Volume 2, 2007
Schelling and Levinas
The Harrowing of Hell
When Emmanuel Levinas writes (in the preface of Totality and Infinity) that Franz Rosenzweig’s Stern der Erlösung is “a work too often present in this book to be cited,” he effectively names his debt to F. W. J. Schelling as well, for Rosenzweig’s work was a sustained attempt to carry to completion Schelling’s great philosophical fragment, the Weltalter. Scholars of Levinas have explored Levinas’s relationship to Schelling, but I confess that, as a Schelling scholar, I knew nothing of this connection until rather recently. I credit above all the energetic work of Jason Wirth for helping me see its importance — and more generally the importance of reading Schelling in the context of recent work in continental philosophy. None of this has been easy. The very thing that Schelling and Levinas have in common, their resistance to the implicit solipsism of overcoming mystery with clarity, make them poor candidates for quick appropriation and comparison. Indeed, Schelling anticipated Nietzsche by openly mocking the scholars who make it their business to “appropriate and compare.” Mockery and ridicule is, of
course, not Levinas’s way of going about things. Even so, he too is so relentless in his polemic against the totalizing desire to know that he forces his reader to pause and question just what a proper scholarly response to his work might be. As such, the very first result of taking up the question of Schelling and Levinas might be that we are forced to set aside the scholarly mask, testimony of one’s acquiescence to the order of the same, in order to step forth as the human beings that we are. Whether this is an act of humility or of arrogance is not at all clear. Dispensing with the pretense of knowledge takes a kind of boldness on our part — for what but knowledge might give us a claim to the attention of others?