’m sitting in my warm home on this cold, dark winter evening in Switzerland, enjoying your website and blog. What a great discovery.
    Roger Scruton published an article recently in the New Statesman in which he claims that the essence of doing philosophy is raising questions, not providing answers. So well done to you for raising new questions about Levinas.

  2. Post

    Thanks, Paul! Glad you are enjoying the site and the blog. I’ll look up the Roger Scruton piece. Enjoy those cold, dark Swiss winter evenings!

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