Emmanuel Levinas: Hermeneutics, Ethics, and Art

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This article draws attention to the subject of art in Levinas’s thinking through consideration of his philosophical
language, which is aided by images, metaphors, and idioms of art. The primary image that will accompany our
discussion throughout this article is the image of art as shadow, which Levinas incorporates into the title of the
essay which he devotes to the subject of art: “Reality and Its Shadow”. Thinking about art from the perspective of
Levinas means thinking about image and essence, about which is visible before us and which we cannot see, and
about the different ways in which art can express itself. Levinas’s theory of interpretation is grounded in and guided
by the field of ethics and addresses the ethical aspects of interpretation. Levinas approaches the discourse of
interpretation not out of naïveté but rather based on a deep understanding of the field of hermeneutics, with all its
shortcomings and challenges. Thinking of hermeneutics from an ethical perspective is no mere addition to the
discussion but the very crux of the matter. An attempt to understand interpretation as an act of exposing the truth
encounters serious philosophical and logical difficulties, whether we are seeking to discover the intention of the
artist, the intent of a specific work of art, or a hidden form within the work itself. The engagement with Levinas’s
theory of hermeneutics, however, raises a different question which is the focus of this article: Can Levinas’s theory
of interpretation be applied to the realm of artistic creation, and if so, how? This question is sharpened by the
difficulties that Levinas himself poses to his readers by designating art as the “shadow” of reality and drawing
attention to the egoistic dimension of the artistic act.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)588-600
JournalJournal of Literature and Art Studies
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2015


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