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Emmanuelis Levinas (later adapted to Frenchorthography as Emmanuel Levinas) was born in 1906 into a middle-classLitvak family in Kaunas, in present-day Lithuania, then Kovno district, at the Western edge of the Russian Empire. Because of the disruptions of World War I, the family moved to Charkow in the Region of Ukraine in 1916, where they stayed during the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917. In 1920 his family returned to the Republic of Lithuania. Levinas's early education was in secular, Russian-language schools in Kaunas and Charkow. Upon his family's return to the Republic of Lithuania, Levinas spent two years at a Jewish gymnasium before departing for France, where he commenced his university education.
Levinas began his philosophical studies at the University of Strasbourg in 1923, and 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, whose philosophy greatly impressed him. Levinas would in the early 1930s be one of the 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 1939. When France declared war on Germany, he reported for military duty as a translator of Russian and French. During the German invasion of France in 1940, his military unit was 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 Fallingbostel camp was difficult, but his status as a prisoner of war protected him from the Holocaust's concentration camps. Other prisoners saw him frequently jotting in a notebook. These jottings were later developed into his book De l'Existence à l'Existant (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 OEuvres: 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.
After the Second World War, he studied the Talmud under the enigmatic Monsieur Chouchani, whose influence he acknowledged only late in his life.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Levinas came to regret his early enthusiasm for Heidegger, after the latter joined the Nazis. Levinas explicitly frames several of his mature philosophical works as attempts to respond to Heidegger's philosophy in light of its ethical failings.
His son is the composer Michaël Levinas, and his son-in-law is the French mathematician Georges Hansel. 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 the philosopher 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 usual translation of the Greek ""). In his view, responsibility toward the Other 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." 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.
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." The moral "authority" of the face of the Other is felt in my "infinite responsibility" for the Other. 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." It is because the Other also emerges from 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!" Levinas takes great pains to avoid straightforward theological language. 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." 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. 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." 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.
The elderly Levinas was a distinguished French public intellectual, whose books reportedly sold well. He had a major influence on the younger, but more well-known Jacques Derrida, whose seminal Writing and Difference contains an essay, "Violence and Metaphysics", that was instrumental in expanding interest in Levinas in France and abroad. 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."
His work has been a source of controversy since the 1950s, when Simone de Beauvoir criticized his account of the subject as being necessarily masculine, as defined against a feminine other. While other feminist philosophers like Tina Chanter and the artist-thinker Bracha L. Ettinger have defended him against this charge, increasing interest in his work in the 2000s brought a reevaluation of the possible misogyny of his account of the feminine, as well as a critical engagement with his French nationalism in the context of colonialism. Among the most prominent of these are critiques by Simon Critchley and Stella Sandford. However, there have also been responses which argue that these critiques of Levinas are misplaced.
For three decades, Levinas gave short talks on Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, every Shabbat morning at the Jewish high school in Paris where he was the principal. This tradition strongly influenced many generations of students.
In his book Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine, author Sam B. Girgus argues that Levinas has dramatically affected films involving redemption.
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.
1929. Sur les « Ideen » de M. E. Husserl
1930. La théorie de l'intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's Phenomenology)
1931. Der Begriff des Irrationalen als philosophisches Problem (with Heinz Erich Eisenhuth)
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 Edmund Husserl and Gabrielle Peiffer)
^Andris Breitling, Chris Bremmers, Arthur Cools (eds.), Debating Levinas' Legacy, Brill, 2015, p. 128.
^Levinas, E., 1991, Le temps et l'autre, Presses universitaires de France, p. 64.
^Levinas, E., 1991, Humanisme de l'autre homme, Fata Morgana, p. 12. References to Jankélévitch's thought can be found in "Transcendence and Height" (1962), "Proper Names" (1975), "Time and the Other" (1979), "God, Death and Time" (1993), "Alterity and Transcendence" (1995), and "Totality and Infinity" (1971).
^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
^Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, trans. A. Lingis (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1974), p. 91.
^Levinas, Entre Nous, trans. M. B. Smith & B. Harshav (New York: Columbia, 1998), p. 74.
^Levinas, "The Trace of the Other," in Deconstruction in Context, ed. M. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 356.
^Levinas, Difficult Freedom, trans. S. Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990), p. 8f..
^"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.
^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.
^Bracha L. Ettinger in conversation with Emmanuel Lévinas, (1991-1993). Time is the Breath of the Spirit. Translated by C. Ducker and J. Simas (with portrait-photos of E. L. taken by Bracha L.E.). Oxford: MOMA, 1993. Reprinted (Hebrew) in: Iyyun, Oct. 1994. Reprinted (Russian) in: Kabinet, Prilozehnie nº 3, 1994. Reprinted as "Un monde sans moi" (French) in: Athanor nº 5: 29-33, 1994. Reprinted in: Kaninet - An Anthology. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1997.
^Emmanuel Lévinas in conversation with Bracha L. Ettinger, (1991-1993). "Le féminin est cette différence inouïe". Four one-off Artist's Books, 1994. Reprinted as "Que dirait Eurydice?" Braka! nº 8, 1997. Reprinted as "Que dirait Eurydice?"/"What Would Eurydice Say?" (English/French) to coincide with Kabinet exhibition, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Paris: BLE Atelier, 1997. Reprinted in Athena: Philosophical Studies. Vol. 2, 2006.
^Critchley, S. 2004. "Five Problems in Levinas' View of Politics and the Sketch of a Solution to Them". Political Theory 32, 2;172-185. V. also Sandford, S. 2001. The Metaphysics of Love: Gender and Transcendence in Levinas, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, New York.
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.
Bracha L. Ettinger, conversation with Emmanuel Levinas, (1991-1993). Time is the Breath of the Spirit. Oxford: MOMA, 1993.
Bracha L. Ettinger, Que dirait Eurydice?/What Would Eurydice Say?, conversation with Emmanuel Levinas, (1991-1993). Paris: BLE Atelier, 1997. Reprinted in Athena: Philosophical Studies Vol. 2, 2006.
Bernard-Donals, Michael, "Difficult Freedom: Levinas, Memory and Politics", in Forgetful Memory, Albany: 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 Eskin, Ethics and Dialogue in the Works of Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandel'shtam, and Celan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Alexandre Guilherme and W. John Morgan, 'Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)-dialogue as an ethical demand of the other', Chapter 5 in Philosophy, Dialogue, and Education: Nine modern European philosophers, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 72-88, ISBN978-1-138-83149-0.
Herzog, Annabel (2020). Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN978-0-8122-5197-5.
Mario Kopi?, The Beats of the Other, Otkucaji drugog, Belgrade: Slu?beni glasnik, 2013.