Conferences put focus on underappreciated Jewish philosopher
NEW YORK Emmanuel Levinas studied under Heidegger, informed the work of Sartre, and was a close colleague of Derrida. His philosophy has been praised by Pope John Paul II, cited by Vaclav Havel, and recommended by Elie Wiesel.
So why does the influential French Jewish philosopher remain relatively unknown outside Europe when compared to his teachers and colleagues?
It may have to do with the fact that Levinas’ contribution involved a departure from prior traditions, meaning that grappling with his work requires deep knowledge of the major theories that preceded him, namely ontology and epistemology.
"It does, really, require an astonishing level of knowledge from Hegel to the major exponent of German phenomenology, Husserl, and his student Heidegger," said Peter Gordon, a professor of modern European intellectual history at Harvard University. "In Levinas’ writing in particular, much of that knowledge is presupposed, and the references to that prior tradition are sometimes only implicitly stated."
Since his death a decade ago, study of Levinas’ work has grown steadily in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere. Now it’s getting a new boost on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
A conference next week in Jerusalem will launch "A Century With Levinas," a series of nearly ‘0 events over the course of ‘006 focusing on the major facets of Levinas’ work.
The series is being sponsored by the Association for the Commemoration of the Centenary of Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Ethical Legacy Foundation, and the Centre Raissa et Emmanuel Levinas. Nine other Levinas conferences unaffiliated with the "Century" series are being held worldwide.
Levinas’ influence and the Jewish angle some say he brought to his work will be discussed and debated from France to Israel to Lithuania to China. Admirers say it’s about time.
"It’s a paradox that it took so much time for him to be known here" in Israel, said Joelle Hansel, a professor of philosophy and Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is married to Levinas’ grandson. "The decisive fact was when he started to be translated into Hebrew" 10 years ago.
Born in Lithuania in 1906, Levinas studied as a young man with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and later developed a philosophy of his own that holds as its core principle the "infinite responsibility for the Other."
After Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933, Levinas began what Gordon called "a laborious process of distancing his own philosophy from Heidegger’s." He eventually came to regard his teacher’s philosophy as "suffering from a kind of moral autism," Gordon said.
Convinced, along with Derrida, that his predecessors had focused too narrowly on epistemology, the study of the nature of knowledge and ontology, the study of the nature of reality, Levinas shifted gears, developing a philosophy that emphasized ethics instead.
"Levinas is best known for a radically ethically based philosophic program," said Rabbi Ira Stone, who has taught philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and lectured widely on Levinas.
"Essentially he insists that the first philosophy, that is the first question that we have and the first answer we have to give philosophically, is to do with ethics," said Stone, spiritual leader of Philadelphia’s Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. "The question is really not ‘To be, or not to be?’ The question is ‘Why be good?’"
Levinas’ answer was that "to be human is already to find yourself bound by a responsibility to the Other," Gordon said. "That responsibility cannot be undone because it is the very foundation of one’s own being."
Levinas volunteered for the French Army when World War II broke out. He was taken prisoner in 1940 and spent several years at forced labor. His religious observance deepened afer the war, Hansel said, and, among other traditions he kept, Levinas put on tefillin daily.
Levinas didn’t expect others to live up to his ethical standards.
"He always maintained that the radical ethics he speaks of is something he takes on personally, but he doesn’t view other people as obligated under these ethics," said Ari Knoll, who sits on the board of directors of the Levinas Ethical Legacy Foundation. "He views his response to others as a responsibility independent of how others view their responsibility toward him."
In addition to his philosophical writings, Levinas left behind an ouevre on Jewish texts, from divrei Torah to works on biblical hermeneutics and the Talmud. The degree to which Levinas was influenced by his Jewishness is debated.
"The Talmud provided Levinas with a possibility to demonstrate that the concern for the Other is not a mere theoretical or rhetorical exercise," Shmuel Wygoda, director of Jerusalem’s Levinas Center, has written. "Throughout his talmudic readings, Levinas analyzed human situations as they appear in the Talmud and expressed them in philosophical terms that the metaphysical tradition could not have expressed."
For Gordon, Levinas’ "talmudic readings themselves often seem to involve a creative re-reading of the Talmud, which finds in the Talmud Levinas’ own prior philosophical concerns."
Levinas’ philosophy has proved influential beyond the ivory towers of academia. It has affected the international fight against poverty, for example, and has guided human-rights activists and political dissidents from Spain’s Jorge Semprun to Havel, a playwright who became president of the Czech Republic.
Levinas "taught that the sense of responsibility for the world is born in us with a look into the face of a fellow being," Havel said in an address to the French Senate in 1999. "I think that Europe of today should remind itself of this spiritual tradition. It should recognize that there are fellow beings both within its territory and around it all over the planet and that it is intrinsically responsible for them as well."