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The Philosopher of Selfless Love

Emmanuel Levinas

by Marie-Anne Lescourret
Paris: Flammarion, 414 pp., FF 150

Outside the Subject

by Emmanuel Levinas, translated by Michael B. Smith
Stanford University Press, 201 pp., $32.50, $12.95 (paper)

More than a dozen books by or about the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who died at eighty-nine in December, have recently appeared in English translation. Why do so many people these days, especially literary theorists, seem to be reading the works of this once-obscure Talmudic scholar?

Although he has been recognized as a major Jewish thinker since the publication of Totalité et infini in 1961, in his early professional years before the Second World War he might have been mistaken for a mere explainer of the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. In En découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger (Discovering Existence with Heidegger and Husserl, 1949) and then more vigorously in Totalité et infini, however, he began to expound a philosophy of his own. (That it took him so long to do so, I suppose, is a measure of how difficult it was for him to reject his two major influences.) Since its publication Totalité et infini has been much discussed by Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-François Lyotard, Mikel Dufrenne, Maurice Blanchot, and other philosophers.

In Autrement qu’être, ou au-delà de l’essence (Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, 1974) Levinas gave an even bolder account of his thinking that earned him a still wider audience. As is the case with Derrida, on the other hand, how he is regarded by analytic or pragmatist philosophers is not a settled matter: it depends on the philosopher you ask.

One reason for Levinas’s tardy reception may be that while the philosophies of Levinas and Derrida deal with similar questions, Derrida was the first to attract wide attention. Both philosophers emerged from the phenomenological tradition pioneered by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and both came to question that tradition. Both believe that most philosophers pay too much attention to ontology (studying the nature of reality) and epistemology (studying the nature of knowledge). Both men believe that the language philosophy uses, and even language as a whole, are deeply flawed and need to be reexamined. Levinas’s response was to shift philosophy’s emphasis away from epistemology and ontology toward ethics. Derrida, conversely, launched a head-on attack against philosophy itself. Though some people found Derrida’s work liberating, many regarded it as sinister. He made people worry that their sons and daughters might be led into rebellion merely by going to college, so he had to be argued with or denounced. Levinas, on the other hand, doesn’t make you anxious about your children. Now that most literary intellectuals have taken sides for or against Derrida, Levinas’s work can be read for its own merits.

Marie-Anne Lescourret’s biography of Levinas gives the basic facts of his life and a good description of his intellectual evolution. She is a bit bemused that such a timid man has become more and more well known, while so many of his contemporaries in philosophy, including Gabriel Marcel, Jean Wahl, and Alexandre Kojève, have been drifting to the footnotes. She thinks that Derrida’s first essay on Levinas, “Violence and Metaphysics” (1964), had a great deal to do with establishing Levinas’s reputation. Certainly it was opportune, if only in showing that one of the rising philosophers in France took Levinas seriously. Lyotard’s Au Juste (1979) and his essay “Logique de Levinas” (1980) have also been influential in bringing Levinas a wider audience. But there must be more to his success than the fact that these commentaries appeared at the right time.

Levinas was born in Kaunas, Lithuania, on January 12, 1906. His father owned a bookshop and the family was reasonably well-off. Both parents were Jews, “enlightened” but not “assimilated.” They spoke Yiddish to each other and Russian to the children. Hebrew was the first language Levinas learned to read. His literary experience during his early years was mostly of Russian writers: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Lermontov. In 1916 the family moved to Kharkov in the Ukraine; in 1920 they went back to Kaunas. In 1923 Levinas enrolled at the University of Strasbourg to study the history of philosophy with Maurice Pradines and psychology with Charles Blondel.

At that point Levinas was especially taken with Henri Bergson’s Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (translated in 1910 as Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness) and its meditations on “la réalité propre et irreductible du temps” (“the pure and irreducible reality of time”). But his most far-reaching studies were with Jean Hering, a theologian and pupil of Husserl. Hering hoped that Husserl’s phenomenology—which replaced the metaphysics of the nineteenth century with a new, empirical philosophy that urged thinkers to turn “to the things themselves”—would lead to a revival of theology. Levinas learned from Hering that phenomenology is the search, starting out from the thinking subject, for “the concrete status of the given” (le donné), i.e., the concreteness of phenomena that disclose themselves to perception, an idea that was to have a deep impact on Levinas’s philosophy.

In 1928-1929 Levinas attended Husserl’s lectures at the University of Freiburg on phenomenological psychology and intersubjectivity. Meanwhile Heidegger had published Being and Time (1927), appropriating Husserl’s phenomenology and using it to build a philosophy based around the notion of Dasein or “Being-there,” which can roughly be defined as man’s basic mode of being and his relations to objects and other people. The book laid the ground for Heidegger’s later work, in which he attempted to find ways to restore contact with Being itself—an elusive concept that can be compared with the “flux” of pre-Socratic philosophy, or the “all-in-one” of Zen. Heidegger argued that philosophy, concerned with constructing rational and internally coherent systems, had forgotten Being and man had lost touch with it since the ancient Greeks, although such a genius as Friedrich Hölderlin was able to apprehend Being through his poetry. Levinas read Being and Time at Hering’s suggestion and thought it a masterpiece. When Heidegger became a professor of philosophy at Freiburg in September 1928, Levinas became his student.

In 1930 Levinas published his dissertation, La Théorie de l’intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology), and the following year he cooperated with Gabrielle Peiffer in the first French translation of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. In 1930 he also settled in Paris, became a naturalized French citizen, and began teaching at the Ecole Normale Israélite Orientale, a school established by the Alliance Israélite Universelle to provide Jews from the Mediterranean basin with an education that would help them become integrated into modern Western society. Levinas began writing a book on Heidegger, but managed to complete only one chapter of it, “Martin Heidegger et l’ontologie,” before the war broke out.

He volunteered for the French army and served as a Russian and German interpreter. Taken prisoner in 1940, he spent the next five years at forced labor in a forestry unit for Jewish prisoners of war in Germany. After the war he went back to Paris, became director of his school, and took regular lessons from Mordecai Chouchani, “the prestigious—and merciless—teacher of exegesis and of Talmud,” as Levinas described him. He also began to lecture at the Collège Philosophique that Jean Wahl founded to get intellectual life going again in France after the Liberation. He completed the book on Heidegger—En découvrant l’existence avec Heidegger et Husserl (Discovering Existence with Heidegger and Husserl). With the publication of Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, he was deemed qualified to teach philosophy in a French university: first at Poitiers, from 1967 at Paris-Nanterre, and from 1973 at the Sorbonne. He retired in 1976, but remained busy with lectures on philosophy and Judaism until his death in December.

Since 1969, when the English translation of Totality and Infinity was published, more and more of Levinas’s books have been coming into English. Beyond the Verse, a translation of L’Au-delà du verset: Lectures et discours talmudiques (1982), is a collection of commentaries on passages from the Torah, as well as essays on Scripture and Zionism. In the Time of the Nations, a translation of A l’heure des nations (1988), contains further Talmudic readings and essays on Moses Mendelssohn and Franz Rosenzweig. Outside the Subject, a translation of Hors-Sujet (1987), is a collection of essays on Husserl, Buber, Rosenzweig, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gabriel Marcel, Michel Leiris, and Jean Wahl.

Levinas admired Husserl for rejecting metaphysics and shifting the focus of philosophy onto the phenomenon, the object or event in the outside world as it is grasped by consciousness. He was impressed by Husserl’s insistence that consciousness must be understood as intentional or transitive, i.e., as consciousness of something. For Husserl, Levinas says, “to think is no longer to contemplate, but to commit oneself”1—it is directed outward, not inward. But Levinas felt that Husserl was still immured in the assumption that the goal of all thought is simply knowledge. In the end, he decided that Husserl had not gone far enough.

Heidegger, it seemed clear to Levinas, went far beyond Husserl in questioning the basic tenets of Western philosophy. But Levinas felt that Heidegger’s emphasis on universal, anonymous Being (and on the few persons of exceptional imaginative power, such as Hölderlin, whose destiny it was to come into direct contact with it) was at the expense of the individuals. Heidegger’s philosophy was even less concerned with ethics than Husserl’s epistemology; in the realm of pure Being, all individuality, and thus all responsibility of the individual toward others, is erased. Levinas did not see in Being and Time any immediate indication of “a political or violent ulterior motive,”2 but he had his doubts. Early in his study of Heidegger, “perhaps even before 1933 and certainly after Hitler’s huge success at the time of his election to the Reichstag,” Levinas had been told by Alexandre Koyré that Heidegger was a supporter of National Socialism, and his sympathies soon became clear. Levinas was dismayed but hoped that Heidegger’s sentiment expressed “only the temporary lapse of a great speculative mind into practical banality.” 3 Yet Levinas gradually came to think that Heidegger’s entire philosophy might indeed be corrupt; it seemed to him ethically indifferent, raging for an abstract perception of totality in which individuals are mere neutral particles.4Dasein in Heidegger is never hungry,” he notes in Totality and Infinity.5 There is a coldness and inhumanity to Heidegger’s philosophy that Levinas finds distasteful.

Levinas did not take part in the postwar disputes about Heidegger’s political activities under the Nazi regime. Presumably he couldn’t find any way to reconcile his continuing admiration for Being and Time—which he felt had, at least, freed philosophy from the bonds of epistemology and ontology—with the resentment he felt toward its author. But in 1988, a year after Victor Farias published documentary evidence of Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazis, Levinas wrote an article for Le Nouvel Observateur denouncing Heidegger’s “silence, in time of peace, on the gas chambers and death camps.” Heidegger now seemed to Levinas “a soul completely cut off from any sensitivity, in which can be perceived a kind of consent to the horror.”6 Levinas evidently decided that there was no merit in pressing one’s criticism of Being and Time to the point of finding it diabolical, but he asked: “Can we be assured that there was never any echo of evil in it?”

  1. 1

    Emmanuel Levinas, “Is Ontology Fundamental?” Philosophy Today (Summer 1989), p. 127.

  2. 2

    Levinas, “As If Consenting to Horror,” Critical Inquiry (Winter 1989), p. 486.

  3. 3

    Levinas, “As If Consenting to Horror,” p. 485.

  4. 4

    Martin Heidegger, Basic Concepts, translated by Gary E. Aylesworth (Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 41.

  5. 5

    Levinas, Totality and Infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 134.

  6. 6

    Levinas, “As If Consenting to Horror,” p. 487.

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