Emmanuel Levinas died on the night of 24 December 1995. Yet arguably, he is still one of the most influential ethicists of the day. This accolade is justified despite the fact that Levinas’s work is devoid of what might be termed “traditional ethical discourse”. For the naturalised French philosopher, such discourse presupposes a profound ethical moment that gives rise to one’s sense of subjective being.
Levinas was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in January 1906. Having completed his secondary education in the Ukraine, he attended the University of Strasbourg where he studied philosophy in conjunction with subjects such as psychology and sociology. In the late 1920s he travelled to Freiburg, Germany, where he studied under Husserl and Heidegger. In 1930 Levinas was granted French citizenship. In the same year his doctoral thesis was published in Paris. It was this publication that first introduced Sartre to phenomenology. The outbreak of World War II saw Levinas drafted into the French army. He served as an interpreter until his capture in June 1940. Despite being a Lithuanian Jew by birth, he was interned in a military prison camp where he endured forced labour. As an officer in the French army he was spared the fate that befell his immediate family – most of whom were murdered by the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, the memory of the Nazi horror dominates much of Levinas’s work.
Although sometimes nuanced and labyrinthine, Levinas’s philosophy is clearly governed by a deep-seated pacifism. In fact, it is one of Levinas’s central contentions that Western philosophy is wedded to a counter-ethical process of conflict. It is this radical idea that underpins Levinas’s first magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (1961). This treatise opens with a discussion of war – an all-encompassing, as well as literal term for conflict. Levinas states that it is the Western preoccupation with the truth that generates this conflict. In short, if one is able to apprehend the truth, one is essentially self-sufficient or “total”. For Levinas, this reassuring sense of totality is disastrous for it harbours an underlying antagonism towards others who are liable to challenge one’s authority.
Levinas traces this conception of totality back to the teachings of Socrates and Plato. According to classical authority, the self is literally self-contained – it is able to contain the truth. For Levinas, this spirit of autonomy was perpetuated in the work of philosophers as diverse as Plotinus, Bishop Berkeley and Hegel. In addition, Levinas also detected a return to this spirit of self-sufficiency in the phenomenological work of his former tutors, Husserl and Heidegger.
In an attempt to evade this tide of thought, Levinas turned his attention to the constitution of subjectivity. For Levinas, far from being self-sufficient or total, the self can only exist through reference to the non-self. In short, self-knowledge presupposes the existence of a power infinitely greater than oneself. Echoing the famous Cartesian cosmological argument, Levinas thus suggests that the subject is indebted to the idea of infinity. In direct opposition to contemporary continental thought, Levinas thus reinstates the subject – a subject that encounters itself through the mediation of an-Other. According to Levinas’s intricate argument, such an encounter precedes the disastrous desire for truth.
Crucially, Levinas argues that the encounter between the self and the Other is always passive. In slightly different terms, one welcomes the Other as the measure of one’s own being. It would seem to follow that one’s subjectivity depends upon a non-aggressive or non-violent interface. Given its passive nature, Levinas concludes that this interface is a proto-ethical moment that precedes all other ethical discourse. In this way Levinas undercuts traditional ethical debate.
Levinas’s work can lack analytic clarity. He does not define key terms such as the Other beyond a series of vague associations and analogies. But to a greater extent, this lack of clarity is necessary for Levinas is trying to transcend what he regarded as the fetters of Western thought. Nevertheless, in 1964 Jacques Derrida published an essay in which he explored the extent to which Levinasian thought was still bound to the Western tradition. Levinas’s rejoinder was Otherwise than Being (1974) – a complex reconfiguration of his earlier work, composed in the light of poststructural concerns.
Today, Levinas’s ethical thought is frequently discussed in relation to diverse academic fields beyond the traditional boundaries of philosophy. Disparate fields such as sociology, literary theory, historiography and anthropology have all benefited from the priority Levinas accorded to “the Other”. This ubiquity stands as testimony to both Levinas’s profundity and growing contemporary relevance.