Friday, July 22, 2011

Atterton, Peter. Review of Michael L. Morgan, CAMBRIDGE INTRODUCTION TO EMMANUEL LEVINAS. NDPR (July 2011).

Morgan, Michael L.  Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel LevinasCambridge: CUP, 2011.

Several years ago I had the privilege of reviewing and qualifiedly endorsing Michael L. Morgan's Discovering Levinas (Cambridge University Press, 2007). When I accepted the invitation to review The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, I did so on the assumption that it would not, unless clearly stated on the book's back cover or on the Cambridge University Press web site, consist mainly of material derived from the earlier book. But I was wrong. As Morgan explains in the preface, when Discovering Levinas was about to appear in paperback, the editors at Cambridge suggested that he "abridge and revise the book with an eye to introducing Levinas to readers and students who wanted a clear and helpful initial guide to understanding his thinking" (p. vii). The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas is the result of that effort, and at under half of the length of Discovering Levinas, it is a much leaner, more focused book that is basically an abridgement of its predecessor.

To be sure, the book does contain some original material, principally by way of a fourteen-page Introduction and nine-page Conclusion ("Conclusions, Puzzles, and Problems"). The long penultimate paragraph of Chapter 4 (p. 112), the last four pages of Chapter 5 (pp. 132-135), and the last six pages of Chapter 6 (pp. 155-160) also appear to have been written especially for the volume (not counting a relatively small number of transitional paragraphs). The rest of the book comprises three complete (Chapters 2, 3, and 7) and five abridged (1, 4, 5, 6, and 8) chapters of Discovering Levinas. There are some alterations in the footnotes of Chapters 2 and 3 (Chapter 7 is identical), but surely not enough to substantiate Morgan's claim that he has made "significant modifications" "in every case" to the book's eight chapters for the purpose of uniformity, etc. For the most part the abridgment poses no obvious unifying issue, with one exception. On page 197, during a fascinating and important discussion of theodicy, Morgan begins talking out of the blue about Levinas's review of Philippe Nemo's book Job and the Excess of Evil, leaving the unsuspecting reader disoriented and confused. The two-page lead-up discussion included in the earlier book was simply excised in the later book, with nothing to replace it. This is apt to happen where already published chapters are shortened or rearranged; but it is still not something I expected to encounter from such a prestigious press.

The question I will ask, then, is what special value this book can have for its intended buyer and reader, important enough to justify reprinting much of the earlier work. The simple answer to this question is that it does a far better job at doing what the first book was only able to do with limited success. The problem with Discovering Levinas is that it tried to do too much; it was intended to be an introductory text that aimed to make plausible Levinas's kinship with various important Anglo-American philosophers, while also offering a survey of the development of Levinas's ethics, as well as being an examination of Levinas's involved connection with Judaism, religion, and politics. Although these are worthy goals in their own right, they did not sit very comfortably with each other. The elimination of those chapters and discussions in particular that required special background knowledge of analytic philosophy, and the focus instead on Levinas's central texts and themes do much, I think, to enhance significantly the book's value as an introductory text. . . .

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