January 12, 2010
French philosopher EMMANUEL LEVINAS (1906-95), born in Lithuania to Jewish parents, extends the thesis that the best French intellectuals are shaped by otherness rather than belonging. In Levinas’s case the appreciation of alterity was especially instructive, becoming the central theme of his mature philosophy. This he developed out of early Talmudic instruction crossed with exposure to the phenomenology of Husserl and, to some extent, Heidegger, whose works he helped introduce to a French audience. (He would later regret his regard for Heidegger and publicly proclaim the German thinker’s flirtation with Nazism “hard to forgive.”) Levinas deepens phenomenology’s insistence on the primacy of experience by arguing that subjectivity is essentially ethical. Thus ethics, not metaphysics, is “first philosophy” — the ursprung of all thought and action. Only in the face-to-face encounter with the other, who calls to me but whom I can never know completely, do I discover myself. A naturalized French citizen since 1930, Levinas was called up for military duty in 1940 and captured by invading German forces; he spent the remainder of the Second World War in a German prison camp. Though his lifelong friend Maurice Blanchot was able to help Levinas’s wife and children escape the Nazis, his father and brothers were less fortunate — they were killed by the SS in Lithuania. Levinas’s most influential student was Jacques Derrida, another French Jew transfixed by phenomenology, but his own thought is marked by greater openness and warmth than we find in deconstruction. Levinas’s keen sense of philosophy as obligation comes through most clearly in his monumental work Totality and Infinity (1961), which articulates a notion of philosophy as the wisdom of love, rather than the love of wisdom.
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