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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2359

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.

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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 generosity of Being, there is a chaotic indeterminacy to being that precedes all giving or creativity. Lévinas’s short book did not receive a great deal of attention. It was written in a rather difficult style and dealt with themes in phenomenology that were only beginning to be understood. However, at the invitation of Wahl, Lévinas gave a series of lectures dealing with time at the Sorbonne in 1946-1947, and their publication was more widely received.

At the age of fifty-five, Lévinas received his state doctorate, which brought international renown and a full-time academic post at the University of Poitiers. This position would be followed by an appointment at the University of Paris-Nanterre in 1967 and the Sorbonne (Paris IV) in 1973, where he became honorary professor in 1976. The publication of his doctoral work, Totality and Infinity, immediately established Lévinas as a highly original thinker.

The main contours of Lévinas’s work were developed in a few essays written in the 1950’s, but the revolutionary character of his thought was not revealed until after the publication of Totality and Infinity. Lévinas claims that Western philosophy, because of its commitment to Greek ontology, is characterized by a totalitarian impulse that does violence to the integrity and transcendence of otherness. He insists that the human and the divine other cannot be made to fit within a monism of being, even though this has been the consistent goal of a great many philosophers. Though Lévinas does incorporate Hebrew experience in his description of the human/human and human/divine encounter, it would be a mistake to think that he is simply substituting a biblical for a philosophical account. Lévinas argues for his philosophical positions in ways that do not require a belief in the scriptural traditions. In fact, in texts of Plato and Descartes, he finds moments that indicate precisely the sort of transcendence that he envisions. In the Politeia (c. 388-366 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) Plato spoke of the Good that is “beyond being,” and in the Meditationes de Prima Philosophiae (1641; Meditations on First Philosophy, 1911), Descartes spoke of the idea of the infinite that exceeds thought and overwhelms it, leading the mind not to comprehension but to worship.

Lévinas’s point is that these sorts of texts reveal an honesty that acknowledges the integrity of the other but at the same time senses that the activity of reason must correspond to the matter with which it deals. Critical knowing, rather than being the dogmatic exercise that pronounces meaning upon the world, comes about as learners are attentive to the other and allow themselves to be taught by others. Given that the other is the teacher, the self and the other form an asymmetrical relationship, one in which the self as learner is beholden to what the other presents. The other person is not the self’s alter ego but is transcendent with respect to the self. This is the beginning of an account that stresses the ethical nature of the knowing situation. As soon as the self encounters another, a claim has been put upon the self to respect and be responsible for one’s own alterity or otherness. Ethics is “first philosophy” because every pursuit of wisdom, if it is attentive to the integrity, even sanctity, of the other arises out of a moral claim placed upon the knower.

In the 1960’s, Lévinas had to respond to the questions of many sympathetic and critical readers. Is it even possible to think beyond being if being is the very orbit within which all thought must move? Lévinas recognized that though his work was primarily inspired by the phenomenological method, what he was finally pointing to was something transphenomenological. The difficulty involved in Lévinas’s work was elaborated in his second major text Otherwise than Being: Or, Beyond Essence. In this work, Lévinas concentrated on the modalities that govern and orient a subject that is attentive and responsive to otherness. He produced a careful description of proximity, vulnerability, inspiration, and responsibility. Lévinas’s radical claim is that a subject who has undergone a heteronomous conversion (who has relinquished the drive for comprehension and control) will be so responsible for the other as to be substituted for the other, even to the point of death. As knowers, people are witnesses to otherness and are called to give an account of the other’s integrity, an account that finally must move beyond abstract speech to the “ethical language” that gives to the other with open hands.

In his later years, following retirement from his academic post, Lévinas continued to lecture widely on themes enunciated in his major works. Before his death, he was working on a theme that interested him in the earliest stages of his career, namely, a conception of time as diachronous rather than synchronous. He also continued work on problems in religion and the nature of death. Throughout this period, his work on Talmudic texts as well as issues associated with Judaism and modern culture carried on at a steady pace.


Lévinas’s work is perhaps the most significant attempt to move beyond the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger. He influenced many friends and students, including philosophers Paul Ricœur, Jacques Derrida, Adriaan Peperzak, and Jean-Luc Marion. In good phenomenological style, Lévinas’s work prompts his readers to return to beginnings. What is the original situation out of which human action and thought emerge? What does it mean to be responsible knowers? How do we construct a just and peaceable world? What is the meaning of death? These are perennial questions that cannot be avoided. Lévinas guides his readers in thinking about and developing answers to these questions.

Additional Reading

Bernasconi, Robert, and Simon Critchley, eds. Re-reading Levinas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. This collection of essays by several of Emmanuel Lévinas’s major interpreters covers a wide range of themes, including the philosopher in relation to deconstruction, his later works, Lévinas and the feminine, and his thought in relation to the philosopher Maurice Blanchot, psychoanalysis, and the care of animals. It includes a lengthy essay by Jacques Derrida on Lévinas’s later work.

Cohen, Richard A., ed. Face to Face with Levinas. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986. This early collection of essays on Lévinas is valuable for its contextualization of Lévinas’s thought. It includes an important and accessible interview conducted by Richard Kearney that covers a wide range of philosophical issues. Several other essays deal with Lévinas’s method and his relation to the history of philosophy.

Davis, Colin. Levinas: An Introduction. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. Davis, who is not a philosopher, introduces the broad themes of Lévinas’s work in a style accessible to those who are not conversant with European philosophy.

Derrida, Jacques. Adieu à Emmanuel Lévinas. Paris: Galilée, 1997. Provides expert criticism and interpretation of Lévinas’s work.

Gibbs, Robert. Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. This volume focuses primarily on Lévinas’s relation to and development of Jewish thought. It highlights in fresh and interesting ways, via discussions on language, reason, and social theory, what a Jewish critique of Greek philosophical practice might resemble.

Llewelyn, John. Emmanuel Levinas: The Genealogy of Ethics. London: Routledge, 1995. This text provides a more advanced interpretation of Lévinas’s overall work. Llewelyn traces the chronological and logical development of Lévinas’s ideas, arguing that his many texts form a systematic whole. Included in this volume are chapters on Lévinas’s early work on death and time, the significance of the face, the nature of responsibility and language, and the question of God.

Peperzak, Adriaan. Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1997. An important collection of essays, some expository, some critical, written for the more advanced reader.

Peperzak, Adriaan, ed. Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Lévinas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion. London: Routledge, 1995. This wide-ranging collection of papers was first presented at an international conference on the impact, potential or realized, of Lévinas’s thought on other disciplines such as theology, psychoanalysis, and literary theory. Most of Lévinas’s major interpreters are represented.

Peperzak, Adriaan. To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1993. Peperzak’s text is an excellent introduction to the range of Lévinas’s work. It provides a broad outline of Lévinas’s overall work and then sharpens various themes with a close reading of and commentary on the essay “Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite” (which appears in the volume). Peperzak concludes with interpretive essays on Lévinas’s two major philosophical works Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being. A useful bibliographical essay is included.

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