Emmanuel Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas
Born 12 January 1906, O.S. 30 December 1905
Kovno, Russian Empire (present-day Kaunas, Lithuania)
Died 30 December 1995(1995-12-30) (aged 89)
Paris, France
Alma mater University of Freiburg (no degree)
University of Strasbourg (Dr, 1929)
University of Paris (DrE, 1961)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Existential phenomenology[1]
Institutions University of Poitiers
University of Paris
University of Fribourg
Main interests
Existential phenomenology[1]
Talmudic studies
Ethics · Ontology
Notable ideas
"The Other" · "The Face"

Emmanuel Levinas[3][4] (French: [emanɥɛl ləvinas];[5] 12 January 1906 – 25 December 1995) was a French philosopher of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry who is known for his work related to Jewish philosophy, existentialism, ethics, and ontology.

Life and career

Born into a Litvak family, Emmanuelis Levinas (later adapted to French orthography as Emmanuel Levinas) received a traditional Jewish education in Lithuania. After the Second World War, he studied the Talmud under the enigmatic "Monsieur Chouchani", whose influence he acknowledged only late in his life.

Because of the disruptions of World War I, the family moved to Charkow in Ukraine in 1916. While living in Ukraine he witnessed the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917. In 1920 his family returned to Lithuania.

Levinas began his philosophical studies at the University of Strasbourg in 1924, where he began his lifelong friendship with the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. In 1928, he went to the University of Freiburg for two semesters to study phenomenology under Edmund Husserl. At Freiburg he also met Martin Heidegger. Levinas would in the early 1930s be one of the very first French intellectuals to draw attention to Heidegger and Husserl by translating in 1931 Husserl's Cartesian Meditations (with the help of Gabrielle Peiffer and with advice from Alexandre Koyré) and by drawing on their ideas in his own philosophy, in works such as La théorie de l'intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's Phenomenology; his 1929/30 doctoral thesis), De l'Existence à l'Existant (From Existence to Existents; 1947), and En Découvrant l’Existence avec Husserl et Heidegger (Discovering Existence with Husserl and Heidegger; first edition, 1949, with additions, 1967). In 1929 he was awarded his doctorate (Doctorat d'université degree) by the University of Strasbourg for his thesis on the meaning of intuition in the philosophy of Husserl, published in 1930.

Levinas became a naturalized French citizen in 1931. 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. Levinas spent the rest of World War II as a prisoner of war in a camp near Hannover in Germany. Levinas was assigned to a special barrack for Jewish prisoners, who were forbidden any form of religious worship. Life in the camp was as difficult as might be expected, with Levinas often forced to chop wood and do other menial tasks. Other prisoners saw him frequently jotting in a notebook. These jottings were later developed into his book De l'Existence à l'Existent (1947) and a series of lectures published under the title Le Temps et l'Autre (1948). His wartime notebooks have now been published in their original form as Œuvres: Tome 1, Carnets de captivité: suivi de Écrits sur la captivité ; et, Notes philosophiques diverses (2009).

Meanwhile, Maurice Blanchot helped Levinas's wife and daughter spend the war in a monastery, thus sparing them from the Holocaust. Blanchot, at considerable personal risk, also saw to it that Levinas was able to keep in contact with his immediate family through letters and other messages. Other members of Levinas's family were not so fortunate; his mother-in-law was deported and never heard from again, while his father and brothers were killed in Lithuania by the SS.[6]

Levinas's first book-length essay, Totality and Infinity (1961), was written as his Doctorat d'État primary thesis (roughly equivalent to a Habilitation thesis). His secondary thesis was titled Études sur la phénoménologie (Studies on Phenomenology).[7] After earning his habilitation, Levinas taught at a private Jewish High School in Paris, the École normale Israélite orientale (Paris), 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 1989 he was awarded the Balzan Prize for Philosophy.

According to his obituary in The New York Times,[8] Levinas came to regret his enthusiasm for Heidegger, because of the latter's affinity for the Nazis. During a lecture on forgiveness, Levinas stated, "One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger."[9]

His son is the composer Michaël Levinas. Among his most famous students is Rabbi Baruch Garzon from Tetouan (Morocco), who learnt Philosophy with Levinas at the Sorbonne, and later went on to become one of the most important Rabbis of the Spanish-speaking world.


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 Levinas's terms, on "ethics as first philosophy". For Levinas, the Other is not knowable and cannot be made into an object of the self, as is done by traditional metaphysics (which Levinas called "ontology"). Levinas prefers to think of philosophy as the "wisdom of love" rather than the love of wisdom (the literal Greek meaning of the word "philosophy"). In his view, responsibility precedes any "objective searching after truth".

Levinas derives the primacy of his ethics from the experience of the encounter with the Other. For Levinas, 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."[10] 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.[11] One instantly recognizes the transcendence and heteronomy of the Other. Even murder fails as an attempt to take hold of this otherness.

While critical of traditional theology, Levinas does require that a "trace" of the Divine be acknowledged within an ethics of Otherness. This is especially evident in his thematization of debt and guilt. "A face is a trace of itself, given over to my responsibility, but to which I am wanting and faulty. It is as though I were responsible for his mortality, and guilty for surviving."[12] The moral "authority" of the face of the Other is felt in my "infinite responsibility" for the Other.[13] The face of the Other comes toward me with its infinite moral demands while emerging out of the trace. Apart from this morally imposing emergence, the Other’s face might well be adequately addressed as "Thou" (along the lines proposed by Martin Buber) in whose welcoming countenance I might find great comfort, love and communion of souls—but not a moral demand bearing down upon me from a height. "Through a trace the irreversible past takes on the profile of a ‘He.’ The beyond from which a face comes is in the third person."[14] It is because the Other also emerges out of the illeity of a He (il in French) that I instead fall into infinite debt vis-à-vis the Other in a situation of utterly asymmetrical obligations: I owe the Other everything, the Other owes me nothing. The trace of the Other is the heavy shadow of God, the God who commands, "Thou shalt not kill!"[15] Levinas takes great pains to avoid straightforward theological language.[16] The very metaphysics of signification subtending theological language is suspected and suspended by evocations of how traces work differently than signs. Nevertheless, the divinity of the trace is also undeniable: "the trace is not just one more word: it is the proximity of God in the countenance of my fellowman."[17] In a sense, it is divine commandment without divine authority.

Following Totality and Infinity, Levinas later argued that responsibility for the other is 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."[18] This idea appears in his of recurrence (chapter 4 in Otherwise than Being), in which Levinas maintains that subjectivity is formed in and through our subjection to the other. Subjectivity, Levinas argued, is primordially ethical, not theoretical: that is to say, our responsibility for the other is not a derivative feature of our subjectivity, but instead, founds our subjective being-in-the-world by giving it a meaningful direction and orientation. Levinas's thesis "ethics as first philosophy", then, means that the traditional philosophical pursuit of knowledge is secondary to a basic ethical duty to the other. To meet the Other is to have the idea of Infinity.[19]

The elderly Levinas was a distinguished French public intellectual, whose books reportedly sold well. He had a major influence on the young Jacques Derrida, a fellow French Jew whose seminal Writing and Difference contains an essay, "Violence and Metaphysics", on Levinas. Derrida also delivered a eulogy at Levinas's funeral, later published as Adieu à Emmanuel Levinas, an appreciation and exploration of Levinas's moral philosophy. In a memorial essay for Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion claimed that "If one defines a great philosopher as someone without whom philosophy would not have been what it is, then in France there are two great philosophers of the 20th Century: Bergson and Lévinas."[20]

A concise evaluation of his influence on modern philosophical thought may be found in his New York Times obituary.[8]

Cultural influence

For three decades, Levinas gave short talks on Rashi every Shabbat morning at the Jewish high school in Paris where he was the principal. This tradition strongly influenced many generations of students.[21]

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne,[22] renowned Belgian filmmakers, have referred to Levinas as an important underpinning for their filmmaking ethics.

In his book Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine, author Sam Girgus argues that Levinas has dramatically affected films involving redemption. [23]

Published works

A full bibliography of all Levinas's publications up until 1981 is found in Roger Burggraeve Emmanuel Levinas (1982).

A list of works, translated into English but not appearing in any collections, may be found in Critchley, S. and Bernasconi, R. (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Levinas (publ. Cambridge UP, 2002), pp. 269–270.

Articles in English

See also


  1. 1 2 Andris Breitling, Chris Bremmers, Arthur Cools (eds.), Debating Levinas’ Legacy, Brill, 2015, p. 128.
  2. Levinas, E., 1991, Le temps et l'autre, Presses universitaires de France, p. 64.
  3. L'anachronisme constitutif de l'existence juive – Nonfiction.fr: "Première remarque, sans doute à l'humour décalé : l'auteur de ces lignes a toujours entendu Emmanuel Levinas réclamer que l'on écrive son nom correctement, c'est-à-dire sans accent." Larousse.fr also employs the non-accented form.
  4. Another form of the surname is Lévinas according to Levinas.fr, Universalis.fr and Britannica.com.
  5. Pronounced as [levinas] if written as Lévinas.
  6. Life and Career
  7. Alan D. Schrift (2006), Twentieth-Century French Philosophy: Key Themes And Thinkers, Blackwell Publishing, p. 159.
  8. 1 2 Levinas's obituary
  9. Levinas, Emmanuel. Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. p. 25
  10. E. Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Alphonso Lingis, transl. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 150.
  11. For recent reflections on the ethical-political imports of Levinas's tradition (and biography), along with the examination of the notion of the face-to-face in relation to le visage, while taking into account the Levantine/Palestinian standpoint on conflict, see: Nader El-Bizri, "Uneasy Meditations Following Levinas," Studia Phaenomelnologica, Vol. 6 (2006), pp. 293–315
  12. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, trans. A. Lingis (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1974), p. 91.
  13. Levinas, Entre Nous, trans. M. B. Smith & B. Harshav (New York: Columbia, 1998), p. 74.
  14. Levinas, "The Trace of the Other," in Deconstruction in Context, ed. M. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 356.
  15. Levinas, Difficult Freedom, trans. S. Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990), p. 8f..
  16. "A face does not function in proximity as a sign of a hidden God who would impose the neighbor on me." Otherwise than Being, p. 94.
  17. Levinas, Entre Nous, p. 57.
  18. E. Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Alphonso Lingis, transl. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 21.
  19. French: "Aborder Autrui [...] c'est donc recevoir d'Autrui au-delà de la capacité du Moi: ce qui signifie exactement: avoir l'idée de l'infini." in Totalité et Infini, Martinus Nijhoff, La Haye, 1991, p. 22.
  20. http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/print.asp?editorial_id=9839
  21. Weekly Shabbat talks by Emmanuel Levinas
  22. Joseph Mai (2010). Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne - Contemporary Film Directors. University of Illinois Press. pp. ix–xvii. ISBN 978-0-252-07711-1.
  23. Girgus, Sam. "Conversations with Scholars of American Popular Culture". Americana. Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture. Retrieved 2 July 2016.

Further reading

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Emmanuel Levinas
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/24/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.