In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emmanuel Levinas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Archives and Data Resources
  • Societies, Institutes, and Webpages
  • Oeuvres
  • Edited Collections
  • Critical Responses to Levinas’s Body of Work
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Phenomenology
  • Existentialism
  • Women, the Feminine, Feminism
  • Levinas and Derrida
  • Psychoanalysis

Literary and Critical Theory Emmanuel Levinas
by
Claire Katz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0099

Introduction

Emmanuel Levinas (b. 1906–d. 1995) was a French-Jewish thinker known primarily as the philosopher of the ‘other.’ He studied with Husserl and Heidegger in the 1920s. He introduced phenomenology to France through his translation of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations into French, and he developed a lifelong friendship with Maurice Blanchot. Prior to the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany, Levinas’s philosophical work focused on Husserlian phenomenology. His thought took a dramatic turn in the mid-1930s when he focused on the philosophical threat of Nazism. He spent 1940–1945 in a German POW camp. Returning to Paris after the war, he immediately went back to work for the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), where he became director of the École Normale Israélite Orientale (Enio), the Jewish day school. He resumed working on his question from the 1930s—the philosophical problem of identity and transcendence—with an added urgency in the wake of World War II. From 1946 until his death in 1995, Levinas’s ethical project searched for a way to address this philosophical problem of escape, developing a view of the self as an ethical subject that allows one to transcend the self without leaving the body behind. From the 1940s to the early 1960s, he developed the first version of his ethical project. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he responded to criticisms of that early work. Central to Levinas’s description of the ethical relationship are references to literary works including Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare. Although Levinas was an observant Jew, the biblical narratives, in addition to being part of a sacred text, also serve as rich sources of examples for the philosophical descriptions of the ethical relationship he develops. Levinas is not obviously identified with literary theory—not in the way that Derrida is, for example. He did become popular within literary theory circles in the 1990s and might be taught more frequently in comparative literature departments than in philosophy departments, especially in the United States. His friendship with both Blanchot and Derrida had a significant impact not only on their thinking but also those who whose work was influenced by them. References to terms like the other/Other, the trace, hospitality, ethics, and alterity found throughout Blanchot and Derrida, and now more commonly in literary theory, can be traced back to Levinas’s ethical project.

General Overviews

Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophical project and especially his radical revisioning of ethics and our responsibility for the other person has influenced numerous academic disciplines, including but not limited to: European philosophy, geography (tourism studies), communication sciences, psychology, education, political science, film studies, religious studies, Jewish studies, medicine, English, comparative literature, and many others. Until the late 1990s, very little secondary scholarship covered both his philosophical project and his writings on Judaism, or even the influence of Judaism on his philosophical thinking. Using as evidence that Levinas intended these projects to be treated separately, scholars often pointed to Levinas’s own claim to keep the bodies of work separate and that he even published these bodies of work with different presses. As a result, many of the earliest secondary sources treated one body of work or the other, but rarely both. By the early 2000s, this approach to Levinas changed. Morgan 2007 and Morgan 2011, for example, not only treated both bodies of writing but also began examining how the two bodies of writing were connected. Because the scholarship developed in this manner, this article treats works on his Jewish writings in a separate category. The more recent general overviews of Levinas’s work like Hand 2009 and Davis 1997, both written as guides, typically include a chapter or two on his Jewish writings but the general aim of these books is to help the reader understand his philosophical project with an eye toward examining Levinas’s overarching project or particular themes such as il y a, insomnia, the other, the third, etc. Perpich 2008 provides a detailed analysis of Levinas 1969 (cited under Totality and Infinity), in light of Levinas’s relationship to phenomenology. Malka 2006 provides an intellectual or philosophical biography, incorporating both philosophical writings and writings on Judaism into his life. Levinas 1995 and Levinas 2001 provide guidance for clarifying particular terms or themes that run throughout Levinas’s project. There are books like Bergo 1999 that offer a specific focus to Otherwise than Being, providing the reader with more help for that particular book. Regardless of how one views the relationship between the two books, scholars generally agree that there is a shift in emphasis in these books.

  • Bergo, Bettina. Levinas between Ethics and Politics: For the Beauty that Adorns the Earth. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-2077-9E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive study of Levinas’s philosophy in light of his relationship to Jewish thought and philosophy. The book’s attention to Otherwise than Being distinguishes it. Not recommended as an introduction for first time readers but rather for those looking to advance their understanding of Levinas’s project. Themes of significance include discussions of messianic consciousness, divine justice, prophecy.

  • Bergo, Bettina. Emmanuel Levinas. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    General but detailed overview of Levinas’s philosophy. Written to be accessible for undergraduates but scholarly enough for graduate students or academics. Includes an excellent bibliography of primary and secondary works in French and English.

  • Davis, Colin. Levinas: An Introduction. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvpj740wE-mail Citation »

    Introduction to Levinas’s philosophy that covers key themes: phenomenology, Same and the Other (section in Totality and Infinity [TI]), ethical language in Otherwise than Being, and includes a section on Levinas’s readers (e.g., Irigaray).

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Introduction to Levinas’s philosophy that covers phenomenology, politics, and his two major books: Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being. Includes a chapter on Judaism. Concise but focused.

  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection on succinct interviews each of which covers a basic theme in Levinas’s ethical philosophy: the “there is,” Heidegger, freedom, the face, responsibility for the other, love and filiation, testimony.

  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas. Edited by Jill Robbins. Palo Alto: CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of interviews covering a wide range of topics from the political to Levinas’s biographical details. Notably, the collection includes a previously untranslated 1986 interview with François Poirié. Themes covered in several of the other interviews include justice, death, and Heidegger.

  • Malka, Salomon. Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy. Translated by Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Biography that covers Levinas’s personal and academic life, including his time with the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) and as a teacher and director of the Jewish day school (the ENIO).

  • Morgan, Michael L. Discovering Levinas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511805240E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive exposition of Levinas’s ethical project that aims to describe his philosophy in terms that might be relevant to analytic philosophers.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511921551E-mail Citation »

    Single-authored book organized as essays on particular themes in Levinas’s philosophy including the face-to-face, subjectivity, God and philosophy, time and history, ethics and Judaism.

  • Perpich, Diane. The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Places Levinas’s ethical project within the context of phenomenology. Also considers Levinas’s ethical project in light of normative ethics and applies his work to two contemporary themes: feminism and identity politics and non-human animals and the environment.

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