Friday, January 12, 2007

Otherness


Philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas, whose most original work focused on the ethical implications of one's experience of the Other (Time and the Other, 1948; Ethics and Infinity, 1982), was born on this day in 1906 in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Levinas grew up in a Jewish family at the confluence of the rich cultural currents of Lithuania just after the beginning of the 20th century: since Lithuania was a center of Talmudic scholarship, yet strongly within the orbit of Russia, Levinas read Lithuanian, Hebrew and Russian (in particular Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy). His experience of Russian literature led him to Strasbourg to study under Charles Blondel, but soon, by way of Bergson and Proust, Levinas became attracted to Husserl's lectures in Freiburg, and studied Heidegger's Being and Time (although later regretted being taken up by it).

Receiving French citizenship in 1930, he served in the French Army during World War II as a Russian and German interpreter, but was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany while most of his family in Lithuania were killed by the Nazis. After the War, he began to devote himself to philosophy, ultimately with a chair at the Sorbonne.

His philosophical works (Totality and Infinity, 1961; Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence, 1974) mainly concerned the experience of Otherness (alterity) and the ethical experience inherent in the recognition of a relationship with the Other. For Levinas, the conscious self is by definition separate and apart from the fact of being -- the "there is" -- while the unconscious self is completely united with the "there is," and therefore oblivious to it. For the conscious self, then, "there is" represents a deeply frightening ambiguity; but it is only in the epiphany of this horror, and the recognition of an Other's being, that the conscious self is challenged into developing a sense of justice and responsibility for the Other. A concept of Self is, indeed, only possible through a recognition of the Other, according to Levinas, and so it is common to say that ethics precedes ontology in his thought.

In addition to his works of ethical philosophy, Levinas also published a series of confessional writings, often concerned with Judaism after the Holocaust and intertwined with commentaries on the Talmud, in which he famously observed while discussing the concept of forgiveness, "One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger."

Levinas died on December 25, 1995 in Paris.

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