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Emmanuel Levinas, 1906-1995

NEWS
Emmanuel Levinas, 1906-1995
mmanuel Levinas, who died in Paris on 25 December 1995, was born
on 12 January 1906 in Kovno (Kaunas) in Lithuania. His parents were
practising Jews and part of an important Jewish community. Most members
of his family were killed by the Nazis. Levinas grew up reading the Bible in
Hebrew, although Russian was the language of his early education and he had
fluent German. In 1923 he went to Strasbourg, where he obtained a licence
in philosophy, studying with philosophers like Charles Blondel, and began his
lifelong friendship with Maurice Blanchot. After discovering Husserl’s Logical
Investigations, Levinas spent the year 1928-29 in Freiburg, attending Husserl’s
final seminar. However, during this time Levinas read Heidegger’s Being and
Time, attended the famous encounter with Cassirer in Davos, and became
increasingly persuaded of the validity of the Heideggerian critique of Husserl’s
intellectualism and Cartesianism. The results of his research were presented in
his doctoral dissertation, The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology,
defended when Levinas was only twenty-three, and which, together with other
early publications, introduced phenomenology to Sartre and other key figures in
French philosophy. The importance of Levinas in the translation of Husserl and
Heidegger into French philosophy cannot be overestimated.

Levinas did not enter the French university system as a professor until
1961, and most of his career was spent at the Alliance Israelite Universelle,
where he became Director after the war. 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 because of his officer status he was sent not to a
concentration camp but to a military prisoners’ camp where he did forced labour.

The postwar years were marked by the meeting with Monsieur Chouchani, with
whom Levinas studied the Talmud, a study which has resulted in a series of five
volumes of Talmudic readings, the last of which, Nouvelles Lectures Talmudiques,
appeared just a couple of weeks after his death. Most of these readings originate
in lectures presented at the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de Langue Fran~aise,
of which Levinas was an animating influence. Although Levinas’s thinking is quite
unthinkable without its Judaic inspiration, one should be careful not to categorize
him simply as a Jewish philosopher. Levinas was a philosopher and a Jew, a point
made by the fact that his philosophical work and his Talmudic readings appear
with different publishers.

Turning to his philosophical work, although Levinas was thinking originally
and independently prior to the war, notably in a stunning 1935 essay ‘De
l’evasion’ (which anticipates many later developments), his first original book is
De l’existence a l’existant of 1947, largely written in captivity. What this title
discreetly announces is the complete reversal of the orientation of Heidegger’s
thinking of ontological difference, which attempts to think Being (Sein, etre,
existence) beyond its metaphysical determination in terms of beings (das Seiende,
l’erant, l’existant). For Levinas, it is a matter of reversing the direction of
Heidegger’s thinking from the ontological to the ontic and focusing on another

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form of transcendence, not the transcendence of Being but that of the other
person. For Levinas – and for reasons that are as much ethical and political as
epistemological – we must leave the climate of Heidegger’s thinking, but we
cannot leave it for a philosophy that would be pre-Heideggerian. The philosophical paradigm shift effected by Heidegger’s radicalization of Husserlian
phenomenology is decisive and irreversible.

In the heady intellectual context of Parisian postwar existentialism, Levinas’ s
early philosophical work attracted little interest. Although a series of lectures
given at Jean Wahl’s College Philosophique in 1946-47 and published as Le
temps et l’autre drew some attention (see, for example, Simone de Beauvoir’s
critical remarks in the Preface to The Second Sex), it is fair to say that until the
1960s, and even after, Levinas remained a minor figure in French philosophical
life, primarily known as an interpreter of Husserl and Heidegger. For example,
Vincent Descombes’ Contemporary French Philosophy published in 1979, and
claiming to give an overview of the French philosophical scene from 1933 to
1978, makes absolutely no mention of
Levinas. The first significant research on
Levinas was done in Belgium and the
Netherlands, and Levinas’ s presently
towering influence in the English-speaking
world is to a great extent due to Derrida’s
influence, based on the latter’s brilliant
1964 essay ‘Violence and Metaphysics’.

Levinas’s independent philosophical
reputation was established by the
publication of his main thesis for the
Doctorat d’Etat, Totalite et infini, in 1961.

In the same year he was appointed
Professor of Philosophy at Poitiers and in
1967 at Paris-Nanterre. He moved to the
Sorbonne (Paris IV) in 1973 and retired in
1976, although he continued to direct a
seminar until 1980. His second major book,
Autrement qu’ etre ou au-delit de l’ essence
– which many scholars consider his finest
achievement – appeared in 1974, and since
that time more than a dozen books have
appeared, notably De Dieu qui vient it
l’idee in 1982. For Anglophone readers
looking for a way in to Levinas, his series
of conversations with Philippe Nemo,
Ethics and Infinity, remains a good starting
point. An anthology, Emmanuel Levinas:

Basic Philosophical Writings, will appear
later this year with Indiana University
Press, who have also published a fine
edition of Levinas’ s Talmudic readings.

What is Levinas’ s philosophical work
concerned with? Levinas is usually
associated with one thesis: ethics is first
philosophy. But such an eviscerated
statement risks creating more problems than

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it solves, and goes no way towards capturing the
phenomenological richness and breadth of Levinas’ s
work. For me, what remains essential to Levinas’ s
writing (and his extraordinary style of writing should
be noted here: strange, elliptical, rhapsodic, sensual)
is not its contribution to arcane debates in moral
philosophy, but rather its powerful descriptions of the
night, insomnia, fatigue, effort, jouissance, sensibility,
the feminine, Eros, death, fecundity, paternity,
dwelling, and of course the relation to the other. To
my mind, like Heidegger before him, but also like
Merleau-Ponty, Levinas is concerned with trying to
excavate the pre-theoretical layers of our intentional
comportment towards the world, an archeology of the
pre-reflective constitution of existence, a discussion
that, in Autrement qu’ etre, leads to a quite radical
account of the subject as substitution, hostage, persecution, obsession and trauma.

But, that said, what does Levinas mean by saying that ethics is first
philosophy? Perhaps this: the central task of Levinas’s work is trying to describe
a relation to alterity irreducible to comprehension – that is to say, irreducible
to what Levinas sees as the ontological relation to others where alterity is
reduced to what he calls the Same. Even the Heideggerian ontology that exceeds
intellectualism and theoreticism is unable to describe this relation because the
particular being is always already understood within the pre-comprehension of
Being. Yet, how can a relation with the other be other than comprehension?

Levinas’s response is that it cannot, ‘unless it is the other (autrui), (,Is Ontology
Fundamental?’). The claim here is that the relation to the other goes beyond
comprehension, namely that it does not affect us in terms of a concept or theme.

For Levinas, the relation to the other takes place in the concrete situation of
speech or discourse. In speaking or calling or listening to the other, I am not
reflecting upon him or her, but I am actively engaged in a non-comprehensive,
non-subsumptive relation to alterity where I focus on the particular individual in
front of me and forgo the mediation of the universal, the Hegelian Concept or
Heideggerian Being. Now, it is this non-dialectical and non-ontological relation
to the other that Levinas will qualify with the adjective ‘ethical’. That is to say,
Levinas does not posit, a priori, a normative conception of ethics that then
instantiates itself in certain empirical experiences; rather, the ethical (rather than
the substantive ‘ethics’) is a name that describes, a posteriori, a certain event of
being in a non-subsumptive relation with the other. As he writes in the last words
of his last published book, this is ‘ontology open to the responsibility for the
other’ (Nouvelles Lectures Talmudiques).

Some excellent obituaries of Levinas have appeared in the French press, but
special mention must be made of the dossier on Levinas that appeared in the
February issue of L’arche, le mensuel du judaisme franr;ais (No. 459). As well as
including some fascinating and touching reminiscences of Levinas by friends and
colleagues (Maurice Blanchot, Salomon Malka, Jacques Rolland, Daniel Sibony),
it includes the full text of Derrida’s moving and powerful funeral oration for
Levinas. Another contributor, Jean-Luc Marion, writes,
If one defines a great philosopher as someone without whom philosophy would not

have been what it is, then in France there are two great philosophers of the 20th
Century: Bergson and Levinas.

Of course, this is hyperbole, isn’t it?

Simon Critchley

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