Emmanuel Levinas was a major figure in postwar French philosophy, although he was born in Lithuania. Significantly, he was Jewish in origin; this was always important in his philosophy, which sometimes referred to his Jewish (although he seems to have been agnostic about the existence of God) and Zionist convictions. He studied with Martin Heidegger in Germany, and his work exhibits deep ambiguity about Heidegger, presumably at least partly due to Heidegger’s support for the Nazis in 1933. There could be no Levinasian philosophy without Heidegger, but Heidegger is often the target of Levinas’s philosophy, as are G. W. F. Hegel and Edmund Husserl. Levinas’s emergence as a French philosopher belongs to the time when the “three H’s” where at the center of academic philosophy. He suggested that they belonged to a Greek philosophical tradition in which ontology (the study of being and types of beings) is taken as the first philosophy. The Jewish tradition took ethics as the first philosophy, according to Levinas, and therefore offered a correction to the Greek tradition. Levinas did not, however, refer to Jewish philosophers; he meant that the Torah and the tradition of its interpretation assumed a position in which ethics was the first philosophy. Levinas himself taught Talmud classes for children. Nevertheless, his philosophy can be understood only against the background of the European tradition since the Ancient Greeks. His work began with research on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and emerged in mature form decades later in Totality and Infinity (first published in 1961). In that book, he suggested that the ontological tradition of Greek philosophy was a philosophy of power, of the state, of the supremacy of the I, and of war. He opposed that with the Jewish ethical tradition in which the Other is supreme and the I, or the Same, can exist only in its responsibility to the Other. The Other appears phenomenologically in the face, with which the I cannot avoid an ethical relation. Even if the I murders the Other, the Other is still supreme for the I. The I cannot exist without recognizing the Other, without recognizing that the sameness of the self depends on alterity. The self can have a relation with the world, which is its only way of existing meaningfully, only if it recognizes that its own self belongs to what is outside the self. Levinas partly explained that in relation to notions of the Gift, of the relation of giving with no return, with clear echoes of the work of Marcel Mauss. Despite his reservations about the European philosophical tradition, Levinas defined his position though Plato, Descartes, and phenomenology. From Plato, he took the idea of the form of Good as the sovereign form before the form of Being. From Descartes, he took the idea that God (as a form of otherness) is an unavoidable assumption for me and exists in excess over, or transcendence of, my being. From phenomenology, he took the goal of describing the contents of consciousness, and their necessary structures, in a manner that pays particular attention to habitation, the body, the erotic, and language. His later work, particularly Otherwise Than Being (first published in 1974), also has traces of a critical dialogue with his friend Jacques Derrida in which he responded to Derrida’s claims that his position was an act of metaphysical violence against the “ontological” tradition that replaced ontological metaphysics with his own metaphysics, in which abstract truth is said. Levinas’s response was to emphasize the distinction between the act of saying as an ethical operation open to the other and the contents of what was said as more enclosed, along with a general attempt to write out any elements of the ontological tradition that might have appeared in his own work.
- Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
- Levinas, E. (1990). Time and the Other. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
- Levinas, E. (1998). Otherwise than being. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.