Volume 33, No.1 - Spring 1987
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1987 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



Emmanuel Levinas was born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1906. Levinas writes about his life and formation in an essay called 'Signature' at the end of Difficile Liberté, a collection of essays on social, religious and political themes. He tells how during his childhood in Lithuania, his first formative influence came from the Hebrew Bible. Next it was the Russian classics: authors like Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Finally, there was the Russian revolution which he experienced in the Ukraine.

In 1923 Levinas went to France to continue his studies, where he had Charles Blondell and Halbwachs as teachers. Later he studied under such people as Jean Hering, Leon Brunschvig, Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl. He became friends with Maurice Blanchot. Levinas also attributes influence to the tradition of contemporary Jewish writers such as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.

The greatest influences in the philosophical formation of the young Levinas came from Husserl and Heidegger whose lectures he attended in Freiburg. "It is from Husserlian phenomenology that Levinas derives the rigorous and systematic methodological tools of inquiry which distinguish his thought from that of other religious thinkers whose rich and novel insights often lack sound philosophical foundations."1 It was Levinas who first introduced Husserlian phenomenology to France with his translation of Husserl's Cartesian Meditations into French and with the publication of his doctoral thesis The Theory of Intuition in the Phenomenology of Husserl in 1932.

In 1939 at the outbreak of the second world war Levinas, who was by that time a French citizen, was drafted into the French army and was captured and detained in a German prisoner of war camp until the end of the war. When he was released he was once again able to return to his philosophical research. It was at this time that he discovered the Talmud and became a fervent reader and commentator on it.

We can classify Levinas as a Jewish thinker in roughly the same sense that we can classify Hegel as a Christian thinker.2 Just as Hegel philosophized about sacred history, revelation, community and the trinity, so does Levinas, on occasion, philosophize about religious concepts such as creation ex nihilo, selection, law and prophecy. One may be tempted to classify Levinas as a theologian but Levinas does not see himself as 'doing theology.' It is true that his writings are inspired by Judaism and the Bible but even when handling religious themes he attempts to express them in philosophical terms.

Someone once called Levinas the Heidegger of the French language. This comparison could only be leveled against his style of writing since ontologically the two philosophers differ. Levinas' style and language are, for the most part, difficult, and rather vague. He often introduces ambiguities into his thought; for example he calls true religious practice 'atheism,' and social responsibility 'anarchy.' He often employs new or unaccustomed names and concepts such as the "geste d'être," "le dans," "le non," "Signifiance,' "feuillure," "essance," "de-ception," "désaisissement," "ab-solution."

As with Heidegger, many of Levinas' reflections appear to be expressed in poetic images rather than philosophical concepts: "Être en tant que laisser un trace, c'est passer, partir, s'absoudre." His descriptive ability seems at times almost inexhaustible. The later Levinas calls the self a hostage and describes subjectivity, or the self as besieged, attached, assailed, beleaguered, expelled, stripped, dislodged, exposed, denuded, and defeated. Or again it is a power which deploys, entrenches itself, steals away, retreats, can betray or be betrayed, can be extradited, deported, subjugated, and which gives in: or on the contrary, which liberates itself, holds fast, endures, holds up, resists, it can also take on or come out of clandestine cover, be anarchical, in danger, invaded, up against a wall, vulnerable, exposed to insult and injury; it can order, command and submit, and so on.3

Levinas borrows many motifs from religious language. He writes about 'absolution,' 'liturgy,' 'diaconate,' 'visitation,"épiphany,' 'kerygma,' 'eschatology,' 'prophecy,' 'advent,' 'incarnation' and others. These words are not meant to be taken in a theological sense but nevertheless it is impossible not to make theological connections or to see their theological connotations despite their usage in a profane context.

At the heart of Levinas' thought is an ethics which contests contemporary thought. Modern philosophy has wrought havoc. The unity of truth, the unity of self, the unity of the world, indeed the very unity of reason itself have been undermined by various historical and political theories. "The humanism of the other man is the answer to the problem posed by the crisis of Western liberalism, inasmuch as Western philosophy has otherwise failed to find a humane alternative to the idealist tradition. Modern man is reduced to an object of sociology or psycho-analysis, a plaything of technology, a pawn of ideology."4 Levinas challenges this current contemporary state of affairs with a theory based on the radical exteriority of the other person as encountered in the exceptional exigency of social life.

The ethics of Levinas is not a system of values, it does not advocate adhering to transcendent or historical laws or inner principles; it is based, rather, in man's relationship to infinite Being. Moral experience is not so much the perception of the Absolute as the enactment or fulfillment of this perception. Levinas speaks of ethics as an "optics" which means that ethics is a way of perceiving "sui generis" and not just a secondary specialized discipline belonging to ontology, cosmology or philosophical anthropology, ethics is a beyond Being. Ethics passes into philosophy as an attempt to think the difference between Being and beyond Being.

Levinas wants to separate ontology from metaphysics and he does so by removing ontology from its privileged position. By having done so he is able to establish a bond between metaphysics and ethics. The interpretation of this relationship forms the substance of his work and thought. What he is attempting to do is to reverse traditional procedures and base metaphysics in ethics rather than developing an ethics upon pre-established metaphysical foundations. This he does by constructing upon the concept of alterity:

Levinas argues that traditional Western philosophy, including the work of Husserl and Heidegger, sustains a distinction between the one and the other. In empirical systems this distinction is retained as real; in idealistic systems it is rejected as illusory. But, Levinas argues, whether real or illusory, the distinction is always made and always rests upon the presupposition that it is constituted by a consciousness which discriminates. But the very possibility of incorporating the one and the other into a single point of view compromises the radical alterity, the 'exteriority' of the other. Alterity which can be conjoined with or separated from the one by thought is not true alterity but part of what Levinas calls "the same." Radical otherness derives from a more primordial source. It can never be adequately thought for it lies beyond ontology. It is reflected in the world through the advent of other persons.5

When Heidegger speaks of Western philosophy in terms of "Seinsvergessenheit," similarly Levinas would describe Western philosophy as an "oubli de I'autre" or an "egologie."

Another "leitmotiv" of Levinas' thought is the "Idea of the Infinite." Levinas begins with Descartes: amongst all ideas, says Descartes, the idea of the infinite distinguishes itself in so far as the "ideatum" exceeds the "idea" and is more perfect. Although on the one hand the idea of the infinite does have a significant role to play within consciousness, on the other, it contradicts the basic laws of consciousness as formulated by classical phenomenology. These laws maintain that the thought or 'noese,' that cogitatum is none other than a correlate of the cogito. But in the case of the Infinite things are different. Here we have to deal with another kind of intentionality which is directed towards that which it cannot grasp. As Levinas says, the "alterity of the Infinite is not cancelled in the thought that thinks it,"6 so that when I come to the idea of the infinite, simultaneously I think more than I think. The Infinite is not contained within the idea of the infinite. The Infinite is the radically, absolutely other. The Infinite is separated from me, who thinks it and it is precisely this separation which is the primary indicator of its infinity. Therefore the idea of the infinite is not something placed in us; it does not arise from any structure of the self. It is experienced in the most sense since we can never bring to it a structure of intentionality adequate to it. It is a genuine relation with what is other than ourselves. "We cannot reintegrate its alterity into the same. The thinker who has an Idea of the Infinite goes beyond himself, exceeds himself, is more than himself."7

Metaphysics should be understood in light of the Idea of the Infinite. In the act of trying to think the Infinite, he who is doing the thinking is subjected to a kind of expulsion; he is going beyond his own thinking. It is here that a certain "exterior" becomes apparent in objective knowledge which Levinas calls "metaphysical exteriority." "In this sense a philosophy of metaphysics, for Levinas, is one in which there is a turning towards (aspiration) radical exteriority which at the same time constitutes goodness and truth."8

With concepts (such as radical exteriority, the turning towards the other, the alterity of the other) Levinas approaches the divine. The phenomena of the other opens up the way to the holiness of God. Again and again Levinas speaks of the other and the Other in ways not too easily distinguishable from one another: "God is in one sense the Other par excellence," the Other in as much as Other, the absolutely Other. To the contrary, my neighbor, my brother, man, is infinitely less other than the absolutely Other, and in a certain sense, more Other than God."9 In any event, it is by way of alterity that the realm of the divine is revealed. The relation with God begins in the relation with other men. Over and over, Levinas emphasizes the social origin of the human encounter with God.

What makes Levinas' philosophy so fascinating is that he re-introduces the question of God into philosophical debate, but without talking very much about God. Even though his philosophy is inspired by Judaism both ancient and modern, the problem of God as a specific theme does not arise. Nevertheless upon reading Levinas the divine seems to be an underlying presence on every page. Levinas maintains that any "desire of the Infinite" which I may possess is not oriented toward the divine but rather toward the other. Although Levinas claims that he is a philosopher and not a theologian, his philosophy constantly brings the reader to the threshold of the divine.

The notion of God which one finds in the religious writings of Levinas is "religiously the most clear of notions, philosophically the most obscure."10 The religious dimension of the concept of God is clear because it comes to us through revelation. Its philosophical dimension is much more obscure because it has to be worked out by reason. It does not, however, have to remain obscure because it can be clarified by examining the ethical situation of man, as it is described in Talmud. This is the proposition that Levinas wants to put forward as an alternative to idealism, and to ontological philosophies in general. To have the ethical situation of man as a point of departure means to renounce all theosophical attempts.11

Therefore, Levinas is against all forms of pious theosophy. He wants to purify the heavens of the divine images by showing that God's existence can neither be demonstrated by ontology nor described by anthropomorphisms. But he is also conscious of the fact that man needs to discover some kind of system which will give him an unalterable certainty with regards to the existence of God. This certainty should not be a projection and neither should it be beyond the possibilities of man. This certainty is contained in ethics.

The "Gottesbild" of Emmanuel Levinas is best summed up by his comment that: "The Infinite does not burn the eyes that are lifted to him."12 The relation of man to the Absolute is an atheistic one, a God-lessness, a relation purified of the violence of the sacred. The absolute is not the numinous, the ego which approaches Him is neither annihilated on contact nor transported outside of it. Transcendence is to be distinguished from a union with the transcendent by participation. Monotheism implies metaphysical atheism. The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face. A relation with the transcendent free' from all captivation by the transcendent is a social relation.

Levinas makes a distinction between the 'sacred' and the 'holy.' The sacred consists of attempting to elevate natural things to the level of the divine as a compensation for the fear of not being able to rationalize them. The holy is the desire for the Infinite. The sacred gives us magic, whereas the holy communicates to us the transcendent, it opens up the realm of the Infinite which is beyond exteriority.13 The refutation of the concept of the numinous as it is contained within the notion of the sacred leaves man solitary, without gods, without the divine. In this stage man runs the risk of being an atheist. Nevertheless, the risk has to be taken, because only by means of it does man elevate himself to the spiritual notion of the transcendent. True monotheism must meet the exigencies of atheism.14 "The atheism of the metaphysician means, positively, that our relation with the Metaphysical is an ethical behavior and not theology, not a thematization, be it a knowledge by analogy of the attributes of God."15

Finally, God arises to his supreme and ultimate presence as correlative to the justice rendered unto men. It is impossible to directly comprehend God, not because our intelligence is limited, but because the relation with infinity respects the total transcendence of the Other without being bewitched by it, and because our possibility of welcoming Him in man goes further than the comprehension that thematizes and encompasses its object. It goes on to infinity:

The comprehension of God taken as participation in his sacred life, an allegedly direct comprehension, is impossible, because participation is a denial of the divine, and because nothing is more direct than the face to face, which is straightforwardness. A God invisible means not only a God unimaginable, but a God accessible in justice. Ethics is the spiritual optics.16

The breach that leads to God (the 'vision') coincides with the work of justice, the uprightness of the face to face, for there can be no knowledge of God separated from the relationship with men. "The Other is the very locus of metaphysical truth, and is indispensable for my relationship with God . . . The Other is not the incarnation of God, but precisely by his face, in which he is disincarnate, is the manifestation of the height in which God is revealed."17

Works by Emmanuel Levinas: 

Books: listed more or less in the order of their original publication.
Théorie de l'intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl,
J. Vrin, Paris, 1978.
De l'evasion
. Fata Morgana, Paris, 1982.
Le temps et I'autre,
Fata Morgana, Paris, 1979.
En découvrant I'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger,
J. Vrin, Paris, 1982.
Existence and Existents,
Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1978.
Totality and Infinity,
Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, 1979.
Difficile liberté, Editions Albin Michel,
Paris, 1976.
Quatre lectures talmudiques, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1968.
Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1981
Du sacré au saint, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1977.
Noms propres. Fata Morgana, Paris, 1976.
L'au-dela du verset,
Les Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1982.
De Dieu qui vient a l'idée, J. Vrin, Paris, 1982.
Ethique et Infini, Fayard, Paris
, 7982.


1 Wyschogrod, Edith, Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics, The Hague, 1974, pg. vi.
2 Ibid.
3 De Greef, J. "The Irreducible Alienation of the Self," in Tymieniecka, Anna-Teresa, The Self and the Other. The Irreducible Element in Man, Boston, 1977, pg. 27.
4 Smith, Steven G., The Argument to the Other: Reason Beyond Reason in the thought of Karl Barth and Emmanuel Levinas, California, 1983, pg. 197.
5 Wyschogrod, pg. viii.
6 Levinas, E. En decouvrant l'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger, Paris, 1979 pg. 172.
7 Wyschogrod, pg. 92.
8 Strasser, Stephen, Jenseits von Sein und Zeit, The Hague, 1978, pg. 10.
9 Levinas, E. Quartres lectures talmudiques, Paris, 1968, pg. 36.
10 Ibid. pg. 71.
11 Filioni, F., "Dio e l'alterita nel pensiero di Emmanuel Levinas," Aquinas 22 (1979), pg. 32.
12 Levinas, E. Totality and Infinity, Pittsburgh, 1979, pg. 77.
13 Filioni, pg. 39.
14 Levinas, E. Difficile liberté, Paris 1976, pg. 31.
15 Totality and Infinity, pg. 78.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.