Emmanuel Lévinas (January 12, 1906 - December 25, 1995) was a Jewish philosopher born in Kovno, Lithuania, who moved to France, where he wrote most of his works. In his youth he had received a traditional Jewish education, and in his later years was introduced to the Talmud by the enigmatic "Monsieur Chouchani". Levinas became a naturalized French citizen in 1930.
Levinas was deeply influenced by Edmund Husserl & Martin Heidegger, whom he met at the university of Freiburg, as well as by Jewish religion. He was one of the first intellectuals to introduce to France the work of Heidegger and Husserl, producing both translations of their work (e.g., Husserl's Cartesian Meditations) and original philosophical tracts.
After the war, Levinas became a leading thinker in France, emerging from the circle of intellectuals surrounding Jean Wahl. His work is based on the ethics of the Other or, in Levinas' terms, he argues "ethics as first philosophy." For Levinas, the Other is not knowable and cannot be made into an object of the self, as is done by traditional metaphysics (called ontology by Levinas). Levinas prefers to think of philosophy as the 'knowledge of love' rather than the love of knowledge. In his arrangement, ethics become an entity independent of subjectivity to the point where ethical responsibility is integral to the subject; because of this, an ethics of responsibility precedes any 'objective searching after truth'. Levinas derives the primacy of his ethics from the experience of the encounter with the Other. For Levinas, the face-to-face encounter with another human being is a privileged phenomenon in which the other person's proximity and distance are both strongly felt. Upon the revelation of the face a person's first natural desire is to murder the Other. At the same time, the revelation of the face forces the immediate recognition of one's inability to do so. One must instantly recognize the inviolability and autonomy of the Other. One must then place him or herself in the position of a student, and the Other is recognized as a teacher. Ultimately, morality is recognized through one's relation to the Other.
Among the many works of Levinas, key texts include Totalité et infini: essai sur l'extériorité (1961) and Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence (1974). Both works have been translated into English by the American philosopher Alphonso Lingis.
In Levinas's later thought following "Totality and Infinity", he argued that our responsiblity for-the-other was already rooted within our subjective constitution. It should be noted that the first line of the preface of this book is [paraphrase] "it is of the utmost importance to know whether or not we are duped by morality." This can be seen most clearly in his later account of recurrence (chapter 4 from "Otherwise Than Being"). Therein Levinas maintained that subjectivity was formed in and through our subjected-ness to the other. In this way, his effort was not to move away from traditional attempts to locate the other within subjectivity (this he agrees with), so much as his view was that subjectivity was primordially ethical and not theoretical. That is to say, our responsibility for-the-other was not a derivative feature of our subjectivity; instead, obligation founds our subjective being-in-the-world by giving it a meaningful direction and orientation. Levinas's thesis "ethics is first philosophy", then, means that the traditional philosophical pursuit of knowledge is but a secondary feature of a more basic ethical duty to-the-other.
- Official web site of the Institut d'études lévinassiennes
- Webpage with details of his life and writings, including his New York Times obituary
- "Viewing Power in Heidegger and Levinas", "The Anarchism of the Other Person", and "Persons Die: Ricardo Flores Magon and Emmanuel Levinas" by Mitchell Cowen Verter
- On Escape, a review of Levinas' De L'êvasion by Michael R. Michau, Other Voices, January 2005.
- A Century with Levinas : Celebration of Emmanuel Levinas Centennial · January 1-December 31, 2006
- North American Levinas Society: Resources, Calls for Papers, Announcements
- Espacethique : Emmanuel Levinas and the ethic of responsibility