Emmanuel Levinas

"My effort consists in showing that knowledge is in reality an immanence, and that there is no rupture of the isolation of being in knowledge; and on the other hand, that in communication of knowledge one is found beside the Other, not confronted with him, not in the rectitude of the in-front-of-him. But being in direct relation with the Other is not to thematize the Other and consider him in the same manner as one considers a known object, nor to communicate a knowledge to him. In reality, the fact of being is what is most private; existence is the sole thing I cannot communicate; I can tell about it, but I cannot share my existence. Solitude thus appears as the isolation which marks the very event of being. The social is beyond ontology."
"...I am responsible for the Other without waiting for reciprocity, were I to die for it. Reciprocity is his affair. It is precisely insofar as the relation between the Other and me is not reciporcal that I am subjection to the Other; and I am "subject" essentially in this sense. It is I who support all...The I always has one responsibility more than all the others."

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)

Levinas, the French philosopher, was born in Kaunas, Lithuania to Jewish parents. He moved to France in 1923, and, between the years of 1928 and 1929, resided in Germany where he studied under Husserl and Heidegger. Levinas published his first book, Theorie de l'intuition dans la phenomenologie de Husserl, in 1930, and became influential in France for his translations of Husserl and Heidegger into French. In the late 1950's and early 1960's, Levinas began to formulate his own philosophy which became increasingly critical of Heidegger's philosophy, and, with his critique of prior phenomenological thinkers and Western philosophy in general, Levinas began to assert the primacy of the ethical relationship with the Other.

Levinas' scholarship directly influenced the movement of existential-phenomenology in France. His translations and secondary texts influenced thinkers such as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. In the last several decades, Levinas has become increasingly influential in continental philosophy, and his influence is evident in Jacques Derrida's more recent writings, where he has increasingly emphasized a Levinasian ethics as being at the heart of deconstruction. Derrida, a close colleague of Levinas, influenced Levinas' attempt in his book, Otherwise than Being (1998), to go beyond the still too ontological language of his Totality and Infinity (1969).

Levinas' philosophy is directly related to his experiences during World War II. His family died in the Holocaust, and, as a French citizen and soldier, Levinas himself became a prisoner of war in Germany. While Levinas was forced to perform labor as a prisoner of war, his wife and daughter were kept hidden in a French monastary until his return. This experience, coupled with Heidegger's affiliation to National Socialism during the war, clearly and understandably led to a profound crisis in Levinas' enthusiasm for Heidegger. "One can forgive many Germans," Levinas once wrote, "but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger."  At the same time, Levinas felt that Heidegger could not simply be forgotten, but most be gotten beyond. If Heidegger is concerned with Being, Levinas is concerned with ethics, and ethics, for Levinas, is beyond being--Otherwise than Being.

Levinas' work, particularly beginning with his  Totality and Infinity (1969), is a critique of Heidegger and Husserl, not to mention all of Western philsophy, in the service of ethics.  Levinas is concerned that Western philosophy has been preoccupied with Being, the totality, at the expense of what is otherwise than Being, what lies outside the totality of Being as transcendent, exterior, infinite, alterior, the Other.  Levinas wants to distinguish ethics from ontology.  Levinas' ethics is situated in an "encounter" with the Other which cannot be reduced to a symmetrical "relationship." That is, it cannot be localized historically or temporally.  "Ethics," in Levinas' sense, does not mean what is typically referred to as "morality," or a code of conduct about how one should act.  For Levinas (1969), "ethics" is a calling into question of the "Same":

"A calling into question of the Same--which cannot occur within the egoistic spontaneity of the Same--is brought about by the Other.  We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics.  The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplishmed as a calling into question of my spontaneity as ethics.  Metaphysics, transcendence, the welcoming of the Other by the Same, of the Other by Me, is concretely produced as the calling into question of the Same by the Other, that is, as the ethics that accomplishes the critical essence of knowledge."  (Totality and Infinity, p.  33)

Levinas adopts a style of writing that is fluid and includes self-effacing double-movements.  Ethics cannot be reduced to a set of propositions--cannot be reduced to the Same (or, thinking in terms of Lacan, to the One of the Symbolic)--and so Levinas must repeatedly unfold and then withdraw his propositions.  Even as he uses the language of ontology, his style of writing endeavor's to resist ontology's totalizing grasp. "Western philosophy," writes Levinas (1969), "has most often been an ontology: a reduction of the Other to the Same by interposition of a middle and neutral terms that ensures the comprehension of being" (pp.  33-34).  As ontology, philosophy is narcissistic, seeking pleasure by incorporating the other into the Same.  Philosophy, in this sense, is an "egology" whenever it asserts the primacy of the self, the Same, the subject or Being.  Ontology as totality admits to no outside.  Thus, if Levinas is to preserve the Other, the Other cannot become an object of knowledge or experience within the totality of an egology.  In the enjoyment (jouissance) of egology, the I is the "living from" which uses up the other in order to fulfill its own needs and desires.  The "transmutation of the other into the same," writes Levinas (1969), is "the essence of enjoyment" (p.  113).  The other, in this sense, however, is not the Other.  Only the other, not the Other, can become a source of enjoyment.  The transcendence of the other is not a threat to the self, but rather a source of satisfaction and happiness:

"The I is, to be sure, happiness, presence at home with itself.  But, as sufficiency in its non-sufficiency, it remains in the non-I; it is enjoyment of ‘something else,' never of itself.  Autochthonous, that is, rooted in what it is not, it is nevertheless, wtihin this enrootedness independent and separated."  (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1969, p. 152)

The relation with the Other, however, is a "relation without relation" (p.  79).  The Other is never reduced to the Same, thus remaining unknowable, outside of the totality of the Same.  The encounter with the Other calls egology into question.  The "I" can no longer live in the fantasy of a unique possession of the world.  The power and freedom of the Same are called into question. The Other cannot be possessed, resists enjoyment, and, as the I encounters this Otherr, it is called back to the meaning of its freedom--a freedom which is founded by the Other and which, in this encounter, is called to responsibility and obligation towards the Other as genuine freedom.
 As responsible for the infinite Other, I am called to guard her against the systematic determination of any moral law.  "For Levinas, the God that provides sanctity for the Other can never be reduced to a set of commandments because the Other calls me only as herself" (Cornell, 1998, p. 140).  To reduce the Other who calls me as a unique self in the face-to-face to a set of a priori moral principles is a violence to her alterity.  And since my responsibility to the Other is to the Other in her uniqueness and alterity, my responsibility is infinite.  "It is precisely because the Good is the good of the Other that it cannot be fully actualized" (Cornell, 1998, p. 141).


Emmanuel Levinas Web Page by Peter Atterton
Levinas at the EP Page
Levinas Page (in English and Japanese) by Gen Nakayama.
Levinas at Thinking's Legacy and the Evolution of Experience
About Emmanuel Levinas by Lois Shawver
Summary of Levinas, Gadamer, Ricoeur Discussion (Real Audio) by Andrew Carpenter
Emmanuel Levinas page with art and text by Dr. D. Tiemersma
About Levinas by Peter Steinfels
Levinas bibliography by Nakayama
Levinas bibliography by Peter Atterton
"Martin Heidegger and Ontology" by Emmanual Levinas
Excerpt from "Adieu" by Jacques Derrida, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas
"Introducing Levinas to Undergraduate Philosophers" by Anthony F. Beavers
"Putting Ourselves Out of Business: Implications of Levinas for Psychology" by Brent Dean Robbins
"Reflections on Being a Psychotherapist" by Brent Dean Robbins
"Levinas: The Unconscious and the Reason of Obligation" by James Faulconer
"Three Positions on Reason and Faith: A Draft of a Sketch" by James Faulconer
"Moses and Israel: Community and the Name" by James Faulconer
"Deconstruction" by James Faulconer
"An Ethics of Hesitant Learning: The Caring Justice of Levinas and Derrida" by J. Edgoose
"Levinas beyond the Horizons of Cartesianism: Introduction" by Anthony F. Beavers
"Emmanuel Levinas and the Prophetic Voice of Postmodernity" by Anthony F. Beavers
"Kant and the Problem of Ethical Metaphysics" by Anthony F. Beavers
"Descartes beyond Transcendental Phenomenology" by Anthony F. Beavers
"Sylvia Plath, Emmanuel Levinas, and the Aesthetics of Pathos" by Scott DeShong
"'Junk' and the Other: Burroughs and Levinas on Drugs" by Jeffrey T. Nealon
"Animus: Sacrificing the Text: The Philosopher/Poet at Mount Moriah" by Dorota Glowacka
"The Ethical Self in the Play of Affect and Voice" by Philip Lewin
"On Cultural Crossing" by E. T. Gendlin
"Community and Individuality" by Patricia Werhane
"'What ish My Nation?': Towards a Negative Definition of Identity" by Eugene O'Brien
"Three Gestures on Otherness: (Re)joining with Edgoose Through Derrida's Khora" by Lynda Stone
"Die Wissenschaft denkt nicht" by Jean-Michel Salanskis
"In Defence of a Dialectical Ethic Beyond Postmodern Morality" by Mark Mason
"Beyond Moral Stories" by Betty A. Sichel
"Living On (Happily) Ever After: Derrida, Philosophy and the Comic" by Robert S. Gall
"Philosophers with Microscopes, Children with Kaleidoscopes..." by Zelia Gregoriou
"Beyond Deconstruction" by Kenneth Kierans
"Postmodern Doubt and Philosophy of Education" by Nicholas C. Burbules
"Ethics and Finitude: Heideggerian Contributions to Moral Philosophy" by Lawrence J. Hatab
"Era and Epoch, Epoch and Era: Christian Intellectuals in the Postmodern Turn" by Scott H. Moore
"Reflections on the Threefold Lotus Sutra" by Dr. John R.A. Mayer
"Emmanuel Levinas: Where Philosophy and Jewish Ethics Meet" by Tam K. Parker
Research Tools for Emmanuel Levinas by John Drabinski
Textual Reasoning
Levinas obituary

Recommended Books

Alterity and Transcendence (European Perspectives)
by Emmanuel Levinas, Michael B. Smith (Translator)
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Difficult Freedom : Essays on Judaism
by Emmanuel Levinas, Sean Hand (Translator), Emmanual Levinas
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Discovering Existence With Husserl (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy)
by Emmanuel Levinas, Richard A. Cohen (Translator), Michael B. Smith (Translator)
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Emmanuel Levinas : Basic Philosophical Writings (Studies in Continental Thought)
by Emmanuel Levinas, Adriaan T. Peperzak (Editor), Simon Critchley (Editor), Robert Bernasconi (Editor)
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Entre Nous : On Thinking-Of-The-Other (European Perspectives)
by Emmanuel Levinas, Michael B. Smith (Translator), Barbara Harshav (Translator)
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Ethics and Infinity : Conversations With Philippe Nemo
by Emmanuel Levinas, R. Cohen (Translator)
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The Levinas Reader (Blackwell Readers)
by Sean Hand (Editor)
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Nine Talmudic Readings
by Emmanuel Levinas, Annette Aronowicz (Translator)
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Of God Who Comes to Mind
by Emmanuel Levinas, Bettina Bergo (Translator)
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Otherwise Than Being : Or Beyond Essence
by Emmanuel Levinas
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Proper Names (Meridian-Crossing Aesthetics)
by Emmanuel Levinas, Michael B. Smith (Translator)
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Totality and Infinity
by Emmanuel Levinas
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Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas
by Jacques Derrida, Michael Naas (Translator), Pascale-Anne Brault (Translator)
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Altered Reading : Levinas and Literature
by Jill Robbins
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Beyond : The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy)
by Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak
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To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas
by Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak
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Death and Responsibility : The 'Work' of Levinas
by Dennis King Keenan
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Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity : Essays on Derrida, Levinas and Contemporary French Thought
by Simon Critchley
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Fragments of Redemption : Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas
by Susan A. Handelman
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The Paradox of Power and Weakness : Levinas and an Alternative Paradigm for Psychology
by George Kunz
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Radical Passivity : Levinas, Blanchot and Agamben
by Thomas Carl Wall, William Flesch
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Re-Reading Levinas (Studies in Continental Thought)
by Robert Bernasconi (Editor), Simon Critchley (Editor)
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Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud : An Introduction
by Ira F. Stone
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Reconsidering Difference : Nancy, Derrida, Levinas, and Deleuze
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