Emmanuel Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was a Lithuanian-French and Jewish philosopher who took up the mantle of dialogical personalism.

He first studied Husserl and Heidegger in Freiburg during the 1930s, attempting to integrate the two philosophers, and later in Sorbonne under the guidance of, among others, Jean Wahl (1888-1874) and Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944) whose humanism and belief in the moral progress of humanity were to influence Levinas.

Levinas believed that the fellow human being – the Other – is infinitely worthy and unique in its “otherness”.

The Second World War, during which Levinas was captured and held for four years in a German prisoner camp, became a turning point and a point of orientation throughout the rest of his life. During the war, Levinas’ entire family was eradicated, and just as early dialogical personalism was deeply influenced by the First World War, his thought was shaped by his experience of the Holocaust.

Against this background, Levinas developed a hope for the redemption of humanity through a philosophy that invariably acknowledges the absolute demand that one must respect the other’s dignity’.

In his autobiographical essay Signature, Levinas observes that his biography is “dominated by the premonition and the memory of the Nazi horrors.”

After the war Levinas developed an original personalist ethic concerned with the interpersonal relationship, culminating in his main work, Totality and Infinity (1979). The title refers to the absolutely central aspect of the Levinasian demand, that the Other – a fellow human – has infinite dignity and is unique in his or her otherness, which is why the other always resists our usual attempts to subject the entire world to just one perspective, namely that of the self.

Through analyses of the phenomenology of the face, he attempts to show how the ethical demand is concretely manifested in the life of a person.

Levinas based upon phenomenology and Jewish humanism, draws on early dialogical personalism. He radicalizes the I-thou relationship, making it the very meaning of existence.

The face is given a metaphysical dimension as the demand that one care for or about the other as Other. This encounter with the Other becomes the authentic and infinite aspect of human existence.