Emmanuel Levinas, 90, French Ethical Philosopher A thinker who placed ethics in the foreground of his system. 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 knowledge.
"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 dialogue.
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,