In This Article Emmanuel Levinas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Levinas’s Phenomenology and Method
  • Levinas and Political Philosophy

Philosophy Emmanuel Levinas
by
Gabriel Malenfant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0244

Introduction

Emmanuel Levinas (b. 1906–d. 1995) was a philosopher famous for having developed an original interpretation of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method, using the latter to address the foundations of ethics and normativity. Published in more than twenty-five books spanning over eighty years, his oeuvre can be divided into three categories: (1) his philosophical works, which regroup monographs, essays, and interviews, (2) his Talmudic readings and essays on Judaism, and (3) posthumous notes, remarks, and texts, some of which are still being published. Although references will be made to the second and third categories, the first remains the central focus of this article. Apart from the influence of Husserl, Levinas was also inspired by Martin Heidegger as well as by Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida. Of Heidegger, he wrote an uncompromising philosophical critique that addressed the secondary role played by ethics in his phenomenology—a critique he then expanded to the Western philosophical tradition as a whole. Ethics, Levinas argued, had to be reinterpreted and understood as “first philosophy” (i.e., as metaphysics), rather than as a derivative extension based on premises coming from ontological, epistemological, or political narratives. Not unlike Plato centuries before, although in a different manner and with very different implications, Levinas contended that the question of the Good has priority over that of Being, since interhuman relationality precedes any discourse or logos about beings—human or otherwise. His “ethics” is thus not that of the tradition: its aim is not to become prescriptive. Without denying the importance of the following properties or faculties for practical decision making, Levinas’s ethics relies neither on virtues, reason, nor utility. The word “ethics,” for Levinas, refers to the fact that “I” cannot refuse responsibility for the other, since that act of disregarding or refusing responsibility is possible only on the basis of my being always already capable of responding to an other who imposes responsibility on me. It is this ability for responding to the other, this command that I cannot efface (even when I ignore it) that allows for other discourses—such as ontology, epistemology, or political philosophy—to make sense at all. The consequences of this original interpretation of the nature and meaning of ethics are deep and manifold. Therefore, this article does not intend to present an all-encompassing portrait of Emmanuel Levinas’s thought. Rather, its aim is to provide the reader with a selection of texts that represent the wide array of philosophical questions addressed by Levinas and his commentators. Given the immense number of publications by Levinas, this entry proposes a commented list of selected major works and articles by the author (instead of referencing complete collections, for instance). The secondary literature is then organized by themes that correspond to areas of research—both well established and new—within Levinas studies.

General Overviews

Bergo 2011 is a good online introduction available for free. Critchley 2002 is a short historical and philosophical introduction to a collection of articles touching on a variety of topics found in Levinas’s body of work. Davis 1996 and Hand 2009 serve the similar purpose of introducing Levinas to readers unfamiliar with his thought. Although Morgan 2011 and Peperzak 1993 are more difficult, the first is a pertinent guide for Levinas readers while the second is especially useful to understand Levinas’s singular use of connoted philosophical concepts.

  • Bergo, Bettina G. “Emmanuel Levinas.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Chronology and bibliography updated by Gabriel Malenfant. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    A clear text of interest to undergraduates and graduates alike, this introduction focuses mainly on the logic and phenomenological method of the author. The biographical information and extensive bibliography (uncommented, however) can be useful for researchers.

  • Critchley, Simon. “Introduction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Levinas. Edited by Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi, 1–33. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521662060.001E-mail Citation »

    Addressing a variety of topics, The Cambridge Companion to Levinas as a whole should be considered as a must-read overview of Levinas’s thought. However, Critchley’s introduction to the collection is especially relevant because it is full of information about the reception of Levinas’s work in Europe and the United States.

  • Davis, Colin. Levinas: An Introduction. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.

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    A short and systematic introduction to Levinas’s key concepts, perfect for undergraduate students. Davis’s analysis of the author’s rhetorical practices and relationship to Judaism is written in a clear and synthetic manner.

  • Hand, Seán. Emmanuel Levinas. Routledge Critical Thinkers. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    Like Davis’s book (Davis 1996), Hand’s introduction also contains a concise presentation of the author’s two central works, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise Than Being, or, Beyond Essence (1974). Again, this overview is valuable to undergraduate students and readers unfamiliar with Levinas’s philosophical approach. A useful commented bibliography can also be found therein.

  • Morgan, Michael L. The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511921551E-mail Citation »

    An abridged version of Morgan’s earlier Discovering Levinas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), The Cambridge Introduction is a very engaging guide on how to read the primary sources, even though it may be somewhat difficult for undergraduates. The book will however be helpful to readers who already have a background in philosophy without having encountered Levinas.

  • Peperzak, Adriaan. To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Purdue University Series in the History of Philosophy. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1993.

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    This book gives a lesson in exegesis, with a close reading of Levinas’s 1957 essay “Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite.” While being scrupulously attached to the words written by the author, it manages to provide the reader with an understanding of several important Levinasian concepts.

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