Sun Xiangchen, Fudan University Shanghai

Philosophy and Non-Philosophy in Levinas’ Thoughts and its Inspiration to Chinese Philosophy


In 1961, Merleau-Ponty gave a lecture on Philosophy and non-philosophy since Hegel in College of France, and after 30 years, a book Philosophy and non-philosophy since Merleau-Ponty, was published in the U.K. and the topic of this paper is in such an origin. In his famous paper “Violence and Metaphysics” Derrida also begins his paper with discussion on the topic of philosophy and non-philosophy, which is a quite important perspective to understand Levinas’ philosophy. For me this topic means the opening and the possibility of philosophy, and how a heterogeneity voice could be introduce into the mainstream of philosophy. In this sense, how to evaluate the Jewish dimension in Levinas’ philosophy is very important.

Hegel and Heidegger, both of them pose a question: the end of philosophy, no matter their attitude is confidential or pessimistic, one principle is common, philosophy speaks Greek. That is no problem, even Levinas agrees with it. But the challenge is whether this judgment means that the only resource in philosophy you can draw is from Greek, and whether it is possible you can speak something otherwise than Greek. The conclusions are totally different from different perspectives. For Hegel and Heidegger, that means the end of philosophy, or philosophy was completed in Greek; and for Levinas, we can speak something otherwise than Greek tradition, such as Jewish wisdom in an express of philosophy. Levinas insists an opening attitude towards the future of philosophy, so he never talks about the knell of philosophy, but the rebirth of philosophy. This is the mission which Levinas gives to philosophy. And in this sense, the question of philosophy and non-philosophy is quite important in contemporary philosophy, Neither Hegel, nor Merleau-Ponty considers to translate the heterogeneity culture into their philosophy. And Derrida also doubts the possibility of it, he asks: we are Greek, or Jew. I hope the answer to this question should open a new horizon of philosophy.


In his early days, Levinas’s excellent description of the weight of Being, or il y a is very impressive, it determines him to pave a way to a different direction from Heidegger. His existential description of indolence and fatigue is totally different from Heidegger’s anxiety and fear, and different from Sartre’s bad-faith, which point out a path to escape from Being, with a thick Jewish color.

In Totality and infinity, Levians’ emphasis is exposition of the Other’s face, and the commandment of “should not murder”. In Otherwise than Being, He redefines the subject as “Here I am”. All these topics are with Hebrew roots. But at same time, we should notice that there are two ways of writings in Levinas books, one is in philosophical way, the other is in Hebrew way, all the themes in his philosophical writings are presented in his Hebrew writings as well, or in other words, Levinas tries to express all these themes which are presented in his Hebrew writings in a philosophical way, or phenomenological way. To distinguish these two different approaches clearly is very important for Levinas. He was angry when people only regard him as a Jewish thinker, and not a philosopher, he insists on his philosopher identity, and the philosophical character of his exposition. Is there a Jewish philosophy, this is a question obsessed by many Jewish philosophers, Levinas practices his own way to demonstrate what is a real Jewish philosophy, it is a not a system of Hebrew traditional stories and terms, but use a philosophical way to express some special, and Jewish experiences. Philosophical way means these special messages can be conveyed to and shared with other people in a rational way.

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