Emanuelis Levinas (later adapted to French orthography as Emmanuel Levinas) received a traditional Jewish education in Lithuania. After WWII, he studied the Talmud under the enigmatic "Monsieur Chouchani", whose influence he acknowledged only late in his life.
Levinas began his philosophical studies at Strasbourg University in 1924, where he began his lifelong friendship with the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. In 1928, he went to Freiburg University to study phenomenology under Edmund Husserl. At Freiburg he also met Martin Heidegger. Levinas became one of the very first French intellectuals to draw attention to Heidegger and Husserl, by translating Husserl's Cartesian Meditations and by drawing on their ideas in his own philosophy, in works such as his The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology, , and .
According to his obituary in New York Times, Levinas came to regret his enthusiasm for Heidegger, because of the latter's affinity for the Nazis. During a lecture on forgiveness, Levinas stated "One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger."
After earning his doctorate Levinas taught at a private Jewish High School in Paris, the École Normale Israélite Orientale, eventually becoming its director. He began teaching at the University of Poitiers in 1961, at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris in 1967, and at the Sorbonne in 1973, from which he retired in 1979. He was also a Professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. In 1989 he was awarded the Balzan Prize for Philosophy.
Among his most famous students is Rabbi Baruch Garzon from Tetouan (Morocco), who learnt Philosophy with Levinas at the Sorbonne and later went on to become one of the most important Rabbis of the Spanish-speaking world.
In the 1950s, Levinas emerged from the circle of intellectuals surrounding Jean Wahl as a leading French thinker. His work is based on the ethics of the Other or, in Levinas' terms, on "ethics as first philosophy". For Levinas, the Other is not knowable and cannot be made into an object of the self, as is done by traditional metaphysics (which Lévinas called "ontology"). Lévinas prefers to think of philosophy as the "wisdom of love" rather than the love of wisdom (the literal Greek meaning of the word "philosophy"). By his lights, ethics becomes an entity independent of subjectivity to the point where ethical responsibility is integral to the subject; hence an ethics of responsibility precedes any "objective searching after truth".
Levinas derives the primacy of his ethics from the experience of the encounter with the Other. For Levinas, the irreducible relation, the epiphany, of the face-to-face, the encounter with another, is a privileged phenomenon in which the other person's proximity and distance are both strongly felt. "The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.". At the same time, the revelation of the face makes a demand, this demand is before one can express, or know one's freedom, to affirm or deny. One instantly recognizes the transcendence and heteronomy of the Other. Even murder fails as an attempt to take hold of this otherness.
In Levinas's later thought following "Totality and Infinity", he argued that our responsibility for the other is already rooted within our subjective constitution. It should be noted that the first line of the preface of this book is "everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality." This can be seen most clearly in his later account of recurrence (chapter 4 in "Otherwise Than Being"), where Levinas maintained that subjectivity is formed in and through our subjected-ness to the other. Subjectivity, Levinas argued, is primordially ethical, not theoretical: that is to say, our responsibility for the other is not a derivative feature of our subjectivity, but instead, founds our subjective being-in-the-world by giving it a meaningful direction and orientation. Levinas's thesis "ethics as first philosophy", then, means that the traditional philosophical pursuit of knowledge is but a secondary feature of a more basic ethical duty to the other. To meet the Other is to have the idea of Infinity
The elderly Levinas was a distinguished French public intellectual, whose books reportedly sold well. He had a major impact on the young Jacques Derrida, a fellow French Jew whose seminal Writing and Difference contains an essay, "Violence and Metaphysics", on Levinas. Derrida also delivered a eulogy at Lévinas's funeral, later published as Adieu à Emmanuel Levinas, an appreciation and exploration of Levinas's moral philosophy.
Levinas became a naturalized French citizen in 1930. When France declared war on Germany, he was ordered to report for military duty. During the German invasion of France in 1940, his military unit was quickly surrounded and forced to surrender. Levinas spent the rest of World War II as a prisoner of war in a camp near Hannover in Germany. Lévinas was assigned to a special barrack for Jewish prisoners, who were forbidden any forms of religious worship. Life in the camp was as difficult as might be expected, with Levinas often forced to chop wood and do other menial tasks. Other prisoners saw him frequently jotting in a notebook. These jottings became his book De l'Existence à l'Existent (1947) and a series of lectures published under the title Le Temps et l'Autre (1948).
Meanwhile, Maurice Blanchot helped Levinas' wife and daughter spend the war in a monastery, thus sparing them from the Holocaust. Blanchot, at considerable personal risk, also saw to it that Levinas was able to keep in contact with his immediate family through letters and other messages. Other members of Levinas' family were not so fortunate; his mother-in-law was deported and never heard from again, while his father and brothers were killed in Lithuania by the SS.
A full bibliography of all Levinas' publications up until 1981 is found in Roger Burggraeve Emmanuel Levinas (1982).A list of works, translated into English but not appearing in any collections, may be found in Critchley, S. and Bernasconi, R., (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Levinas (publ. Cambridge UP, 2002), pp. 269—270. Bibliography of English translations of Levinas's writings.
1929. Sur les « Ideen » de M. E. Husserl
1930. La théorie de l'intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl
1931. Der Begriff des Irrationalen als philosophisches Problem (with E.H.Eisenruth)
1931. Fribourg, Husserl et la phénoménologie
1931. Les recherches sur la philosophie des mathématiques en Allemagne, aperçu général (with W.Dubislav)
1931. Méditations Cartésiennes. Introduction à la phénoménologie (with E.Husserl and G.Pfeiffer)
1932. Martin Heidegger et l'ontologie
1934. La présence totale (with Louis Lavelle)
1934. Quelques réflexions sur la philosophie de l'hitlérisme
1935. De l'évasion
1935. La notion du temps (with N.Khersonsky)
1935. L'actualité de Maimonide
1935. L'inspiration religieuse de l'Alliance
1936. Allure du transcendental (with Georges Bénézé)
1936. Esquisses d'une énergétique mentale (with J.Duflo)
1936. Fraterniser sans se convertir
1936. Les aspects de l'image visuelle (with R.Duret)
1936. L'esthétique française contemporaine (with V.Feldman)
1936. L'individu dans le déséquilibre moderne (with R.Munsch)
1936. Valeur (with Georges Bénézé)
1947. De l'Existence à l'Existent. (Existence and Existents)
1948. Le Temps et l'Autre. (Time and the Other)
1949. En Découvrant l’Existence avec Husserl et Heidegger.
1961. Totalité et Infini: essai sur l'extériorité. (Totality and Infinity)
1962. De l'Évasion
1963 & 1976. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism
1968. Quatre lectures talmudiques
1972. Humanisme de l'autre homme (Humanism of the Other)
1974. Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence. (Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence)
“A Language Familiar to Us”. Telos 44 (Summer 1980). New York: Telos Press.
1976. Sur Maurice Blanchot
1976. Noms propres
1977. Du Sacré au saint — cinq nouvelles lectures talmudiques
1980. Le Temps et l'Autre
1982. L'Au-delà du verset : lectures et discours talmudiques
1982. Of God Who Comes to Mind
1982. Ethique et infini (dialogues of Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Nemo)
1984. Transcendence et intelligibilité
1988. A l'Heure des nations
1991. Entre Nous
1995. Altérité et transcendence ("Alterity and Transcendence")
Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak, Robert Bernasconi & Simon Critchley, Emmanuel Levinas (1996)
Simon Critchley & Robert Bernasconi (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Levinas (2002)
Theodore De Boer, The Rationality of Transcendence: Studies in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1997.
Roger Burggraeve, The Wisdom of Love in the Service of Love: Emmanuel Levinas on Justice, Peace, and Human Rights, trans. Jeffrey Bloechl. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2002.
Roger Burggraeve (ed.) The awakening to the other : a provocative dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas, Leuven: Peeters, 2008
Richard A. Cohen, Ethics, Exegesis and Philosophy: Interpretation After Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Richard A. Cohen, Elevations: The Height of the Good in Rosenzweig and Levinas. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994.
Joseph Cohen, Alternances de la métaphysique. Essais sur Emmanuel Levinas. Paris: Galilée, 2009. [in French]
Simon Critchley, "Emmanuel Levinas: A Disparate Inventory," in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, ed. S. Critchley & R. Bernasconi. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Derrida, Jacques, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Derrida, Jacques, "At This Very Moment in This Work Here I Am," trans. Ruben Berezdivin and Peggy Kamuf, in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Vol. 1, ed. Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth G. Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. 143-90.
Derrida, Jacques, "Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas," in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1978. 79-153.
Michael Eldred, 'Worldsharing and Encounter: Heidegger's ontology and Lévinas' ethics' 2010.