Dogs and fire: The ethics and politics of nature in Levinas

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In Levinas's philosophy, "nature" refers to two distinct and sometimes opposed concepts. Most often it stands for being and perseverance in being (i.e., conatus): it is what is and wants to be. In some places, however, "nature" indicates the limits of human power, violence, or hubris, and reveals the uncanny unlimitedness of transcendence. In other words, "nature" designates primarily the ontological character of Creation but also sometimes the otherness beyond ontology. It expresses the egoistic but also sometimes the altruistic. It commonly discourages ethics but also sometimes encourages it. The aim of this paper is to analyze how these two meanings of "nature" meet and contradict each other in Levinas's philosophy, and to interpret their meeting and contradiction. Levinas never offers a studied reflection on nature per se. However, his Talmudic Readings include descriptions of nature as both ontological and inspiring the ethical. Reinterpreting some of the Readings I show that, for Levinas, nature is associated with war, conquest and destruction, but is sometimes presented as the cure for these ontological evils. In other words, its function is similar to that of politics. It embodies a necessity that must be moderated by an ethics which, in a way, comes from nature itself.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)359-379
Number of pages21
JournalPolitical Theory
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2013


  • Environmentalism
  • Levinas
  • Nature
  • Ontological violence
  • Talmudic readings

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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