An Introduction to Levinas (Part One)

Emmanuel Levinas

A Commentary on “God and Philosophy”

The writings of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) are difficult, whether in the original French or in translation. I’ve been asked innumerable times where one might begin with him. I don’t recommend starting with his book-length texts, whether Totalité et Infini: essai sur l’extériorité (1961; Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority) or Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence  (1974; Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence). Rather, one might begin with one of his essays. I used to suggest the essay “Philosophy and the idea of the Infinite” as found with commentary in To The Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas by Adriaan Peperzak. I used to think that it was the best, but now I am not so sure. The problem with this essay is that it is from the early middle time of Levinas’s philosophical writing, from 1957.  Totality and Infinity is an expansion of the ideas in that essay, but following a major critique from Jacques Derrida Levinas reformulated the ideas in Otherwise than Being. In my experience many commentators and many of those trying to make use of Levinas have never got past Totality and Infinity to the more nuanced ideas in the later works.

So I’ve now concluded that the best introduction is actually an essay from 1973-1974, published around the same time as Otherwise than Being. The essay is titled “God and Philosophy”. It is a lecture he gave four times in Europe while he was a Professor of Philosophy at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, and when he was in his late sixties. It reflects his mature thought, and is his most direct response to Derrida’s critique. It’s not a long paper, but it is dense. What I would like to do over several posts is put up a bit of text and then offer some comments.

The Priority of Philosophical Discourse, and Ontology
I. “Not to philosophize is still to philosophize.” The philosophical discourse of the West asserts the amplitude of an all-inclusiveness [englobement] or an ultimate comprehension. It compels every other discourse to justify itself before philosophy. Rational theology accepts this vassalage. If, for the benefit of religion, it pulls out some domain over which the supervision [contrale] of philosophy is not exercised, then this domain shall have been, on good grounds, recognized as philosophically unverifiable.

a) Levinas begins the essay in a characteristic way, which is to consider something that is the opinion of someone else  and then demolish it. Thus, the reader should be aware that this first section is NOT what Levinas himself believes.

b) The title of this section denotes the position he wants to critique. He does not believe that philosophical discourse is foundational or prior to all other types of discourse. This is exactly the claim that is often made by philosophers (not so much now, but certainly in the past). While this goes back to Plato and Aristotle and folks who write books about “First Things” it was also characteristic of modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes who wanted to find an Archimedian point of certainty from which he might build knowledge.

c) For Levinas modern philosophy is preeminently Martin Heidegger(1889 -1976), with whom he studied in 1928-1929 in Freiburg, Germany while working on his PhD on Edmund Husserl at the University of Strasbourg. Heidegger’s best known work, Being and Time had just come out, and Levinas devoured it and became known as an interpreter. Heidegger called his approach Fundamental Ontology; “ontology” is simply a word derived from Greek meaning “words about being/existence”, and for Heidegger the interesting thing about human existence is that we are concerned about existence as such (in a way that, presumably, a tree or a turtle is not).  Now, Heidegger a few years later joined the Nazi Party and sought to use fundamental ontology to ground the ideology of the National Socialism. Levinas, a Jew born in Russian Lithuania and a naturalized French citizen, was horrified, and began to question his attitude to Heidegger’s philosophy.

d) The first sentence is attributed to Aristotle (384 BC – 324 BC) and is apparently from an early work called Protrepticus that only exists in fragments. The basic point is that one cannot escape philosophy, understood by Aristotle as a rational investigation of some matter. Even when one does not do philosophy as an explicit subject, one has a philosophy standing behind it. To argue against doing philosophy, one must philosophize. Philosophy, then, is inescapable.

e) However, Levinas is not addressing Aristotle, but Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) who in 1964 published the essay “Violence et metaphysique: Essai sur la pensée d’Emmanuel Levinas” (translated by Alan Bass as “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas” in Writing and Difference (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 79-153.). In his very sympathetic critique Derrida quotes this fragment of Aristotle, arguing that Levinas claims to be leaving Heideggerian ontology in Totality and Infinity, but because of the necessity of expressing his thought in language he is actually unable to remove himself from the grasp of this type of philosophy.

f) Levinas clearly thought long and hard about this critique, and in a series of essays that were eventually recast as Otherwise than Being he tries to describe in  words what is prior to philosophy and meaning; the essay “God and Philosophy” incorporates and summarises this approach.

g) Levinas speaks of “the philosophical discourse of the West”. By this he means philosophy as it was normally taught in the 19th and 20th century, finding its roots in Greek philosophy and continuing with the Rationalists, the Empiricists, Kant, Hegel, Idealism, bouncing off of Nietzsche and down to Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.  He seems to know little about the analytical tradition that dominated the second half of the 20th Century in English speaking world, whether logical positivism or the later Wittgenstein.

h) As he says, philosophy does indeed claim a universal comprehensiveness by virtue of its analysis and standards of rationality. If theology is to be rational, it must submit itself to philosophy. If theology claims a non-rational domain, then philosophy will simply have to be agnostic about those claims.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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