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Ovi Symposium; Tenth Meeting Ovi Symposium; Tenth Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2013-10-10 10:19:39
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Nannery, Paolozzi and Paparella
Tenth Meeting: 10 October 2013




nannery01Dr. Lawrence Nannery has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Mellen Press.


enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


Table of Content for the 10th Meeting of the Ovi Symposium

Section 1: A Presentation from Dr Lawrence Nannery: “How to Read a Poem.”
Section 2: “Martin Heidegger’s Perspective on Art as Truth.” From Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella’s Ovi e-book Aesthetic  
                Theories of Great Western Philosophers, by way of a commentary on  Dr. Lawrence Nannery’s
Section 3: A Presentation from Dr. Ernesto Paolozzi as translated from his book L’Estetica di Benedetto Croce:
               “Taste and Interpretation”
Section 4: “David Hume’s Perspective on Taste and Aesthetics.” From Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella’s Ovi e-book
                Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers by way of a commentary on Dr. Ernesto Paolozzi’s
Section 5: Nelson Goodman’s Perspective on Art as Symbolical. From Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella’s Ovi e-book
                Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers, by way of summation.
Section 6: A Presentation from Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella: “A Revisiting of Emmanuel Levinas’ Challenge to 
                Western Ethics. A New Humanism for the Renewal of Western Culture”
Section 7: A selected annotated presentation of Levinas’ major books translated into English


How to Read a Poem
A Presentation by Lawrence Nannery

Poetry has been a very powerful thing throughout history.  The ritual dramas of all primitive peoples seem to have been recited and sung and acted out.  Later, the belief systems of ancient civilizations were memorized by priestly classes and by students in whatever educational institutions there were: the “way of life” was taught in oral poetic forms. 

In the Western tradition, we see that poets who claimed to be blood relatives of the great genius Homer (whoever he was) memorized his great long poems and held contests to see who could recite the verses perfectly.  They also acted out in some measure the poem being recited, thus crossing the line into drama, though at first, each performance was restricted to one orator and a chorus.  So far as we know, the format of recitation existed from the 6th century B.C. onwards, and were overseen by judges, who all had memorized the text, or, later, had authoritative written copies of it.  

There are many examples of poetry mobilizing a whole culture to take the shape that it does, or validating one that already existed, as in the cases of the Indian Mahabharata and the great poem of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.  

But in our era the case is quite different.  In the modern age, poetry has taken on a merely personal meaning.  And this justifies the following opinion of Martin Heidegger’s, where he states that: “poetically man dwells… .”  In my opinion, this means that only humans live poetically, and that means that all important things; all sacred things; all unexpected things; and everything that man experiences that other species do not; are in the realm of poetry, by which he means, among other things, the realm of the magical and the sacred.  This is a very potent claim, but I believe it to be true.  Given the state of poetry today, this seems a gross overstatement, but it is truly defensible if one considers that all forms of song are forms of poetry. 

It is easy to see this.  It seems that every young man who is smitten with a young woman is likely to burst into song.  There is the existence of “standards” in modern popular music, viz., tunes that are popular down through generations.  They subsist over time because they strike a note of sentiment and music that appeal widely to the general population.

So, there is no generic difference between what song is and does and what poetry is and does.  But in today’s world the songs are restricted to those with tender emotions.  Thus they do not possess the same power or range as the culture-forming ancient and medieval poetries. A narrowing has taken place. Even though epic and long narrative poems were written all the way through the 19th century, the 20th century has seen little of this.  And, though it was common enough in earlier decades to find people who made a living by reciting poems, nowadays the rule is that the author has first claim on the performance of his work.  In this process, the flowery delivery common in the 19th century has declined.  So, it is fair to claim that poetry now belongs to the poet, and that fact reinforces the notion that poems are taken to be personal above all else.

This is a great burden to bear for the poet, because few people are as good at reading as they are at writing.  Added to that, the ability to deliver written words to an audience in a striking way is rare; I would go so far as to say that it is far rarer than the ability to write good poems, so the public is often disserved by how poetry is read aloud in the current day. 

It is also important to say that, in a general way, all the elements that have been thought for centuries to make up poetic diction have fallen into disuse, and plain speech substituted.   Rhyme, meter, metaphor, simile, alliteration, assonance, clear diction, emphasizing particular words, and the rhythm of the diction are just of some the things that have been cast away, so far as I have found in the many poetry readings I have attended.  Of course, one could blame it all on the Protestant Reformation of centuries ago, in which plain speaking was considered an element of morality, but that seems too far a reach for me.  I would prefer to say that poetry has exhausted itself in the English-speaking countries.  Therefore in my mind there is an impasse: I cannot find out why what is so central to the essence of humanity would be left to die on the vine. 

Cast in this vein I have decided after long thought that the only curative would be to do what the freedmen in the United States did at the end of the reign of Black slavery, when they were freed from bondage, namely,  they put down their shovels where they were, and went to work to sustain themselves.  I have decided to do the same, and that is the basis of the recommendations I will make on the subject of  “how to read a poem.”

 *   *  *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The first thing is: practice reading the poem.  This seems so obvious, especially if you are the author of it, that it need not be said.  But I can attest, as an active consumer of poetry readings over many years, that this is not the practice today.  I first became acquainted with this tendency when, as a college student, I attended a reading by a New York poet.  His diction was so poor and mumbly that another member of the audience asked him a question after the reading was over whether his delivery was due to some speech defect or some special lesson he was endeavoring to give us, but the poet himself was unfazed, and responded that, no, he always spoke that way.  The questioner had been kind, but the poet was truthful, and supplied a good reason for everyone to run away when word got out that he “read” his own poems.

The second thing is to read the poem by recognizing that all poems have rhythm, and in fact probably have several different rhythms as one progresses through the body of the poem.  So, some sections may be somber and slow, some playful and fast, and some merely matter-of-fact.  If the reader, and a fortiori, the poet himself, is not alive to this fact, then he should pursue another profession.  Reading aloud his or her poems is not his or her thing.

Third, rhyme has more or less been dead in poetry circles for a couple of generations now, at least in the English-speaking world, and perhaps for good reason, viz., which is that rhyme wore itself out.  While Shakespeare could write an entire play in rhyming couplets, we do not any longer consider it central to poetic diction.  Still, I am an advocate of serendipitous rhymes, i.e., those that occur midstream, out of the blue.  Such examples seem to wear well.  Rhyme is also a wonderful teaching instrument when young children are hear it and begin to play with it.

Fourth, playfulness is very uncommon in poetry nowadays, as John Calvin would have decreed, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if poets were funny once in a while?  What passes for humor today in poetry circles passes me by completely.  These bits of humor are anything but risible.  Singsong sentences should be welcome from time to time, even nonsense rhymes, just to put a smile on the faces of the audience. 

Fifth, and perhaps most violated, is the idea that the end of a line means something more than just a signal that one should ignore it.  In fact, I take it that there must be a slight pause at the end of each line in order to emphasize the shape of the text.  Nowadays, this is apparently unknown.  If there were rhyme in the poem, end-rhyme that is, with whatever rhyme scheme one wants to conjure, the rhythm will be under the rule of the rhyme.  And that naturally entails that a pause, however short, is necessary to emphasize the relation between the words that rhyme. 

Recently I have seen quatrains that have been broken up in the middle of a sentence as though there were nothing to the quatrain, and the reasoning is that this is legitimate because it is new, and it relieves through variation.  Well, it is new, but it is decidedly not a quatrain any more.  The end of every line demands a very short pause; the end of a quatrain a somewhat longer pause; and, if the poem is broken up into sections, a pause longer again is needed.  Why?  Because otherwise the hearers cannot get the sense of the work, and it loses its right to be called a poem.

Sixth, metaphor and simile are of the essence of poetry, and should never be entirely lacking in what is called a poem.  They are not always brilliant, but even common speech contains many comparisons, so therefore a poem lacking any element of poetic diction cannot be considered a true poem. 

Last, there is meter.  Meter exists in all speech, but the meters of poetry have a lot in common with music.  They are always present in any poem.  The reader should use this to his or her advantage, and emphasize the meter, even allow a sing-song phrase or two to escape your lips, in order to demonstrate that poetry is the most important of the arts, and that is because it goes to the essence of things, and right to our hearts, and makes us dwell, sometimes, in grace.

Three Basic Rules

There are three rules of reading out loud that should govern all the other rules.  They are: (1) The shape of a stanza should be, among other things, a guide to how it should be recited; (2) The rhythms and speed and intonations of the delivery of the words and phrases confer an overflow of meaning to the hearer.  I call this “lilt.”  Without lilt, you do not have a poem; and (3) the speed and diction should be appropriate to the emotions intended to be conveyed.  Also to be considered are the timbre and beauty of the voice intoning the poem.  It should help in many instances, but, if the truth be told, sometimes the content of the poem requires a suppression of this quality.  On the other hand, it is often important to sometimes infect the reading with playfulness of expression, but other times this is inappropriate. 

From all these considerations, one should divine that there is never a general rule that governs all poems, and one must have the ability to divine when to be playful and when to be serious in order to bring out the deeper meaning of the poem. 

The only negative lesson to draw from these consideration is that, if a reader reads every poem the same exact way, he or she is not worthy to be a reader.  The same holds for readers who lend no emotion to the audience when he/she reads aloud.

I have just used the word “aloud.”  The reason I did so is that I have followed the practice of handing out printed copies of the poems I am going to read or recite.  I have found that our culture is so bound by the written word that, in general, members of the general public, who usually have not heard poems —particular poems — read before, need to follow along to get the full force of what the poet/reciter is doing unless they have this crutch.  For many, without this crutch the performance might be no more than a whirl of words.

Perhaps it may sound self-centered of me, but in what follows I shall give examples from my own poems to illustrate how one should read a poem.  This is the case because we, the entire realm of the “developed world,” have not been part of an oral tradition for a long time.

Some few poets, usually well-known, will sing some of their verses.  If they have good voices, this is appropriate, for what is poetry but song?  If Homer could do it certainly we should not be embarrassed to imitate him.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

To come to the head of the matter, the rule is: the emotion to be conveyed must determine the way the voice is used.  The pace, rhythm, and intonation of the voice should combine to make the words come alive.  This is more or less a definition of what I have called “lilt.”  If a reading has no lilt, it is not good poetry.

The range of emotions that are addressed in poetry is technically infinite, but let us illustrate a few of these possibilities.  More would be tedious. 

The first type of mood is one of wonderment.  To bring it to the reader’s attention and feeling I render some lines from an unpublished poem of mine entitled: “Subjunctives for my Daughter and Son.”

                         Jouncing, bouncing, revolving in unencumbered song,

                         From the enveloping velvet of a deep summer’s night,

                         Flush with the incessant cadence of linnets

                         Exhaling their excess of life

                         To that shining midnight in winter,

                         Where we brush rime from our crystallized eyebrows —

                         And the wind in the trees, a hushed suspiration —

                         And the cathedral of trees, black planks, bending over us —

                         As we stand in wonder under an astonished moon,

                        Concussed by the beauty of the glowing earth,

                        Staring at the sight of the new-fallen snow lying plain

                        Upon the fields, throwing light up to the clouds,

                        White, in breathless silence, divinely bright

                        On this deep and holy night.

The second mood is despair.  For this I choose to use some lines from a long poem of mine entitled “Vincent’s Journey.”

                       Humiliated, irrelevant to the world.

                       He took a Decision with a capital “d”.

                       Fearing God’s nasty cachinnations, he rushed into

                       His Being towards Death, ran behind a dunghill

                       And shot himself nowhere in particular, making his own way

                       Back into the Ground.

In that last letter his last words were: “Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered on account of it, but that’s all right…”

The third mood is the halcyon.  Here is a poem of mine entitled “Sensations, Memories.”

                       The wind in the shade

                       The damp of the cellars

                       Those mornings in summer.

                       The air light, light as the brightness

                       Of the Sun, rising in fullness,

                       The fullness of being

                       Concentrated, clearer, whiter and hotter.

                       It could, at midday, bore a hole in the air,

                       Even quieten the rush of rolling waves

                       Down at the beach.

                       But before that, in shortening shadows,

                       Like gnats we had zigzag vigor and play.

                       Time slid by like the easy laughter

                       In the faces of our open-mouthed dogs.

A fourth mood is that of rockin’ and arollin’.  I choose lines from a very long poem, unpublished, entitled “Ars Poetica.  What Writing is Like, Section XVI.” He taught me the words:

                       Flowing words, fouling words, liquid words, lilting words,

                       Cursive words, cursing words, grunting words, grudging words,

                       Implicit, explicit words, inexplicable words,

                       Dashing words, crashing words, angry, destructive, boom-bashing words,

                       Racing, razing, fazing words, tracing, hazing, grazing words,

                       Words that strut, shift gear, refuse to do what they are told, in other words,

                       Proud words!

                       He said: “Tell the words lest the world forget itself.”

                       Words that fly off and take on a life of their own,

                       Words that wrestle you to the ground,

                       Words that roll in the dust, in joy or in agony.

                       Words that rave, and starve, and crave.

                       Words that are the object of desire,

                       Words that lift us off the floor in admiration,

                       Infectious words, vexatious words, and words that are drunk and wise,

                       Jackhammer words, rat-a-tat words, words that break down doors,

                       And words that will lie in bed with you, and rub your tummy-bun.

Fifth, I wish to use some characterization to describe a person, who happened to be my mother.  Here are the first lines from a poem entitled: “In Sunshine or in Shadow. One Hundred Lines for my Mother.”

                      Solipsistic self-centered catastrophist!  Vain self-dramatizer!

                      There you are, in front of the mirror, powdering and powdering, layer upon layer,

                      Zizzing ditties between your teeth like a kazoo,

                      Retelling stories to your understanding self about your admirable self,

                      Always the cynosure.

                      There you stand: the perfect mother for a poet!

                      Sixth, and last, here is short poem that exhibits serendipity, entitled “Ambush Charm.”

                      This street scene, its peacefulness suddenly pressing on your eyes

                      This fond summer air that caresses your skin, heavy, seeming rose on every side

                      This black night bestriding, granting everything to you in buxom abundance —

                      This stillness, awaiting amenable sounds

                      These rich presents have been waiting for you all along.

To the extent that a poet or reader can extend to the full length of the meaning and import of a good poem, and so long as he restrains himself from trying to overdo, there is much reason to believe that he can have much the same effect on the hearers as those of old, the Homeridai, who, when resurrected, will have a great impact upon any attentive listener.



 Martin Heidegger’s Perspective on Art as Truth
By way of a Commentary on Larry Nannery’s Presentation on Poetry
(from Emanuel Paparella’s Ovi e-book
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers)

Preamble by Emanuel L. Paparella The above very interesting presentation on the reading of poetry by Larry Nannery contains a short allusion to Martin Heidegger’s idea that only humans experience the poetical and the sacred. This Heideggerrian allusion is redolent of Vico’s poetic philosophy which precedes it by two hundred years. In any case, I’d like to follow up Nannery’s presentation with a look at Heidegger’s conception of Art as truth, as expressed in the Ovi e-book Aethetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers.

Art is historical, and as historical it is the creative preserving of truth in the work. Art happens as poetry. Poetry is founding in the triple sense of bestowing, grounding, and beginning. Art as founding, is essentially historical. This means not only that art has a history in the external sense that in the course of time it, too, appears along with many other things, and in the process changes and passes away and offers changing aspects of historiology. Art is history in the essential sense that it grounds history…The origin of the work of art—that is, the origin of both the creators and the preservers, which is to say of a people’s historical existence, is art. This is so because art is by nature an origin: a distinctive way in which truth come into being, that is, becomes historical.

                                                                          --Martin Heidegger (“The Origin of the Work of Art”)

Heidegger (1889-1976) remains one of the most influential of continental philosophers, despite his tarnished reputation due to a brief flirting with the Nazi party. He begins his analysis of art with this question: What is the origin of the work of art? What is being asked becomes clear once one understands Heidegger’s answer: “art is the origin of the work of art.” To understand this puzzling answer which sounds like a mere tautology one has to keep in mind that Heidegger has a holistic view of art. That is to say, every aspect of that complex phenomenon known as art is equally crucial to the understanding of what art is. Those aspects are fourfold: 1) the art object itself, 2) the artist (or in Heidegger’s terminology the “creator”), 3) the audience or viewer (or “preserver”), and 4) the work (in the sense of effect) of art.

Heidegger never mentions any specific theory of art, nevertheless he is implicitly critical of any theoretical account that privileges one or the other of art’s four components as the essential one. So, for Heidegger the work of art, itself an ambiguous term which refers both the art object and to its effects, can be understood with reference to its role in that complex phenomenon. Once this holism of Heidegger is grasped, it becomes easier to analyze his more specific claims. The most important of those claims is the assertion that art reveals the truth of Being. From time immemorial philosophers have linked art and truth, but Heidegger’s unique conception of truth as the disclosure of Being is essential for understanding his view of art.

Heidegger begins his complex analysis by first asking what distinguishes an artwork from other types of things, especially from what he calls “equipment.” An item of equipment such as a pencil or a hammer, undoubtedly plays a role in the various purposive projects which we undertake such as writing, building, etc. Superficially, equipment and artwork may appear similar. Both are created items of form and matter. A statue is a piece of marble on which a sculptor has impressed a form. A pencil is composed of wood and graphite, joined to make a useful object of writing. Heidegger agues that such a superficial view ignores the essential nature of the artwork: its ability to reveal truth.

This begs the question: how does an artwork reveal truth? By getting us to see objects outside their customary settings, revealing the broader contexts within which they exist. Heidegger provides some examples; three of them are the painting Shoes by Vincent van Gogh, an ancient Greek temple, and a poem about a Roman fountain. Although the “worlds” disclosed by each of these works are different from one another, they make available to their viewers the specific worlds, the historical cultures in which they were produced. As such, each work is an example of the essential nature of the artwork.

Throughout his analysis Heidegger uses terms such as “world,” “earth,” and “strife” to explain the rise and fall of human cultures. The easiest to understand is “world,” since we all use in much the same way as Heidegger when we talk of the world of the student, or the world of the writer, or the world of the villain. “Earth” is more difficult to grasp and interpret but it is basically the material underpinning on which culture erect their worlds. And finally “strife” refers to the essential conflict between world and earth; while it is true that cultures create worlds, it is also true that earth is not a mere passive element in the relationship. Earth fights with world eventually bringing culture down and allowing for historical development.

In his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” Heidegger discusses the function of art but also the nature of art object, the role of the artist as well as the role of the audience. This conforms to his basic holistic approach to art. Heidegger distinguishes artworks from equipment by asserting that artworks proclaim their creation as part of their content. Although the usefulness of items of equipment distracts us from the fact that they are produced, works of art by their nature proclaim their status as creations.

What is striking about Heidegger’s holism is that it views both “creators” (the artists) and “preservers” (the audience) as essential for the constitution of a work of art, that is to say, essential to art as a whole. This resembles Barthes’ view that if there is no audience there is no meaning to a work of art. The material objects in themselves with no audiences are mere relics of former times. Obviously this cognitive conception of art as revealing the truth of Being is in stark contrast with both Plato and Kant’s conceptions which make a dichotomy between aesthetics and ethics but it remains a signal view pointing to a more complete and holistic view of the nature of art.


Photo of Martin Heidegger at his Black Forest Retreat
in 1962, ten years before his death



Taste and Interpretation
A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi as translated from his book
L’Estetica di Benedetto Croce

If art is subjective and creative, how can it be interpreted and evoked in an objective mode? Is there such a thing as objectivity, and if not, how is it possible to understand art?

In his Estetica, with a procedure and style still redolent of positivism, Croce writes that “Having gone through the entire aesthetic and extrinsic procedure and having fixed art in a definite physical material, having produced a beautiful expression, the question arises, how does one go about judging it? Art critics will egregiously answer in unison that one needs to reproduce it within oneself. Let us attempt to understand well this fact and, consequently, let us offer an outline. Individual A is looking for an expression of an impression which he feels present but has not yet expressed. Here we see him attempting it with various words and phrases which will render what he is looking for, which he knows to be existent but which he does not yet possess. He tries combination m but he rejects it as not appropriate, not expressive enough, lacking something, ugly: then he tries the combination n, with the same result. The expression remains elusive. After various other attempts, wherein he will at times get closer, and at times get farther away from the target to which it aims suddenly he forms the sought after expression…Another individual which we’ll call B must now judge the expression, and determine if it is beautiful or ugly; he must place himself in A’s viewpoint and recreate the creative process with the help of the physical sign.”

According to this first Crocean position, art is therefore revocable, even if it is not easy to do so. But as we have already examined, the problem of interpretation has taken a good part of Croce’s thought, even when not explicitly so. Initially Croce clearly asserts that translations, theatrical representations and even the recitation of a poem lead, after all, to the creation of new and original works, even when they derive for their inspiration from the original text. We have postulated a clear difference with the revocation, in its strict sense, of poetry. Engendering some perplexity Croce will later assert that musical interpretation is similar to the revocation of the poetical while art critics assert that the philosopher could have assimilated the reading of musical scores to theatrical representations or to translations, that is to say to an interpretation which remains a surplus vis a vis the text.

This Crocean perspective gets modified with the publication of the volume La Poesia, and as we have seen, where even the possibility of translations seems plausible to him even when they retain the general theoretical viewpoint. That volume of 1936 mitigates many judgments of the philosopher in an attempt to understand the very complex life of art in all its manifestations.

It must nevertheless be noted that even in these particular aspects of his philosophy one detects the fundamental problem of every philosophy, that of the relationship between the subject and object, the universal and the particular, truth and interpretation of truth. There is no doubt that in Croce’s thought, especially in its aesthetics, the moment of subjectivity, understood in a transcendental mode, is held firmly in place, because it appears obvious that every interpretation qua interpretation is always subjective. One could affirm, using the usual idiom of contemporary philosophers, that life itself is a hermeneutic, and interpretation, that those few pages we are now writing are nothing less than what is for us, explicitly or implicitly, is the representation of life. The question arises: can one conceive of an interpretation that is not the interpretation of something? That is to say, is it possible to have a cogitans without a cogitatum? Is it possible to conceive of intentionality, to return to Husserl and medieval philosophy, without intentionality having in mind a content? Certainly not, unless we wish to fall back in what Kant called, referring to Berkeley, a delirious idealism, or conversely to place on the table again, as it happened with Kant, the problematic issue of objectivism having recourse to hypothetical things in themselves.

The oscillations between the Scylla of subjectivism and the Carrdi of objectivism can be detected, in my opinion, even in the Crocean historicism, which attempts valiantly, to keep steady its synthesis without privileging one or the other pole. It would appear that for Croce art is revocable while critical judgment remain shifting.

A final clarification. We need to keep in mind that when we assert that the revocation or the interpretation is possible, one is affirming it in a purely formal mode, according to the identification, as we have already seen, of the categorization of art as irrepressible and universal function of man.


Book on Croce by Ernesto Paolozzi (2000)



David Hume’s Perspective on Taste and Aesthetics
By Way of a Commentary on Dr. Paolozzi Presentation
from Emanuel L. Paparella’s Ovi e-book
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers

The great variety of taste, as well as of opinion, which prevail in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation. Men of the most confined knowledge are able to remark a difference of taste in the narrow circle of their acquaintance, even where the persons have been educated under the same government, and have early imbibed the same prejudices. But those who can enlarge their views to contemplate distant nations and remote ages, are still more surprised at the great inconsistence and contrariety. We are apt to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension: but soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us. And the highest arrogance and self-conceit is at last startled, on observing an equal assurance on all sides, and scruples, amidst such a contest of sentiment, to pronounce positively in its own favor….For a like reason, we are more pleased, in the course of our reading, with pictures and characters, that resemble objects which are found in our own age or country, than with those which describe a different set of customs. It is not without some effort, that we reconcile ourselves to the simplicity of ancient manners, and behold princesses carrying water from the spring, and kings and heroes dressing their own victuals. We may allow in general, that the representation of such manners is no fault in the author, nor deformity in the piece; but we are not so sensibly touched with them. For this reason, comedy is not easily transferred from one age or nation to another. A Frenchman or Englishman is not pleased with the Andria of Terence, or Clitia of Machiavelli; where the lady, upon whom all the play turns, never appears to the spectators, but is always kept behind the scenes, suitably to the reserved humor of the ancient Greeks and modern Italians. A man of learning and reflection can make allowances for these peculiarities of manners; but a common audience can never divest themselves so far of their usual ideas and sentiments, as to relish pictures which in no wise resemble them.”

                                                                                    --David Hume (“On the Standard of Taste”)

Hume’s famous peroration on the standards of taste, in contrast and competition to that of Kant, is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in the 18th century. For we live today in relativistic times which declare that any opinion is as good as any other, that we are all individually entitled to our own opinions as to what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is true and what is false, what is ethical and what is unethical. The expression that encapsulates this attitude is “It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.” This rather philistine attitude toward all works of art is almost as prevalent as that which declares that what is most recent historically is always better and more progressive than what is past or ancient, the so called theory of “inevitable progress.” And of course the ancient Romans had a slogan: De gustibus non disputandum,” [one does not argue on taste] which the modern cultural philistine readily incorporates as confirmation of his relativistic prejudice. Who are you to tell me that spaghetti should not be cooked “al dente”?, to each his own, and so it goes. Does culinary taste have an aesthetic component as the movie “Babet’s Feast” would suggest? Let’s see how Hume approaches this conundrum.

David Hume (1711-1776) is well known as an eminent Scottish philosopher of the school of British empiricism. When it came to art Hume was less concerned with finding a suitable definition of art based on empirical evidence, than in the exploration the question of whether there are objective standards for assessing the validity of works of art. He presents the reader with an antinomy: two ideas with a claim on truth but mutually irreconcilable. On one hand, most people believe that they can easily make a critical judgment on the quality of a particular work of art. Confronted with the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci and a merely pleasing Norman Rockwell illustration most people would have no problem in judging the former is objectively speaking better than the latter. This forces to acknowledge objective standards for critical judgments about art. But there is another side to the antinomy: the consideration of what exactly grounds those judgments. Hume asserts that it is nothing but taste, or to use his own language, whether a work of art affects the “sentiments.”

Hume believes that there is a “natural equality of taste,” that is to say, one’s tastes are one’s own and not subject to corrections by others. So, a critical judgment is nothing more than the expression of an idiosyncratic reaction to a work of art. It follows logically that there can be no objective standard of judgment, a view that contradicts the earlier conclusion that there must be one. How does Hume resolve the dilemma? Simply by asserting that as a matter of brute empirical fact, our human nature is so constituted that certain features of works of art just happen to please all human beings. In other words, there is a universal human susceptibility to certain qualities and therefore it follows that there is also a universal agreement that some works of art are more beautiful than others and consequently objectively better.

But aesthetic disagreements persist despite their grounding in a supposedly uniform human nature. Hume is here forced to invoke factors found in the psychological make-up of individuals, or in shared cultural preferences. They interfere with a person’s natural ability to appreciate the beauty of a meritorious work of art. They are a sort of natural biases and prejudices. Only those with “a strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice” are capable of discerning the qualities that make a work of art good.” So it’s all in the eye of the beholder but those afflicted by myopia or blindness will not be able to judge. The contradiction is not really resolved despite the fact that it all sounds logical enough; for, if only some with a good education and experience are qualified to judge, what about those who also have the universal capacity to judge? Well, Hume seems to be saying, they have the potential but not the ability. They may be cultural philistines and not even know it. If it all sounds slightly elitist, a rationalistic game of smoke and mirrors, it probably is. It is left to Kant to reveal it as such. Perhaps relativism is not such a great path to objective truth.


David Hume (1711-1776), best known
for his philosophical empiricism and relativism



Nelson Goodman’s Perspective on Art as Symbolical
From Emanuel L. Paparella’s Ovi E-book Aesthetic Theories of
of Great Western Philosophers, by way of summation

If attempts to answer the question “What is art?” characteristically end in frustration and confusion, perhaps—as so often in philosophy—the question is the wrong one. A reconception of the problem, together with application of some results of a study of the theory of symbols, may help to clarify such moot matters as the role of symbolism in art and the status as art of the ‘found object’ and so-called ‘conceptual art’…. We think first of such works as Bosch’s “Garden of Delight” or Goya’s “Caprichos” or the Unicorn tapestries or Dali’s drooping watches, and then perhaps of religious paintings, the more mystical the better. What is remarkable here is less the association of the symbolic with the esoteric or unearthly than the classification of works as symbolic upon the basis of their having symbols as their subject matter—that is, upon the basis of their depicting rather than of being symbols. This leaves as nonsymbolic art not only works that depict nothing but also portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes where the subjects are rendered in a straightforward way without arcane allusions and do not themselves stand as symbols….A salient feature of symbolization, I have urged, is that it may come and go. An object may symbolize different things at different times, and nothing at other times. An inert or purely utilitarian object may come to function as art, and a work of art may come to function as an inert or purely utilitarian object. Perhaps, rather than art being long and life short, both are transient.

                                                                              --Nelson Goodman (“When Is Art?”)

Nelson Goodman (1906-1998) was a professor of philosophy at Harvard University. His wide ranging books included the field of aesthetics, epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of language. His famous Languages of Art (1968) remains today an important study of art as a form of symbolic communication.

In his provocative essay “When Is Art?” Goodman argues that the central question in the philosophy of art is not what makes an object a work of art, but when an object becomes a work of art. His point is that an object is a work of art not in virtue of some special property it possesses, but rather of how it is employed; that is to say, a work’s status is attributable to the uses to which it is put.

Goodman vehemently disagrees with the formalists who distinguish properties intrinsic to a work from those which are not arguing that only the intrinsic properties are aesthetically relevant. The formalists also argue that the symbolical properties of a work of art (such as that of being representational of a real object) are irrelevant to its aesthetic merit. The accuracy of the representation of reality has no claim to value as art. Against this view Goodman holds that all works of art have symbolic properties relevant to their status as artworks.



The core of Goodman’s argument is that exemplification is a common symbolic property. The work of art exemplifies a property when it not only possesses that property but also makes a kind of selective reference to that property. A Picasso painting may be non-representational, but it exemplifies the property of being geometrical which it possesses in virtue of its obvious geometrical shapes.

So, in Goodman’s view, a work expresses any property it exemplifies, but only metaphorically; a musical work, for example, may exemplify joy, but it cannot literally be joyous. In effect this means that even paintings declared to be nonrepresentational or purely formal symbolize. This is so because they, like the samples you find in a fabric store, exemplify some of their properties. They do this in certain contexts but not something that sets them apart from other types of objects in the world, for indeed exemplification is something that ordinary things can share with artworks.

For an object to be a work of art, it must function as a symbol, something it can do in some contexts but not in others. As Goodman points out, a Rembrandt may be a work of art in a museum but not if used to replace a broken window. That is why the question is not what but when is art. Goodman supplies a tentative answer to this question: An object is an art object when it has five characteristics: 1) both syntactic and 2) semantic density, 3) relative repleteness, 4) exemplification (a symbol’s serving as a sample of a property it possesses), and 5) multiple and complex reference (a symbol’s performing a variety of referential functions). In conclusion, for Goodman, works of art do not constitute a special class of objects, although they do have certain types of properties that single them out; rather, they are objects to be approached in a unique way.



A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella: A Revisiting of
Emmanuel Levinas’ Challenge to Western Ethics:
A call to a ‘New Humanism’ for the Renewal of Western Culture

Introductory Remarks: In the light of one of the main goals of this symposium (the exploration of a new humanism for the renewal of Western culture) and the attacks on Western Civilization and democracy itself coming from the groups such as the Italian Lega, Golden Dawn, The True Finns, the True Dutch, The Tea Party, and so on, I’d like to revisit the very issue explored when I began my contributions to Ovi magazine some eight years ago: i.e., the analysis of the powerful challenge of Emmanuel Levinas to the whole of the Western-European ethical tradition. It seems even more relevant today than it was eight years ago. We have in fact reached a very sorry historical threshold, on both sides of the Atlantic, when moral arguments on the just war are deemed naïve and misguided vis a vis sophisticated Machiavellian “real politik” or hard economic considerations. All this going on while hundreds of shipwrecked Africans die off the coast of Lampedusa.

Indeed, a sad “misremembering” (as Tony Judt would put it) may have occurred when the lesson of Chamberlain appeasing the German bully in 1938 seems to have been all but lost on the new generations of Westerners while at the same time we hypocritically continue to celebrate and commemorate the triumphs of democracy and freedom over tyranny. It’s all redolent of narcissism and even selfishness transmuted into virtue. Ayn Rand described it best as “The Virtue of Selfishness.”  Aristotle must be turning in his grave.

The ancient Greeks would be astounded at the hermetic boundaries we have managed to build between the Beautiful, the Good and the True, between positivistic science and humanistic liberal arts. Indeed, to commemorate the Holocaust every year with conferences, books, monuments, museums, but then fail to heed its important practical moral lessons, is ultimately to dishonor the meaning of the event and utterly miss its ethical message.

The creation of a viable new humanism as a call to a renewal of Western culture requires something more authentic than a cheap sophistical rhetorical narration. I’d like to propose in this meeting of the symposium another attentive reading of the article on Levinas which, as I remember, was enthusiastically received when it first appeared in Ovi some eight years ago. The proposal is accompanied by a fervent hope that, while it can be easily predicted that the ethically deaf and blind will continue to ignore the moral issue and stick to Machiavellian politics, power considerations and economics, or perhaps, even more trivially, to soccer games on Sunday, those who have sound moral eyes and ears, will heed Levinas’ timely message for an urgent call to a new modern Humanism, a humanism capable of harmoniously bridging the two estranged culture of positivistic scientism and liberal arts’ humanism.


Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)
“I am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism”
                                                 --Edmund Husserl, University of Prague, (1935)

Modern Western Civilization presents us with a Janus-like face: On one side Renaissance Humanism which begins in Italy in the 14th century with Petrarch, on the other side Enlightenment Rationalism which begins in France in the 17th century with Descartes.

After Descartes, there is a dangerous tendency to separate the two cultural phenomena and consider Humanism either anachronistic, or superseded. The inevitable result has been sheer confusion in the area of cultural identity; consequently, at this critical juncture of the new polity called European Union, there is talk of a “democratic deficit,” that democracy that is integral part of Western Civilization.

We are in urgent need of cultural guides to show us how to better harmonize the two above mentioned phenomena. One such guide is Emmanuel Lévinas’ humanistic philosophy. In as much as it challenges the Western rationalistic philosophical tradition, it is extremely important for the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity. It explores in depth the threats to the authentic cultural identity of Europe, how modalities of thinking powerfully affect other ideas and shape a whole cultural milieu, sometimes with less than desirable consequences.

A few background biographical details may be useful to better understand Lévinas. He was born in Lithuania in 1902. In 1923 he moves to Strasbourg to study under Husserl and writes a doctoral dissertation on his philosophy. There, he also comes in contact with Heidegger’s philosophy. The dissertation on Husserl’s phenomenology gets published in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, Lévinas is beginning to take his distance from Heidegger. He enlisted in the French army, was captured in 1940 and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps.

Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. He became a teacher and administrator in an institute for Jewish education in Paris (l’alliance Uneversel Juif); there he begins to study traditional Jewish texts under the directorship of the Talmudic sage Mordechai Shoshani to whom Elie Wiesel (who also studied with him) devotes a chapter in Legends of Our Time.

In 1961 Lévinas defends the first of his two major philosophical works (Totality and Infinity) before the philosophy faculty of the Sorbonne becoming a professor of philosophy. His second major work bears the title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.

Those are the basic events that dramatically change Lèvinas’ thinking. Prior to World War II he had merely criticized elements of 20th century Western thought; afterward he begins to attack the whole European philosophical tradition, especially its culmination in Heidegger’s thought, for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He begins to indict western philosophers in general for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts, such as Hegel’s “Spirit,” or Heidegger’s “Being,” which assimilate countless individuals to rational processes, thus negating their individuality.

To be sure Kierkegaard had also criticized this Hegelian tendency, countering it with his existentialist philosophy. Those who understood his critique only too well, promptly proceeded to relegate his thought to the theological within a false dichotomy (shown absurd by Thomas Aquinas way back in the 13th century) of philosophy/theology, thus insuring that Kierkegaard would never be as influential as a Hegel or a Heidegger.

In any case, Lévinas too argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers included—interact with persons different from ourselves. He argues that this “face-to-face” realm is not the same thing as the realm of abstract concepts. It possesses its own texture which is primarily an ethical one.

In this domain we are challenged by “the otherness of the other person.” It is this “otherness,” which is an integral characteristic of human life, but the Western philosophical tradition has overlooked and even negated it, thus contributing to the dehumanization of Man.

Lévinas' life and thinking were deeply affected by the trauma of the Nazi genocide, better known as the Holocaust. But what is unique about his thinking is that it refuses to make those monstrous events its core subject matter. For, as Derrida, who admired Lévinas' philosophy, aptly expressed it once: the danger of naming our monstrosities is that they become our pets. As we speak, it seems that the gassing of children has become an acceptable monstrosity, another pet of our super-sophisticated civilization.

Lévinas' writings provide no extensive discussion of the Holocaust itself; therefore, the assumption, on the part of those who were thinking and writing on it, has often been that Lévinas could not be considered a valid source of philosophical insight into this dark period of human history. But that is an erroneous assumption, just as invalid as the assumption that he unreservedly admired Heidegger's philosophy because he happened to have translated it into French. As a matter of fact, Lévinas' thinking is a reaction to the Holocaust by the mere fact that it asks the crucial question: What does it mean to be a human being?

Were one to encapsulate the whole of Lévinas' philosophy in two succinct words, they would be "being human." This philosophy insists throughout that an extreme, unbalanced rationality devoid of imagination, feelings, senses and spirit, unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of life, is the equivalent to a refusal to be human, to allowing oneself to become a monster.

A little personal anecdote may be illustrative here: many years ago while in college I took a seminar on Heidegger with a professor who was a staunch admirer of Heidegger's philosophy. The students were made to read Being and Time on which the professor in question would offer in class brilliant comments and interpretations. Not once during the entire duration of the seminar was it ever mentioned that Heidegger, for a short while, had joined the Nazi party and had heard echoes of "the voice of Being" in the speeches of Hitler; somehow that particular existential detail was not considered essential by the professor for any valid appraisal of the ponderous rational scheme of Being and Time.

I wrote a paper where this existential fact was mentioned and reflected upon. The professor assigned a C- accompanied by comments wherein I was chided for straying from the concerns of Heidegger's philosophy which had nothing to do with his private life and beliefs. In hindsight, that academic event of my life proved to be my first serious existential encounter with modern Western rationalism and its dichotomy intellect/life. It eventually led me to discover Vico and Lévinas and subsequently write a Ph.D. dissertation on Vico at Yale University (1989), as well as a book on Vico (1993) and a book on the EU cultural identity mentioned below (2005). Those concerns are still ongoing

Be that as it may, Lévinas' attack on what he considers negative elements of the Western philosophical tradition begins with analyses of the philosophical roots from which sprout the extreme individualism of modern times, and the reaction to it, extreme nationalism. Not unlike Vico in the 18th century, he individuates such a root in the Cartesian ego, an autonomous center of consciousness which in modern philosophy has assumed the function of a paradigm for thinking about human beings. Lévinas does not deny this world-constituting ego, rather he leads it to the discovery of an ethical core within itself; which is to say, he uncovers another root growing within the first root which he calls the "self."

The conundrum seems to be this: if it is true that the ego does the conceptual work of philosophy by announcing what there really is in the world, how can this ego then acknowledge the essentially ethical "self" which lives within itself? Somehow a bridge has to be found between this limitless power and freedom of the independent intellect, and the particular concrete ethical obligations to another person. For, this ethical self, unlike the ego, finds itself caught up with the welfare of the other prior to a conscious, rational decision, in a recognition, even when unwilled, of his/her humanity.

Indeed this ethical capacity seems to come from another place than our rational powers of analysis evidenced within the Cartesian ego. Even if we grant that such an ego is adequate in identifying the truths of philosophy, it somehow remains unable to acknowledge a domain where there is no choosing of the connection with the other; in fact the other way around may apply: the other chooses me, one is "already responsible" for the other prior to any rational analysis.

And here is the philosophical paradox: Lévinas' task becomes that of using rationality to take the Cartesian ego beyond rationality, somewhat similar to what Vico does with his concepts of fantasia, which for him precedes rational reason, and the concept of Providence who guides human events and is both immanent within history but also transcendent. Which is to say, the rational ego has to be brought to recognize a sort of enigmatic "ethical" truth which Lévinas calls "pre-originary," i.e., arising outside, prior to the usual time-line of the reflective ego.

In attempting this operation, Lévinas will proffer statements such as: ethics is "older" than philosophy, it is "first philosophy," on the scene before the arrival of rational philosophical thinking; something ingrained in human nature. Within purely classical categories, that may be equivalent to the Socratic preoccupation with dying well by living a life of integrity and devotion to truth, as exemplified in Plato's Apology. It is this ancient voice of goodness, which even Vico's pre-historical "bestioni" possess to a degree, a voice often overlooked by rationalist philosophers, but powerfully present in Talmudic texts, that Lévinas finds strangely silent in the modern Western philosophical tradition.

In mytho-poetic language, it’s as if Lévinas were to come face-to-face with the goddess Europa, as she is being abducted by a bull (Zeus in disguise), to journey to another shore, there to assume a different persona, and he were to ask her, “Europa quo vadis?” after warning her to remember her original identity: “nosce te ipsum”; which is to say, go back to the future and know yourself holistically: know your Greco-Roman origins, yes, but also the Biblical tradition (the foundation for Christianity), the Christian heritage, the Humanistic synthesis of Graeco-Roman and Christian civilizations, Celtic and Germanic cultures with their ideas of freedom, the universalizing Enlightenment rooted in the democratic-scientific tradition born in ancient Greece, the Islamic influences. Voltaire and Descartes yes, but Vico and Novalis too are part of your identity. Your unity will be a chimera if it is only a unity of banks and soccer games neglectful of its spiritual elements.

Undoubtedly this hermeneutics, or re-interpretation of the Cartesian ego, placing at its core an non-refusable responsibility for the other without granting the ego any time to think it over and choose, so to speak, challenges some of the most basic assumptions of modern, and in some way classical, rationalistic philosophy.

Not since the times of Mamonides in the 13th century had a Jew dared such a fundamental challenge from within the Western philosophical tradition. It is the challenge of Paul to Greek culture revisited. For indeed Lévinas is saying nothing short of this: the knowing ego does not exhaust what it means to be human. Some have called his philosophy one of “ethical subjectivity,” as a way of dismissing it as the raving of a lunatic, just as the ancient Greeks dismissed Paul in the agora. For the serious reader, however, it is rather a re-definition of subjectivity face to face with a totalizing kind of Cartesian reflection.

While Lévinas does not write directly about the Holocaust, other thinkers, who influenced Lévinas, were nevertheless reflecting upon the philosophical implications of this dark event of human history. One such was Berel Lang who wrote an essay titled “Genocide and Kant’s Enlightenment,” which appeared in his Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide. In this essay Lang uncovers certain lines of affinity between some classical aspects of Enlightenment thought, and the Nazi genocide. His conclusion is that there are two important aspects of the Enlightenment that formed the intellectual heritage, which needed to be in place, for genocide to occur in the heart of civilized Europe: namely, the universalization of rational ideals, and the redefinition of the individual human being in terms of its possessing or not such a universal rationality.

The genocide, Lang argues, was aimed at those groups who stuck to their own ancient pre-Enlightenment sources of particularistic identity, considered “irrational.” Hence the racial laws and racial exclusion were expression of ingrained Enlightenment prejudices. Which is to say, the Enlightenment sheds light on everything except itself; it remains to be enlightened.

This powerful essay leads many cultural anthropologists comparing civilizations, to begin to wonder: which, in the final analysis, is more obscurantist: religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, or a so called “enlightened” era throwing out the window the baby with the bathwater and arrogantly refusing any suggestion that it ought to enlighten itself, and not with its own light?


Berel Lang is currently a professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University.
Two of his books are: Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide (1990) and
Holocaust Representation: Art within the Limits of History and Ethics (2000)


All this speculation conjures up that terrible face to face encounter of Dante with the poet Bertrand De Born in a cave in hell doing “light to himself” with its own decapitated head. There we have reason eating its own tail; internal logical thinking assuming the grammar of lunacy. I dare say that such a question has not been satisfactorily answered yet. In that question lies the challenge of Lévinas’ philosophy: in its displacing of the centrality of Cartesian thinking within modernity, in order to re-center it around ethics: the face-to-face encounter with another human being which is always hopeful unless it occurs in hell.


Inferno 28: 118: Dante and Virgil meet the poet
Bertrand de Born in hell doing light unto himself

Everything we have discussed above begs in fact this particular question: is Lévinas’ challenge to the Western philosophical tradition philosophically tenable? To answer the question adequately we need to be first aware that Emmanuel Lévinas, as well as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenweig (1886-1929), the author of “Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections in a Dark Time,” available in a book by the same title published by Temple University Press in 1986, are representative of learned European Jews with great familiarity with the texts of both the Jewish and the Western philosophical tradition. They challenge the latter exactly because they are so knowledgeable in both. Lévinas is fully capable of confronting the intellectual traps of those rationalists who would relegate him to the sphere of theology. To the contrary, he insisted on writing in both spheres and claimed that Jewish religious textuality contains hitherto unexplored philosophical insights. For this is a tradition which puts great emphasis on interpersonal, social and familial relationships; phenomena not contemplated in traditional Western philosophy.


Rosenweig’s essay Echoes from the Holocaust:
Philosophical Reflections in a Dark Time
is found in the above book published
by Temple University Press in 1986

Which is to say, the challenge is to Western philosophy’s totalizing pretense, beginning with Plato, that it can gather everything up in one synchronic whole. In more scientific terms we may speak of the search of the holy grail called “unifying theory.” It is that challenge that irritates control freaks, thought policemen, rationalists and mysologists galore. It goes a long way in explaining their attempt to relegate Lévinas’ philosophy to the sphere of the merely mystical.

Finally, let us briefly examine how Lévinas develops this fundamental challenge to Western rationalism. He names both the texts of Jewish tradition and philosophical discourse “the said,” while calling the living activity of interpretative struggle (its hermeneutics) with the texts, and the self which suffers for the other, “the saying.”

The said always tries to capture the saying, which may partly explain the ancient grudge of Plato towards poets (see Plato’s Republic, book X, on Homer). In any case, it is the saying which launches the said and puts it into circulation. The saying echoes outside of space and time destabilizing the comfortable, rationally secure positions rationalists take up in the said, in conceptual truths (thought to be universal and eternal), in a secure totalizing kind of knowledge. Yet it is this very destabilizing process that injects the ethical outward-directness into the said. Lévinas will often contrasts the saying’s vulnerable openness to the other (which he calls “being ex-posed) with the said’s relative security (which he calls “exposition”). He asserts moreover, that there is a rich unexplored relationship between the way we are “ex-posed” in ethics, and the life “exposition” we use to analyze and order the world.

Indeed, this is a new, essentially Jewish, philosophical reflection which places into question the claim to totalizing completeness, by an appeal to the priority of ethics. It insists that any person that confronts me, needs to be placed outside the totalizing categories seeking to reduce her/him to an aspect of a rational system. Basically, what Lévinas is doing is relocating our dangerous ability to deny others their legitimate sphere of difference; an ability which is capable of destroying our own humanity.

This is nothing short than the core struggle for the achievement of moral humanity which was also the root ethical aim of Vico’s New Science. Like Vico, Lévinas shows us the way to keep the benefits of universal Enlightenment ethics while avoiding its perils. For, his ethics is not based on a totalizing sort of universalism, but on the particular concrete needs and demands of each unique individual, every “other’ that I meet within time and space. Every time I meet the other, she/he constitutes an ethical challenge to my self, a challenge as to who I am as a human being.

This kind of philosophy is a challenge to each one of us to go beyond nostalgic returns to Greek classicism, as important at those may be, in our understanding of Western Civilization; to establish intellectual-background-assumptions which are different from those of the Enlightenment; to search for urgently needed new cultural paradigms, new ways of thinking appealing to the priority of ethics and the importance of the particular as a category of thought, a place in thought wherein genocide and hatred of the other becomes inconceivable; in short to prepare new wineskins for the new wine which is a “Novantiqua Western Civilization,” the search, in other words for its very soul.


Leonardo perceived no unbridgeable duality
between science and art


A New Europe in Search of its Soul: Essays
on the European Union’s Cultural Identity
and the Transatlantic Dialogue
published by Emanuel L. Paparella in
2005, the year he joined the Ovi Team



A Selected Annotated Presentation of Levinas’ Major Books Translated into English


On Escape: De l'evasion (Cultural Memory in the Present)
published in 1935, On Escape represents Emmanuel Levinas' first
attempt to break with the ontological obsession of the Western tradition


Existence and Existents was written mostly
during Levinas's imprisonment in World War II,
and provides the first sketch of his mature thought


A sequel to Levinas's Totality and Infinity,
this work is generally considered Levinas's
most important contribution to the contemporary
debate surrounding the closure
of metaphysical discourse


Emmanuel Levinas was a major voice
in twentieth century European thought.
Beginning his intellectual career in the 1920s,
he developed an original and comprehensive post
rationalist ethics of social responsibility and obligation


In this book Levinas brings together
the phenomenology of Husserl, the 
fundamental ontology of Heidegger, and
the Bible. The best introduction to his work


This book was translated and published in English in 1990.
Jean Paul Sartre hailed Levinas as the philosopher
who introduced France to Husserl and Heidegger


This volume published in 1994 brings together an
important collection of essays by Levinas,
dating from between 1969 and 1980


Is it Righteous to be? (translated and published in 2001)
has renewed the question of the ethical within
Western Civilization with Levinas at its very center


The thirteen essays by Levinas collected in this volume in 1998
investigate the possibility that at the end of the twentieth century
the word "God" can finally be understood in a meaningful way


In the Time of the Nations was published in 1994
The 'nations' of the title are the 'seventy nations' in the,
Talmudic idiom, the whole of humanity surrounding Israel


In Humanism of the Other, translated and published in 2012,
Emmanuel Levinas argues that it is not only possible
but of the highest exigency to understand one's
humanity through the humanity of others


Emmanuel Levinas placed ethics at the foundation of philosophy.
During his life, which spanned almost the entire twentieth century,
he witnessed devastating events that could not have been
more demanding of that philosophical stance


End of 10th Meeting of the Ovi Symposium (10 October 2013)


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