Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) is one of the most underrated thinkers of the 20th century. This @threadapalooza is my tribute. Levinas was imprisoned as a POW on the Western front during WWII. A Jewish student of Heidegger's, he criticized Western thought to save it from itself.
Levinas is chiefly and rightly remembered as the thinker who understood our encounter with the human face to be the basis for our (experience of) responsibility. In the age of Big Tech and Big Data, this insight will only grow in importance and controversy. 2
Despite the elegance and simplicity of Levinas's core thesis, his work is far from simple. Levinas is great because he contains irresolvable contradictions. 3
Levinas was born in Lithuania & raised in Ukraine. He studied in Strasbourg & Freiburg. He lived most of his life in Paris where he contributed to the Post-War French intellectual scene. He was friends with Blanchot and Derrida. He was an outsider-insider & insider-outsider. 4
When Levinas went to Davos in 1929 to watch the internationally covered debate between Heidegger and Cassirer (who was Jewish); he not only rooted for Heidegger, but mocked Cassirer after the event in a student improv play. He said doing so was one of his great regrets in life 5
The debate was about the legacy of Kant; Heidegger represented the existentialist view that the important thing in Kant is our finitude, making him a proto- existentialist; for Cassirer, the important thing was the notion of a shared humanity, universal ethical principles. 6
It's ironic--universalist view was expressed by a German Jew 4 years before Nazis would take power. The particularist view was supported by someone who would eventually, if briefly, support the third Reich. But particularism isn't only a Nazi view. 7
Particularism is a staple of many who don't seek imperial rule, but who in fact want protection from hegemony conducted in the name of universalism. Jewish thought has strong particularist currents. Most minority cultures see their particularism as rightful. 8
Does particularism lead to Nazism? Does Universalism save us from it? Not necessarily. Levinas is not easily placed as either a particularist or a universalist, but I believe his project was to square this circle--to maintain that Heidegger was right and Cassirer wrong, but..9
but to do so in a way that would avoid Nazism. Levinas is a strange beast because, in my view, he places ethics at the center of his thought, and yet doesn't abandon his existentialist leanings, nor his view that particularism is where we find our dignity. 10
Said most provocatively, Levinas rejects humanism (and thinks humanism itself may lead to inhumane places) but does so because he cares about humanity. 11
If this doesn't make sense, allow me to clarify: Levinas begins his masterpiece, Totality and Infinity, by saying that the problem with Western thought is that it seeks to be systematic. The obsession with system and holistic thinking leads to dehumanizing places. 12
Arendt makes this argument, too. Western thought is objectifying which leads to real world problems.

Phenomenology reveals life to be open not closed. For Levinas, the face of the Other is where systematic thought is belied. The Other can't be enclosed by knowledge 13
Heidegger makes the same critique, but locates the openness in the impersonal "clearing." Levinas takes Heidegger's mysticism and grounds it in an interpersonal moment. 14
In Heidegger, the self perceives itself as being-in-the-world. But in Levinas, it perceives itself as being-before-the-other. 15
Buber is kind of an interesting hybrid. He makes the I-You experience primary, but for him, I-You is 1) about reciprocity and mutuality and 2) can happen with horses and trees. 16
For Levinas, the relation to the other is asymmetric and specific to humans. The other takes me hostage; his language is strong. I don't encounter the other as equal, but as Lord. 17
Levinas borrows from Hegel, but bestows on it a Biblical inflection. The encounter with the other isn't about struggling for recognition, but about my sense of being morally indebted to other. 18
That seems somewhat far fetched and culturally contingent, no? Maybe. Let's get into it soon. Meanwhile, EL says the first thing I experience in the presence of the other is his silent command, "Thou shalt not kill (me)." 19
Isn't this empirically belied by all the violence we've seen throughout history? No, says Levinas. Because you can violate the command, the point is that it's still there. 2) why does modern, industrialized warfare lead to things like the atom bomb and drone strikes? 20
Levinas would say it's easier to kill when the other is gameified, no longer a face before me. The fact that we mediate violence proves our basic discomfort with it. The story of Abraham dropping the knife is paradigmatic--we can't look the other in the eye and objectify him. 21
So systematic philosophy is like the button; it's a way of distancing ourselves from what precedes philosophy. Again, this is very Heideggerian. Except for Heidegger, what we distance ourselves from is Being; for Levinas, it's another person. 22
For both, the obsession with concepts obscures the experience of that which is pre-conceptually given. In this, Levinas is a good student of Heidegger. He's also not a Kantian or utilitarian in the sense that ethics is about following principles. 23
But if Ethics is this mushy experiential thing, isn't that relativism? Kind of, yeah; or at least it's at risk of being a bit subjective. Which is why Levinas's rhetoric often reads more as a good sermon than a treatise on what to do and how to decide what to do. 24
Scholars say Levinas is more of a "meta-ethical" thinker in this way. EL thinks

1) we should know the face of the other is primary
2) not look away, even as we can't but
3) we should preserve our EXPERIENCE of ethics, not just hide in ethical theory. 25
For most thinkers, the first type of philosophy is metaphysics--knowing what's real or really real. For Levinas, the notion that ethics comes first is interesting, even shocking. 26
Wittgenstein might say that language comes first; cultural determinists and anthropologists like Feuerbach and Marx might say that culture or econ come first. And political thinkers like Schmitt might say politics is primary. 27
Levinas's distinction is in saying that the Other is primary. I find myself before one person, and learn everything about myself from that moment, again and again. All knowledge is born from care, but specifically care for the Other. 28
Again, I need to stress that this sounds super Heideggerian. Care as the basis for understanding?! Yes. But in Heidegger it's self-care, even if the self is an expansive self broader than the ego, a self that he calls Dasein. 29
At the end of the day, in Heidegger, the thing I care most about is "my own most potentiality of being," which is disclosed by my singular relationship to my own death. 30
As the saying goes, "we're born alone and die alone." but in Levinas, we're born before the Other and die before the Other. Solitude is a form of intersubjectivity, a derivative mode of being before the other. 31
Is this Other God? Some have suggested reading Levinas in this theological light. But Levinas would caution against reading him too theologically, because then you'd be running away from ethics. If there is theology in Levinas it is that ethics is its opening. 32
I have to say that so much in religion seems to be anything but ethical (and not in the pejorative sense), but simply in the sense that religion seems to be about serving God even when that conflicts with ethics. 33
But for Levinas there can be no such conflict, or any such conflict is a misunderstanding. In this, he alchemizes the Kierkegaardian view; he makes Isaac God. The face of Isaac saying don't kill me is the voice of God, the voice of the angel weeping. 34
In one of his later writings, Levinas endorses the concept of "Loving the Torah more than God," which is a Jewish way of saying that one shouldn't seek spiritual highs outside of the Law; the point of religion isn't theophany or insight, but care for the Other. 35
The metaphysician will retort--but how can I care for others if I don't know God? If I don't know what is real, what is good, true, beautiful? Don't I need an account of human nature first? 36
Yep, this is why Levinas is unsettling and probably marginalized. Because he adopts a lot of the ideas of post-structuralism than naturalists and Thomists would find anathema, and does so in the name of the good! 37
If there is a hidden idea in Levinas it is that the good is disclosed in my encounter with the Other. Which is patently absurd in a way, or else hopelessly romantic, all too tragic in its inability to apply. 38
Here's the thing--if you are frustrated with Heidegger for being unconcerned with ethics, you should probably be just as upset with Levinas. Because though EL talks a big game, his execution remains opaque. How do we settle actual disputes between competing parties? 39
Levinas called this the problem of the third. That there is more than one other makes ethics in practice more difficult than ethics in the idealized one on one scenario. Yet, it's an intervention to get us to think of 8billion people as individual others, not just a mass. 40
Leo Strauss writes about the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation. Levinas, says Leora Batnitzky, shares this tension. He's an Athenian who writes fondly bout Jerusalem, but can't make the leap. A Jew for whom Judaism is more of a concept, an anchor 41
from which he can criticize Reason. You see EL doesn't think the commandment not to kill comes from God atop Sinai, but from the Other before me. So that's kind of like Reason, not Revelation doing the work. 42
And yet, it's not quite Reason, either. Because I didn't derive it from principles; I got it Revealed to me--it's just that the Other played the role of God. 43
If Levinas is so right why do we need to read his theory in a book? Shouldn't it be obvious to anyone who looks into another face? Isn't reading a book about the Other a performative contradiction, an objectification of the Other in the name of saying he can't be objectified? 44
You could raise this kind of criticism about all phenomenology. The brilliance of phenomenology from Husserl to Sartre is that it tells us what's so obvious we miss it. What's so obvious and so non-obvious all at once. 45
Philosophy shouldn't be counter-intuitive or speculative, but it shouldn't be so easy that we don't need. The philosopher performs a service, namely of making us aware of what we initially and for the most part run away from. 46
Reading Totality and Infinity, or Being and Time, is like getting an assist in yoga--you can do the pose yourself, but it's harder without an Other bringing you to yourself. 47
So you know how Adam and Eve hide from God after eating from the Tree of Knowledge? Heidegger secularizes this tale--it's how we are all the time; we are guilty, fallen, hiding, self-hiding. Being chases us and we'd rather cling to beings than return the gaze. 48
For EL, the same is true, but it's not Being from which we're running, it's ethics. And it makes sense. Before the Other we are never enough, can never be or do enough. There is something very self-lacerating, austere about Levinas's description. 49
Personally, I think we need some austerity to counter balance the new age extreme of "you're perfect as you are, just love yourself." But you, know what, the new age crowd isn't wrong--and religious tradition makes space for self love and self acceptance, too. 5
A favorite line from psalms, "My divine soul that You (God) gave me is pure." You're not gonna get much of that vibe in Levinas 51
A personal digression. I discovered Levinas first as a commentator on Jewish texts and only secondarily as a philosopher. In the 60s, Levinas lectured in Paris on the Talmud, pioneering a new (non-)method of reading text. 52
Many Talmudists dislike his readings, just as many classicists dislike Heidegger's readings of ancient texts. 53
I think they're fabulous. Nine Talmudic Readings is a personal inspiration for the kind of work I seek to do, even as I take it in my own direction. 54
Levinas breaks a lot of rules in his study of Talmud, but his insistence that we read sugyot (sections) for their philosophical meaning, and specifically, for their contemporary relevance as relates to the issue of particularism vs. universalism is fresh and contrarian. 55
Talmudists are for the most part ill equipped to read the Talmud philosophically, preferring to read for historical or legal development. If you like Heidegger on Plato, you should enjoy Levinas on Talmud in the same spirit--it's more Levinas than Talmud, but 56
The idea that texts are reducible to their original context or their legal use is to short change them. Levinas brings new life; he follows the lead of Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin who compares Torah to a dying ember. The power is only as great as the breath that blows on it. 57
EL is like Strauss, who reads the Bible as a philosopher, but he does it to Talmud. No doubt, there is a performative quality to his use of an exotic text in 60s Paris--he's mostly reading it before secular and non Jews. Talk about universalist-particularism! 58
I don't think Levinas settled the problem of universalism vs. particularism. He knew we needed both, and that the balance would be full of trade offs, each untenable. His way is not a method, but an attempt. 59
You can use Levinas to shore up your pride in Jewishness (or some other minority group) and say, you see, the west from Parmenides to Hegel is bankrupt. You can also use him to say, look at how great western thought might be if it shed it's ambition to being comprehensive. 60
The latter makes Levinas into a liberal or a pluralist, with Judaism playing the role of good guest amongst the Western host nations. But there's a harsher side to Levinas, which is a rebuke against the West, as if humanism paradoxically leads to Auschwitz. 61
Again, here he finds strange bedfellows across the ideological spectrum. but from what I can tell Levinas was a moderate man, an awkward guy who taught in a Jewish high school and was reluctant to hug students when they came to him (60 years before #Metoo). 62
Was his awkwardness because he was hyper aware of ethics? Or was his ethical theory a way of constituting himself as righteous in his sheepishness? I am reluctant to speculate or reduce a great man to his psychology, but it's worth noting that Levinas is not a warm and fuzzy 63
In an age where so much warmth and fuzziness is revealed to be fake, manipulative, dangerous, delusional, maybe we should prefer Levinas's vibe. I'm not sure. I wonder if an over emphasis on ethics ends up creating claustrophobia. 64
If you are always in the subordinate position relative to the Other then you are possibly disempowered. That seems kind of weak. Like Levinas is saying we should all be victims. 65
The academic idpol left would say Levinas misses the issue of power and power difference; they want the oppressor to stand back before the Other, but if you're from a marginalized group you shouldn't have to step back, you're already made to do that, so the argument goes. 66
Levinas would, it seems to me, be against Robin D'Angelo style antiracist workshops in the sense that he would want everyone to sacrifice before the Other, not one group to sacrifice themselves to another group. He's also against totalizing narratives. 67
Collectivism is a form of objectification, so the only thing that matters is the story of the Other before me, not some deterministic account of them by a sociologist, public intellectual, or pundit. 68
Levinas was broadly of the Left, but he was far more anti Communist than his peers who turned a blind eye to Stalinism; if memory serves, Merleau-Ponty was a Maoist sympathizer. 69
I think of Levinas as a weird individualist, an existentialist who thought the most important thing was to find a personalized way of caring for the Other before me and of living with an awareness of the Other. 70
But it's individualist because 1) it's still about me living well and truthfully and 2) no authority or group can tell me what to do with my experience; even the other gets a say, but not the last word. 71
The other way in which he's individualist is that the shame I might feel in not fulfilling my infinite duty to the other isn't something that I learn from others rebuking me, it's given primordially in the encounter itself. 72
Only the Other can give us the mark of Cain, but nobody else can. It's not for a group or tribunal to judge me, it's for the Other. Every relationship is and should be unique. This uniqueness is lost through mass and social media. 73
@AgnesCallard makes the good point that the point of life can't be to help others because this just kicks the can down the road. Somebody has to decide what the point of life is or it's an infinite regress. This is a valid critique of the traditional way of reading Levinas. 74
My solution is that the point of life (for Levinas) is to life the best life I can live, which, it happens to be, is a life in which I recognize that total knowledge is impossible and that all systems are rooted in care for the Other. 75
We forget this care over and over and so must constantly remember it, beginning with the awareness that we have already forgotten it. Ethics is recuperation of responsibility. 76
Similarly, in Heidegger, Denken ist Andenken, to think is to remember, to find oneself having strayed. Meditation is the act of catching oneself in a state of distraction. 77
Is Levinas right? Yes and no. The Straussian read of Levinas is that he doesn't know either. He's a crypto Heideggerian who is worried that his entire education is soiled to the core. 78
The replacement of Being by the Other, of ontology by Ethics is Levinas's attempt to repair the damage; to apologize for his mockery of Cassirer in 1929. But is it enough? 78
In Chelm, the joke is that when they had a sour cream shortage the townspeople called water sour cream. Is Levinas making a substantive change to Heidegger, or a change only in semantics, in inflection? 80
Is Levinas like Caliban in Shakespeare's tempest, who says, 'You taught me language; and my profit on't/Is, I know how to curse./The red plague rid you/For learning me your language." ?81
Maybe he's a philosopher who discovers he's a Jew and that there is no place for him in philosophy; he's trapped in a tradition he can't get out of; all he can do is use it to curse. 82
Such a "post-colonial" read of Levinas is interesting --it's a way of saying that he was a "Baal teshuva" (a returnee to Jewish tradition) who couldn't quite make the return because he knew enough to realize he was a "tinok she nishba" (a captured child). 83
But I'm not sure it's the right reading of Levinas, who, after all, is "totalizing" in the grand narrative he spins about the pitfalls of the West, and the virtues of (Jewish) particularism. He seems to give with one hand what he takes with the other. 84
If Levinas were a full blown particularist, and anti systematic thinker, we'd expect him to reject altogether. Clearly the West is good for some things, and clearly parochialism has its share of troubles. 85
In any case, the core of Levinas seems to be anti-political, anti-Machiavellian, anti-Aristotelian; we are political beings, but that's not the main aspect of who we are and it's not where thriving occurs. 86
Arendt thought that political life is where we find our dignity, in the public expression of thought and action. For Levinas, it's to be found in the experience we have before another person's face peering at us. 87
Philosophizing to a crowded lecture room, giving a sermon, attending a rally, and posting about Levinas on twitter, are a commentary on that experience, but not the experience itself. They are necessary, but derivative. 88
And for a phenomenologist, derivative is code for basic, plebiscite. The highest goal is still an aristocratic one, to live as most don't and can't because they are occupied in everydayness, habit, absorption in mass culture and default socialization. 89
Heidegger opines, we go to the movies as they do; we buy Abercrombie as they buy it; we doom scroll the way the they doom scrolls; we apply to Harvard as they apply to Harvard; we read self help as they do; we aspire to be unique (while having nice abs) as they aspire to...90
You could say that Levinas follows the same form, but just says it this way: we solve trolley problems the way they solve trolley problems; we offset our carbon footprints as they do; we read Peter Singer as they read Peter Singer; we talk about social justice the way they do 91
All the talk of ethics and obsession with responsibility, with doing the right thing, is still an avoidance, an avoidance of the Other before me. 92
The Other is a main feature in Hegel, but also Derrida, Blanchot, James, Lacan, Bourdieu, Ricouer, Sartre, de Beauvoir; intersubjectivity is hot, and often French, but nobody knows what the Other is, because it's shifty. 93
The Other is more &less than an other person, more & less than a concept, more &less than God. The Other is simply that which isn't me. In German idealism, it's the basis for being a self b/c it's a mirror. 94
But in Levinas, the Other isn't my enemy and isn't my friend; the Other is the aspect of another person revealed through their face that tells me that to exist is to be responsible. 95
What we do with that responsibility is up to us, up even to philosophy and law to adjudicate. But the origins are not political or legal. In this sense, Levinas is post or pre rational. Relationship comes before logos. Logos is the expression of relationship. Powerful. 96
Ethics precedes language, precedes thought. Not ethics in the sense of formalized duty, but ethics in the felt sense of ought. Ought precedes is, even if ought is subjective or highly contingent. 97
I have an ambivalent relationship to Levinas. I think he's provocative and insightful even when he's wrong or overzealous. Me thinks he often protests too much. 98
But he's an important corrective to Heidegger, a disagreement for the sake of heaven about whether mysticism or ethics comes first, like the debate between Hasidim and Mitnagdim about the primacy of divine experience vs. moral-legal obligation. 99
Levinas said his thought would be unthinkable without Heidegger's Being and Time. He models what it means to think with and against a great thinker, continuing Heidegger precisely by defying him. I hope I can honor him by doing the same.

P.S. Here's one way I've tried to apply Levinas to issues in tech. whatiscalledthinking.substack.com/p/is-the-face-…
In the beginning is the face. There is no end.


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More from @ZoharAtkins

20 Apr
Let’s do a @threadapalooza on Nietzsche, an unavoidable force in our thought and culture, a brilliant polemicist whose work is both over-exposed and undervalued; he would have been off Twitter but would have written a Substack railing against everyone—including his fans.
“The only one who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man.” Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran minister. Although often seen as an enfant terrible by religious folk, Nietzsche was a soulful and sincere seeker who was equally critical of atheists as he was of believers
His much remarked upon phrase “God is dead” is spoken by his invented literary prophet Zarathustra to atheists! 3
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19 Apr
Another Derridean paradox I was reminded of, thinking about the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, is the idea that a perfect gift is unconditional; but an unconditional gift can't have a giver (subject) or gifted (object)...for then the gift would be an act of conditional communication
The giving of the Torah appears to be a conditional gift--but we generally don't call conditional bestowals gifts, we call them transactions, options, ploys, etc.
If you think of the mystical interpretation of Torah as form whose content is emptiness (the silent aleph), then Torah is the impossible gift, the unconditional which has no giver and gifted...
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5 Apr
It’s time for a @threadapalooza about Jacques Derrida, a polarizing and influential thinker, who popularized the word “deconstruction” & wrote in a style that is at once brilliant, annoying, charming, and cringe. I can’t tell if he is deep or shallow. Perhaps that’s the point.
Derrida is the Bitcoin of philosophers; wildly beloved by devotees and particularly reviled by skeptics. His polarizing status also divides his fans—between those who think him a genuine philosopher and those who think him more of a literary figure, a prankster with panache. 2
When Derrida was awarded an honorary degree by Cambridge, a handful of influential philosophers, including Quine, wrote a letter in protest. He's a sophist--not a philosopher--say critics. 3
Read 102 tweets
18 Mar
Time for a @threadapalooza on Hegel, the 19th c. thinker everyone loves to hate (and/or hates to love, hates to hate, loves to love). Hegel has been celebrated and accused of pretty much every political ideology, from National Socialism, Communism, and neoliberalism.
Depending on who you talk to, he's a rationalist or a mystic, a secularist who reduces religion to social psychology or a Christian triumphalist who thinks incarnation theology (God becoming Man, Man Becoming God) alone can bring about the resolution of our problems. 2
Hegel is charged with pantheism (everything is God), process theology (the notion that truth is revealed progressively throughout history). Its fashionable to think of Hegel as proto-woke (see here: persuasion.community/p/the-warped-v…) and/but Hegel is also hated for being a Eurocentrist. 3
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18 Mar
Parable: There is a story about a safe who was robbed. As the thief was running away with his wallet, the safe shouted out, “I want you to have it.” (The sage didn’t want the thief to have the sin of theft on his moral tab.)
So too, initially, we were forbidden to steal fire from the god(s), to eat from the tree of knowledge, to open Pandora’s box, etc. but as we were walking away, the divine said, “I want you to have it.”
This is why the Torah is called a “gift”—what began as rebellion (scaling heaven by means of the Tower of Babel)—was transmuted, as God said, “I want you to have it.”
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17 Mar
“The ultras can live happily with each other; they need each other; they thrive off each other. They share the revolutionary mentality, the excitement of apocalyptic feeling.”

Leon Wieseltier

“The crowds and their leaders are seeking the re-enchantment of politics, but we long ago championed the disenchantment of politics“
“People who mock the idea of rights, and the “culture of rights,” have never been stripped of one. And nobody who has ever been deprived of a right has ever been troubled by its “individualism.“”
Read 6 tweets

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