Emmanuel Levinas

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

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.

Early Years

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.

A European and A Jew

In the 1930s, Levinas continued his philosophical studies, publishing a book on Husserl (The Theory of Intuition in the Phenomenology of Husserl, 1930). Though he had not yet begun the engagement with traditional Jewish texts that would mark his post-War work, he read Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, along with Protestant theological sources.

At this time, the idea of God and the problem of the human experience of revelation grew in importance in his thinking. Perhaps just as importantly, Levinas deepened his association with an organization he had joined upon moving to France, the Alliance Israelité Universelle, which celebrated the compatibility between French and Jewish culture, and attempted to provide financial aid and (French-style) education for Jews all over the Middle East and North Africa. Levinas worked within the organization in several capacities, and while he endorsed its vision of Jews remaining Jewish while living as citizens in liberal European states, in a number of essays written for the organization’s journal, he expressed his desire to rethink the relationship between Jewish and European identities.

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.

Talmudic Readings

Beginning in 1963 Levinas engaged with Jewish sources through a series of “Talmudic readings,” combining the insights of Western philosophy with rabbinic interpretive methods. He sometimes referred to this in terms of translation: Hebrew sources were to be translated into “Greek,” meaning the language of the European philosophical tradition, but also meaning something more ambitious: Levinas sought to find lessons within Talmudic literature that might shed light on unresolved problems remaining in European thought.

Furthermore, and more controversially, Levinas thought that reading both the Bible and the Talmud in the light of contemporary political problems, might help us to interpret those texts themselves. He once said: “The translation of the Septuagint [the first translation of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek] is not yet complete,” implying that Jewish texts had to be continuously “re-translated,” in his metaphorical sense, to remain relevant. The idea that Levinas’ “post-Heideggerian” reading of the Talmud could somehow be superior to previous rabbinic approaches has earned Levinas detractors within Jewish thought, but also many devotees eager for a new conversation between “Athens” and “Jerusalem.”

Levinas’ Legacy

In part because of his friendship with major figures such as Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot, Levinas has become a truly influential figure in continental philosophy, sometimes grouped with Derrida and other “postmodern” philosophers. Interestingly, Levinas has also become one of the voices in the contemporary conversation between philosophy and theology (both Jewish and Christian), valued for his arguments that both religion and philosophy can contribute to our running conversations about human values.

Levinas has been accepted–perhaps inappropriately–by some postmodernists as a sort of “Rabbi,” an authoritative speaker on matters of Jewish tradition, because he provided readings of Jewish texts that are agreeable to a postmodern sensibility. Levinas argued for the open-endedness of texts, the importance of interpretation, and the relevance of biblical and Talmudic religion, offering a philosophical account of ethical responsibility in both philosophy and Judaism. Still, many of Levinas’ interpreters attempt to disentangle these two strands from one another, but while he wrote for different audiences during his lifetime, it has become increasingly clear that neither “side” of his intellectual project is entirely comprehensible without the other.

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