Wednesday, September 13, 2017
In LARB, Jon Baskin reviews Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s Thinking in Public.
Levinas did not write as much about ancient philosophy as either Strauss or Arendt, but in a passage from his 1961 essay, “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us,” quoted by Wurgaft, he evokes Socrates as the figure of a philosopher who, in contrast to Heidegger, “exemplified an interest in the experiences of others in all their uniqueness.” It is telling, says Levinas, that whereas Heidegger preferred “the countryside and trees,” Socrates preferred “the town, in which one meets people”: his dialogues with fellow-citizens represent the intellectual not only as a thinker but also as an ethical actor who in his public speech both acknowledges and takes responsibility for the flourishing of the “other.” Levinas thus proposes, in place of Western humanism, a secularized version of a universalistic religious ethic, according to which the “mere human” has intrinsic value. If Heidegger’s philosophy suggested that our responsibility could be limited by geographical or temporal communities, Levinas argued that “the very infinitude of the other person that we see in his face is, effectively, ‘the first word: you shall not commit murder.’”
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