Emmanuel Lévinas’s Totality and Infinity can be understood as a response to two large crises, one cultural and one philosophical. When the book was written, Europe had recently come through two bloody wars, World Wars I and II, which demonstrated on a scale never before seen the barbarity of humanity against humanity. The depth of this crisis was seen in the genocidal programs carried out by nations that were supposed to represent the best of the Western tradition. In response to this crisis, Lévinas asks if there is not an eschatological hope available to people, a hope sustained and nourished by the life of one’s responsibility to another, that will redirect the pessimism and despair that the witness of history ought to teach people.
On the philosophical level, phenomenology, as it was defined by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, promised to put philosophy on a new and rigorous path. Husserl envisioned phenomenological philosophy as the science that would lead people past the relativism and naturalism that ruled the day; however, Heidegger believed that phenomenology evoked the sense of long-forgotten Being and by doing so would lead humanity into authentic existence. Neither of these attempts, in Lévinas’s view, addressed the crucial philosophical problem of how to address and overcome the violent tendencies latent within Western philosophical practice. Because Lévinas believed that philosophical reflection is inherently...
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