Emmanuel Levinas was born January 12, 1906 in Kaunas, Lithuania. He was the oldest child in a middle class Jewish family and he had two younger brothers. Growing up, Levinas read the Bible in Hebrew. Additionally, Russian was the language of his early education and he was also fluent in German.
In 1914, in the wake of the war, his family emigrated to Karkhov in the Ukraine. In 1920, his family moved back to Lithuania and two years after the country gained independence form the Revolutionary government. Three years later, when he was seventeen, Levinas moved to Strasbourg, France to study philosophy. He studied with French philosopher Maurice Pradines and also, he studied psychology with Charles Blondel and sociology with Maurice Halbwachs. While in France, he met his lifelong friend, Maurice Blanchot. In 1928, he spent a year studying at the University of Freiburg in Germany. While there he attended seminars by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He was influenced by Husserl’s Logical Investigations and afterwards, he became a follower of Heidegger’s Being and Time, which was to have a profound effect in his thinking. In addition, Levinas became influential in France as a result of his translations of Husserl and Heidegger in to French. In the same year, Levinas taught at schools for Jewish students in Paris after completing a doctoral dissertation at the Insitut de France. In 1932, Levinas married Raissa Levi, whom he had known since childhood and later, they had a daughter.
As World War Two broke out, Levinas enlisted in the French officer corps and worked as an interpreter of Russian and German. However, he was captured in 1940 and spent the next five years in a military prisoners camp where he was put into forced labour. His whole family was killed aside from his wife and daughter who had managed to hid in a French monastery. The experience of war and the Nazi horrors caused an increased awareness of his Jewish roots. So, at the age of forty, Levinas sought out Mordachi Chouchani, an amazing Jewish teacher. He instructed Levinas in the ways of the Jewish Talmud and from 1957 onward Levinas started to give lectures on the Talmud for Jewish students in France.
Moreover, after the war, Martin Heidegger’s affiliation with Nazism, led to a crisis in Levinas’s enthusiasm for Heidegger. Consequently, Levinas was forced to question his beliefs and those imposesd upon him.
Levinas’ career after the war was spent at the Alliance Israelite Universelle, where he was appointed the Director. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he started to develop his own philosophy as he became more critical of Heidegger and Western thinking in general. He believed that Western philosophical tradition tended to overcome diversity by grouping everything under an all encompassing unity as opposed to recognizing the singularity of all people. He argued that the singularity of things is what gives each thing its identity and to deny the singularity of things is to deny uniqueness. Moreover, in this uniqueness we see the Goodness in each individual, or God.In essence, it becomes evident that Levinas’s philosophy is a direct result of having his own singularity denied in the Holocaust.
He wanted to go beyond the accepted and ethically neutral conception of ontology and he did this in 1961 by completing his doctoral thesis, Totality and Infinity. This work resulted in Levinas being appointed Professor of Philosophy at Poitiers and then in 1973, at the most prestigious school in Paris, the Sorbonne. His second major work was published in 1974 and since that time more than a dozen books have appeared. He retired in 1976 and died on Christmas day in 1995.http://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/27/world/emmanuel-levinas-90-french-ethical-philosopher.html