Emmanuel Levinas

A 20th-century philosopher whose Jewish sensibility influenced his encounter with Western thought and ethics.

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In a sense, Levinas began to develop the same longing that had led the German-Jewish Rosenzweig "back" from German philosophy to Judaism, a desire to make Jewish identity a primary part of one's engagement with philosophy. Philosophy might aim for a universal mode of "Greek" thought, but it would always be as Jews that Jews encountered the universal. Levinas thought that the idea of a "chosen people," the religious particularity of the Jews, contained a lesson for all peoples: universal traditions, including the ethical traditions of the Western world, always have to be encountered through particular--meaning culturally specific--pathways.

Levinas' Jewish education began in earnest when he undertook studies with a mysterious Talmud teacher, Monsieur Chouchani, who would appear, give instruction, and then vanish for months without a trace. Levinas studied with him between 1947 and 1951, and his eventual Talmudic lectures--which he began to give in 1963--bore the impress of Chouchani's instruction.

The Other

Levinas' general philosophical efforts remained impressive during this period, as he published two more important studies, Existence and Existents (1947) and Discovering Existence with Husserl and Heidegger (1949). Levinas also published work in Jean-Paul Sartre's journal Les Temps Modernes, but as Richard Wolin has noted, Levinas' work was often intended to counter Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism: "With Sartre, it is the 'For-Itself,' or consciousness, that constitutes philosophy's Archimedean vantage point. For Levinas, conversely, it is the 'Other,' l'Autrui, in all its uncanny metaphysical strangeness."

Levinas was troubled by the same thing in Sartre's thought that had troubled him about Heidegger: the focus on the experience or consciousness of the self did not provide an account of ethics, which for Levinas meant the way we encounter other people.

It was in his opus, Totality and Infinity (1961), that Levinas brought his ethical challenge to philosophy out into the open. The book is dense, even maddeningly so, with philosophical technicalities, and yet the theologies of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber also influenced the work. Here Levinas draws on the metaphors of human-divine encounter, which overwhelms our faculties and reveal our fundamental fragility and limitations.

He establishes a parallel between these encounters and the experience of other persons, arguing that there is something inherent in the experience of "otherness"--the difference between you and me, say--that reminds us of the fragility of both ourselves and of others, and imposes the ethical imperative to do no harm. The encounter with a human "other," then, is likened to the religious encounter with the Divine Other. Levinas would continue to elaborate this idea, for which he is perhaps best known, in his running project of reconstituting philosophy using ethics, rather than speculation about the nature of "being" and knowledge. This project would occupy him for the remainder of his career and is reflected in Otherwise than Being, his last major philosophical work, which shines the light of Levinas' critique on the tradition of Western metaphysics.

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Benjamin A. Wurgaft

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a graduate student in History at the University of California. He also writes on food culture and the arts for a variety of magazines.