Levinas and the Crisis of Humanism

Indiana University Press  2012


According to the author, a philosopher of education, “The aim of this book is to trace Levinas’s philosophical project, which describes a radical revision of ethical subjectivity, and the necessary role his essays on Jewish education play in the success of that project.” Put succinctly, Katz’s goal is to illuminate the conditions of possibility for an individual to receive an education that can make him an ethical subject, that is, a person who mainly puts being for the other before being for oneself. As Levinas says, “responsibility is the fundamental structure of subjectivity,” and the ideal in his philosophy is to be a person who cultivates “goodness” or “holiness” as his existential base. “Goodness,” says Levinas, “consists in taking up a position such that the Other counts more than myself.” Katz believes that it is Levinas’s writings on Jewish education that best illuminate the nuts and bolts of how to transform a person from mainly “being for himself’ to “being for the other” before oneself in his existential orientation.

To accomplish her task, Katz reviews mainly Levinas’s so-called Jewish writings as opposed to his formal philosophical works, though the latter are infused with a Jewish sensibility and references. For Levinas, Jewish education, and by this he mainly means the rigorous study of Talmud, is the “royal road” to ethical subjectivity. For as Levinas says what makes Judaism so special is: “The harmony achieved between so much goodness and so much legalism constitutes the original note of Judaism.” Thus to Katz’s question, “What would [secular] education look like if we rethought it in light of Levinas’s concerns?” the answer seems to be for those who are charged with educating our children, to embrace a Levinasisan calculus that views the cultivation of “goodness” and “holiness” in students as its governing paradigm.

While I found Katz’s book to be an interesting and worthwhile read, it could have been deepened and strengthened if it had addressed the following points such as: (1) What constitutes “goodness” and “holiness” is context-dependent and setting-specific, that is, and how the ethical is instantiated is a judgment call, therefore, who is to decide what constitutes the ethical? Troubling as it may be to some, to a suicide bomber and his community, his killing others is a supreme ethical act of self-sacrifice for the sake of the other. (2) Katz does not show us what Levinas is saying that has not been said, and well researched in the psychologically-based moral education literature. That is, there is a huge psychological literature for example, on moral reasoning, altruism and prosocial behavior, empathy and the like that Katz does not integrate into her central argument. Katz also does not show how what Levinas is saying is any different than what many of the major religions have been saying and doing for thousands of years. Namely, attempting to cultivate in their followers an ethical subjectivity of goodness and holiness. (3) Katz does not show us how in the context of real life in the classroom, a teacher inculcated with a Levinasian sensibility would educate children differently than a humanistically oriented master teacher.

Not withstanding my criticisms of Katz’s book, Katz has raised some very important questions for pedagogues, educational scholars and parents concerning the valuative attachments that could, or as Katz seems to believe, should under grid any educational experience that aspires to create not only functional but decent human beings. For as Levinas said somewhere, it is the teacher, both in the classroom and the home, and other places too, who best expresses love as responsibility for the Other: “The other is. . . the first rational teaching, the condition of all teaching.”

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