So I’m reading a book yesterday, a work on Jewish philosophy by a fairly well-known scholar, and close to the beginning of his chapter on Levinas I find him announcing that his topic — that is to say, the particular aspect of Levinas’s thought he intends to discuss — is largely ignored by the scholarship: it is, he says, “rarely highlighted” and “rarely analyzed.” And this gets me thinking about the many, many times I’ve read similar phrases in works on Levinas. “What even the best scholars sometimes overlook is x”; or “Levinas scholarship has largely misunderstood the idea of y”; or “no other term has been so misinterpreted as z.” I have come across a version of the phrase in more than half the articles and books I’ve refereed for journals in the last few years, in a doctoral thesis for which I served as external examiner, and in a small but notable number of published works.
Those of you who have had similar experiences will also recognize two connected facts. The first is that the statement is in every case incorrect. There is lots of scholarship on Levinas out there, and it is quite wrong to say that the face has not been given attention, or that scholars don’t understand the entry of the third, or that they have been unable to integrate into their analyses his problematic lines on Sabra and Chatilla. The second is that in every case the relevant scholarship is not cited, and in almost every case almost no scholarship is cited at all. For instance the book chapter I mentioned, which makes the claim that Levinas’s Jewishness has been given short shrift, cites only one secondary source — one — and that is Howard Caygill’s Levinas and the Political, a book widely recognized by Levinas scholars as provocative and far from definitive.
Why do people do this? I think there are two motivations. For the established scholar, it is just laziness. He knows it’s time to incorporate Levinas into his works, he snatches up and reads what appears to be a reputable book that will fill him in on the background, and then he feels free to offer the public his own readings of some of the primary sources. This doesn’t bother me so much, but it does bother me that he introduces his readings with the claim that he’s breaking ground, a claim that does injustice to the small but excellent group of scholars who actually did break the ground on the Jewish Levinas, and did so with rigorous attention to one another’s work.
For the up-and-coming scholar — the graduate student, say, who sends her first article to a journal and has the misfortune to have me as a referee — I am thinking the formulation points in a different direction. In such cases the words “what Levinas scholars misunderstand” should be read as “what my teacher misunderstood.” I am thinking of a good student, who has been taught something incorrect about Levinas (since God knows there is indeed a lot of bad teaching of Levinas being done) and who, through her own diligent work with the primary sources, has figured out why her teacher is wrong and what Levinas is actually saying. This experience she sums up with the words “the scholarship has overlooked.” Had she examined the scholarship, she would have found otherwise.