Recent political critiques and appropriations of Emmanuel Levinas’ work demonstrate the need to fundamentally re-evaluate the meaning and status of his philosophy. Both the Marxist critiques (often apropos Lacan) and ‘third wave’ applications interpret Levinas’ singular and unique relation to others—a bond which prohibits even the slightest trace of historical, hermeneutic, or political context—as the greatest obstacle to a Levinasian politics. From this standpoint, Levinas offers little more than a hyperbolic ethics that, at best, ignores, and, at worst, provides philosophical cover for, the political status quo (often defined by capitalism, imperialism, and Eurocentrism). To counter this established link between Levinas’ philosophy and his potential for political thought, this article reexamines the significance of the decontextualized social relation. I argue that such interpretations misapprehend the intended analytical depth of Levinas’ thought, which, in turn, misconstrue the relationship between Levinas and more traditional social ontologies. As a consequence, Levinas’ valuable normative import for political theory is obscured. By shifting our perspective, we can understand Levinas as articulating a philosophy of political utopianism well-suited to the challenges we face in our present conjuncture.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Althusser, L. (1971) ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’. In: Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. London: New Left Books.
Atterton, P. and Calarco, M. (2010) Editors introduction. In: P. Atterton and M. Calarco (eds.) Radicalizing Levinas (pp. ix–xvii). Albany, NY: State University Press.
Badiou. A. (2001) Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, translated by P. Hallward. London and New York: Verso.
Bernasconi, R. (2005) Who is my neighbour? Who is the other?: Questioning ‘the generosity of Western thought’? In: C. Katz and L. Trout (eds.) Emmanuel Levinas: Critical Assessments by Leading Philosophers Volume IV: Beyond Levinas (pp. 5–30). London and New York: Routledge.
Caygill, H. (2002) Levinas and the Political. London and New York: Routledge.
Critchley, S. (2004) Five problems in Levinas’s view of politics and the sketch of a solution to them. Political Theory 32(2): 172–185.
Derrida, J. (1978) Violence and Metaphysics. In: Writing and Difference, translated by A. Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 97–192.
Draninski, J.E. (2011) Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Dussel, E. (1985) Philosophy of Liberation, translated by A. Martinez and Morkovosky. Maryknoll and New York: Orbis Books.
Eagleton, T. (2009) Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.
Fichte, J.G. (2008) Address to the German Nation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hallward, P. (2003) Badiou: A Subject to Truth. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Heidegger, M. (1978) Letter on humanism. In: D.F. Krell (ed.) Basic Writings. London: Routledge.
Heidegger, M. (2008) Being and Time, translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper Perennial/Modern Thought.
Heidegger, M. (2013) ‘Language’. In: Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by A. Hofstadter. New York: Harper Perennial.
Levinas, E. (1969) Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by A. Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. (1981) Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence, translated by A. Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. (1987) ‘Meaning and Sense’. In: Collected Philosophical Papers, translated by A. Lingis. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Levinas, E. (1990) ‘Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism’. Critical Inquiry 17:1 (Autumn), pp. 62–71.
Levinas, E. (1998) Philosophy, Justice, Love. In: Entre Nous: Thinking of the Other, translated by M. Smith and B. Harshav. Columbia University Press, pp. 103–22.
Malabou, C. (2010) Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, translated by C. Shread. New York, Columbia University Press.
Reinhard, K. (2005) Towards a political theology of the neighbor. The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (pp. 11–75). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ricoeur, P. (2008) Oneself as Another. Chicago: Chicago of University Press.
Rothenburg, M.A. (2010) The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Sartre, J.P. (1975) Between Existentialism and Marxism. translated by John Mathews. New York: Pantheon Books.
Wolin, R. (2005) Levinas and heidegger: The anxiety of influence. The Frankfurt School Revisited, and Other Essays on Politics and Society (pp. 111–132). New York: Routledge.
Wood, D. (2005) Some questions for my Levinasian friends. In: E. Nelson, A. Kapust and K. Still (eds.) Addressing Levinas. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Žižek, S. (2005) Neighbors and other monsters: A plea for ethical violence. The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (pp. 134–190). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Froese, R. Levinas and the question of politics. Contemp Polit Theory 19, 1–19 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-019-00320-4
- Emmanuel Levinas
- political theory
- third wave
- continental philosophy