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Emmanuel Levinas - Biography

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)

Emmanuel Levinas was born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1906. His parents were Jewish, and in his youth, Levinas read the Bible in Hebrew. Russian was the language of his early education, though he was also fluent in German. His studies in philosophy began in 1923 in Strasbourg, where he met Charles Blondel, and his life-long companion Maurice Blanchot. Levinas attended Husserl's final lectures of 1928-9, and became influenced by Husserl's Logical Investigations, though he quickly became a follower of Heidegger's Being and Time, which was to have a profound effect on his thinking. Both Husserl and Heidegger can be seen to have influenced Levinas' first three major publications: Theorie de l'intuition dans la phenomenologie de Husserl (The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's Phenomenology 1930), Existence and Existents (1947), and En Découvrant l'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger (1949). Furthermore, Levinas became influential in France for his translations of Husserl and Heidegger into French.

Levinas' later philosophy is directly related to his experiences during World War II. In 1939, he served as an officer in the French army, working as an interpreter of Russian and German. In 1940 he became a prisoner of war, and due to his officer status he was sent to a military prisoners' camp where he was put into forced labor. His wife and daughter managed to be kept hidden in a French monastery until his return, but the rest of his family were killed. This experience, coupled with Heidegger's affiliation to National Socialism during the war, led to a profound crisis in Levinas' enthusiasm for Heidegger. If it can be said that Heidegger is concerned with Being, Levinas positioned his concerns with ethics; for Levinas, ethics is beyond being — otherwise than Being.

Levinas found himself in a difficult context for his ideas around ethics in the 1930's and 40's, for Marxism, structuralism and in the early fifities, the beginnings of post-structuralism made it an unfavorable situation for Levinas to present his anti-universalist, anti-foundationalist and non-prescriptive ethics derived from a respect and responsibility for the Other. At this time it was the help of his close allies, Blanchot and Derrida, that kept him in the realm of serious discourse.

Levinas' career after his confinement during the war was spent at the Alliance Israelite Universelle, where he was appointed the Director. The postwar years were marked by his meeting with the Talmudic scholar, Monsieur Chouchani, with whom Levinas studied. These studies resulted in a series of five volumes of Talmudic readings. The last of these readings, Nouvelles Lectures Talmudiques, appeared shortly after his death. At this time he was writing this work Levinas was actively involved with the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de Langue Francaise, and the majority of his Talmudic studies originate in lectures he presented there. His Talmudic commentaries include Quatre lectures Talmudiques (1968), Du sacré au saint (1977), and L'au-delý du verset (1982).

Levinas began to develop his own philosophy in the late 1950's and early 60's as he became more critical of Heidegger, prior phenomenologists and Western thinking in general. He wished to go beyond the accepted and ethically neutral conception of ontology, publishing Totalite et Infini (Totality and Infinity 1961), his first monumental work which awarded him a Doctorat d'Etat. Influenced by the work of Franz Rosenweig and Martin Buber, Levinas attempted to address the problematics of ontology by investigating and analyzing the 'face-to-face' relation with the Other. The Other is not known or comprehended as such, but calls into question and challenges the complacency of the self through desire, language, and the concern for justice. Ethics for Levinas begins with the encounter with the Other while maintaining that such a relation cannot be simply reduced to a symmetrical relationship. It cannot be localized historically or temporally. Toward the end of the 1960's Levinas would propose that ethics is a calling into question of the "Same." Here, the encounter with the Other has no empirical basis as an event or non-event in linear time, nor is there a "self" that exists a priori to the encounter which may choose to avoid the traumatic experience of alterity. The encounter, a discovery of alterity in itself, is an originary and essential moment through which the self comes into being — it precedes freedom and determinism, action and passivity. This encounter has always already taken place, and its terms make up a central paradox in Continental philosophy.

In the same year as the publishing of Totality and Infinity in 1961, Levinas was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Poitiers, followed by an appointment in 1967 at Paris-Nanterre. He moved to the Sorbonne, Paris in 1973 and retired in 1976, although he continued to direct a seminar until 1980. His second major book, Autrement qu'Etre ou Au-Dela de l'Essence (Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence) was published in 1974, and since that time more than a dozen books have appeared, notably De Dieu qui vient a l'idee in 1982. In spite of his critical position to Phenomenology, Levinas' translations and writings had a major influence of French existentialism, most notably the work of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Derrida also would install Levinisian ethics at the heart of his Deconstructionist texts. It was the influence of his colleague, Derrida, who pushed Levinas to write Otherwise than Being (1998) in a language beyond the ontological character of his earlier work, Totality and Infinity (1969). A new set of terms are introduced which are largely or entirely absent from Totalité et infini: proximity, approach, hostage, persecution, expiation, substitution, illeity, enigma. Levinas even tempers the use of the word, Other, in favour of "the neighbour" (le prochain). One of the crucial aspects of Levinas's philosophical endeavor is to interrogate the language in which his enquiry is conducted, by disrupting the use of philosophical terminology with unfamiliar usages of such terms and disallowing a rigid set of propositions. His writing is reticent toward the privileging of drawing sameness between distinct phenomena, characteristic of much of Western thought. Even the definition of the Other could be considered an application of the rhetoric of the same, hence, Levinas went to great lengths to keep his texts flexible, changing and resistant to reification, a violence to the fragile concept of the alterity of the inassimilable Other.

Levinas died in Paris, December 25, 1995.