Emmanuel Levinas
Emmanuel Levinas; drawing by David Levine

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?”

By 1947, when Levinas published De l’existence à l’existant (From Existence to the Existent), he had turned against what he saw as Western philosophy’s preoccupation with questions about the nature of existence and knowledge. For the more than forty years since, he has been repelled by the philosophical vocabulary according to which the mind regards other people primarily as phenomena to be seen and known. He has argued that philosophy in the West “can be defined as the subordination of any act to the knowledge that one may have of that act, knowledge being precisely this merciless demand to bypass nothing.”7 Levinas apparently thought that every philosopher from Parmenides to Heidegger was compromised by the assumption that such issues as personal responsibility and morality were secondary to philosophical inquiry into the nature of reality and the methods we use to understand it. Even those who wrote about questions other than existence and knowledge were afflicted with this flaw. Only a few philosophers escape Levinas’s censure, especially Plato, in his concern for the Good, and Descartes, in his recognition of the infinite that exceeds one’s grasp.

Levinas’s own position is that ethics precedes ontology.8 I take this to mean that ethics is—or rather, should be—the first aim of a valid philosophy. If we allowed ethics to precede ontology, we would live subject to justice in all the moments of our lives and not be distracted and misled by the unfeeling “truth” of the philosophical tradition. If I were to take ethical behavior as my first obligation as a thinking person, my main concern would be the quality of my relations to other people, my responsibility for each of them. To emphasize this Levinas has often quoted the passage in The Brothers Karamazov in which Alyosha says: “We are all responsible for everyone else, but I am more responsible than all the others.” To this Levinas has often added “the word of the Lithuanian rabbi Israel Salanter: the material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual needs.” 9

In Levinas’s ethics, the primary act is the one by which I address another person as “you.” I ground my existence solely upon that act of address, that “saying,” as Levinas terms it; because of this, he believes, “The essence of discourse is ethical.”10 For him, ethical life starts with a prescription, a command as if from God, which elicits a response, the spontaneous act of my saying “you” and recognizing the preeminence of the Other.

This may make his philosophy seem similar to the one Martin Buber espoused in I and Thou, but there are deep differences between them. The main one is that in Buber the relation between I and Thou is reciprocal: I will acknowledge you, and you will therefore acknowledge me. From this reciprocity a community begins to form. But that is not enough for Levinas. He is willing to concede that “equality between persons” is a good basis for “the political order of citizens in a state.”11 But according to Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being, I should acknowledge you as an irreducible person whether or not you acknowledge me, simply because it is my moral duty to do so. As in love, one resigns oneself to the possibility of not being loved in return: “Dans l’amour—a moins de ne pas aimer d’amour—il faut se résigner à ne pas être aimé.”12 It is only by acknowledging you that I come to be myself. Until I make that commitment, I can merely, in the sordid language of individualism, insist upon being my sole self. When I acknowledge you, a society begins to form, a community of people who are addressed, although only some of them may choose to respond. A society is the gathering together of those who speak and listen.

There is another difference between Levinas and Buber. In Outside the Subject Levinas criticizes Buber for regarding the relation of I and Thou as a means toward an end, the assurance of my own being. He thinks it unfortunate that the rhetorical verve of I and Thou should be put to the service of such a dubious cause. On this point Levinas comes very close to Franz Rosenzweig, whose The Star of Redemption attacked ontology for much the same reason as Levinas did: because it asks the wrong question—“what is…?”—and produces the wrong answers.13 Perhaps part of the appeal of Levinas’s work is precisely that he refuses to make ethical obligation a matter of self-interest—“rational” or not—or even of reciprocal relations; instead he insists that it is a primordial component of what it is to be human.

Levinas’s dilemma is how to change philosophy despite our having to work within the Western philosophical tradition. How can we escape its self-serving prejudice toward the use of language as a tool for knowledge alone? (Deconstruction, of course, is Derrida’s attempt to answer the very same question.)

Levinas’s answer starts with the personal fact of his being Jewish. “My work,” he says in In the Time of the Nations, “is situated in the fullness of the documents, beliefs and moral practices that characterize the positive fact of Judaism.” He finds in the Torah every justification he needs for the gratuitous acts he identifies as ethical acts. Explicating Rabbi Eleazar’s reference to the Israelites “doing before hearing,” Levinas says that “the doing which is at stake here is not simply praxis as opposed to theory but a way of actualizing without beginning with the possible14—or, in other words, living according to an ethical philosophy for which there is no outside justification.

This entails a leap of faith; indeed, the aim of Levinas’s entire work is to displace the priority of knowledge by the priority of faith—and not faith in God per se, but in God as the ultimate manifestation of the Other: “I can only go towards God by being ethically concerned by and for the other person.”15 God comes into the story because He comes into the Bible, but He rarely comes into Levinas’s reckoning, at least not as an immanent figure vested with universal authority. He has long since abdicated in favor of His children:

It is a great glory for God to have created a being capable of seeking Him or hearing Him from afar, having experienced separation and atheism.16

But in recompense God has put the Torah—and its exegesis, the Talmud—into the hands of His children. As a sentence in Talmud has God saying: “So should it be that you would forsake me, but would keep my Torah.” It follows for Levinas that one is justified in “loving the Torah more than God,” if only because that is better than cultivating the madness of seeking direct contact with God (or, by analogy, with Heidegger’s “Being”). He reminds his readers that the idea of divine incarnation “is foreign to Jewish spirituality,” and he cites in support of this view verse 6 of Psalm 115: “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; But the earth hath He given to the children of men.”17 So he deals with theological language by extracting from it “meanings that address themselves to reason.”18 What he has in mind is ethics and “Hebraic” reason, not ontology and “Greek” reason. The “Greek lexicon of intelligibility” is “the essential characteristic of [Western] philosophy” and he wants to find a substitute for it.19

Nonetheless Levinas is a Western philosopher, and he must do the best he can with concepts he regards as morally defective. Hence the task he has set himself, to translate Hebraic reason into the language of philosophy—“to articulate in Greek the principles that Greece ignored.”20

It is not easy. Derrida questioned, in his first essay on Levinas, “the necessity of lodging oneself within traditional conceptuality in order to destroy it,” and he has argued that Levinas’s metaphysics presupposes the phenomenology it seeks to question.21 Levinas knows this well enough, and replies that Derrida is in the same predicament. But Levinas doesn’t regard the problem as lethal. Indeed, he has insisted, at least once, that

we must have recourse to the medium of full understanding and comprehension, in which all truth is reflected—that is, to the Greek civilization and what it engendered: logos, the coherent discourse of reason, life in a reasonable State.22

On other occasions, however, he has tried to elude the Greek tradition of reason by coining words (illeity, and ipseity, “otherness” and “sameness,” for instance) untainted by Western philosophy. In some cases, he forces standard words to assume heterodox meanings. In many of his books, words like face, caress, voluptuosity, insomnia, infinity, fecundity, exteriority, and proximity perform stranger duties than one would have thought possible.

The effort shows. “Face,” a crucial part of Levinas’s lexicon, is virtually a code word. As Susan A. Handelman has noted, in Levinas and Rosenzweig this word displaces the word “phenomenon,” which phenomenologists use to mean the object “grasped by consciousness.” 23 But many of Levinas’s uses of “face” are contradictory. In “The Ego and the Totality” he uses it as if he had forgotten his objections to ontology: “A face is the very identity of a being.” 24 In Totality and Infinity it means personal “expression” that does not need to be cognitively perceived by others: identity is not the issue. “The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me,” Levinas says in Totality and Infinity, “we here name face.”25 In Outside the Subject it means not a form to be looked at but a summons, a call to be obeyed.

Is Levinas’s philosophical position at all persuasive? In La Sagesse de l’amour (The Wisdom of Love)26 Alain Finkielkraut raised a valid question: Isn’t Levinas’s philosophy predicated upon man as he should be rather than man as he is? From Hobbes to Adam Smith, one tradition of philosophy has acted on the understanding that people are not inherently moral beings and that ethics is not natural. Finkielkraut answers his own question by saying that ethics, in Levinas, is an act of transformation. I am to put my nature into question, face to face with the Other. (“L’éthique, c’est ma nature mise en question par le visage de l’Autre.”)27 But suppose I don’t want to put my nature into question, or to bother noticing the Other? Levinas is urging me to replace one form of spontaneity, my egoism, with a better one, according to which it becomes first nature for me to say to every other person, “After you, please.” His urging is still a vision of faith, hope, and charity founded upon nothing he can truly explain. What he is saying is: I feel this about the other person, even though I don’t know who or what is instructing me to feel it.

There is also the question of Levinas’s consistency. His philosophy is a philosophy on the analogy of two people who love each other. Neither of them is an object to be appropriated by the other. Each is inviolable. Fusion, the two becoming one, would be mutual violence. In “The Other in Proust” Levinas writes:

Proust’s most profound lesson, if poetry can contain lessons, consists in situating reality in a relation with something which for ever remains other, with the Other as absence and mystery….28

So far, so good. But Levinas got himself into trouble by writing, in Time and the Other, that “the feminine” is the archetype of that absolute difference or alterity, the mystery of Otherness.29 Inevitably, Simone de Beauvoir accused him of relegating women to a secondary status derived from “the masculine.” Levinas tried to answer her charge in Ethics and Infinity, Difficult Freedom, and Du Sacré au saint (From the Sacred to the Holy), but he only made more trouble for himself by saying things like “the feminine is other for a masculine being not only because of a different nature but also inasmuch as alterity is in some way its nature.” In what way? “The feminine is described as the of itself other, as the origin of the very concept of alterity.”30 I suppose he means Eve, whom God created from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:22) because He didn’t think it good for Adam to live alone. In a Talmudic commentary on the Tractate Berakhot Levinas speaks of “the problem…in reconciling the humanity of men and women with the hypothesis of a masculine spirituality in which the feminine would not be an equal term but a corollary.”31

It’s not clear to me why he needed to say any of this; he couldn’t have expected such remarks to lie quietly unnoticed in obscure scholarly journals. Luce Irigaray took up Simone de Beauvoir’s charge and developed it. The gist of her rebuke is that Levinas, even in his description of erotic pleasure in Totality and Infinity, “presents man as the sole subject exercising his desire and his appetite upon the woman who is deprived of subjectivity except to seduce him.” In Levinas, she says, priority is always given to God, then to father and son: “Ethics in its feminine achievement means to be a mother and nothing else.”32 The debate on this issue continues in essays by Derrida, Catherine Chalier, and other writers. My only explanation for Levinas’s imprudence on this matter is that he is unworldly: much as he hates abstraction, he often gets himself into the position of moving only abstractions around on the page.

Still, I warm to him. He is not alone in thinking that the tradition of philosophy in which the leading words are consciousness, self, identity, being, subject, and object is worn out and should be abandoned. Jürgen Habermas said as much in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985): “The paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness is exhausted.”33 It seems valuable to me that Levinas places ethics at the beginning, rather than at the end, of philosophical thinking, and considers ethics not as a branch of philosophy but as the founding principle of any philosophy worth doing. It seems an idea whose time has come—which may, perhaps, be the reason so many people these days seem to be reading Levinas.