Emmanuel Lévinas

1989 Balzan Prize for Philosophy

For his original contribution to contemporary thought, which reverses the traditional relationship between ethics and metaphysics. Ethics is seen not as a theoretical construction, but as an immediate experience of contact with the “other”, which reveals extraneousness and at the same time the transcendency of God.

Emmanuel Lévinas (1905 – 1995) is universally considered one of the most penetrating and original philosophers. He puts ethics in the foreground of philosophy from which all other philosophical doctrines gain their significance. His influence goes far beyond the French-speaking world and embraces not only universities, but also the general public.

Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1905, he went to study at Strasbourg University in 1923. With his discovery of Husserl he became familiar with the type of philosophical work which induced him to attend Husserl’s lectures in Fribourg (1928/29). As a naturalized Frenchman, he settled in Paris continuing his studies with Gabriel Marcel and Léon Brunschvieg. He confirmed his philosophical reputation with the publication of two masterpieces: De l’existence a l’existant (Paris 1947. 2nd edition 1978) and Le temps et l’autre (Grenoble-Paris 1947, 3rd edition Paris 1983).

The relation between ethics and ontology was to become the main feature of his further works: En découvrant l’existence avec Husserl er Heidegger (Paris 1947, 3rd edition 1974), Totalité et infini: Essai sur l’extériorité (Den Haag 1961, 5th edition 1984), Humanisme de l’autre homme (Montpellier 1972), Autrement qu’ être ou au-delà de l’essence (Den Haag 1974, 1978). Here ethics is not subsidiary to an existential presupposition but finds its identity in the responsibility towards other people which forms the essential and fundamental structure of subjectivity.

The key to Lévinas’ work might be found in the biblical commandments: ‘You shall love your God with all your heart” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. God’s love in its true religious shape is not only revealed through his works on Judaism, but also through his friendly relationship with Catholic philosophers. On the other hand, the concept of “love your neighbour” – which he prefers to interpret as “responsibility towards others “- is the cornerstone on which his rigorously phenomenological analyses are based and leads to his profound and original concept of creating in ethics the transcendental basis for all philosophies.

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