Emmanuel Levinas  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

Emmanuel Levinas 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.

Contents

Life and career

Born into a Litvak family, Emanuelis 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 Lévinas'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 Lévinas'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 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 New York Times, 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."

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.

Philosophy

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's 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 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 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." 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.

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." 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. Lévinas'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 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's funeral, later published as Adieu à Emmanuel Levinas, an appreciation and exploration of Lévinas's moral philosophy. In a memorial essay for Lévinas, 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."

A concise evaluation of his impact on modern philosophical thought may be found in his New York Times obituary.

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.

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

See also

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. Bibliography of English translations of Levinas's writings.

  • 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)




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