Jewish Studies Emmanuel Levinas
by
Richard A. Cohen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0245

Introduction

From the 1930s to the late 1980s Emmanuel Levinas (b. 1906–d. 1995) developed an original philosophy of ethics consistent with Jewish sources. This philosophy requires a fundamental reorientation of Western thinking and spirituality from ontology to ethics by uncovering the source of intelligibility in the imperatives of moral responsibility. Because the “for-the-other” has primacy—as obligation, as responsibility—over the “for-oneself,” Levinas is critical of both liberal philosophies which begin with isolated individuals and totalizing philosophies which reduce the human to a function of larger meaning-complexes such as reason, history, will or being. The import of Levinas’s contribution derives not only from his ethical teachings—kindness toward each, justice for all—which are already widely known, but from seeing in these teachings the basis of intelligibility, including science and art. Thus he is critical of the many classical and contemporary philosophies and theologies which in one way or another give primacy to the latter. Rigorously mining the epistemic resources of phenomenology, Levinas’s thought discloses the significance of embodiment, desire, worldliness, labor, language, time, and history, not as obstacles to morality, justice and truth, but as their very medium. For Levinas “revelation” and “reason” are not opposed, because both are aspects of the same wisdom of ethics. Contrary to the abstractions of today’s prevalent positivisms, for Levinas genuine thinking is akin to “Talmudic thinking” or “biblical humanism,” i.e., a concrete and compelling knowing, a wisdom, attached to virtue. Levinas does not reduce Judaism to formal propositions or aesthetic sentimentalism, or make philosophy handmaid to arbitrary faith. Wisdom allied to virtue escapes the ancient dualisms and their debilitating superstitious and mythological rationalizations. Levinas grew up in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, in a traditional but modern Jewish home. He matriculated in philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, France, also studying under Husserl and Heidegger at the nearby University of Freiburg, Germany, during 1928–1929. After his university studies, he married, moved to Paris, became a French citizen, and worked at the École Normale Israélite Orientale, where he became director after returning to Paris from four years of internment as a prisoner of war (in a camp unit reserved for Jewish soldiers) in Germany during World War II. His entire birth family was murdered by the Nazis in Kaunas. In France his wife and daughter were hidden in a convent and survived the Vichy-Nazi onslaught. When he was in his sixties Levinas became a university professor, concluding a brief academic career at the University of Paris-Sorbonne ending in 1976.

Primary Sources

The deepest and most sustained articulation of Levinas’s philosophy appears in his two major books: Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974). Levinas’s earliest publications, beginning in the late 1920s, were expositions of the phenomenological philosophies of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. His first book was a prize-winning monograph entitled The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, which appeared in 1930 and remains in print. Like much of Levinas’s writings it has been translated into several languages. During and just after World War II Levinas began formulating his own original philosophy, publishing two books, Existence and Existents and Time and the Other, in 1947. Throughout his career he also published many articles on Jewish topics and concerns. The first collection of these was Difficult Freedom (1963, 2nd ed. 1976), followed by several volumes, which, among other articles, comprised or included the twenty-nine “Talmudic Readings” he delivered each year as a keynote address at the annual Colloquia of French Jewish Intellectuals which Levinas helped to found. Though addressed to different audiences, Levinas’s philosophical and his Jewish writings articulate various aspects of the same ethics of responsibility to which all of his thought is devoted. For Jews, Levinas does not have to explain what Rosh Hashanah or a mezuzah or who Maimonides or Moses Mendelssohn are; as, likewise, for his educated readers Levinas does not have to explain what epistemology or a tragedy or who Plato and Aristotle are—though these and all the topics he examines are interpreted through his characteristic ethical perspective. Such philosophical or Jewish contextualizing of thought is a matter of culture, upbringing, education, and the like. Levinas’s message, however—the limits of representation, the primacy of the other person, the irreducible height indeed the infinite responsibilities of morality, the overriding tasks of justice, the dangers of ontology and aestheticism—remains the same throughout all his writings, which is to say, without hiatus between “reason” and “revelation.” All of Levinas’s writings have been translated and are presently in print in English. The best published bibliography remains Roger Burggraeve’s Levinas: Une bibliographie primaire et secondaire (Leuven, Belgium: Peters, 1990). Several bibliographies are posted on the web. The Levinas Concordance, edited by Cristian Ciocan and Georges Hansel (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2005), covers the French editions of all of Levinas’s writings. More recently, under the supervision of Rodophe Calin and Catherine Chalier, many of Levinas’s unpublished writings have been published in French and translated into English (Editions Grasset & Fasquelle: Vol. 1, 2009; Vol. 2, 2009; Vol. 3, 2013).

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