Judaism as the Matrix Between Levinas and Derrida
  • Martin C. Srajek
Part of the Contributions To Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 32)


That I cannot (quite) do. I cannot (quite) hate myself. That is simply destructive, self-destructive. I must love myself (a little). Even Levinas admits that, if you can get an interview and ask a few pointed questions.


Pointed Question Equal Voice Dialogical Format Sacred Scripture Critical Tone 
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  1. 1.
    Caputo, Against Ethics, p. 125.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ibid, p. 126.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    A good example of the results of such an asymmetrical reading is Richard Cohen’s new book Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas. Included in the book is a chapter on the relationship between Derrida and Levinas. Cohen, a decided and unwavering disciple of Levinas‘, labels this relationship “Derrida’s (Mal)Reading of Levinas.” Cohen, like many other adherents of Levinas and simultaneous critics of Derrida, makes the mistake of basing his interpretation on Derrida’s earlier essay on Levinas “Violence and Metaphysics.” Although this essay is written in a critical tone and certainly aiming at showing in which ways Levinas’ text (Totality and Infinity) fails to establish the opening towards the other for which it is looking, Cohen’s reading of Derrida as making “play of Levinas” (ft. 2, p. 306) is unfounded and superficial. Cohen reads Derrida as undermining Levinas’ attempts to “invoke and increase responsibility” by increasing “the play of meaning or more precisely, [by increasing] the undecidability between responsible and playful meaning.” (ibid) This reading simply overlooks a couple of important issues that relate to this particular text of Derrida’s. The first and most important one is the fact that Derrida begins his text with an emphasis on the critical function of the question for ethics. It is the form of the question that invokes responsibility and Derrida shows in the essay that it is the answer, the response, that is lacking. Specifically the effort that Levinas makes with respect to naming that towards which we are responsible, viz. the other, is doomed in Derrida’s eyes. However, the failure is not one of ethics but one of naming. In our attempt to name we are following the Greek notnos. Levinas, of course, is aware of this problem and tries to circumscribe the other in such a way that naming can be avoided. Derrida, however, points to the inevitable naming quality that any text centered around something unnamable must have. That is, in not naming the totally other, Levinas is still naming. Derrida, thus, is not critical of responsibility and ethics but of the attempt to name the absolute core of that responsibility. Cohen’s critique of Derrida as being Heideggerian in his strategies is misleading. Certainly, for Cohen, simply invoking the name of Heidegger is enough to categorize Derrida negatively. But, although Derrida’s methodology is replete of Heideggerian turns, it is important to understand that Derrida is critical of Levinas in the same way that Adorno is critical of Heidegger in Negative Dialektik. Both Heidegger and Levinas make use of a language that mystifies and shrouds, yet awakenings a desire for something beyond this world. This in and of itself could be misread as a totalitarian move and therefore needs to be critiqued. Cohen’s reading of Derrida could have benefited from a re-reading of “Violence and Metaphysics” based on some of Derrida’s later work which we will discuss in the following chapters. More recently, Derrida’s work on the gift and death further demonstrate the ethico-moral seriousness with which he approaches the play of responsibility.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Jacques Derrida,“En ce moment dans cet oeuvre me voici,” (1980) Psyche: Inventions de Vautre, pp. 159–203; trsl. by Ruben Berezdivin, “At this very Moment in this Work here I am ”Re-Reading Levinas, ed. by Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley, pp. 11-51; henceforth referred to as “EM.”Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin C. Srajek
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignIllinoisUSA

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