Emmanuel Levinas

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born December 30 [O.S. January 12] 1906 in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas, Lithuania); died December 25, 1995 in Paris, France) was a French philosopher and Talmudic commentator.

Life and philosophy

Emanuelis Levinas (later adapted to French orthography as Emmanuel Levinas) received a traditional Jewish education in Lithuania. After WWII, he studied the Talmud under the enigmatic "Monsieur Chouchani," whose influence he acknowledged only late in his life.

Levinas began his philosophical studies at Strasbourg University in 1924, where he began his lifelong friendship with the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. In 1928, he went to Freiburg University to study phenomenology under Edmund Husserl. At Freiburg he also met Martin Heidegger. Levinas became one of the very first French intellectuals to draw attention to Heidegger and Husserl, by translating Husserl's Cartesian Meditations and by drawing on their ideas in his own philosophy, in works such as his The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, De l'Existence à l'Existant, and En Découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger.

According to his New York Times obituary, Levinas came to regret his enthusiasm for Heidegger, because of the latter's Nazism. During a lecture on forgiveness, Levinas stated "One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger."[1]

After earning his doctorate Levinas taught at a private Jewish High School in Paris, the École Normale Israélite Orientale, eventually becoming its director. He began teaching at the University of Poitiers in 1961, at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris in 1967, and at the Sorbonne in 1973, from which he retired in 1979. He was also a Professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

In the 1950s, Levinas emerged from the circle of intellectuals surrounding Jean Wahl as a leading French thinker. His work is based on the ethics of the Other or, in Levinas' terms, on "ethics as first philosophy." For Levinas, the Other is not knowable and cannot be made into an object of the self, as is done by traditional metaphysics (which Levinas called "ontology"). Levinas prefers to think of philosophy as the "wisdom of love" rather than the love of wisdom (the literal Greek meaning of the word "philosophy"). By his lights, ethics becomes an entity independent of subjectivity to the point where ethical responsibility is integral to the subject; hence an ethics of responsibility precedes any "objective searching after truth."

Levinas derives the primacy of his ethics from the experience of the encounter with the Other. For Levinas, the irreducible relation, the epiphany, of the face-to-face, the encounter with another, is a privileged phenomenon in which the other person's proximity and distance are both strongly felt. "The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness."[2]. At the same time, the revelation of the face makes a demand, this demand is before one can express, or know one's freedom, to affirm or deny.[3] One instantly recognizes the transcendence and heteronomy of the Other. Even murder fails as an attempt to take hold of this otherness.

In Levinas's later thought following "Totality and Infinity", he argued that our responsibility for the other was already rooted within our subjective constitution. It should be noted that the first line of the preface of this book is "everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality."[4] This can be seen most clearly in his later account of recurrence (chapter 4 in "Otherwise Than Being"), where Levinas maintained that subjectivity was formed in and through our subjected-ness to the other. In this way, his effort was not to move away from traditional attempts to locate the other within subjectivity (this he agrees with), so much as his view was that subjectivity was primordially ethical and not theoretical. That is to say, our responsibility for the other was not a derivative feature of our subjectivity; instead, obligation founds our subjective being-in-the-world by giving it a meaningful direction and orientation. Levinas's thesis "ethics as first philosophy", then, means that the traditional philosophical pursuit of knowledge is but a secondary feature of a more basic ethical duty to the other.

The elderly Levinas was a distinguished French public intellectual, whose books reportedly sold well. He had a major impact on the young Jacques Derrida, a fellow French Jew whose seminal Writing and Difference contains an essay, "Violence and Metaphysics," on Levinas. Derrida also delivered a eulogy at Levinas's funeral, later published as Adieu à Emmanuel Levinas, an appreciation and exploration of Levinas's moral philosophy. Here, Derrida followed Bracha L. Ettinger's interpretation of Levinas's notion of femininity and transformed his own earlier reading of this subject accordingly.[5]

[War experiences

Levinas became a naturalized French citizen in 1930. When France declared war on Germany, he was ordered to report for military duty. During the German invasion of France in 1940, his military unit was quickly surrounded and forced to surrender. Levinas spent the rest of World War II as a prisoner of war in a camp near Hannover in Germany. Levinas was assigned to a special barracks for Jewish prisoners, who were forbidden any forms of religious worship. Life in the camp was as difficult as might be expected, with Levinas often forced to chop wood and do other menial tasks. Other prisoners saw him frequently jotting in a notebook. These jottings became his book De l'existence à l'existant (1947) and a series of lectures published under the title Le Temps et l'Autre (1948).

Meanwhile, Maurice Blanchot helped Levinas' wife and daughter spend the war in a monastery, thus sparing them the Holocaust. Blanchot, at considerable personal risk, also saw to it that Levinas was able to keep in contact with his immediate family through letters and other messages. Other members of Levinas' family were not so fortunate; his mother-in-law was deported and never heard from again, while his father and brothers were murdered in Lithuania by the Nazi SS


Emmanuel Levinas

First published Sun Jul 23, 2006; substantive revision Sun Mar 18, 2007

Levinas's philosophy has been called ethics. If ethics means rationalist self-legislation and freedom (deontology), the calculation of happiness (utilitarianism), or the cultivation of virtues (virtue ethics), then Levinas's philosophy is not an ethics. Levinas claimed, in 1961, that he was developing a “first philosophy.” This first philosophy is neither traditional logic nor metaphysics, however.[1] It is an interpretive, phenomenological description of the rise and repetition of the face-to-face encounter, or the intersubjective relation at its precognitive core; viz., being called by another and responding to that other. If precognitive experience, that is, human sensibility, can be characterized conceptually, then it must be described in what is most characteristic to it: a continuum of sensibility and affectivity, in other words, sentience and emotion in their interconnection.[2]

This entry will focus on Levinas's philosophy, rather than his Talmudic lessons (see the bibliography) and his essays on Judaism (notably, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, 1963). Levinas's philosophical project can be called constructivist. He proposes phenomenological description and a hermeneutics of lived experience in the world. He lays bare levels of experience described neither by Husserl nor by Heidegger. These layers of experience concern the encounter with the world, with the human other, and a reconstruction of a layered interiority characterized by sensibility and affectivity.

1. Introduction

1.1 Overview of Levinas's Philosophy

Jacques Derrida pointed out in 1967 that “Levinas does not want to propose laws or moral rules…it is a matter of [writing] an ethics of ethics.”[3] An ethics of ethics means, here, the exploration of conditions of possibility of any interest in good actions or lives. In light of that, it can be said that Levinas is not writing an ethics at all. Instead, he is exploring the meaning of intersubjectivity and lived immediacy in light of three themes: transcendence, existence, and the human other. These three themes structure the present entry.

At the core of Levinas's mature thought (i.e., works of 1961 and 1974) are descriptions of the encounter with another person. That encounter evinces a particular feature: the other impacts me unlike any worldly object or force. I can constitute the other person cognitively, on the basis of vision, as an alter ego. I can see that another human being is “like me,” acts like me, appears to be the master of her conscious life. That was Edmund Husserl's basic phenomenological approach to constituting other people within a shared social universe. But Husserl's constitution lacks, Levinas argues, the core element of intersubjective life: the other person addresses me, calls to me. He does not even have to utter words in order for me to feel the summons implicit in his approach. It is this encounter that Levinas describes and approaches from multiple perspectives (e.g., internal and external). He will present it as fully as it is possible to introduce an affective event into everyday language without turning it into an intellectual theme. Beyond any other philosophical concerns, the fundamental intuition of Levinas's philosophy is the non-reciprocal relation of responsibility. In the mature thought this responsibility is transcendence par excellence and has a temporal dimension specific to it as human experience.

The phenomenological descriptions of intersubjective responsibility are built upon an analysis of living in the world. These are unique to Levinas. They differ from Heidegger's analytic of existence. For Levinas, an ‘I’ lives out its embodied existence according to modalities. It consumes the fruits of the world. It enjoys and suffers from the natural elements. It constructs shelters and dwellings. It carries on the social and economic transactions of its daily life. Yet, no event is as affectively disruptive for a consciousness holding sway in its world than the encounter with another person. In this encounter (even if it later becomes competitive or instrumental), the ‘I’ first experiences itself as called and liable to account for itself. It responds. The ‘I’'s response is as if to a nebulous command. Nothing says that the other gave a de facto command. The command or summons is part of the intrinsic relationality. With the response comes the beginning of language as dialogue. The origin of language, for Levinas, is always response—a responding-to-another, that is, to her summons. Dialogue arises ultimately through that response. Herein lie the roots of intersubjectivity as lived immediacy. Levinas has better terms for it: responsibility is the affective, immediate experience of “transcendence” and “fraternity.” We will return to these themes.

The intersubjective origin of discourse and fraternity can only be reached by phenomenological description. Otherwise, it is deduced from principles that have long since been abstracted from the immediacy of the face-to-face encounter with the other. Levinas's descriptions show that ‘in the beginning was the human relation’. The primacy of relation explains why it is that human beings are interested in the questions of ethics at all. But for that reason, Levinas has made interpretative choices. To situate first philosophy in the face-to-face encounter is to choose to begin philosophy not with the world, not with God, but with what will be argued to be the prime condition for human communication. For this reason, Levinas's first philosophy starts from an interpretive phenomenology. Like Husserl's, his first philosophy sets aside empirical prejudices about subjects and objects. Like Husserl's phenomenology, it strips away accumulated layers of conceptualization, in order to reveal experience as it comes to light. For Levinas, intersubjective experience, as it comes to light, proves ‘ethical’ in the simple sense that an ‘I’ discovers its own particularity when it is singled out by the gaze of the other. This gaze is interrogative and imperative. It says “do not kill me.” It also implores the ‘I’, who eludes it only with difficulty, although this request may have actually no discursive content. This command and supplication occurs because human faces impact us as affective moments or, what Levinas calls ‘interruptions’. The face of the other is firstly expressiveness. It could be compared to a force. We must, of course, use everyday language to translate these affective interruptions. Therein lie difficulties that this entry will clarify.

Suffice it to say that first philosophy is responsibility that unfolds into dialogical sociality. It is also Levinas's unique way of defining transcendence in relation to the world and to what Heidegger called Being. Throughout this entry, we will refer to the themes of transcendence and Being in light of the work of Husserl and Heidegger. It is Levinas's project to uncover the layers of pre-intellectual (what Husserl called pre-intentional or objectless intentionality), affective experience in which transcendence comes to pass. Thus, the phenomenological descriptions that Levinas adapts from Husserl and Heidegger extend both of their approaches. However, Levinas's particular extension of Husserl and Heidegger unfolds over the course of an entire philosophical career. For that reason, this entry will follow that career chronologically, as it evolves. We will emphasize, in what follows, how it is that Levinas's thought is: (1) a unique first philosophy; (2) not a traditional ethics (neither virtue, nor utilitarian, nor deontological ethics); (3) the investigation of the lived conditions of possibility of any de facto human interest in ethics; (4) a highly original adaptation of phenomenology and the interpretation of pre-intentional embodied existence (viz., descriptions of sensibility and affectivity).

1.2 Life and Career


Born January 12 in Kaunas (or Kovno, in Russian), Lithuania. Lithuania is a part of pre-Revolutionary Russia in which the then surrounding culture ‘tolerates’ Jews. He is the eldest child in a middle class family and has two brothers, Boris and Aminadab.


In the wake of the War, Levinas's family emigrates to Karkhov, in the Ukraine. The family returns to Lithuania in 1920, two years after the country obtains independence from the Revolutionary government.


Goes to study philosophy in Strasbourg (France). Levinas studies philosophy with Maurice Pradines, psychology with Charles Blondel, and sociology with Maurice Halbwachs. He meets Maurice Blanchot who will become a close friend.


Levinas travels to Freiburg to study with Edmund Husserl; he attends Heidegger's seminar.


Publishes his thesis in French, The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's Phenomenology.


French translation, by Levinas, of Husserl's Sorbonne lectures, Cartesian Meditations, in collaboration with Gabrielle Peiffer.


He marries Raïssa Levi, whom he had known since childhood.


Levinas publishes a philosophical analysis of “Hitlerism,” Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism.


Levinas publishes an original essay in hermeneutic ontology, On Escape, in the Émile Bréhier's journal Recherches philosophiques (reprinted in 1982).


Naturalized French; enlists in the French officer corps.


Captured by the Nazis; imprisoned in Fallingsbotel, a labor camp for officers. His Lithuanian family is murdered. His wife Raïssa, and daughter, Simone, are hidden by religious in Orléans.


Following the publication of Existence and Existents (which Levinas began writing in captivity), and Time and the Other that regrouped four lectures given at the Collège Philosophique (founded by Jean Wahl), Levinas becomes Director of the École Normale Israélite Orientale, Paris.


After the death of their second daughter, Andrée Éliane, Levinas and his wife have a son, Michael, who becomes a pianist and a composer.
Levinas publishes En découvrant l'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger (selections of which appear in 1998 as Discovering Existence with Husserl).


He delivers his first Talmudic readings at the Colloque des Intellectuels juifs de Langue française. A colloquium attended by Vladimir Jankélévitch, André Neher, and Jean Halpérin, among others.


Publishes his doctorate (ès Lettres), Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Position at the Université de Poitiers.


Publishes Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism.


Professor at the Université de Paris, Nanterre, with Paul Ricœur.


Publishes Quatres lectures talmudiques (English translation in Nine Talmudic Readings).


Humanism of the Other.


Lecture at the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne.


Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, the second magnum opus.


Sur Maurice Blanchot (no English translation).


Proper Names.


Du sacré au saint (English translation in Nine Talmudic Readings).


Of God Who Comes to Mind, Beyond the Verse and the radio conversations with Philippe Nemo, Ethics and Infinity.


Transcendance et Intelligibilité (English translation in Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings)


Outside the Subject, a collection of texts, old and new on philosophers, language, and politics.


In the Time of the Nations.


De l'oblitération: Entretien avec Françoise Armengaud (no English translation); a discussion about the sculpture of fellow Lithuanian, Sasha Sosno.


Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other. An issue of the prestigious Les Cahiers de L'Herne is dedicated to Levinas's work.


Sorbonne lectures of 1973-74, published as God, Death, and Time. The annual colloquium at Cerisy-la-Salle publishes a volume devoted to him.


Raïssa Levinas dies in September. Levinas publishes a collection of essays, Liberté et commandement (no English translation) and Unforeseen History, edited by Pierre Hayat.


Alterity and Transcendence.

Emmanuel Levinas dies in Paris, December 25.


New Talmudic Readings (published posthumously).


Éthique comme philosophie première (no English translation, published posthumously).

2. Philosophical Beginnings: Transcendence as the Need to Escape

Levinas published his thesis, The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's Phenomenology in 1930. It was the first book-length introduction to Husserl's thought in French. By privileging the theme of intuition, Levinas established what German speaking readers would have found in Husserl's Ideas (published 1913): every human experience is open to phenomenological description; every human experience is from the outset meaningful and can be approached as a mode of intentionality.[4] The following year, he published a translation of Husserl's Cartesian Meditations, in which the latter laid out a systematic presentation of transcendental phenomenology.[5] In the 1930s, Levinas continue to publish studies of the thought of his two principal teachers, Husserl and Heidegger. These included “Martin Heidegger and Ontology”[6] and the comprehensive “The Work of Edmund Husserl.”[7] In the 1930s and 40s, his philosophical project is influenced by Husserl's phenomenological method, which turned around the centrality of the “transcendental ego.” However, suspicious of an excessive intellectualism in Husserl's approach to essences, Levinas embraced the concrete, worldly approach to existence in Heidegger's Being and Time.[8] Between 1930 and 1935, he will nevertheless turn away from Heidegger's approach to Being and transcendence and develop the outlines of a counter-ontology. He will reconceive transcendence as a need for escape, and work out a new logic of lived time in that project.

Levinas's first experimental essay, On Escape (De l'évasion, 1935), examined the relationship between the embodied (sentient) self and the intentional ego,[9] from the perspectives of physical and affective states, including need, pleasure, shame, and nausea. In this original philosophical exercise, Levinas revisited Heidegger's approach to time and transcendence.[10] He was less concerned than was Heidegger with the question of existence that opens up before us when, beset by profound anxiety, we experience the ‘dissolving’ of things in the world. Levinas's question was not: “Why is there Being instead of simply nothing?” His concern was to approach Being differently, through the (human) being for which the primary experiences of Being are of its embodied, but not physiological, existence. Unlike Heidegger, Levinas's approach gave priority to embodiment and its lived “moods,” as well as to humans' failed attempts to get away from the being that we ourselves are. “Escape,” he wrote, “is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I [moi] is oneself [soi-même].”[11] In the two, crossing dimensions of human life, sentient-affective and intentional, our experience of Being comes to pass.

Levinas's early project approached transcendence in light of humans' irreducible urge to get past the limits of their physical and social situations. His transcendence is less transcendence-in-the-world than transcendence through and because of sensibility. This approach to transcendence as evasion poses the question of mortality, finite being, and so, infinity.

Levinas accepted Heidegger's arguments that a human being experiences itself as if cast into its world,[12] without control over its beginning and ending. Heidegger's human being, or Dasein, lives out its time projecting itself toward diverse possibilities, and may confront its own mortality in this way. The projective element of transcendence, which Heidegger described in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology[13] as simply a “stepping over to…as such,” was of interest to Levinas. But he would enquire: to what are we ‘stepping over’? And from what are we ‘stepping over’? Levinas writes:

And yet modern sensibility wrestles with problems that indicate…the abandonment of this concern with transcendence. As if it had the certainty that the idea of the limit could not apply to the existence of what is…and as if modern sensibility perceived in being a defect still more profound (OE, 51).

The objection Levinas raised against Heidegger's transcendence was not that it rejected theology. Rather, it was that ‘stepping over’, or being out ahead of oneself, suggested that Being, as Heidegger understood it, was finite or somehow flawed. That places Being in a cultural and historical context,[14] or, to put it more philosophically, it poses the question of the meaning of the finite and the infinite; that is, the question of the “idea of the limit.” Levinas asks: “[Is] the need for escape not the exclusive matter of a finite being?…Would an infinite being have the need to take leave of itself?” We are admittedly finite. But how do we know this, and from what perspective do we contemplate Being as finite? “Is this infinite being not precisely the ideal of self-sufficiency and the promise of eternal contentment?” (OE, 56). The decision about the ultimate meaning of the infinite is not made in the 1935 essay. It returns as a theme in the 1940s essays, however. Important here are: (1) Levinas's argument that Heidegger's conception of existence is historically specific. (2) To be embodied is to struggle with the limits of one's facticity and one's situation, and it is here that the question of Being first arises.

If Heidegger's Dasein confronted the question of Being by finding itself brought before itself in anxiety, Levinas proposes other ways by which the gap narrows between Being itself and the beings that we are. Following the leitmotif of our irrepressible need to escape, Levinas examines a host of attempted and disappointed transcendences: need, pleasure, shame, and nausea. In these possibilities, the corporeal self is posited, set down as a substance, in its existence. Unlike Heidegger's Being, these states are not abstract. Here begins Levinas's protracted insistence that Being is continuous presence, not, as Heidegger insisted, an event of disclosure and withdrawal.

From the outset, the “fact of existing” refers to concrete human existence. In identifying existence as firstly human, Levinas establishes that Heidegger's Being, or the “being of that which is,” answers a formal ontological question, to which determinations like finiteness and infinity, not to mention escape and transcendence, apply only vaguely. He will therefore concentrate on what it means for a human being to posit itself, in an act that is not already abstracted from its everyday life.

Affective self-positing, not Heidegger's Dasein with its projective temporality, would offer the purest and most concrete access possible to our finite existence. I am my joy or my pain, if provisionally. Our diverse attempts to get out of our everyday situations are not the same as projections toward new possibilities, where our death lies behind all the others (death is the ultimate limit, or “possibility of impossibility,” for Heidegger). Escape represents, for Levinas, a positive, dynamic need. But needs are not equivalent to mere suffering. Within many needs is the anticipation of their fulfillment. If need, whether for sustenance or diversion, cannot assure an enduring transcendence of everyday existence, it nevertheless beckons and enriches us, even if it can sometimes be experienced as oppressive. In this youthful work, Levinas thus rethinks need in light of fullness rather than privation, as was commonly done. In so doing, he opens a different understanding of existence itself. Whether it is experienced by pleasure or suffering, need is the ground of our existence. That means that transcendence, in Levinas's understanding of it, is continually directed toward “something other than ourselves” (OE, 58). And it suggests that the deep motivation of need is to get out of the being that we ourselves are—our situation and our embodiment. In 1935, Levinas's counter-ontology moves Heidegger's Being toward the unified duality of sentient self and intentional ‘I’, here and now, not projected toward its ultimate disappearance in death

Reconceived as need, pleasure, or even nausea, transcendence gives us access to a temporality that is neither Aristotle's “measure of motion,” nor the fullness of awaiting (the kairos or moment in the early Heidegger). Pleasure and pain are intensities: “something like abysses, ever deeper, into which our existence…hurls itself” (OE, 61). The priority of the present, concentrated into an extended moment is opened up through sensibility and affectivity. In pleasure as in pain, we need—not out of lack—but in desire or in hope. “Pleasure is…nothing less than a concentration in the instant…” (OE, 61). The present thus receives existential priority over Heidegger's projections of lived temporality. Levinas's emphasis on the embodied present is a theme he never abandons.[15] In as much as he received it from Husserl, he will vastly enrich it.[16]

In sum, Levinas's early project is structured around the reconceptualization of fundamental existential categories. If Husserl's transcendental ego[17] returns, here, as the ‘I’ of conscious intentions, which Levinas differentiated from the self of embodiment, it remains the case that the embodied self holds priority, precisely as the site from which transcendence first arises. If the ‘self’ and ‘I’ duality is where the positivity of Being is clearest, then the precedence of the world and of Being is necessarily displaced. On the other hand, Heidegger's finite Being, which he understood as disclosure and withdrawal, is interpreted in a pre-Heideggerian fashion, as constant presence. That presence is modalized through our manifold sensations, emotions and states of mind.

In 1935, Levinas was convinced that through sensation and states of mind, we discover both the need to escape ourselves and the futility of getting out of existence. In the physical torment of nausea, we experience Being in its simplest, most oppressive neutrality. To this, Levinas adds three provocative themes. First, a being that seeks to escape itself, because it finds itself trapped in its own facticity, is not a master, but a “creature” (OE, 72). Second, nausea is not simply a physiological event. If nausea shows us, dramatically, how existence encircles us on all sides, to the point of submerging us, then social and political actuality can also nauseate. Third, if Being is experienced in its pure form as neutrality and impotence, then we can neither bypass Being (following the “aspirations of Idealism” [OE, 73]), nor accept it passively. Being is existence, but it is our existence. The mark of our existence is need, or the non-acceptance of neutral Being. In 1935, Levinas concludes, “Every civilization that accepts being—with the tragic despair it contains and the crimes it justifies—merits the name ‘barbarian’,” (OE, 73). The question remains: How shall we conceptualize a sensuous need to transcend Being? Embodied need is not an illusion; but is transcendence one?