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Beals, Corey. Levinas and the Wisdom of Love: The Question of Invisibility.

BEALS, Corey. Levinas and the Wisdom of Love: The Question of Invisibility. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2007. xiii + 169 pp.

Cloth, $39.95--Corey Beals gives us here his doctoral dissertation written at Fordham University under the direction of Merold Westphal. The text is rigorously centered on a single utterance of Levinas, who defined philosophy, not as the love of wisdom, but rather as "the wisdom of love in the service of love." Beals studies the entire philosophy of Levinas as refracted through the prism of this statement. He means his book to serve both as an introduction to Levinas for those who are new to him and as a scholarly contribution to the discussion of certain "disputed questions" about the claims Levinas makes. The first of these goals interests this reviewer more than the second. Though I am drawn to Levinas by the existential depth of what he seems to be saying, I am put off by the impenetrability of his writings; I therefore look for an understandable guide into the world of Levinas from Beals.

In chapter 2 Beals provides just the kind of help that readers like myself need: a survey of almost all of the forbidding terms in Levinas. Terms such as "ontology," "totalizing," "hostage," "asymmetry," "desire," "the third," "exteriority," "infinity," "ethics" are all made to do very special work in Levinas, and sometimes they bear a meaning that is far removed from their everyday meaning. Beals groups them around different themes in Levinas and offers some explanation of them. Chapter 2 succeeds in empowering a beginner to read Levinas and to begin to understand him.

Beals also makes his book a good introduction to Levinas in the way he preserves the existential dimension of Levinas. The reader notices that Beals is measuring his own existence by what he is learning from Levinas, and that he invites the reader to do the same.

The subtitle of his book is "The Question of Invisibility." According to Levinas we all want to make ourselves "invisible" to the Other, just like Gyges wanted to make himself invisible with his magical ring. We want to evade responsibility for the Other by being invisible to him or making him invisible to ourselves--in other words by keeping the Other at a distance and refusing to acknowledge any responsibility for the Other that we did not freely first assume. Beals brings up the history of the men and women of the French village of Le Chambon who took in Jews seeking shelter and protection during the German occupation of France (p. 98). These good people, when approached by Jews in need, abandoned their invisibility; they bore "testimony" by saying "here I am" and acknowledging a responsibility for these Jews that already existed and that existed independently of whether the Jews would ever one day take responsibility for them (here the "asymmetry" of moral obligation according to Levinas). They were willing to acknowledge the "authority" of the Other, to discern the imperative, "Thou shalt not kill," and to be bound by it.

In his last chapter Beals tries to develop Levinas in an interesting way, arguing that we are far more able to take responsibility for the Other when we encounter only a few others rather than a crowd of others. "On one occasion, a gendarme thought he had stumbled across a Jew and told him to run away quickly because more police were coming. I wonder what that gendarme might have done if he had encountered the same person as just one more face in the midst of hundreds of captives in a concentration camp" (p. 128).

Unfortunately, it is not clear to this reviewer how this rich vein of thought fits in with Levinas' understanding of philosophy. Levinas is after all defining philosophy when he speaks of "the wisdom of love in the service of love." But though the people of Le Chambon were practicing this wisdom, they were not doing philosophy. There is an element of reflection that marks the works of Levinas as philosophical and that is not found in the concrete act of welcoming a concrete stranger. It is as if the act of philosophizing gets run together here with the subject matter about which one is philosophizing.

Also difficult to understand, at least for this reviewer, is much that Levinas says about the appearance of "the third," as for example: "The fact that the other, my neighbor, is also a third party with respect to another, who is also a neighbor, is the birth of thought, consciousness, justice, and philosophy" (p. 83). This reviewer was not able to gather from the book of Beals how it is that such fundamental realities can possibly owe their constitution to the simple fact that I am dealing not with one other but with more than one.--John F. Crosby, Franciscan University of Steubenville.
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Author:Crosby, John F.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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