Emmanuel Levinas’ centennial was commemorated in 2006 at conferences throughout the world. The retrospectives were well-warranted. The Lithuanian-born Jewish philosopher was a major figure in 20th century thought, taking Western philosophy to task for its failure to engage ethics. Indeed, Levinas’ writings take the ethical encounter with other persons–rather than abstract questions about knowledge or meaning–as the point of departure for all philosophical work.
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was born in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania to a family rich in Jewish cultural traditions. Hebrew was the first language he learned to read, and his parents were Yiddish speakers, but Russian was their spoken language of choice and the Russian novel was Levinas’ first object of intellectual love. Following their displacement during World War I, the Levinas family immigrated to France, where Levinas would later become a citizen, and for whom he would fight in World War II.
Levinas entered the University of Strasbourg in 1923. It was here that philosophy, especially the thought of Edmund Husserl, became Levinas’ true passion. Soon, he traveled to the University of Freiburg, in Germany, to study with Husserl, but he also became a student of Martin Heidegger. Levinas was present at the famous Davos disputation of 1929: a meeting between Heidegger, who represented the existentialist revolution in philosophy and Ernst Cassirer, the Jewish neo-Kantian, who favored the rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment.
Levinas supported Heidegger against Cassirer, choosing existentialism over Kant, but after Heidegger joined the National Socialists, Levinas had some regrets. Levinas continued to see Heidegger’s philosophy as a crucial turn in European thought, one that made his own philosophy possible. And yet, as he would later explain, he saw Heidegger’s political misdeeds as evidence that the man’s philosophy lacked ethical content. Nonetheless, Heidegger’s influence on Levinas remained. One commentator even called him "Heidegger made kosher," for it was Levinas who introduced German phenomenology to France and later contributed to the effort to rehabilitate phenomenology and existentialism after Heidegger’s misadventures in the Nazi party were fully publicized.