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Is Levinas’s Philosophy a Response to the Holocaust?

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image of The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy

Some commentators have claimed that Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy should be understood as a response to the Holocaust. This study assesses that claim. It begins by clarifying what it means to call his philosophy a “response.” The bulk of the article then analyzes his essay, “Useless Suffering,” one of the few works in Levinas’s philosophic oeuvre where he discusses the Holocaust. Levinas is widely read as claiming that there can be no explanation for the Holocaust—that it marks “the end of theodicy.” It is shown, however, that his point is not that it cannot be explained, but that we misjudge the nature of evil when we view it as calling for explanation rather than practical activity. Based on this analysis, it is argued that Levinas’s philosophy can be understood as a response to the Holocaust in the sense of being a performative writing that sought to address the evil that occurred in the Holocaust by transforming the ethical sensibilities of his readers.

Affiliations: 1: Penn State Erie, The Behrend College


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