The reviews that precede mine are all to the good and locate Levinas' work superbly. I simply wish to add what I consider to be my responsibility with regard to this work to the mix.
I respond to this work as I do to the story of an epic pioneering expedition come to its end, a Moses halt outside the promised land, an encampment made too soon. Levinas breaks new ground in "Otherwise Than Being," and I am the better for having that ground tilled. He drives into thickets barely ever before found in order to find the "source" of a great landscape.
He drives, that is, to find a way that our living takes shape as something compelling and inextricably at stake for us, beyond the dry or hyposticized ruminations of Reason and Being, that is, metaphysics. He undertakes this journey, it seems to me, in the spirit of being Husserl's disciple, and as one who felt the sting of Heidegger's "betrayal" (a major motif throughout the book), and then saw the eclipse of the master in its shadow. Levinas here does not defend Husserl's notions of "givenness" or "intuition" but here goes right into the teeth of that primacy, which Husserl continually missed or evaded, so as to bring it to voice.
Levinas, in my estimation well establishes that "signification" arises out of a confluence in the most seminally initiating moments occurrence of self and other; and it is this confluence of an encompassing "oneself" that the ego has for material to render as thing, law, principle, reason and Being. Part of the difficulty of the book arises, of course, from being among the first to happen upon this territory and then instead of doing an anthropology or Freudian translation (without attribution), attempts to give it voice, its own voice. This is a strange voice, one that sounds, says, but does not make itself heard: it shapes the site of hearing prior to any "said" being rendered.
Still, my responsibility compels me to sense the retrograde in this work: a striving so hard to get back to this state of affairs before "being" has taken over, has had its say, that it overestimates what can be accomplished here. He remains a Kurtz, ensnared in his new found land, and exclaims at us, "The Horror," or, in his own words, the "betrayal."
The ego, even being, it seems to me, has not betrayed the one for the other, and it has not abandoned the one/other because of a third party. The ego, even as Heidegger himself struggles beyond it, offers a site, not only of technology or social parsing of justice, but a way that aspirations are given shape so that no pirmal state of oneself has to be claimed or saved or revealed by any god or God. It is the territory into which the oneself has taken us, and that journey is far from complete; and it is good, indeed, to be reminded of that oneself in which we gathered into singularity out of the great and indifferent onwarding milieu, and in such a manner, stance, attitude and strength as to have our way at stake.
The exploration has begun. And, along WITH Heidegger (sorry EL) the opening to the way has been cut. But circling back around to some Edenic state of irremissible responsibility, elided by a presumptuous substitution, is just one aspect; Levinas recites the tale of that place, its story to be told, the new story of that place that indeed needs to be told, and that telling binds us to a commune and a tribe of originating inspiration. All to the good.
But the tale's telling ends. We must forge onward, through and by means of that egoic shape of our way. And not so as to return, recursively to that original givenness and intuition, but toward a more expansive and more encompassing way to engage the fantastic multiplicity and complexity of what now sprawls out before us. The new land is no destination, it is, yes a responsibility above all, yes it calls us before any said in a silent saying beyond all hearing. The new land saturated with being, like it or not, calls for an affirmation a "yes, yes, come" that we have to learn to hear and bring ourselves to, toward, onward. And here, my friends Levinas and Heidegger, no gods can save us. Here we are with each other, responsible and unknowing, affirming for that toward which we can only give, which, as Derrida makes clear, means we must depart and be absent, so the second "yes," is prepared for, and in that we then find ourselves and speak, maybe as Levinas teaches us, of what has already occurred.
But, we have to give way again, for it comes, it gives...
Levinas, I feel, never leaves the circle of the tale told around the fire. I listen with amazement and take it in; but when I depart, I don't feel he can guide me. But Derrida, Nancy, Caputo and others, of the same heart, are ready at the circle's edge.