Levinas, Law and Literature

One cannot effectively approach Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophical works without recognizing the importance modern literature plays in his writings. From Baudelaire to Dostojevski, from Blanchot to Celan, and from Kafka to Grossman, the references to major modern and  contemporary writers are manifest throughout Levinas’s reflections. Whether as a source of inspiration or as metaphoric expression of his thoughts, these references mark a constitutive element of the articulation and development of his own philosophy. This is all the more astonishing given that Levinas has many reasons to distrust the ambivalences of literary works. Indeed, his entire philosophy intends to overcome the tragic model (with its origins in Aristotle) so as to understand being; moreover, he rejects the idea that mimetic representation constitutes a modality for adequate description of the human condition. Levinas states that the meaning of the ethical commandment exceeds all metaphoric and poetic expression, and, at crucial moments in his philosophy, he quotes Talmudic verses as if they are philosophical arguments.

It would seem that Levinas is, in his own way, challenging the Western concept of literature. It may be that he agrees with Jacques Derrida’s idea of the Biblical origin of this concept, yet questions remain as to how Levinas understands this idea and how his philosophy transforms the concept of literature. Answering these key questions will be the general aim of a three-day conference organized by the Institute of Jewish Studies in collaboration with the Center for European Philosophy.

Special attention will be given to the poems, novel fragments, and reflections on metaphor and literature in the recently published volumes of the Oeuvres Complètes.


Mailing address: IJS
University of Antwerp
Prinsstraat 13 L.400
2000 Antwerp