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Levinas, Emmanuel


LEVINAS, EMMANUEL (1906–1995), philosopher and Jewish thinker. Levinas was born in Kovno, Lithuania. He grew up in a Jewish home that was open to European culture. In 1915 the Jews of Kovno were expelled and Levinas attended public high school in Karkhov, Ukraine. He read the great Russian classics Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgeniev, Gogol, Pushkin, and Lermontov. After having suffered from Ukrainian antisemitism, the family returned to Kovno in July 1920, where he attended the Jewish lyceum that was organized by Joseph Carlebach and directed by Moses Schwabe. In 1923 Levinas moved to France, where he studied in Strasbourg under people like Maurice Pradines, Henri Carteron, Maurice Halbwachs, and Charles Blondel. During the 1928–29 academic year he went to nearby Freiburg, Germany, where he studied under Edmund *Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Heidegger had published in 1927 his Sein und Zeit, a work much appreciated by Levinas. In 1929 Levinas was present at the Kant seminar in Davos where Ernst *Cassirer and Heidegger held their famous debate.

In 1930 Levinas published his Ph.D. thesis, which he had written under Jean Wahl (Théorie de l'intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl). This was the first French book on Husserl. Two years later he published the first substantial French article on Heidegger (a revised version in En découvrant l'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger). Levinas played a pioneer role in the dissemination of phenomenology in France. He also co-translated Husserl's Cartesian Meditations. Although he became increasingly critical of the philosophies of his teachers, he continued to use the phenomenological method in his own philosophic work.

In 1930, Levinas received French citizenship. In addition to his philosophic work, Levinas began publishing articles on Jewish subjects. In 1934, for instance, he published "Some Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism," criticizing New Germany's primitivism. In the 1930s he met Paul Ricoeur and also attended Saturday night gatherings in the house of Gabriel Marcel, where he became acquainted with Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Maritain.

In 1939 Levinas was drafted into the French army and was then captured. After detention in France, he was deported to a pow camp near Hanover, Germany, which bore the infamous number "1492." For four years he was a prisoner, cutting and sawing wood. He survived; his wife and daughter also survived, having fled from Paris with the help of Maurice Blanchot and finally finding a hiding place in a French monastery. Levinas' parents and his brothers in Kovno were murdered.

After the war, Levinas became director of enio, the Oriental Israelite Normal School, attended by Moroccan Jews who had immigrated to France. He continued in this position until 1961. In that same year he published Totality and Infinity and with this publication Levinas established his reputation as an independent, original philosopher in France. From 1947 until 1951 he studied Talmud with Rabbi Mordechai Chouchani, who was also the teacher of Elie *Wiesel. He taught at the University of Poitiers (1961–62), the University of Paris at Nanterres (1962–73), and finally at the Sorbonne (1973–76).

Ethical Metaphysics

Levinas made German phenomenology known in France. However, he became more and more dissatisfied with the thought of his teachers. He conceived Heidegger's ontology as crucial, but also as problematic. Husserl's transcendental ego and Heidegger's Dasein were solitary and did not take adequate account of human relations. Levinas strongly felt the need to leave the "climate" of Heidegger's philosophy, in which the encounter with other human beings was neglected, since Heidegger concentrated upon modes of Being rather than on the intersubjective world. Already in his early publication De l'évasion (1935), Levinas looked for what exceeds the Being, maintaining that the relation of man to Being is not only ontology.

With time, and not unconnected to the experience of Hitler's Germany, Levinas developed an ethical thinking that avoids the "allergy" of Western philosophy for the otherness of the Other. Time and the Other and Existence and Existents, which appeared both in 1947, are books that already contain themes like "il y a" (the anonymous and threatening "there is"), sexual relation, paternity, and fecundity that appear in Levinas' greater works, in which he criticized both his teachers, who subsumed the Other under the Same.

His two major works are Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being (1974). In Levinas' ethics, the Other with his constitutive strangeness puts the self into question. The Other is not an alter ego, not to be mastered, but unknowable, enigmatic, refractory to light; the Other's "face" commands not to subsume him. The command stemming from the "face," that is never a sole object of vision, is: "Thou shalt not murder." The Other is never a pure phenomenon, but rather a call, an authoritatively speaking voice that asks for an exile out of the self. Levinas' entire philosophical project implies therefore an attack on totality, on totalitarian thinking and history. He found the idea of rupturing totality in Franz *Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption (1921) which he read before World War ii, and he admitted to having made extensive use of Rosenzweig's anti-totalitarian thought. Levinas retakes Plato's terms of the "Same" and the "Other" and points to the frequent absorption of the Other by the Same in the history of philosophy. In Husserl's phenomenology, the transcendental ego is the source of all meaning (Sinngebung), whereas in Heidegger's fundamental ontology Being as reflected in the beings is everything. In contrast to these teachings, Levinas searches not for totality, but for what ruptures "totality," for what he calls "infinity," "alterity," "discourse," "transcendence," and "exteriority."

His ethics is not epistemologically founded, nor is it based upon reason as in Kant, but upon the normative relation, i.e., upon the concrete demand of the other person. The contact with the Other face to face is one of demand: the Other addresses the I, resisting its powers and appropriation. The relationship is not reciprocal as in Martin *Buber, it is asymmetrical. With time, Levinas paid more attention to "the third party"(le tiers), i.e., to social and political justice. Yet, the inegalitarian moment of the ethical encounter remains in vigor.

The first great critical reaction to Totality and Infinity came from Jacques *Derrida. In his essay "Violence et métaphysique," he pointed to some of Levinas' problematic readings of his teachers and regretted Levinas' preference of speech to writing, from which the speaker is absent, which would be more fitting for a philosophy of alterity. He was mainly concerned with the question of how to talk about the Other in the language of the Same. In Otherwise than Being, Levinas dealt less with the Other than with the subject. He did not conceive the subject as a consciousness, but as welcoming the Other, as "responsibility," "exposure," "witness," and as "in proximity." He now attempted to leave out the language of ontology and writes about "an-archy," "hostage," "obsession," "persecution," and "substitution." He further tries to avoid the problem of the thematizing of the unthematizable by incessantly unsaying the said (dédire le Dit), because no said may contain the Saying (le Dire) of responsibility. He resists totalization in keeping the tension between the Saying and a said that bears the traces of the Saying.

Jewish Writings

Parallel to his "professional" (i.e., philosophic) writings, Levinas also published a vast body of "confessional" writings that treat Judaism, religious themes, and Talmud. Some of these essays on Judaism were collected in Difficult Freedom (1963), in Beyond the Verse (1982), and In the Time of the Nations (1988).

Levinas does not strive for harmonization between his "professional" and "confessional" writings, but discusses one truth beyond ontology that can be discussed in different manners. When compared with the great attention that was paid to the philosophical part of his oeuvre, the Jewish part of Levinas' writings has been largely neglected in scholarly research, although there is undeniably a strong interaction between the two parts of the diptych, with terms and themes appearing in both kinds of writings.

Although Levinas does acknowledge Jewish particularity as prototypically refusing totality, he highlights the universal dimension in Judaism. The Jewish message is one for all humanity. Ethics, which Levinas wanted to discuss philosophically, is for him attested to in the holy life, to which the Bible, Midrashim, and Talmud testify. There is an interaction between the Greek "love of wisdom" and the Jewish "wisdom of love." Once it is Japheth that visits the tents of Shem, once it is vice versa. In the Jewish writings, Abraham becomes the prototype of the one, characterized by hospitality, who transcends the narrow world of the self in order to follow an always exterior voice. He is exemplary in his extending "hospitality" to strangers. Levinas does not write about God as Being, but as not assumable "illéité" – Illeity (He-hood, from the Latin "ille," that one, the other one), as alterity – the other than other – that ruptures the unity of the I, orienting it toward other human beings.

Levinas was the first Jewish thinker in modern times to approach the Talmud philosophically, mainly its aggadic parts, as a source of wisdom relevant for our day. His remarkable Talmudic Readings were first delivered at the annual meetings of the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de Langue Française, which started in 1957; they were later collected and published.

Levinas thought that humanism of the other person and Judaism were compatible, and he considered being Jewish a form of being human. However, the Jewish response to the universal question contained elements beyond humanism, which he regarded as insufficiently human. Levinas wrote about the greater attention to the human in the "humanism of the other man," which is dissatisfied with mere intentions and declarations and in which the violent freedom of the sovereign I, joylessly possessing the world, is radically put into question.


Levinas renewed Jewish thinking and by now occupies an eminent place in the pantheon of modern Jewish thinkers such as Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber.

Philosophers and theologians all over the world are interested in Levinas' work. Ethics and Infinity (trans. R. Cohen, 1985) which contains talks of P. Nemo with Levinas, presents a good introduction to his entire oeuvre.


D. Banon, La Lecture infinie: Les Voies de l'interprétation midrachique (1987); R. Bernasconi and S. Critchley (eds.), Re-Reading Levinas (1991); R. Bernasconi and D. Wood (eds.), The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other (1988); R. Burggraeve, From Self-Development to Solidarity: An Ethical Reading of Human Desire in its Socio-Political Relevance According to Emmanuel Levinas, transl. C. Vanhove-Romanik (1985); C. Chalier, Lévinas: L'Utopie de l'humain (1993); idem, Pour une morale au-delà du savoir: Kant et Levinas (1998) = What Ought I To Do? Morality in Kant and Levinas, trans. J. Todd (2002); F. Ciaramelli, Transcendance et éthique: essai sur Levinas (1989); D. Cohen-Lévinas and S. Trigano (eds.), Emmanuel LévinasPhilosophie et judaïsme (Pardès, 26; 1999) 101–4; R.A. Cohen (ed.), Face to Face with Levinas (1986); S. Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (1992); C. Davis, Levinas. An Introduction (1996); J. Derrida, "Violence et métaphysique: Essai sur la pensée d' Emmanuel Lévinas" (1964), in: L'Écriture et la difference (1967), 117–228; idem, "En ce moment même dans cet ouvrage me voici," in: Laruelle (ed.), Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas (1980), 21–60; E. Feron, De l'idée de la transcendance à la question dulangage: L'Itinéraire philosophique d'Emmanuel Lévinas (1992); A. Finkelkraut, La Sagesse de l'amour (1984); R. Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas (1992); J. Greisch and J. Rolland (eds.), Emmanuel Lévinas: L'Éthique comme philosophie première (1993); J. Halpérin and N. Hansson, Colloque des intellectuels juifs. Difficile justice. Dans la trace d'Emmanuel Lévinas. Actes du xxxvie Colloque des intellectuels juifs de langue française (1998); S. Handelman, Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas (1991); M.-A. Lescourret, Emmanuel Lévinas (1994); Z. Levy, The Other and Responsibility: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Heb., 1998); J. Llewelyn, Emmanuel Levinas: The Genealogy of Ethics (1995); S. Malka, Lire Lévinas (1984); idem, Emmanuel Lévinas: la vie et la trace (2002); E. Meir, "The Dimension of the Feminine in Levinas' Philosophy," in: IyyunThe Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly, 43 (1994), 145–52 (Heb.); idem, "La presenza biblica nella cultura ebraica contemporanea: M. Buber – F. Rosenzweig – E. Levinas," in: S.J. Sierra (ed.), La lettura ebraica delle Scritture (1995), 465–95; idem, "Criticism of the 'Myth' of Unio Mystica in E. Levinas," in: H. Pedayah (ed.), Myth in Judaism (Eshel Beer-Sheva, 4; 1996), 393–405 (Heb.); idem, "Levinas's Thinking on Religion as beyond the Pathetic: Reflections on the First Part of Difficult Freedom," in: E.L. Fackenheim and R. Jospe (eds.), Jewish Philosophy and the Academy (1996), 142–64; idem, "War and Peace in the Philosophy of E. Levinas," in: IyyunThe Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly, 45 (1997), 471–79 (Heb.); idem, "Teaching Levinas on Revelation," in: R. Jospe (ed.), Paradigms in Jewish Philosophy (1997), 257–79; idem, "La philosophie de Lévinas, sacrificielle et naïve? S'agit-il d'un drame? A propos d'un ouvrage récent de Daniel Sibony," in: Revue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuses, 81:1 (2001), 63–79; idem, "Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem from Levinas' Perspective," in: M. New, R. Bernasconi, R.A. Cohen (eds.), In ProximityEmmanuel Levinas and the Eighteenth Century (2001), 243–59; idem, "Verità e giustizia nella filosofia di Emmanuel Lévinas in relazione all'io-tu e all'io-esso di Martin Buber," in: P. Amodio, G. Giannini, G. Lissa (eds.), Lévinas e la cultura del xx secolo (Cultura Filosofica e Scienze Umane, 3), (2001), 209–35 (= Daat, 50–52 (2003), 423–39); idem, "Ethics, Politics and God in the Writings of E. Levinas," in: Democratic Culture, vol. 6 (2002), 111–33 (Heb.); idem, "La notion de la révélation dans la 'théologie des profondeurs' de Heschel et la métaphysique éthique de Lévinas," in: G. Rabinovitch (ed.), Abraham J. Heschel. Un tsaddiq dans la cité (Collection Voix) (2004), 155–86; idem "Buber's and Levinas's Attitudes toward Judaism," in: P. Atterton, M. Calarco, and M. Friedman (eds.), Levinas and Buber. Dialogue and Difference (2004), 133–56; idem, "Religion and State in the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas," A. Ravitzky (ed.), Religion and State in Twentieth-Century Jewish Thought (2005), 409–24 (Heb.); idem, "Guilt and Responsibility as Characteristics of the Answerable Man in the Thought of E. Levinas," in: Y. Amir (ed.), The Path of the Spirit. The Eliezer Schweid Jubilee Volume, vol. 2 (2005), 851–65; G.D. Mole, Lévinas, Blanchot, Jabès. Figures of Estrangement (1997); M.A. Ouaknin, Méditations érotiques, Essai sur Emmanuel Lévinas (Collection Métaphora; 1991); idem, Concerto pour quatre consonnes sans voyelles. Au-delà du principe d'identité (1991); A. Peperzak (ed.), Ethics as First Philosophy (1995); S. Petrosino and J.Rolland, La Vérite nomade: Introduction à Emmanuel Lévinas (1984); F. Poirié, Emmanuel Lévinas: Qui êtes-vous (1987); T. Wright, The Twilight of Jewish Philosophy: Emmanuel Levinas' Ethical Hermeneutics (1999); E. Wyschogrod, Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics (1974); For a bibliography of works by and on Levinas until 1989, see R. Burggraeve, Emmanuel Lévinas: Une bibliographie primaire et secondaire (19291985), avec complément 19851989 (1990).

[Ephraim Meir (2nd ed.)]

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