chapter  22
11 Pages

Emmanuel Levinas


In recent years, the philosophical thought of Emmanuel Levinas has found its way into international relations scholarship and related fields. Levinas’ unique, radical views on the ethical relation have earned his ideas of ‘the Other’ and ‘the Face’ immediate recognition among critical theorists across the social sciences. The aim of this chapter is to introduce Levinas’ philosophy of ethics, and to consider some of the questions that arise when that ethics is translated into political practice. The chapter will then turn to look at some of the key international relations and related scholarship that draws on Levinasian thought, and to demonstrate how Levinas informs contemporary work in ethics and international politics. Born in Lithuania in 1906, Levinas’ intellectual and personal life was

conditioned by his Jewish background – both as it informed his own cultural experience and as it was affected by the anti-Semitism of his time. He received a traditional Talmudic education and was also influenced by the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. As a child in 1915, he was deported in a mass expulsion of Jews from Lithuania. His family settled in Ukraine, where he experienced the anti-Semitic pogroms of the era. When the new Soviet government lifted the expulsion order in 1920, the Levinas family returned to Lithuania. Levinas left home to attend the University of Strasbourg, and later moved on to the University of Freiburg, where he studied under Husserl and Heidegger. During this time, Levinas pursued the study of phenomenology – a branch of philosophy concerned with the individual’s experience of the world. When the Second World War began, Levinas served as an interpreter for the French Army. He was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940 and spent the remainder of the war in a labour camp. His family in Lithuania perished in the Holocaust, while his wife and daughter in France were hidden in a monastery with the help of longtime friend and philosopher, Maurice Blanchot. At the war’s end, Levinas taught philosophy at the École Normale Israélite Orientale, where he completed Totality and Infinity. He took up a professorship at the University of Poitiers, and then at the University of Paris, Nanterre. In 1973, he moved on to the Sorbonne, where he completed one of his most important works, Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence (Ajzenstat 2001: 3). On his death in 1995,

Jacques Derrida announced that Levinas’ work on ethics ‘will have changed the course of philosophical reflection in our time’ (Derrida 1999: 4).