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Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995)

Emmanuel Levinas was one of the key figures in 20th Century Continental Philosophy. His philosophy is attempt of a synthesis of Jewish Philosophy and Phenomenology, (with an emphasis upon Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger).

Levinas was born in Kovno, Lithuania. There he was educated in Hebrew and the Torah, as well as in Russian literature. In 1923, Levinas left Lithuania to study Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology at the University of Strasbourg in France. In 1928, Levinas traveled to Freiburg, where Husserl was a professor, and continued his studies. He soon came under the influence of Husserl’s pupil, Martin Heidegger. Levinas returned to France, and became a citizen. After translating Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, Levinas then began composing a book on Heidegger’s philosophy, but abandoned it when Heidegger became involved with the Nazis and was appointed as head of Nazi Germany’s University system. He did, however, publish an essay on Heidegger, “De l’evasion,” which attempted to break free from Heidegger’s “ontology,” by discussing how one might, through “thinking,” one might transcend the “horizon of being.”

In 1939, Levinas was drafted into the French army. In 1940 he was captured and forced into labor by the Nazis. He was later freed. His family in Lithuania was murdered in Nazi concentration camps. The Holocaust always lived in Levinas’ memory and dominated his thinking.

Levinas’ early philosophical thinking was not often noticed, because he was associated with Jewish thought. In the 1960’s, however, his works began receive more attention. In essays such as “Transcendence and Height” (1962), “Meaning and Sense” (1964), “Enigma and Phenomenon” (1965) Levinas developed his mature philosophy. In his magnum opus, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence Levinas attempts to transcend an ontological interpretation of “Being,” which have been at the core of Greek/Western philosophy through Heidegger.

Levinas was essentially involved in an attempt to develop a Post-Heideggerian philosophy. Levinas’ works, indeed, have been seminal in this effort. Levinas places Heidegger in the tradition of the Greek-Western world in his ontology and attempts to overcome Heidegger’s ontological approach to “Being” by providing an ethics at the core of his philosophy, (which according to Levinas and many others is absent in Heidegger’s philosophy).

Source: Emmanuel Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings. Edited by Adriaan Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (1996)

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