Language and Education Emmanuel Levinas on Learning Ethical Engagement

Jordan Glass, Fordham University


Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy of ethics and transcendence concerns how a dimension of value, ethics, or the good is opened up in experience. Levinas’ approach is informed by his phenomenological studies, his ethical approach to philosophy, as well as his writings on Judaism and education. Part of the question is how ethics and a notion of the good can be approached apart from the neutralizing effects of formal, generalist, ideal, or ontological philosophies. In various ways, such approaches tend toward solipsism, an abstraction from the particularities of the human subject, and to an existence experienced as horrific or vain. The question is how to account for a notion of the good or an ‘ought’ that does not render ethics a formal and conceptual knowledge. What kind of philosophical or intellectual engagement —in its theoretical and practical dimensions—sustains a relation with the transcendent and makes meaning possible in human lives? Levinas uses a phenomenological and Judaic-Talmudic approach to ask about the conditions of how one comes to be and to feel ethically responsible, how one is elected by the Good; and he finds such a possibility in language itself. Language constitutes at the same time the possibility of representation, conceptual knowledge, and generalization (through nominalization, induction, and so on); and language constitutes the impetus for a subject to ‘listen’ or engage with others: it constitutes the impetus towards ethical engagement. To begin with, this thesis is the most exhaustive study available on Levinas’ work on language. This analysis of language is used to show what ethics and intellectual rigor each demands of us and how these relate to one another. There is an extreme tension in Levinas’ thought insofar as the ethical-linguistic relation with another person must have a meaning apart from what can be comprehended or made a part of formal knowledge. It becomes clear that the formal practices that generally characterize the Western tradition of philosophy are equipped to recognize neither the transcendent relation, nor the singular meaning of the human being, nor a notion of the Good that is not eroded by a neutrality of meaning. This tension between the singular nature of ethical responsibility and philosophical knowledge is addressed by asking about the role of language for philosophical-educational practice. Some of Levinas’ articles—never republished in French nor translated into English—reveal the important concrete role that he saw himself, his school, and the larger organization of which it was a part, playing in the Jewish community; and he shows what this role means for the sustaining of transcendent meaning and ethics. The claims he puts forth in these articles, as well as in his many years of Talmudic exegeses, are used to construct some guidelines for an educational and philosophical practice that would take seriously ethical values, one’s election by the Good, one’s obligation and responsibility.

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Recommended Citation

Glass, Jordan, "Language and Education Emmanuel Levinas on Learning Ethical Engagement" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10283333.