Is Emanuel Levinas that important?

I am professor of religion. i went through graduate school back in the 80’s when Derrida and deconstructionism was in vogue. I thought its insights were not new, but the dense, turgid writing made it sound mysterious. once one tried to break it to down into meaningful sentences, it became banal.

I am seeing that the French philosopher Emanuel Levinas has captured the heart of many a colleague and graduate student. I read a few of his works. Whatever his merits in continuing the debate in the Husserl and Heideggerian tradition, again I find his writing unnecessarily dense, his claims about human consciousness a bit grandiose – making claims about the spiritual/psychological states of humanity, without ever telling the reader how he knows so much about how the rest of humanity feels.

can anyone who has some knowledge of Emanuel Levinas tell me, in clear English, what his major contribution to anything is, that is original? for skeptics like me, who think he is a fad; do you also feel that his dense, turgid writing is something of theater of the mysterious, mesmerizing readers with barely comprehensible sentences that when translated to straightforward prose, say little interesting or new?

when I try to bring this up in with colleagues or students, they look either betrayed or say that “i just don’t get it”.


You have my sympathies. I’ve never heard of Emanuel Levinas, however.

If you’re studying the phenomenology of temporality he’s important; otherwise, probably not so much.

Just from a brief internet look, I don’t honestly see why he’s that important. I can see studying him alongside French philosophers, especially of the pre- and post-WW2 of the age.

However, I dislike French philosophers as a general rule. They’re very bad at, and unlike Germans aren’t nearly entertaining enough to compensate. I despise Derrida, to say nothing of Rousseau. OK, if they asked to come to dinner, I wouldn’t mind, but they started a horrible trend in philosophy and several other Liberal Arts desciplines of using incredibly obscure, long-winded sentences which have only a vague meaning.*

Now, I see nothing particularly objectionable in his work. It jsut seems way overblown and fundamentally something which could be said in about five pages of straightforward text. Then again, he’s a philosopher. Turning five pages of straightforward text into ten-volume comprehensive analysese is what they do.

*This passage is humor, poking fun at the esoteric preferences of French literature and the fondness of German philosophers for the dramatic. It’s a play on national stereotypes… which only exist in philosophy.

Having never delved into deconstructionism, I must express my shock that Husserl would be dragged into it. It’d have to be after his death, or kicking and screaming, because a plain reading of him seems to not support anything at all of the sort.