Article

Emmanuel Levinas

Gabriel Malenfant

in Philosophy

ISBN: 9780195396577
Published online September 2014 | | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0244
Emmanuel Levinas

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Emmanuel Levinas (b. 1906–d. 1995) was a philosopher famous for having developed an original interpretation of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method, using the latter to address the foundations of ethics and normativity. Published in more than twenty-five books spanning over eighty years, his oeuvre can be divided into three categories: (1) his philosophical works, which regroup monographs, essays, and interviews, (2) his Talmudic readings and essays on Judaism, and (3) posthumous notes, remarks, and texts, some of which are still being published. Although references will be made to the second and third categories, the first remains the central focus of this article. Apart from the influence of Husserl, Levinas was also inspired by Martin Heidegger as well as by Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida. Of Heidegger, he wrote an uncompromising philosophical critique that addressed the secondary role played by ethics in his phenomenology—a critique he then expanded to the Western philosophical tradition as a whole. Ethics, Levinas argued, had to be reinterpreted and understood as “first philosophy” (i.e., as metaphysics), rather than as a derivative extension based on premises coming from ontological, epistemological, or political narratives. Not unlike Plato centuries before, although in a different manner and with very different implications, Levinas contended that the question of the Good has priority over that of Being, since interhuman relationality precedes any discourse or logos about beings—human or otherwise. His “ethics” is thus not that of the tradition: its aim is not to become prescriptive. Without denying the importance of the following properties or faculties for practical decision making, Levinas’s ethics relies neither on virtues, reason, nor utility. The word “ethics,” for Levinas, refers to the fact that “I” cannot refuse responsibility for the other, since that act of disregarding or refusing responsibility is possible only on the basis of my being always already capable of responding to an other who imposes responsibility on me. It is this ability for responding to the other, this command that I cannot efface (even when I ignore it) that allows for other discourses—such as ontology, epistemology, or political philosophy—to make sense at all. The consequences of this original interpretation of the nature and meaning of ethics are deep and manifold. Therefore, this article does not intend to present an all-encompassing portrait of Emmanuel Levinas’s thought. Rather, its aim is to provide the reader with a selection of texts that represent the wide array of philosophical questions addressed by Levinas and his commentators. Given the immense number of publications by Levinas, this entry proposes a commented list of selected major works and articles by the author (instead of referencing complete collections, for instance). The secondary literature is then organized by themes that correspond to areas of research—both well established and new—within Levinas studies.

Article.  11651 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art ; Epistemology ; Feminist Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy ; Metaphysics ; Moral Philosophy ; Non-Western Philosophy ; Philosophy of Language ; Philosophy of Law ; Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic ; Philosophy of Mind ; Philosophy of Religion ; Philosophy of Science ; Social and Political Philosophy

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