Levinas at Davos


Yesterday I mentioned Levinas’s impression of the Davos dispute from an interview with Francois Poire (it can be found in Is it Righteous to Be? Interviews with Levinas, 33ff).  In that same interview, here’s Levinas describing the play put on by the students in which he played Cassirer:

At that time I had an abdundance of black hair; we put a lot of white power on my hair in order to evoke the noble gray head of the master.  As for Bolnow [who played Heidegger]…I furnished him with the reply which to me seemed to caricture the eymological findings of Heidegger: “Because interpreting means to put a thing upside down.”

Levinas is asked if people felt a “great trembling” at Davos:

Certainly! Cassirer presented an order which was going to be undone.  Now one has a slanted perspective which perhaps falsifies memories.  I think that Heidegger announced a world that was going to be turned over.  You know who he would join three years later; one would have to have had the gift of prophesy to sense this already at Davos.  I have thought for a long time–in the course of those terrible years–that I had felt it then, in spite of my enthusiasms.  The value judgments of them have necessarily changed over time.  And during the Hitler years I reproached myself for having preferred Heidegger at Davos.

And here’s Levinas discussing what Davos represents philosophically:

At that time, it probably represented the end of a certain humanism, but perhaps today a fundamental antinomy and profound antiquity, of civilization and of philosophy.  And the eternal reply of Cassierer, a humanist of refined and patrician manner, neo-Kantian, glorious disciploe of Hermann Cohen, modern interpreter of Kant, takng the intelligibility of the sciences as his point of departure, very similar to our master Leon Brunschvicg; and like him, in the continuity of rationalism, the aesthetic and the political ideas of the nineteenth century.  Very removed from positivism and banal scientism, of course, but was persuaded…that mathematical invention was the inner life itself and that the thinking about an inevitable death is not a philosopher’s first thought.  But maybe today in minds like Blanchot’s–in a mind like Blanchot’s–two souls coexist and converse which anywhere else do not understand each other or hardly listen to each other.

Levinas goes on to discuss Heidegger, but the reference to Blanchot above is interesting.

6 thoughts on “Levinas at Davos

  1. I was looking for some of these quotes six years ago, and had a brief exchange about it then. You can still access it if you google “Damian Veal Levinas”, but I doubt it contains anything you have not subsequently discovered for yourself.

    Also, for what it’s worth, here’s my very brief take on the Davos dispute I included in an encyclopedia article on Cassirer published in 2005 (it alludes to the Levinas quote you cite here):

    In the spring of 1929 Cassirer participated in a legendary public disputation in Davos, Switzerland, with the then rising star of the German philosophical world, Martin Heidegger. Attended by a dazzling array of Europe’s leading contemporary and future philosophical luminaries, including Leon Brunschvicg, Rudolf Carnap, Jean Cavaillès, and Emmanuel Levinas, this event is now regarded — as indeed it was at the time — as representing a decisive ‘parting of the ways’ in twentieth century thought. Framed in terms of a debate over the proper interpretation of Kant’s critical philosophy, the real crux of this disputation was a clash between two radically opposed visions of human existence and of the tasks of philosophy. Cassirer, one of the few public defenders of the Weimar Republic, emphasises man’s reason and self-legislative freedom, his ability to transcend the immanence of life and to participate in the infinite and the universal through the manifold forms of human culture, philosophy being understood in terms of a classically Kantian vision of the ‘infinite tasks of reason’. Heidegger, who breathes not a word about reason, instead foregrounds man’s essential and irremediable finitude, his ‘thrownness’ into a world of ‘idle chatter’, philosophy being called upon to rouse man from his inauthenticity and to confront him with the nullity of his existence and the hardness of his fate. Given the prevalent mood of yearning for novelty characteristic of the times, especially amongst the younger generation, it is perhaps unsurprising that it was Heidegger who was popularly taken to have carried the day. Participants wrote of how they felt they had borne witness to the end of one epoch and the beginning of another, with the liberal tradition of classical Enlightenment humanism represented by Cassirer giving way to a revolutionary new era heralded by Heidegger’s darkly compelling rhetoric. When, only four years later, Heidegger became one of the first rectors of a German university to publicly and enthusiastically proclaim his allegiance to Hitler and National Socialism, that rhetoric quickly took on a cast less intriguingly foreboding than sheerly repellent, and Levinas was far from being the only one to reproach himself in later years for having preferred Heidegger at Davos. While the starkly contrasting philosophical and spiritual Weltanschauungen represented at Davos by Cassirer and Heidegger remain today as entrenched as ever, and the debate thereby initiated over the nature and function of reason unabated, the initial fervour in favour of Heidegger’s putative radicalism has long since yielded to a more nuanced philosophical appraisal, and it is arguably Cassirer rather than Heidegger whose thought continues to reveal a quite surprising philosophical contemporaneity.

  2. Hmm, by the way: I’m sure my original version had “as indeed it was by many at the time” rather than just “as indeed it was at the time”, but editors will make these inexplicable changes.

  3. Thanks, Damian.

    While the starkly contrasting philosophical and spiritual Weltanschauungen represented at Davos by Cassirer and Heidegger remain today as entrenched as ever, and the debate thereby initiated over the nature and function of reason unabated, the initial fervour in favour of Heidegger’s putative radicalism has long since yielded to a more nuanced philosophical appraisal, and it is arguably Cassirer rather than Heidegger whose thought continues to reveal a quite surprising philosophical contemporaneity.

    “Heidegger’s putative radicalism.” Nicely put, I think Cassirer would add “arrogance” and “romantic” to the mix. I think you’re correct about the “surprising philosohical contemporaneity” of Cassirer. It occurs to me that even with the proximity of Levinas with Heidegger, perhaps there’s a closer affinity with Cassirer.

  4. Hi Shahar. Thanks. I would of course be happy to use “arrogant” and “romantic” with reference to Heidegger, yes. I love that picture on the front of Gordon’s forthcoming book; it really complements this quote nicely:

    “on the one hand, this short dark-brown man, this fine skier and sportsman, with his energetic unflinching mien, this rough and distant, at times downright rude, person who, in impressive seclusion and deep moral seriousness, lives for and serves the problems he has posed for himself on the one hand — and on the other hand that man with his white hair, not only outwardly but also inwardly an Olympian with wide spaces of thought and with comprehensive sets of problem, with his serene features, his kindly courtesy, his vitality and elasticity and, last but not least, his aristocratic elegance.”

    I think you are right about Levinas being in many respects closer to Cassirer than to Heidegger, especially with regard to all that that the former two share regarding the importance of the (Kantian) infinite. If you read Cassirer’s criticisms of Heidegger (not only in the Davos exchange, but also in PSF Vol. 4) they in many respects anticipate those of Levinas, yet without all the sanctimoniousness and msyticism you get in the latter. I do not believe Levinas spent much time reading Cassirer, but that’s was his loss.

  5. that was his loss, even

    By the way, if anyone reads the above on Cassirer and Levinas, researches it, and then publishes a paper on it, be sure to acknowledge me, okay?😉 (There’s definitely a very interesting paper to be written on this, and I have even done the research for it, but I doubt I’ll ever have time to write it.)

  6. Last thing: I have posted on here before (on Meillassoux and Kant) and checked the box to receive follow ups, but never got any emails so didn’t realise that people had responded till about six months later when it came up in a search. I also didn’t receive an email this time, so am glad I checked back (actually Academia.edu notified me that someone in the States had put in the search ‘Damian Veal Levinas’, which reminded me ;-)).

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