Emmanuel Lévinas Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: With the claim that ethics, rather than ontology, is “first philosophy,” Lévinas launched a major critique of the Western philosophical tradition, suggesting that philosophy is finally the wisdom of love in the service of love.

Early Life

Through his early education, Emmanuel Lévinas was thoroughly steeped in Russian culture and Jewish orthodoxy. He read, in Russian, the great novelists Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Leo Tolstoy, and the Bible in Hebrew. In 1923, Lévinas left Lithuania (a few intermittent years, including the revolutions of 1917, had been spent with his family in the Ukraine) for Strasbourg, where he began his general university education in psychology, sociology, Latin, and philosophy. Among the important philosophical influences at this time were the canon of philosophers Plato, Aristotle, René Descartes, and Immanuel Kant. Especially important, however, for Lévinas was the work of philosopher Henri Bergson, in particular his work on time as duration and as a release from static “scientific time.”

While in Strasbourg, and through a colleague’s chance invitation to read Edmund Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen (1900-1901; Logical Investigations, 1970), Lévinas discovered the thought of this philosopher and the emerging philosophical discipline called phenomenology. This discovery prompted Lévinas to travel to Freiburg (Breisgau) to study with the master during the academic year 1928-1929. In phenomenology, Lévinas found a discipline that allowed the philosopher to think non-naïvely about the constitution of reality via an analysis of the intentional stance of consciousness. By intentionality, Husserl meant the mental context in which things appear as the things that they are. The mind moves out toward reality, intends it, and in so doing, places it within a meaningful context or horizon.

While in Freiburg, Lévinas came upon Husserl’s successor, Martin Heidegger, and his text Sein und Zeit (1927; Being and Time, 1962). Heidegger was very important in Lévinas’s interpretation of phenomenology because he proposed an existential phenomenology, that is, a phenomenology firmly rooted in human existence as it occurs day to day. As Lévinas put it, in Heidegger’s work, one learned to hear the “verbality” of the phrase “to be.” Lévinas wrote a dissertation, The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, which philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre credited as introducing phenomenology to the French-speaking world and which also began a long conversation, appreciative but also critical, with the phenomenological tradition. Lévinas’s subsequent philosophical work would frequently take as its point of departure the axioms of either Husserl or Heidegger.

Lévinas’s experiences during World War II shaped his later work; the philosopher described his writings as being dominated by “the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror.” The “Nazi horror” took many forms, including Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism and the murder of many of Lévinas’s family members. Lévinas was saved from the extermination camps (though not the work camps) because of his French uniform. After the war, he continued his work in phenomenology through a variety of increasingly critical studies of Heideggerian ontology. In several essays, he struggled to develop his own voice, a voice that would find international acclaim in his state doctoral thesis Totality and Infinity.

In addition to his philosophical training, Lévinas continued his studies in Hebrew and Talmudic exegesis. These works were of a more confessional nature, and beginning in 1957, Lévinas lectured annually on Talmudic passages. He published several books on the exegesis of the Talmud and the interpretation of modern Judaism.

Life’s Work

In his earlier career, Lévinas had remained on the margins of French philosophical life, in part because of his involvement with, and eventual directorship of, the École Normale Israélite Orientale. The mission of this school was to promote the emancipation of Jews living in the Mediterranean regions by training qualified teachers. Because the school was in Paris, Lévinas took advantage of lectures being offered at the Sorbonne by Léon Brunschvicg and Alexandre Kojève. He also met several philosophers who later rose to prominence: Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Hyppolite, Gabriel Marcel, and Jean Wahl.

During the 1930’s, Lévinas worked primarily as an interpreter of the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger. He wrote several expository essays, some of which would later be gathered together and published as En découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger (1949; Husserl and Heidegger’s discovery of existence). During this period, he also cotranslated Husserl’s Cartesianische Meditationen (1931; Cartesian Meditations, 1960) into French. Lévinas had planned to write a book on Heidegger but never did, partly because he was disappointed by Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazis and partly because he was drafted by the French army in 1939. He served as an interpreter of Russian and German until his capture by the Germans.

After the war, Lévinas published a short book Existence and Existents, which showed a more critical position with respect to Heideggerian phenomenology. Rather than arguing from beings to Being, as Heidegger had, Lévinas proposed that one must move from essence or being, which he termed the anonymity of the “there is,” to particular existing beings if one was to get at the true sense of things. Before what Heidegger called...

(The entire section is 2359 words.)