Emmanuel Levinas

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Emmanuel Levinas
Emmanuel Levinas.jpg
Born 12 January [O.S. 30 December] 1906
Kovno, Russian Empire (present-day Kaunas, Lithuania)
Died 25 December 1995 (aged 89)
Paris, France
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Main interests
Existential phenomenology
Talmudic studies
Ethics · Ontology
Notable ideas
"The Other" · "The Face"

Emmanuel Levinas[1][2] (French: [emanɥɛl ləvinas];[3] 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 One, 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 Strasbourg University in 1924, where he began his lifelong friendship with the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. In 1928, he went to Freiburg University 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 Husserl's Cartesian Meditations and by drawing on their ideas in his own philosophy, in works such as The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, De l'Existence à l'Existant, and En Découvrant l’Existence avec Husserl et Heidegger. In 1929 he was awarded his doctorate by the University of Strasbourg for his thesis on the meaning of intuition in the philosophy of Husserl, published in 1930 as La théorie de l'intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl.

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.[4]

After earning his doctorate, Levinas 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 1989 he was awarded the Balzan Prize for Philosophy.

According to his obituary in The New York Times,[5] 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."[6]

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."[7] 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.[8] 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.”[9] The moral “authority” of the face of the Other is felt in my "infinite responsibility" for the Other.[10] 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.”[11] 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!"[12] Levinas takes great pains to avoid straightforward theological language.[13] 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.”[14] 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."[15] 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.[16]

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."[17]

A concise evaluation of his influence on modern philosophical thought may be found in his New York Times obituary.[5]

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.[18]

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne,[19] renowned Belgian filmmakers, have referred to Levinas as an important underpinning for their filmmaking ethics.

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., (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Levinas (publ. Cambridge UP, 2002), pp. 269–270.

  • 1929. Sur les « Ideen » de M. E. Husserl
  • 1930. La théorie de l'intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl
  • 1931. Der Begriff des Irrationalen als philosophisches Problem (with E. H. Eisenruth)
  • 1931. Fribourg, Husserl et la phénoménologie
  • 1931. Les recherches sur la philosophie des mathématiques en Allemagne, aperçu général (with W. Dubislav)
  • 1931. Méditations Cartésiennes. Introduction à la phénoménologie (with E. Husserl and G. Pfeiffer)
  • 1932. Martin Heidegger et l'ontologie
  • 1934. La présence totale (with Louis Lavelle)
  • 1934. Phénoménologie
  • 1934. Quelques réflexions sur la philosophie de l'hitlérisme
  • 1935. De l'évasion
  • 1935. La notion du temps (with N.Khersonsky)
  • 1935. L'actualité de Maimonide
  • 1935. L'inspiration religieuse de l'Alliance
  • 1936. Allure du transcendental (with Georges Bénézé)
  • 1936. Esquisses d'une énergétique mentale (with J.Duflo)
  • 1936. Fraterniser sans se convertir
  • 1936. Les aspects de l'image visuelle (with R.Duret)
  • 1936. L'esthétique française contemporaine (with V.Feldman)
  • 1936. L'individu dans le déséquilibre moderne (with R.Munsch)
  • 1936. Valeur (with Georges Bénézé)
  • 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)
  • 1962. De l'Évasion
  • 1963 & 1976. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism
  • 1968. Quatre lectures talmudiques
  • 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)
  • “A Language Familiar to Us”. Telos 44 (Summer 1980). New York: Telos Press
  • 1976. Sur Maurice Blanchot
  • 1976. Noms propres
  • 1977. Du Sacré au saint – cinq nouvelles lectures talmudiques
  • 1980. Le Temps et l'Autre
  • 1982. L'Au-delà du verset: lectures et discours talmudiques
  • 1982. Of God Who Comes to Mind
  • 1982. Ethique et infini (Ethics and Infinity: Dialogues of Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Nemo)
  • 1984. Transcendence et intelligibilité
  • 1988. A l'Heure des nations
  • 1991. Entre Nous
  • 1995. Altérité et transcendence (Alterity and Transcendence)

See also


  1. 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.
  2. Another form of the surname is Lévinas according to Levinas.fr, Universalis.fr and Britannica.com.
  3. Pronounced as [levinas] if written as Lévinas.
  4. Life and Career
  5. 5.0 5.1 Levinas's obituary
  6. Levinas, Emmanuel. Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. p. 25
  7. Totality and Infinity, p.150
  8. 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
  9. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, trans. A. Lingis (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1974), p. 91.
  10. Levinas, Entre Nous, trans. M. B. Smith & B. Harshav (New York: Columbia, 1998), p. 74.
  11. Levinas, “The Trace of the Other,” in Deconstruction in Context, ed. M. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 356.
  12. Levinas, Difficult Freedom, trans. S. Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990), p. 8f..
  13. “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.
  14. Levinas, Entre Nous, p. 57.
  15. E. Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Alphonso Lingis, transl. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press), p. 21.
  16. 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.
  17. http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/print.asp?editorial_id=9839
  18. Weekly Shabbat talks by Emmanuel Levinas
  19. Joseph Mai (2010). Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne - Contemporary Film Directors. Universiity of Illinois Press. pp. ix–xvii. ISBN 978-0-252-07711-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak, Robert Bernasconi & Simon Critchley, Emmanuel Levinas (1996).
  • Astell, Ann W. and Jackson, J. A., Levinas and Medieval Literature: The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University press, 2009).
  • Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Levinas (2002).
  • Theodore De Boer, The Rationality of Transcendence: Studies in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1997.
  • Roger Burggraeve, The Wisdom of Love in the Service of Love: Emmanuel Levinas on Justice, Peace, and Human Rights, trans. Jeffrey Bloechl. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2002.
  • Roger Burggraeve (ed.) The awakening to the other: a provocative dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas, Leuven: Peeters, 2008
  • Cristian Ciocan, Georges Hansel, Levinas Concordance. Dordrecht: Springer, 2005.
  • Hanoch Ben-Pazi, Emmanuel Levinas: Hermeneutics, Ethics, and Art, Journal of Literature and Art Studies 5 (2015), 588 - 600
  • Richard A. Cohen, Levinasian Meditations: Ethics, Philosophy,and Religion, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2010.
  • Richard A. Cohen, Ethics, Exegesis and Philosophy: Interpretation After Levinas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Richard A. Cohen, Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994.
  • Joseph Cohen, Alternances de la métaphysique. Essais sur Emmanuel Levinas, Paris: Galilée, 2009. [in French]
  • Simon Critchley, "Emmanuel Levinas: A Disparate Inventory," in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, ed. S. Critchley & R. Bernasconi. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Derrida, Jacques, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Derrida, Jacques, "At This Very Moment in This Work Here I Am," trans. Ruben Berezdivin and Peggy Kamuf, in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Vol. 1, ed. Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth G. Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. 143-90.
  • Bernard-Donals, Michael, "Difficult Freedom: Levinas, Memory and Politics", in Forgetful Memory, Stanford: State University of New York Press, 2009. 145-160.
  • Derrida, Jacques, "Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas," in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1978. 79-153.
  • Michael Eldred, 'Worldsharing and Encounter: Heidegger's ontology and Lévinas' ethics' 2010.
  • Mario Kopić, The Beats of the Other, Otkucaji drugog, Belgrade: Službeni glasnik, 2013.
  • Nicole Note, "The impossible possibility of environmental ethics, Emmanuel Levinas and the discrete Other" in: Philosophia: E-Journal of Philosophy and Culture – 7/2014.
  • Marie-Anne Lescourt, Emmanuel Levinas, 2nd edition. Flammarion, 2006. [in French]
  • Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. R.A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985.
  • Emmanuel Levinas, "Signature," in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Sean Hand. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990 & 1997.
  • John Llewelyn, Emmanuel Levinas: The Genealogy of Ethics, London: Routledge, 1995
  • Paul Marcus, Being for the Other: Emmanuel Levinas, Ethical Living, and Psychoanalysis, Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2008.
  • Paul Marcus, In Search of the Good Life: Emmanuel Levinas, Psychoanalysis and the Art of Living, London: Karnac Books, 2010.
  • Seán Hand, Emmanuel Levinas, London: Routledge, 2009
  • Benda Hofmeyr (ed.), Radical passivity – rethinking ethical agency in Levinas, Dordrecht: Springer, 2009
  • Diane Perpich The ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008
  • Fred Poché, Penser avec Arendt et Lévinas. Du mal politique au respect de l'autre, Chronique Sociale, Lyon, en co-édition avec EVO, Bruxelles et Tricorne, Genève, 1998 (3e édition, 2009).
  • Jadranka Skorin-Kapov, The Aesthetics of Desire and Surprise: Phenomenology and Speculation, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015.
  • Tanja Staehler, Plato and Levinas – the ambiguous out-side of ethics, London: Routledge 2010 [i.e. 2009]
  • Wehrs, Donald R.: Levinas and Twentieth-Century Literature: Ethics and the Reconstruction of Subjectivity. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-61149-442-6

External links