Born to Jewish parents in Lithuania on January 12, 1906, the life path of Emmanuel Levinas led him across several countries and through two world wars before he passed away on December 25, 1995. He became a citizen of France in 1930 and was called to War a decade later. His dear friend, writer and philosopher, Maurice Blanchot, helped his wife escape to a monastery upon the German invasion, but her mother and brothers were not so fortunate.
Like many of his contemporaries facing the travesties of two world wars, Levinas faced incredible loss. Readers can easily detect how this suffering informs the ethical dimension of his work. He foregrounds a radical dedication to the Other throughout his life.
In a collection of essays called Face to Face With Levinas, thinkers confront Levinas’s move from truth to goodness and his call to philosophers to do the same. He calls philosophers to take greater responsibility for their thought. In a dialogue within the collection, Irish philosopher Richard Kearney asks Levinas to reflect on the origins of the religious dimensions of his thinking.
He began intentionally studying the text only after the second world war.
Levinas benefits from the rich inheritance of his family’s beliefs, but he does not ride on their coattails like the Protestant protagonist in Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is tempted to do. Resistance to God, for Levinas, does not even happen at the level of individual soul. Resistance to God is collective and is evident in the Israelites grumbling and complaining in the desert as well as the mass genocide of the holocaust. Levinas recognizes belief can never be about some vague entity reigning down from afar. Instead, faith in God is lived out in relation to the Other in the tiny moments of everyday life.
The way God reveals himself unfolds through time.
After attending the University of Strasbourg where he began his life-long friendship with Maurice Blanchot, he visited the University of Freiburg for two semesters to study with Edmund Husserl, the German philosopher and mathematician and the father of phenomenology.
It was here that he met Martin Heidegger and was blown away by the newly published Being and Time. Levinas considers Henri Bergson’s work on duration the first major influence on his thought. He admits Bergson primed him, and most of his contemporaries, to embrace phenomenology.
What phenomenology offers is a method of connection between consciousness and phenomena. Levinas helped transport phenomenology from Germany to France. Jean Paul Sartre’s entry-point into phenomenology was the work Levinas wrote on Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology.
Aside from his broad influences in the philosophical fields of ontology, existentialism, and theology, Levinas offers a profound approach to phenomenology that is deeply ethical and manifests in a regard for one’s neighbor as well as the stranger. His dedication to the Other characterizes his writing throughout his life.