EMMANUEL LEVINAS (1906-1995), philosopher and Talmudic commentator, born in Kaunas, Lithuania, naturalized French in 1930.
In 1923, he began to study philosophy at Strasbourg University, where he came into contact with Charles Blondel, Maurice Halbwachs, Maurice Pradines and Henri Carteron. It was also during these student years that Levinas began his lifelong friendship with Maurice Blanchot.
In 1928, he went to Freiburg University to pursue studies in phenomenology under Edmund Husserl. At Freiburg he also encountered Martin Heidegger, whose Being and Time (1927) was to have a profound and lasting influence on his thought. Levinas’s debt to both masters was evident in his first three major publications: The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology (1930), Existence and Existents (1947), and En Découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger (1949).
In France, Levinas won early acclaim as one of the foremost exponents of the work of Husserl, and was read by Jean-Paul Sartre among others. After the second World War, most of which was spent in captivity, Levinas frequented the avant-guard philosophical circles of Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl.
It was mainly during the fifties that Levinas began to work out a highly original philosophy of ethics with the aim of going beyond the ethically neutral tradition of ontology. Levinas’s first magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (1961), influenced in part by the dialogical philosophies of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, sought to accomplish this departure through an analysis of the "face-to-face" relation with the Other. At the center of the work is the claim that the Other is not knowable, but calls into question and challenges the complacency of the self through Desire, language, and the concern for justice. This claim and others were further elaborated in Levinas’s second magnum opus, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (1974), an immensely challenging and sophisticated work that seeks to push philosophical intelligibility to the limit in an effort to lessen the inevitable concessions made to ontology and the tradition. It is this work that is generally considered Levinas's most important contribution to the contemporary debate surrounding the closure of metaphysical discourse, much commented upon by Jacques Derrida, for example.
Alongside his strictly philosophical corpus, mention should also be made of Levinas's so-called confessional writings, especially his Talmudic commentaries (Quatre lectures Talmudiques (1968), Du sacré au saint (1977), L’au-delà du verset (1982). While these exhibit a clear confluence with his remarks on ethics, Levinas denied ever trying to reconcile them explicitly.
Levinas died in Paris, December 25, 1995. (Click Here for the New York Times Obituary of Emmanuel Levinas.)