Levinas as a Negative Theologian?


There is an odd, but I suppose understandable, tendency to  “theologize” negative dialectics.  Both Adorno and Levinas are often read from a negative theological standpoint. For Adorno, such a view is tempting, but ultimately (and problematically) assimilates a view of Adorno as the other-wordly, potentially conservative metaphysician/aesthete, who, having been disillusioned by politics, sought refuge in the beyond. I’ve recently read through Michael Fagenblat’s A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism with interest.  Really, how can one not want to read on after this opening sentence: “Another book on Emmanuel Levinas?”  However, I’m not sure how convinced I am of his claim in the second half of the book that Otherwise than Being is best understood as a work of negative theology, or rather, as  a Judaic ethical negative theology.  Levinas, I think (or have always thought), consistently distances himself from negative theology:

The negation of the present of representation finds its positive form in proximity, responsibility and substitution. This makes it different from the propositions of negative theology. The refusal of presence is converted into my presence as present, that is, as a hostage delivered over as a gift to the other. In proximity, in signification, in my giving of signs, already the Infinite speaks through the witness I bear of it, in my sincerity, my saying without said, preoriginary saying which is said in the mouth of the very one that receives the witness (OTB, 151)

Such an anarchic saying refuses the very structure of a negative theology.  In his essay in Re-Reading Levinas,  “The Face and Reading,” Jean Greisch suggests “negative theologies are dominated by an ineradicable henological postulate.”  As such, negative theology always attempt to arrive at a first principle however bewildering its appearance. For Levinas, the core of the ethical experience is the demand that arises given the arrival of the other, for example, the face of the other in Totality and Infinity and substitution in Otherwise Than Being. Ethical experience turns around the alterity of a demand that doesn’t cohere with the autonomy of the subject, but instead, places that autonomy in question.   The ethical subject, for Levinas, is constituted through a relation to the demand of the good to which it is completely inadequate.  Levinas’s ethical subject chooses to relate itself to something which exceeds its relational capacity. This is precisely what Levinas calls the relation without relation, which is the anti-dialectical core of Levinas’s thought.

I don’t know.  When I was reading Fagenblat’s chapter on OTB as negative theology I kept thinking I was reading a book about Jabes, not Levinas.  I guess I’d have to go over Fagenblat’s argument more closely (and go back into Maimonides, a crucial source for Fagenblat), but quick and dirty, on a first reading,  it seems wrong to me.

2 thoughts on “Levinas as a Negative Theologian?

    • Not so much. Fagenblat argues that people like Oona Eisenstadt and Catherine Chalier, who tend to see Luria’s Kabbalah as “pre-modern sources of L’s postmodernism” get it wrong because Lurianic Kabbalah is at bottom, monistic. So, for Fagenblat, Levinas breaks with the metaphysical idea of God as the absolute source/cause of all being. In this scheme, creatio ex nihilio is basic to the kabbalistic types that unite duality (of good/evil, for one) within the emanation of the divine one. Levinas, from this vantage point of creation, opposes such a scheme. He admits, however, that at times, there are (I can’t recall how he puts it) “suggestive connections.” Throughout the book it’s Maimonides that is doing the “heavy lifting” for Fagenblat.

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