It is often noted that Levinas’s religious writings and his philosophical work exhibit a continuity and interrelatedness that deny the possibility of a strict distinction between the two. It is not surprising that a thinker who is deeply religious should attempt to work out the metaphysical foundations of his religious experience. However, we who are not religious, or those who are but consider their religious experience to be beyond the grasp of philosophical discourse, are quite likely to view Levinas’s project as theological, and hence of no interest to philosophy, or as bad philosophy because it is based on theology. And yet, Levinas’s work is clearly neither strictly theological nor strictly philosophical: theology as much as philosophy (qua ontology) is on trial in Levinas’s work. As Derrida says, ‘The complicity of theoretical objectivity and mystical communion will be Levinas’s true target.’1 Therefore, the undercurrent of messianism which runs throughout so much of his work, and which may or may not be merely an aspect of Jewish mysticism, should be understood only on the basis of an interpretation of its role in the texts. In other words, if Levinas’s understanding of the absolute alterity of the Other, for instance, is esoteric or neo-religious, then its character as such can be exposed on the basis of our reading of his text. This should be possible firstly because of Levinas’s (expressed) commitment to ‘reason’,2
and secondly because of the explicitly non-intuitional nature of the experience which he places at the centre of his meditation-that of the Face.