The life and the major thoughts of Emmanuel Levinas


Emmanuel Levinas, one of the most important ethical philosophers of 20th century was born in 12th January, 1908 in Lithuania. The Levinasian family belonged to Lithuania’s large and important Jewish community. Levinas was initiated early into Jewish Orthodoxy. It was here that he first learned to read the Bible in Hebrew. Russian was the language of his formal education and that was spoken at home. In his youth Levinas read the Great Russian writers. In 1923, Levinas travelled to France to study philosophy. Its political freedom and the philosophical traditions attracted him, in 1930, shortly after having published his dissertation, The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, he became a French citizen. In 1940, during the world war, he was arrested as a prisoner. Most members of his family in Lithuania were murdered by the Nazis during this time. Later after being a professor in different universities, he retired in 1979 and devoted himself to writing books. He was named to “a man of four cultures”: Jewish, Russian, German and French. He died of heart failure in Paris on Monday, 26th December 1995.

Levinas being an original thinker, with his experience of the world wars and the dominated by the presentment and memory of the Nazi horror, raises a very important and relevant question, what is the way forward. He stresses that the code of morality that was held high in the modern period and the early periods of humanity was in need of a change. Because, the holocaust and the after-events of the same became moments that raised radical questions and a revision of the task and essence of philosophy. A challenging question to be addressed is whether what was said about philosophy and its reflections on human existence, meaning, political order, ethics, etc., before the holocaust, could be continued after the holocaust or not? Whatever may be said after the holocaust, the Western philosophical, ethical and religious teachings and reflections were unable to prevent Auschwitz, in fact they may have actually provided a certain legitimation to the devaluation and desecration of human life.

Hence, Levinas is convinced that the traditional understanding of subject has seeds of violence in it, the ontological reduction of the Other to the Same being one among them. The foreignness and difference of the Other is viewed as a threat to the self. Levinas challenges the Western tradition to consider a very different understanding of subject. He is presenting to us an ethical subject, unlike the Cartesian ego of self-sufficient ‘I’ and the proposal of the present day psychology, who is vulnerable, fragile, non-in-dependent self, obsessed, and hostage for the Other. The subjectivity is framed by the Other, in calling out to the self to be responsible for the Other. It is a philosophy based on an encounter with the Other. He shifts the focus of philosophical thought away from the constitution of the Other and the Same in consciousness to a relationship between the Same and the Other. However, he does not provide a stable set of moral principles to govern this encounter; rather he is interested in challenging the Subject instead of giving ethical solutions to the problems.

For Levinas the encounter with the Other not only involves the active moments from the part of the subject, but more importantly, passive moments. The Other is considered as someone to be responded to, that is, the Other is not a thing rather an expression of a solicitation, a summons to respond. As Levinas says, “The face summons me”; the face is a summons to respond, it summons the subject to assume responsibility for the Other. Levinas asserts that the response of the subject to the Other “… is the response of responsibility.” The subject is indebted to the Other for its expression to the Other. According to him, responsibility is not a choice of the subject, rather the subject belongs to responsibility. The presence of the face of the Other demands my responsibility for it; a responsibility which arises from the fear of killing the Other. So, his ethics calls one to set aside one’s egoism and move towards being totally for the Other.

I feel it is very real to claim that Levinasian philosophy is based on the phenomenological fact that the face of the Other calls the subject to responsibility. For Levinas, the call of the face is a command to respond to the responsibility of the subject towards the Other. This call provides the subject certain orientation to respond to the Other, an orientation, which is rooted in the Other’s calling of the subject to responsibility which even goes to the extent of substituting for the Other. Thus Levinas characterises his subject with the qualities of responsibility, substitution, docility and even as one striving for difficult justice. It is weak, and is a hostage. The ego of the subject, ‘I,’ undergoes transition at the demand of the Other and becomes an accusative ‘me.’ According to him, the subject is hostage to the other, a sort of hostage that assumes responsibility to the Other, which comes prior to autonomy and freedom. Thus the subject becomes a humble self who loses oneself on the demands of the face of the Other.

In my view, the entire work of Levinas operates on the experience of an exorbitant demand that determines the ethical subject. The approval of ‘here I am’ from the subject is a response to the imperative of the face ‘you shall not kill.’ However, the Levinasian subject is constituted through an act of approval to a demand to which it is fundamentally inadequate. I am not equal to the demand that is made on me. Hence, he explains this fundamental inadequacy of the approval to the demand as the reason for the asymmetrical relation to the Other. That is, the subject relates itself to something that exceeds its relational capacity. My responsibility to the Other becomes the Other’s right. All the more for Levinas, the subject is formed by the Other. That is the subject is not self-forming, rather it is formed by the Other with whom I am relating. Such an understanding challenges the subject to be far from being the self-centred ego. It breaks all the traditional understandings and places ‘ethics as the first philosophy.’ Hence, the subject embodied with the ‘ethical responsibility’ moves out from a symmetrical relationship to a model of asymmetrical relationship where the subject is at the service of the Other. Here the subject is a sub-ject; and a subject on the presence of the third party.

I think, in the present day, scenarios of consumerism, globalization, secularization, and dogmatization, where the set moral principle defines nothing other than performance of certain actions, the Levinasian subject becomes a challenge to everyone. It demands one’s responsibility to the Other in the event of the epiphany of the face of the Other. For he frames his inquiry into the subject based on the far-reaching question “what would it mean if, rather than responding to the threat of the Other with violence, we endeavoured to accept our dispossession of the world, to listen to the voice of the Other rather than suppress it?” His contributions are of major importance, particularly when it comes to reaching out to the neglected areas of society, in rediscovering the subject in the philosophical tradition. Levinas moves away from a growing individualism and self-centeredness. He urges us to lead a noble life, a life in which one is able to place the Other before himself, not as a choice but as his primary obligation. Therefore I wish to emphasise that ‘the Levinasian Subject’ as a beacon of hope from which we can draw inspiration for an authentic living.


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