Emmanuel Levinas

A 20th-century philosopher whose Jewish sensibility influenced his encounter with Western thought and ethics.

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Emmanuel Levinas' centennial was commemorated in 2006 at conferences throughout the world. The retrospectives were well-warranted. The Lithuanian-born Jewish philosopher was a major figure in 20th century thought, taking Western philosophy to task for its failure to engage ethics. Indeed, Levinas' writings take the ethical encounter with other persons--rather than abstract questions about knowledge or meaning--as the point of departure for all philosophical work.

Early Years

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was born in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania to a family rich in Jewish cultural traditions. Hebrew was the first language he learned to read, and his parents were Yiddish speakers, but Russian was their spoken language of choice and the Russian novel was Levinas' first object of intellectual love. Following their displacement during World War I, the Levinas family immigrated to France, where Levinas would later become a citizen, and for whom he would fight in World War II.

Levinas entered the University of Strasbourg in 1923. It was here that philosophy, especially the thought of Edmund Husserl, became Levinas' true passion. Soon, he traveled to the University of Freiburg, in Germany, to study with Husserl, but he also became a student of Martin Heidegger. Levinas was present at the famous Davos disputation of 1929: a meeting between Heidegger, who represented the existentialist revolution in philosophy and Ernst Cassirer, the Jewish neo-Kantian, who favored the rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Levinas supported Heidegger against Cassirer, choosing existentialism over Kant, but after Heidegger joined the National Socialists, Levinas had some regrets. Levinas continued to see Heidegger's philosophy as a crucial turn in European thought, one that made his own philosophy possible. And yet, as he would later explain, he saw Heidegger's political misdeeds as evidence that the man's philosophy lacked ethical content. Nonetheless, Heidegger's influence on Levinas remained. One commentator even called him "Heidegger made kosher," for it was Levinas who introduced German phenomenology to France and later contributed to the effort to rehabilitate phenomenology and existentialism after Heidegger's misadventures in the Nazi party were fully publicized.

A European and A Jew

In the 1930s, Levinas continued his philosophical studies, publishing a book on Husserl (The Theory of Intuition in the Phenomenology of Husserl, 1930). Though he had not yet begun the engagement with traditional Jewish texts that would mark his post-War work, he read Franz Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption, along with Protestant theological sources.

At this time, the idea of God and the problem of the human experience of revelation grew in importance in his thinking. Perhaps just as importantly, Levinas deepened his association with an organization he had joined upon moving to France, the Alliance Israelité Universelle, which celebrated the compatibility between French and Jewish culture, and attempted to provide financial aid and (French-style) education for Jews all over the Middle East and North Africa. Levinas worked within the organization in several capacities, and while he endorsed its vision of Jews remaining Jewish while living as citizens in liberal European states, in a number of essays written for the organization's journal, he expressed his desire to rethink the relationship between Jewish and European identities.

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Benjamin A. Wurgaft

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a graduate student in History at the University of California. He also writes on food culture and the arts for a variety of magazines.