OBITUARY: Emmanuel Levinas

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The Independent Online
Jewish philosophers in the modern world have been many, but few have been inspired specifically by Judaism. Emmanuel Levinas began his philosophical career as a brilliant expounder of the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger; but he developed into a leading philosophical expounder of Judaism for the modern world.

Even more remarkably, he based his exposition not on Jewish mysticism (regarded by many, because of the labours of Gershom Scholem, as Judaism's main neglected treasure), but on the much more central and characteristically Jewish tradition of the Talmud. After so many centuries of denigration, after the defacements and burnings of Christian censors, the Talmud was brought forward by one of the acutest minds of the 20th century as the corrective to the solipsism and sterile "totality" of Western philosophy from Plato to Hegel.

Levinas was born in 1906 in Lithuania. From 1923, he studied in Strasbourg, and later in Freiburg with Husserl and Heidegger. He became a French citizen in 1930, and was called up to army service in 1939. This saved his life. When he was captured by the Germans, his French uniform kept him from the gas-chambers that claimed all his Lithuanian relatives. His wife and daughter were hidden and saved through the help of a French friend, Maurice Blanchot, in a Roman Catholic monastery near Orleans. The memory of the Nazi Holocaust dominated his thought, informing his enquiries into the ways in which the "other" became depersonalised.

His first book was The Theory of Intuition in Husserl's Phenomenology (1930), based on his doctoral dissertation at Freiburg. This book, and his translation of Husserl's Cartesian Meditations (1931), introduced Husserl and Heidegger to French readers, notably to Sartre, who acknowledged his debt to these works. Yet Levinas wrote of his "profound need to leave the climate of Heidegger's philosophy", while continuing to build on basic Heideggerian insights. His new application of these influenced the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida, who wrote, "The thought of Emmanuel Levinas can make us tremble. At the heart of the desert, in the growing wasteland, this thought which fundamentally no longer seeks to be a thought of Being and phenomenality, makes us dream of an inconceivable process of dismantling and dispossession."

In 1947, Levinas became the director of the Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale, a Jewish school which was part of the Alliance Israelite Orientale, an educational organisation for Jewish communities in France and French Africa. Levinas was a practising Jew, who, in the midst of intense philosophical activity, continually served the Jewish community. At the same time, he sought to increase knowledge of Judaism among French intellectuals, who attended his famous Talmudic lectures with amazed appreciation of a treatment that fused traditional textual study with state-of-the-art philosophy. Some of these lectures were published in his Quatres lectures talmudiques (1968) and later collections. Levinas also lectured in philosophy at the University of Paris at Nanterre.

Among Levinas's major writings were De l'existence a l'existant (1947), Totalite et infini (1961), Difficile Liberte (1963). His influence, great in France, was extended to the English-speaking countries from the Seventies onwards by translations of his works, by publication of interviews with him, and by the expository work of disciples, including Richard A. Cohen and Susan Handelman.

The philosophy of Levinas is driven mainly by ethical concerns. He sees ethics as grounded in a true appreciation of the separate reality of "the other". In his denial of monism, or schemes of "totality" (which he regarded as leading to totalitarianism in politics), he opposed both idealism and positivism. Whereas many nowadays use his term "the other" mainly negatively (as a weapon in the battle against xenophobia), Levinas used it positively, to express the separateness without which there can be no love. Here he followed the Talmudic axiom, "Every person is a separate universe."

The chief influence on Levinas, in Jewish philosophy, was Franz Rosenzweig. But Levinas developed many original insights, for which he created a new philosophical style, working by nuanced repetition. His treatment of historicism, and his concept of "eschatology", are permanent acquisitions for philosophy, enabling it to escape from formulaic unity into a world of fecund plurality.

Hyam Maccoby

Emmanuel Levinas, philosopher: born Kaunas, Lithuania 30 December 1905; Director, Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale de Paris 1947-61; married 1930 Raissa Rachel (one son, one daughter); died Paris 25 December 1995.