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Emmanuel Levinas

From: John Young <jya@pipeline.com>
Date: Thu, 28 Dec 1995 19:14:47 -0500
Subject: Levinas' death

   The New York Times, December 27, 1995

   Emmanuel Levinas, 90, French Ethical Philosopher

      A thinker who placed ethics in the foreground of his

   By Peter Steinfels

   Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher and religious thinker who
   made ethical responsibility for "the Other" the bedrock of
   his philosophical analyses, died of heart failure in Paris
   on Monday. He would have been 90 within a few days.

   His thought influenced several generations of French
   philosophers and, bolstered by his reflections on the
   Talmud, won an admiring readership among Jewish and
   Christian theologians, among them Pope John Paul II, who
   often praised and quoted his work.

   Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, of Jewish parents who spoke both
   Yiddish and Russian at home, the young scholar went to
   France in 1923 at the age of 17 to study at the University
   of Strasbourg. In 1928-29 he studied under Edmund Husseri
   and Martin Heidegger at the University of Freiburg.

   Over the next few years, he introduced the ideas of both
   German thinkers to France -- first in a doctoral
   dissertation, published in 1930 on the theory of intuition  
   in Husserl's phenomenology, then in a French translation of
   Husserl's "Cartesian Meditations" and finally in a 1932
   essay on Heidegger.

   Dr. Levinas's own philosophy began to emerge after World
   War II. His family in Lithuania died in the Holocaust,
   while he, by then a French citizen and soldier, did forced
   labor as a prisoner of war in Germany and his wife and
   daughter hid in a French monastery.

   Like Husserl and Heidegger, Dr. Levinas rejected
   philosophy's traditional preoccupation with metaphysical
   questions about being and epistemological questions about
   how we know. And like them, he rejected attempts at grand
   abstract systems of explanation.

   He later came to regret his enthusiasm for Heidegger, after
   the German philosopher's accommodation to Nazism. In
   commenting on a discussion of forgiveness in the Talmud, he
   wrote: "One can forgive many Germans, but there are some
   Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to
   forgive Heidegger."   

   Dr. Levinas's alternative to traditional approaches was a
   philosophy that made personal ethical responsibility to
   others the starting point and primary focus for philosophy,
   rather than a secondary reflection that followed
   explorations of the nature of existence and the validity of

   "Ethics precedes ontology" (the study of being) is a phrase
   often used to sum up his stance. Instead of the thinking
   "I" epitomized in "I think, therefore I am" -- the phrase
   with which Rene Descartes launched much of modern
   philosophy -- Dr. Levinas began with an ethical "I." For
   him, even the self is possible only with its recognition of
   "the Other," a recognition that carries responsibility
   toward what is irreducibly different.

   Knowledge, for Dr. Levinas must be preceded by an ethical
   reiationship. It is a line of thought similar to Martin
   Buber's idea of "I and thou," but with the emphasis on a
   relationship of respect and responsibility for the other
   person rather than a relationship of mutuality and

   The French philosopher's critique of other philosophical
   currents linked him with French post-modernist thought.
   Although his major work, "Totality and Infinity," was
   published in France in 1961, it was an essay about him by
   Jacques Derrida that brought him a larger audience.

   At the same time, the strict emphasis on ethical duty to
   "the Other," as well as his commitment to Judaism, his
   resort to religious language and his many commentaries on
   passages from the Talmud and from the Bible separate Dr.
   Levinas from currents of post-modernism often viewed as
   radically skeptical or nihilistic.

   Rabbi Leon Klenicki praised the French philosopher's
   "search for the meaning of Judaism after Auschwitz." He
   "was able to unite Talmudic wisdom and phenomenology in a
   unique contribution," said Rabbi Klenicki, a leading
   participant in dialogues between Jews and Christians.

   Dr. Levinas was born on Jan. 12, 1906, under the calendar       
   then in use in Lithuania, but in France he celebrated his
   birthday, using the Western calendar, on Dec. 30. His
   father owned a bookshop. The family moved to Ukraine when
   World War I broke out but returned to Lithuania after the
   Russian Revolution. The future philosopher, who had also
   learned to read in Hebrew, graduated from the Jewish
   Russian-language lyceum there.

   In France, after earning his doctorate, he taught at the
   Ecole Normale Israelite Orientale in Paris, a school for
   Jewish students, many from traditional backgrounds. After
   the war he became director of the school until 1961, when
   he took a position at the University of Poitiers, followed
   by one at the Nanterre branch of the University of Paris in
   1967 and finally one at the Sorbonne in 1973.

   He retired in 1979 and devoted himself to writing books
   that, according to the French daily paper Liberation,
   sometimes sold as many as 200,000 copies.

   His writings were filled with strikingly phrased insights
   and with key terms and concepts -- reflections, for  
   example, on the "face of the other," or on "exteriority" or
   "moral proximity" -- that reverberated in other
   philosophers' writings.

   He made some assertions, for instance, about "the
   masculine" and "the feminine," that stirred criticism.

   Liberation termed him "a man of four cultures": Jewish,
   Russian German and French. The World Jewish Congress hailed
   him as a philosopher who "never ceased to pursue his quest
   for a world morality following the Holocaust."

   He is survived by his wife, Raissa, a musician originally
   from Vienna, whom he married in 1932. They had a daughter,
   Simone Hansel, and a son, Michael.