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Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Name: Emmanuel Lévinas
Birth: Kovno, Russian Empire
Death: December 25, 1995
[[Image:Template:Country flag alias FRA|16px|Template:Country alias FRA]] Paris, France
School/tradition: Continental philosophy
Main interests
Existential phenomenology
Talmudic studies · Ethics · Ontology
Notable ideas
"the Other" · "the Face"
Influences Influenced
Husserl · Heidegger · Marcel · Wahl
Rosenzweig · Buber · Monsieur Chouchani · Descartes Sartre Merleau-Ponty Nietzsche Durkheim |
Blanchot · Derrida · Merleau-Ponty · Sartre · Ettinger · B-H Lévy · Ricoeur · Glucksmann · Finkielkraut

Emmanuel Lévinas (IPA: [levi'na(s)]; born 1906 in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas, Lithuania); died December 25 1995 in Paris, France) was a French philosopher and Talmudic commentator.

Life and philosophy[]

Emanuelis Levinas (later adapted to French] orthography as Emmanuel Lévinas) received a traditional Jewish education in Lithuania. After WWII, he studied the Talmud under the enigmatic "]Monsieur Chouchani]," whose influence he acknowledged only late in his life, without giving all the credit due. The Torah taught by Levinas is basically the Torah he learned with Monsieur Chouchani.

Lévinas began his philosophical studies at Strasbourg University in 1924, where he began his lifelong friendship with the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. In 1928, he went to Freiburg University to study phenomenology under Edmund Husserl. At Freiburg he also met Martin Heidegger. Lévinas became one of the very first French intellectuals to draw attention to Heidegger and Husserl, by translating Husserl's Cartesian Meditations and by drawing on their ideas in his own philosophy, in works such as his The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, De l'Existence à l'Existant, and En Découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger.

According to his New York Times obituary, Lévinas came to regret his enthusiasm for Heidegger, because of the latter's Nazism. During a lecture on forgiveness, Lévinas stated "One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger."[1]

After earning his doctorate Lévinas taught at a private Jewish High School in Paris, the École Normale Israélite Orientale, eventually becoming its director. He began teaching at the University of Poitiers in 1961, at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris in 1967, and at the Sorbonne in 1973, from which he retired in 1979. He was also a Professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

In the 1950s, Levinas emerged from the circle of intellectuals surrounding Jean Wahl as a leading French thinker. His work is based on the ethics of the Other or, in Lévinas' terms, on "ethics as first philosophy." For Lévinas, the Other is not knowable and cannot be made into an object of the self, as is done by traditional metaphysics (which Lévinas called "ontology"). Lévinas prefers to think of philosophy as the "wisdom of love" rather than the love of wisdom (the literal Greek meaning of the word "philosophy"). By his lights, ethics becomes an entity independent of subjectivity to the point where ethical responsibility is integral to the subject; hence an ethics of responsibility precedes any "objective searching after truth."

Lévinas derives the primacy of his ethics from the experience of the encounter with the Other. For Lévinas, the irreducible relation, the epiphany, of the face-to-face, the encounter with another, is a privileged phenomenon in which the other person's proximity and distance are both strongly felt. "The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness."[2]. At the same time, the revelation of the face makes a demand, this demand is before one can express, or know one's freedom, to affirm or deny. One instantly recognizes the transcendence and heteronomy of the Other. Even murder fails as an attempt to take hold of this otherness.

In Lévinas' later thought following "Totality and Infinity", he argued that our responsibility for-the-other was already rooted within our subjective constitution. It should be noted that the first line of the preface of this book is "everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality."[3] This can be seen most clearly in his later account of recurrence (chapter 4 in "Otherwise Than Being"), where Lévinas maintained that subjectivity was formed in and through our subjected-ness to the other. In this way, his effort was not to move away from traditional attempts to locate the other within subjectivity (this he agrees with), so much as his view was that subjectivity was primordially ethical and not theoretical. That is to say, our responsibility for-the-other was not a derivative feature of our subjectivity; instead, obligation founds our subjective being-in-the-world by giving it a meaningful direction and orientation. Lévinas' thesis "ethics is first philosophy", then, means that the traditional philosophical pursuit of knowledge is but a secondary feature of a more basic ethical duty to-the-other.

The elderly Lévinas was a distinguished French public intellectual, whose books reportedly sold well. He had a major impact on the young Jacques Derrida, a fellow French Jew whose seminal Writing and Difference contains an essay, "Violence and Metaphysics," on Lévinas. Derrida also delivered a eulogy at Lévinas' funeral, later published as Adieu à Emmanuel Lévinas, an appreciation and exploration of Levinas's moral philosophy. Here, Derrida followed Bracha L. Ettinger's interpretation of Lévinas' notion of femininity and transformed his own earlier reading of this subject accordingly.[4]

War experiences[]

Lévinas became a naturalized French citizen in 1930. When France declared war on Germany, he was ordered to report for military duty. During the German invasion of France in 1940, his military unit was quickly surrounded and forced to surrender. Lévinas spent the rest of World War II as a prisoner of war in a camp near Hannover in Germany. Lévinas was assigned to a special barracks for Jewish prisoners, who were forbidden any forms of religious worship. Life in the camp was as difficult as might be expected, with Lévinas often forced to chop wood and do other menial tasks. Other prisoners saw him frequently jotting in a notebook. These jottings became his book De l'existence à l'existent (1947) and a series of lectures published under the title Le Temps et l'Autre (1948).

Meanwhile, Maurice Blanchot helped Lévinas' wife and daughter spend the war in a monastery, thus sparing them the Holocaust. Blanchot, at considerable personal risk, also saw to it that Lévinas was able to keep in contact with his immediate family through letters and other messages. Other members of Lévinas' family were not so fortunate; his mother-in-law was deported and never heard from again, while his father and brothers were murdered in Lithuania by the Nazi SS]]

See also[]

Selected writings by Levinas[]

Bibliography of English translations of Levinas's writings.

  • 1930. The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology.
  • 1947. De l'existence à l'existent. (Existence and Existents)
  • 1948. Le Temps et l'Autre. (Time and the Other)
  • 1949. En Découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger.
  • 1961. Totalité et infini: essai sur l'extériorité. (Totality and Infinity)
  • 1963 & 1976. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism.
  • 1972. Humanisme de l'autre homme (Humanism of the Other)
  • 1974. Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence. (Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence)
  • 1982. Of God Who Comes to Mind
  • 1991. Entre Nous


  1. Lévinas, Emmanuel. Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. p. 25
  2. "Totality and Infinity", p.150
  3. E. Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Alphonso Lingis, transl. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press), p. 21.
  4. B. L. Ettinger in conversation with Emmanuel Lévinas,"Que dirait Eurydice?"/ "What would Eurydice Say?" (1991-93). Reprinted to coincide with Kabinet exhibition at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Paris: BLE Atelier, 1997. This is a reprint of Le féminin est cette différence inouïe (Livre d'artiste, 1994, and it includes the text of Time is the Breath of the Spirit, MOMA, Oxford, 1993.) Reprinted in Athena: Philosophical Studies. Vol. 2, 2006.

Further reading[]

  • Roger Burggraeve. (2002). The Wisdom of Love in the Service of Love: Emmanuel Levinas on Justice, Peace, and Human Rights, trans. Jeffrey Bloechl. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.
  • Richard A. Cohen. (2001). Ethics, Exegesis and Philosophy: Interpretation After Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Richard A. Cohen. (1994). Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Simon Critchley. (2002). "Emmanuel Levinas: A Disparate Inventory," in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, ed. S. Critchley & R. Bernasconi. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Marie-Anne Lescourt. (2006). Emmanuel Levinas, 2nd edition. Flammarion. [in French]
  • Theodore De Boer. (1997). The Rationality of Transcendence: Studies in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben.
  • Emmanuel Levinas. (1985). Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. R.A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
  • Emmanuel Levinas. (1990 & 1997). "Signature," in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Sean Hand. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Salomon Malka. (2006). Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy, trans. M. Kigel and S.M. Embree. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
  • Jill Robbins, ed. (2001). Is It Righteous to Be?: Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Ira F. Stone. (1998). Reading Levinas / Reading Talmud, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society.
  • Samuel Moyn. (2005). Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas between Revelation and Ethics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

External links[]

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