Turning toward the other: Ethics, fecundity, and the primacy of education Chapter uri icon


  • Emmanuel Levinas returned to Paris immediately following the murderous years of World War II, during which he served as an interpreter before his unit was captured. He then spent the duration of the war, 1940-45, first in Frontstalags in Rennes and Laval, then at Vesoul, and from June 1942 until May 1945 at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel near Magdeburg in Germany.1 Upon his return and without delay, he went to work for the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) and in 1947 became the director of the cole Normale Isralite Orientale (ENIO). At an event celebrating the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Levinas made the following statement about his time immediately following his release from captivity: "After Auschwitz, I had the impression that in taking on the directorship of the cole Normale Isralite Orientale I was responding to a historical calling. It was my little secret. . . . Probably the naivet of a young man. I am still mindful and proud of it today."2 This celebration brought together several of his former students from those years at the ENIO and issued in a small publication, Levinas - Philosophe et Pdagogue, which collected several short essays about Levinas as a teacher, talmudist, and philosopher.3 The collection comprises just a select few of the commentaries offered by Levinas's own students, yet even they provide a glimpse of Levinas as both a teacher and a philosopher of the highest order. One statement in particular stands out in its unique character. Ady Steg, who was the president of the AIU at the time of the celebration, offered a fable speculating about the time when Levinas would stand before the Heavenly Throne.4 To summarize, the Eternal One asks Levinas what he did with his life. With each answer - "I believed in the Good, about which I wrote"; "I studied with Husserl and Heidegger"; "I studied with Chouchani" - the Eternal One replies - "And?" It is only when Levinas mentions that he directed the ENIO that the Eternal One is impressed and replies, "Director of the school, you, a prestigious philosopher?" After this response the Eternal One seems satisfied and sends Levinas on his way. The response from the Eternal One, while it runs counter to the prevailing attitude toward education, also betrays a sense of surprise - a philosopher of such great prestige would direct a day school? While the Heavenly Throne considers this particular task to be of the greatest importance, this surprise reveals an awareness of the possibility that not everyone would see things in the same way, thus making Levinas's devotion to the school all the more admirable. The Eternal One's surprise indicated by his question - "You, a famous philosopher [directed a school]?" - clearly indicates that in spite of Levinas's academic accomplishments, he was not too proud or arrogant to devote himself to the education of the younger generation. Nonetheless, the Eternal One's added question - "you, a famous philosopher?" - spoken with more than a hint of doubt or suspicion, betrays the more common negative sentiment toward education and those who educate. The view that "those who can't, teach" is still prevalent today, and the attitudes toward education range from resentment - teachers are paid too much (?!) for such cushy jobs - to outright cynicism and contempt regarding the educational system and what it promises. This range of negative attitudes creates a powerful force pushing against education, hindering any possibility of real reform: no one believes that education produces anything positive; only those who are not good at anything else would go into teaching; and teaching is so easy that teachers should not be compensated adequately for doing such a job. In contrast to the negative view about teaching, Levinas saw it as fundamental to any hope for the future, certainly for the Jewish people and I contend for the rest of humanity. The future of the world rests on how we educate our young people. Ady Steg's fable is certainly written for effect. Yet, it is not lost on any of his students from the ENIO or anyone who reads his essays on Jewish education that education is not a side hobby in which he engaged. Totality and Infinity was published in 1961, 15 years after the lecture course that was published as Time and the Other. While it does seem to be the case that many of the themes from the earlier work are given new life in his 1961 book, Totality and Infinity cannot be reduced simply to an expansion of the themes in Time and the Other. For example, although Levinas gestures toward the ethical relationship in Time and the Other, he does not name it in that book. Additionally, the references to teaching that are so frequent in Totality and Infinity do not appear at all in Time and the Other. Although I am unaware of the exact years that Levinas was writing Totality and Infinity, it should be safe to say that one reason for this particular difference - the references to teaching that are absent from those earlier writings - is that he was working through these themes in the 1950s, the years when he was also the director of the cole Normale Isralite Orientale (ENIO), the branch of the Alliance Israelite Universelle that coordinated the actual teaching in the schools and trained future teachers. We should not be surprised then that references to teaching peppered the philosophical project Levinas was developing at the same time that he was in the trenches teaching the Jewish youth and concerned with crises for which he saw education as the solution. More interesting to note is the similarity in themes that concerned him in both the Jewish writings and the philosophical project of that time period. In both sets of writing he identifies a crisis in humanism for which a new subjectivity is needed. But, he describes this new subjectivity in different registers in his Jewish writings and in Totality and Infinity. The present essay takes a developmental approach to Levinas's project and considers what

author list (cited authors)

  • Katz, C.

complete list of authors

  • Katz, C

Book Title

  • Totality and Infinity at 50

publication date

  • December 2012