Hermann Cohen: Writings on Neo-Kantianism and Jewish Philosophy

coeditor with Robert S. Schine (Brandeis: Brandeis University Press, 2021), pp. xxvii + 284

Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) was among the most accomplished Jewish philosophers of modern times—if not the single most significant. But his work has not yet received the attention it deserves. This newly translated collection of his writings—most of which are appearing in English for the first time—illuminates his achievements for student readers and rectifies lapses in his intellectual reception by prior generations. It presents chapters from Cohen’s Ethics of Pure Will, conflicting interpretations of Cohen by Franz Rosenzweig and Alexander Altmann, and finally the eulogy to Cohen delivered at graveside by Ernst Cassirer. Containing full annotations and selections that concentrate both on the philosophical core of Cohen’s writings and the politics of interpretation of his work at the time of his death and after, Hermann Cohen truly brings to light all of Cohen’s accomplishments.

Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas between Revelation and Ethics

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005

The French-Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) is today remembered as the central moralist of the twentieth century and remains a major presence in the contemporary humanities. In this book, written in lucid and jargon-free prose, Samuel Moyn provides a first and controversial history of the makings of his thought, and especially of his trademark concept of “the other.”

Restoring Levinas to the intellectually rich and combative atmosphere of interwar Europe, Origins of the Other overturns a number of views that have attained almost stereotypical familiarity. In a careful overview of Levinas’s career, Moyn documents the philosopher’s early allegiance to the great German thinker Martin Heidegger. Showing that Levinas crafted an idiosyncratic vision of Judaism, rather than returning to any traditional source, Moyn makes the startling suggestion that Protestant theology, as it spread across the continent in new forms, may have been the most plausible source of Levinas’s core concept. In Origins of the Other, Moyn offers new readings of the work of a host of crucial thinkers, such as Hannah Arendt, Karl Barth, Karl Löwith, Gabriel Marcel, Franz Rosenzweig, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jean Wahl, who help explain why Levinas’s thought evolved as it did.

Moyn concludes by showing how “the other” assumed an ethical bearing (long after its first invention) when Levinas’s thought crystallized in Cold War debates about intellectual engagement and the relation of morality and politics. An epilogue relates Levinas’s Totality and Infinity to current philosophical discussions in Europe and America and reflects on the difficult relationship between philosophy and religion in the modern world.

A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France

Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2005

How has the world come to focus on the Holocaust and why has it invariably done so in the heat of controversy, scandal, and polemics about the past? These questions are at the heart of this unique investigation of the Treblinka affair that occurred in France in 1966 when Jean-Francois Steiner, a young Jewish journalist, published Treblinka: The Revolt of an Extermination Camp. A cross between a history and a novel, Steiner’s book narrated the 1943 revolt at one of the major Nazi death camps. Abetted by a scandalous interview he gave, as well as Simone de Beauvoir’s glowing preface, the book shot to the top of the Parisian bestseller list and prompted a wide-ranging controversy in which both the well-known and the obscure were embroiled.

Few had heard of Treblinka, or other death camps, before the affair. The validity of the difference between those killing centers and the larger network of concentration camps making up the universe of Nazi crime had to be fought out in public. The affair also bore on the frequently raised question of the Jews’ response to their dire straits.

Moyn delves into events surrounding the publication of Steiner’s book and the subsequent furor. In the process, he sheds light on a few forgotten but thought-provoking months in French cultural history. Reconstructing the affair in detail, Moyn studies it as a paradigm-shifting controversy that helped change perceptions of the Holocaust in the French public and among French Jews in particular. Then Moyn follows the controversy beyond French borders to the other countries—especially Israel and the United States—where it resonated powerfully.

Based on a complete reconstruction of the debate in the press (including Yiddish dailies) and on archives on three continents, Moyn’s study concludes with the response of the survivors of Treblinka to the controversy and reflects on its place in the longer history of Holocaust memory. Finally, Moyn revisits, in the context of a detailed case study, some of the theoretical controversies the genocide has provoked, including whether it is appropriate to draw universalistic lessons from the victimhood of particular groups.