Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95) was a French philosopher and writer. Born in Kovno, Russia (now Lithuania) to Jewish parents, Levinas began his studies in philosophy in Strasbourg in 1923 where he met Charles Blondel, Maurice Pradines, Henri Carterton, and Maurice Blanchot. In 1928 he moved to Freiburg University to study phenomenology with Edmund Husserl. There he met Martin Heidegger, who was also studying with Husserl. Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1926), translated as Being and Time was to have a profound influence on him.
In 1930 Levinas returned to France and became a naturalized French citizen. When Germany declared war on France, he was required to report for military duty. He was duly mobilized and quickly captured and spent most of the war, from 1940, as a prisoner in a camp near Hanover in Germany. As a Jew, he was assigned to a barracks for Jewish prisoners. It was during this period that he wrote De l’existence à l’existant (1947), translated as Existence and Existents (1978), and the series of lectures le Temps et l’Autre (1948), translated as Time and Other (1987). Blanchot assisted Levinas’s wife and daughter to find refuge in a monastery. His mother-in-law, as well as his father and brothers, were not so fortunate. They all perished at the hands of the Nazis.
After the war, Levinas worked as the Director of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. He published five volumes of Talmudic commentaries, the last of which was published shortly after his death. Levinas’s thinking was coloured by his experiences in the war. Not surprisingly, he found it difficult to forgive Heidegger, but at the same time felt he could not simply be dismissed. Heidegger mapped out a boundary philosophy that had to move beyond, and much of Levinas’s later works can be viewed as an attempt to do precisely this. During the 1950s and 1960s, Levinas became increasingly critical of Heidegger, phenomenology, and ontology. In contrast to Heidegger who continued to emphasize being in his work in this period, Levinas wondered what there was other than being. His work in this period shifted focus to ethics, which he argued can only be thought in terms of our relationship with the Other, which for Levinas was not simply God, but Mystery itself, that which can never be reduced to or incorporated by the Same.
The concept of the other, which Levinas contrasts to the other (by which he meant other people), is central to much of Levinas’s thought. In effect, his entire philosophy revolves around this problematic and many of the concepts he subsequently invents owe their origin to it as well. If the Other cannot be reduced to the Same, then our relationship to it has to be a ‘relation without relation’ as Levinas puts it. It is the presence of the Other, which we can only sense as a kind of face (visage), which is Levinas’s code phrase for the sense of epiphany the Other provokes in us, that makes us realize that we share the world, that it is not ours by right. His notion of ethics flows from this. Ethics for Levinas does not simply mean determining how one should act, for him it entails a way of both seeing and questioning the world: ethics is optics, he famously pronounced.
Levinas’s work in the late 1950s and early 1960s began to take on a more distinctive character, becoming more his own thinking and less and less a commentary on existing philosophies. It developed into what might be termed ethics of alterity, or perhaps even a heterology. In 1961, Levinas published his Doctorat d’Etat, the monumental Totalité et Infini, translated as Totality and Infinity (1969), and in the same year was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Poitiers, where he remained until 1967 when he took up an appointment at Paris-Nanterre.
In 1972 he published Humanisme de l’autre homme, translated as c (2003). He moved to the Sorbonne in 1973. In 1974 he published Autrement quetre ou Au-delà de l’essence, translated as Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1978). He retired in 1976 but continued to publish prolifically as well as teach. De Dieu qui vient à l’idée (1982), translated as Of God Who Comes to Mind (1998), and Entre Nous (1991), translated as Entre Nous (2000), among several other books were completed in the last two decades of his life.
Levinas’s work was a major influence on French existentialism. His attempts to develop an ethics of alterity influenced Maurice Merleau Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jacques Derrida. He died in Paris on Christmas Day in 1995.