Commonplaces of Academic Life: NDPR Review of Levinasian Meditations

Since I wasn’t all that interested in reading it to begin with, I completely forgot Richard Cohen’s  Levinasian Meditations had already been published until I saw this review by Martin Kavka in the NDPR just now.  The review certainly  makes for some interesting reading.   While Kavka admits Cohen broaches some important, if not crucial topics in Levinasian scholarship (and beyond), there seems to be a defensive tone that runs through the whole book:

Levinasian Meditations, in its structure, embodies a claim frequently found in scholarship on Levinas, namely that Judaism and its other-centered ethics, through its countercultural stance, can play a role in saving the modern West from the historical evils that have resulted from the West’s tendency either to create social commonalities through political violence or to erase social difference through genocide and ethnic cleansing. Those who read these essays seriatim will quickly infer that many of them are, at least in part, responses to unnamed others who have offered dismissive responses either to Cohen’s approach to Levinas or to Levinas’s philosophy tout court. It strikes me as very possible that readers of Levinasian Meditations will misinterpret it as a result.

Kavka continues:

In commenting on Levinas’s well-known notion that first philosophy is responsibility to the other person — that value is more fundamental than fact — Cohen writes in the introduction to the first section:

Clearly from such a perspective certain commonplaces of academic life will be called into question, indeed challenged and overturned. For instance, consider the superior snobbery which looks down on ethics as a kind of narrow-mindedness of “preaching,” the sneering dismissive use of the term “moralist” whenever ethical issues are taken seriously, i.e., when they demand a response and not merely an intellectualization. (9)

From the sequence of these sentences, it is likely that that the snobbery that Cohen mentions has taken place within the “commonplaces of academic life.” Some Ph.D.-bearing individual or group has dismissed Cohen’s work as mere preaching, not “real” philosophy. Cohen returns the name-calling with the charge of elitism. While this might serve for some as a perverse form of entertainment, such a response is dangerous, for it reduces philosophizing to the kind of faceless discourse frequently found online — even in some well-known philosophy blogs! — in which the style of an assertion is more important than its content. (Insults are more effective when they are given flesh; see Venus Xtravaganza’s lesson on “reading” in Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning.)

And further down, Kavka writes:

At this point, Cohen’s claim for ethics is no longer one that rests on an attitude that others could take as neither natural nor phenomenological, but simply hoity-toity. Nor does it rest on the circularity of citing Levinas as an authority in order to “prove” that Levinas is correct, as the secondary work on Levinas sometimes does. Rather, Levinas’s arguments place the burden on the “snob” to show that objects in the world come pre-laden with noninferentially acquired conceptual content. To argue against Levinasian “moralism” is also to argue against the Sellarsian claim that logical space is not “prior to, or independent of, the acquisition of a language.” This is not a point that Cohen explicitly makes.

Nevertheless, I suspect that his collegial encounters might run more smoothly if it were. As it stands, too often the essays in the first section of this book claim philosophical strength for Levinas only by claiming the moral weakness of the consequences of other person’s philosophical stances, whether Derrida, Sartre, Buber, Heidegger, or Kant. Yet to state that Kant is supersessionist or that Heidegger is ateleological (chapter 1), or that Heidegger is an aesthete (chapter 2) and an egotist (chapter 3), or that Buber, Sartre and Derrida remain too strongly in the thrall of Heidegger (chapters 4, 7, 9) is not quite to say that Levinas is correct. Even if Cohen’s readings of these figures are persuasive and careful (as is especially the case in the essay on Levinas and Sartre), it is primarily in the essays on Plato and on the opening sentences of Totality and Infinity (chapter 6) that the reader understands how Levinas might not be simply better than these other thinkers, but might also (not “rather”!) be saying something truer.

Another tepid review of Cohen’s Levinasian Meditations here

Cohen exhibits a profound knowledge of Levinas’ philosophy, as well as of its implications and relevance to other areas of philosophy, religion and ethics. To his credit, Cohen unabashedly and unflinchingly defends the philosophy of Levinas—with full recognition of this proclivity. Nowhere in his three-hundred-plus-page collection of essays does Cohen criticize Levinas. Cohen admits that, since his time as a graduate student, for him, “Levinas was already the philosopher, the one whose philosophy wastruth.” (172)  Cohen believes that Levinas grasps the truth, and Cohen writes to ensure its recognition as such by a wider audience. To this end, Cohen’s book is an extremely well-researched and articulated defense of Levinas on a multitude of topics. However, the unadulterated praise of Levinas sometimes becomes specious and unconvincing. The book is permeated with generalizations about the superiority of Levinas’ philosophy over that of others (though many or most of these claims do exhibit extensive attempted defenses). Passages like this one are standard throughout: “Indeed, each of [Levinas’] phenomenological analyses—of death, enjoyment, work, time, language, and worldliness—correct and displace the earlier and now inadequate analyses of Heidegger.” (283) Cohen repeats this claim with regard to Heidegger (62) and has similarly broad claims throughout regarding Levinas and the various other philosophers and religious writers he discusses.

Cohen displays an extreme reverence for philosophical rigour; insofar as his essays engage with challenges to Levinas from various sources in a concrete way, Cohen exhibits this philosophical rigour himself. However, although he seeks to apply Levinas’ philosophy to several areas of inquiry—either more explicitly or to a greater extent than Levinas perhaps did himself—Cohen is still convinced, as he says, of the fundamental truth of Levinas’ philosophy. Cohen does not propose to take Levinas’ philosophy a step further, or even to make minor revisions, corrections, or criticisms. This is mildly ironic given the description of philosophy conveyed by Cohen on behalf of Levinas. Philosophy is a dialogical, inter-personal discussion, modeled on a Talmudic pedagogy of group-oriented study. One might expect the continual exegesis, and “exegesis of exegesis” (271), demanded of philosophy, ethics and Talmudic study to imply more than just a broadening of the application of accepted truths. Rather, one might expect a philosopher, as a matter of integrity, to harbour the implicit assumption—for ethical-cum-philosophical reasons—that there are no absolute truths, and therefore that all philosophy and ethics demand a more critical attitude than Cohen is exhibiting.

Cohen’s book constitutes a compelling defense of Levinas against a variety of criticisms and opposing views. It is a thorough and often cogent explication of the grandiosity of Levinas’ philosophical accomplishments—but Levinasian Meditations does not go beyond this.

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