In the review below, Eric Severson takes up Neal DeRoo’s Futurity in Phenomenology: Promise and Method in Hussel, Levinas and Derrida in two respects. First, he addresses the book according to its philosophical pedigree–the work after all deals with a line of thinking in 20th century Continental thought and considers it’s consequences. Severson’s review will be helpful for readers of this site for see how DeRoo’s work fits into the the ongoing conversation in Continental philosophy recent years, particularly on the subject with which Neal deals: time. Second, Severson takes up Neal’s work for the benefit of a Christian reflection, asking about how the Continental conversation about time can influence the Christian conversation about time. Have Christians understood time correctly, or might we gain something if we appropriate insights from the revolutionary conversation about time in 20th Continental thought? Consider interacting with Severson and Neal in the comments.

Eric Severson is a philosopher specializing in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. He lives in Kenmore, Washington with his wife and three children.  He is currently an Affiliate Professor of Philosophy for Nazarene Theological Seminary. Eric is the author and editor of several books dealing with Christian responsibility, ethics and Continental philosophy: Levinas’s Philosophy of Time: Gift, Responsibility, Diachrony, Hope (Duquesne, 2013); Gift and Economy: Ethics, Hospitality and the Market (Cambridge Scholars, 2012); Scandalous Obligation: Rethinking Christian Responsibility (Beacon Hill, 2011); I More than Others: Responses to Evil and Suffering (Cambridge Scholars, 2010); and The Least of These: Selected Readings in Christian History (Wipf & Stock, 2007).


Across the history of Western philosophy the question of time has not always played a pivotal role.  In the last century, and particularly in Continental philosophy, “time” has returned with some force.  Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, in very different ways, both demonstrate for the early 20th century that neglecting time leads to crippling consequences for philosophy.  These critiques, and some of the innovative solutions proposed by Husserl and Heidegger, have resulted in a fruitful and burgeoning field in phenomenology and Continental philosophy.  Neal DeRoo has recently provided an insightful introduction to this conversation in his text Futurity in Phenomenology: Promise and Method in Husserl, Levinas and Derrida.[1]  The following will not attempt a review of DeRoo’s fine book as a whole but instead focus on three modest goals.  First, I will contextualize DeRoo’s work amid the important developments about time in the last century.  Second, I hope to show that while DeRoo is a careful and responsible reader of Levinas, his search for phenomenological method runs into a substantial challenge in Levinas’s final major work, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.  Finally, I hope to make a few tentative gestures for Christian theology and ecclesiology based on a Levinasian critique of the concept of futurity.

Heidegger claims that time has been treated since Aristotle as just another “entity.”[2]  Past and future, again following Aristotle, have been nothing more than previous and upcoming instances of the eternal “now.”[3]   In his articulation of this problem, Heidegger points blame at Plato and Aristotle.  The Socratic philosophers have, Heidegger suspects, successfully subjugated time to the more convenient category of being.  Writes Heidegger: “Ever since Aristotle all discussions of the concept of time have clung in principle to the Aristotelian definition.”[4]  Taking his cues from Husserl’s fresh examination of time and consciousness, Heidegger writes Being and Time as a sweeping critique of the failure of philosophy to think time.  In the wake of Being and Time, philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida have participated in an ongoing struggle to rethink time after the Heideggerian critique.  DeRoo’s Futurity in Phenomenology is a vital contribution to our understanding of these struggles, and their implications for phenomenological method and thinking about the future more specifically. I hope DeRoo continues his work on these themes and provides the same extended treatment of Heidegger that we see here of Husserl, Levinas and Derrida.  Such an analysis seems to be a missing component of the present work.

Among the more interesting questions that DeRoo puts to Levinas is the question of the future in the context of Levinas’s later work.  In his chapters on Levinas, DeRoo leads us through the notable shift in Levinas’s work over the decades between his first and last philosophical writings.  As DeRoo deftly demonstrates, one can find Levinas in the earlier essays and books pointing toward the future.  In Totality and Infinity Levinas will even gesture toward “eschatology,”[5] and his readers might expect that the next moves in Levinas’s philosophical journey will be toward what DeRoo calls “futurity.”  Yet Levinas surprises his readers by turning in the other direction, writing forcefully instead about time as anarchic, immemorial, unrecoverable and diachronic.  These moves are not, as DeRoo notes, a rejection or reversal of Levinas’s earlier focus on the extreme alterity of the future of the other person.  Instead, they are a way to think the alterity of the other person at a more radical register.  Whereas Totality and Infinity (1961) could be read to narrate the encounter of a stable ego with the other person whose future transcends it, Otherwise than Being (1974) unsettled this analysis.  DeRoo claims that Levinas’s later work focuses on the past immemorial to demonstrate that the self is always already bound to the diachronic futurity of the other person.[6]

Rather than explore what Levinas’s final turns might mean for the quest for futurity overall, DeRoo outlines the implications of these moves for phenomenological method.  This move is consistent with DeRoo’s project overall.  He concludes, rightly, that Levinas leaves us with a phenomenology that is utterly and radically open. Yet in the attempt to appropriate from Otherwise than Being a phenomenological methodology for the sake of thinking futurity, DeRoo may be glossing that which is most essential about this text for Levinas.   He points out that Levinas’s focus on the past is not a reversal of his earlier deliberation about the future; both waves of Levinas’s thought are attempts to speak with clarity about the way time is a feature of the relation to the other person.  DeRoo discusses some helpful comments that Levinas makes in the essay “Diachrony and Representation” about the “futuration of the future.” He then claims that Levinas has provided us with “a new concept of futurity.”[7]  Yet I wonder if, after Otherwise than Being, we can still speak about a sense of “futurity” in Levinas.  If so, it seems unlikely that it will resemble the word as it has to be used to describe what is happening in Husserl and Heidegger.[8]

Something important has changed in Levinas’s thoughts about the future, and the capacity of this thinking about time to be appropriated for phenomenological method may have been revoked.  Whereas Totality and Infinity still operates from a methodology familiar to phenomenologists, this may not be the case in Otherwise than Being.  DeRoo seems aware of this too, pointing to the way Levinas exceeds Husserl’s phenomenology of apperception toward a future that is as an-archical as the past.[9]  But I would like to hear more about whether or how it is meaningful to continue to apply the term “futurity” to the work of Levinas after Otherwise than Being.

Levinas never mentions “futurity” in Otherwise than Being.  He very rarely mentions the future in this text, and when he does it is mostly invoked negatively.  The term “eschatology,” which gets a friendly treatment in Totality and Infinity, has now become a danger.[10]  Levinas frets, near the end of Otherwise than Being, about the risk that his radical reinterpretation of time might be incorporated as a mere interruption of the dialectic of history.  By speaking and writing about the ruptures of time, of history, Levinas risks making them mere complications in the otherwise sustained thread that connects the past and the future along a continuous horizon, a “logos.”[11]  He writes: “The discourse is ready to say all the ruptures in itself, and consume them as silent origin or as eschatology.”[12]  Such a turn would render useless the whole of Otherwise than Being, “barring the issue that our whole essay attempts.”  To speak of futurity is still to speak of having time; Levinas wants to suggest that the horizon of time that includes historicity and futurity is still incapable of responsibility.  To glean from Otherwise than Being a phenomenology of futurity is to render the text silent, to defang Levinas’s critique of the history of thinking about time.

Futurity will not cease to be a concept of critical importance to phenomenology and philosophy.  Yet if we follow Levinas’s latest developments, “futurity” might be a concept that remains too close to the egoism that attends to time in the vernacular of the eternal present.  DeRoo’s intention is to explore the implications of the way futurity is investigated by Husserl, Levinas and Derrida, all of the sake of better understanding phenomenological method.  At this register his book is a tremendous success.  Yet it should be clear that what Levinas offers in Otherwise than Being is a critique of the concept of “futurity” and its value for thinking about the relation with the other, and perhaps the relation to phenomena.  To address this issue might exceed the parameters of DeRoo’s thesis, but I would love to hear him discuss this nonetheless.


DeRoo does not, in this text, have the time or space to outline what the implications might be for thinking about futurity for Christianity.  The implications are nevertheless profound.  No mystery is more important, and befuddling, for Christian theology than the mystery of time.  We also need not review the long history of complications that result from the awkward marriage between Christian theology and Greek philosophy.  So it is encouraging to see this text taken up and explored in the present conversation.  There is a substantial gap between the verbiage of DeRoo’s text and the language common to theological and ecclesiological discourse.  I hope readers will forgive my efforts to bridge that gap.  What can be said in this context about the implications of this book for the church must be limited and tentative.

The question of time and futurity have not been forgotten in modern and postmodern theology proper.  The insights of Emmanuel Kant, which made possible the innovations explored by DeRoo, were not lost on Friedrich Schleiermacher and other pioneers of nineteenth and twentieth century theology.  The inclination in modern theology is not toward the radical promissio that we see explored in DeRoo’s book but something closer to an exploration of what is possible.  Schleiermacher, and in a different way Hegel, provide a philosophy of the possible, a teleological futurity that explores what the present can engender with God’s aide.[13]  The church must, for those following Schleiermacher or Hegel, become wise in the assessment of the present and therefore better participants in the new reality that the present might become.

These moves are not a challenge to the traditional, Aristotelian subordination of time to being.  Rather, they confirm that time is just a moving present, that time is a “now” plodding forward, with all potentialities wrapped up in the coiled possibilities of the present.  God, in such a system, plays the role of guiding the unraveling of the possibilities of today.  There is no rupturing eschatology here, no apocalyptic irruption of the present.  And this means the renewed thinking about time that develops out of the works of Husserl and Heidegger provide both challenge and promise for theology.  Theologians like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are already, in the early twentieth century, expressing a similar distrust for the closed teleology of “modern” theology.  What Heidegger and Husserl provide is a rigorous philosophical avenue through which we might challenge the stifling restriction of theology to a metaphysics of the present.

Levinas may ultimately take the question of time more seriously than Heidegger, whose attention is drawn in other directions after Being and Time.  Levinas finds himself writing more and more about time throughout his career, and even declares in his late interviews that his next projects deal with the mystery of diachrony.  In his later focus on the immemorial past, Levinas draws close to the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.  The other person is not another component of the present world in which I dwell, but is always before me.  And like the God who creates ex nihilo, Levinas’s “other” is not absent or distant as much as overwhelmingly proximate.  Levinas has already made it clear that I am responsible for the other, for her or his future, but now we discover that this responsibility is already underway and already beyond containment.  I am lashed to the time of the other, without futurity to call my own.

Is this not the predicament of the church?  Christianity is bound to a past immemorial and a future eschatological.  The temptation of theology is to make sense out of the mystery of time, to render past recoverable and the future in terms of the possible.  Levinas would incline us to think of the concept of “futurity” as already too bound to a stabilized present, not yet unsettled enough by the diachrony of the past.  I am not, for Levinas, an ego that has a future.  In the same vein, it may be the case that the church should not think of itself as “having” a future.  The diachrony of time means the past is never mine to recover, and the future is never mine to achieve.  From an immemorial past I am summoned instead to forfeit that which passes as “my” future, to lay down the logic of life and survival that are coiled in that which passes as “my” present.   There is no futurity, then, for the later Levinas.  There is only responsibility, and a forfeiture of the very structure of what I might call the future.

What might it mean to think about the church and ecclesiology along these lines?  DeRoo proposes that an openness to futurity in phenomenology will open us to new possibilities and pursuits for philosophy.[14]  I might suggest that, thinking theologically, a forfeiture of futurity is more appropriate.  There may be a way to think about “futurity” that can be redeemed for both theology and discourse about the other person, but it must follow a deeper investigation of what it means to be responsible to an anarchic past.  Levinas appears to question the footing from which we might deliberate about the future, the status of the ego – and perhaps the church – to think about the future as something toward which I might strive.

What might be needed, to speak of such things ecclesiologically, is a doctrine of time for the church that ponders how the church might embody the logic of the Kingdom of God without pledging allegiance to some manner of bringing it to be.  As such, the church would be more concerned with faithfulness than survival, more absorbed with responsibility than with outcomes.  Such a way of thinking about time might liberate us from the teleological futurity that quickly turns utilitarian, betting on the best program, the most efficient system, the most likely movements to produce positive outcomes.  To think of time as diachronic is to live out of the demands of a time that is not ours, and without insisting that faithfulness to these summons will also make sense teleologically.

As we ask what these themes might mean for the church, it seems compelling to follow Levinas into these deeper waters, even if such movement means we cross over the fuzzy boundary into something outside of phenomenology altogether.  What Levinas offers is a time unhinged, a way of thinking about life that is lived with an attunement to holiness rather than some pathway to a future that is incrementally better than today.  As such, futurity is something to be lost, a delusion or malady that needs to be identified and unraveled.  And so it is not a trivial issue that Levinas ceases to speak about the future but rather the central insight of his later works.  My suggestion is that learning to think time with Levinas can help the church understand its own responsibility, and how to live amid the diachrony of time that ruptures and redeems history.

[1] Neal DeRoo, Futurity in Phenomenology: Promise and Method in Husserl, Levinas and Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

[2] Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 49.

[3] Ibid.  Heidegger is referring in particular to Aristotle’s Physics.  For context see Aristotle, Physics, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 104-108.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[5] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969).  See especially the preface and conclusion.

[6] DeRoo, Futurity in Phenomenology, 83.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Derrida is another case, and I lack the space to explore whether “futurity” is an apt term for Derrida’s philosophy of the future.

[9] DeRoo, Futurity in Phenomenology, 83-84.

[10] Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 169.

[11] Ibid. “The logos has said the last word dominating all meaning, the word of the end, the very possibility of the ultimate and the result.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kierkegaard, and perhaps Nietzsche, provide notable but peripheral protests against this trend in philosophy and theology toward a philosophy of potentiality.

[14] DeRoo, Futurity in Phenomenology, 153.