Emmanuel Levinas


June 4, 2020
What does Levinas consider to be the relative strengths (and weaknesses) of Phenomenology?; and how does his own philosophical perspective differ from that of Husserl and Heidegger?

By Roy Hornsby

The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl entails the meticulous study of lived experience from which the essential and universal truths of all experience can be derived. This phenomenological method allows the consciousness to recognize an intentionality that can allow objects to emerge meaningfully. Rather than being seen as pure cogito the human experience can now be seen to continually lead toward something in the real world. The relationship between logical judgement and perceptual experience is revealed and “Truth and meaning are generated.”[1] Martin Heidegger rejected some of the central features of Husserl’s phenomenology whilst retaining and building upon the notion of it. In his work “Being and Time” Heidegger discards the idea that purely conscious states of objects can be examined through isolation and shifts the attention from the existence of beings to our very understanding of Being.  Emmanuel Levinas was indebted to the work of both Husserl and Heidegger and to the phenomenology of this time as it was most influential upon his own work (Hand 1989). The purpose of this paper is to examine Levinas’s position with regard to phenomenology and further, to discuss how his own philosophical perspective differed from that of both Husserl and Heidegger.

Levinas considered that the phenomenological method taught the philosopher to meet the world head-on while radically questioning the manner in which that world is presented and that this was its principal and abiding contribution. Both Ricoeur and Sartre acknowledged that Levinas played an important part in the discovery and dissemination of phenomenology within France, but it was also Levinas who was instrumental in the dismantling of its prestige (Davis 1996).

In his dialogue with Richard Kearney (1986), Levinas stated that Husserl’s phenomenology was a methodological disclosure of how we come to understand meaning and how that meaning emerges in our conscious and deliberate relationship with the world. Levinas said;

“The phenomenological method enables us to discover meaning within our lived experience; it reveals consciousness to be an intentionality always in contact with objects outside of itself other than itself. Human experience is not some self-transparent substance or pure cogito; it is always intending towards something in the world that preoccupies it. The phenomenological method permits consciousness to understand its own preoccupations, to reflect upon itself and thus discover all the hidden or neglected horizons of its intentionality.”[2]

Levinas maintained that it is through phenomenology that we learn that our consciousness, while being tied to its object of experience is able to detach itself from this object and return upon itself and focus on relationships of intentionality, at which point the object itself becomes apparent as a meaningful part of our lived experience (Levinas 1986).

Through Husserl, Levinas discovered a method of philosophical investigation that relied upon neither dogma nor muddled presentiment that became the basis of his own intellectual undertaking. Levinas continually quoted and discussed Husserl’s main texts and ideas and although he came to discard many ideas at the core of Husserl’s work, Levinas never fully abandoned the phenomenological method. Both Husserl and Heidegger characterised the philosophical originality of phenomenology through the slogan ‘Back to the things themselves’, but found that returning to the things themselves was more difficult than they had expected. Husserl aimed to provide a stable philosophical underpinning for the natural sciences by reflecting upon the role of observing consciousness in the structure of the observed world. According to Husserl, only apodictic[3] knowledge is completely secure and even then it must be reflected upon for, as Descartes had suggested, the evidence of the senses can be misleading. Intentionality, which plays a significant part in Levinas’s analysis and critique of phenomenology, declares that “all consciousness is conscious of something, that all mental acts (for example perception or memory) have an object.” [4] But even though intentionality implies an association beyond the self it does not give it apodictic certainty (Davis 1996).

Husserl followed a process of phenomenological reduction (epoché) which he compared to Cartesian doubt and declared that apodictic certainty can only come about if everything that can be doubted can be bracketed off. This meant that the return to the things themselves begins by putting into doubt the existence of the very things to which it aims to return. Husserl aimed to leave only consciousness itself by including the bracketing off of the existence of the external world and, significantly, the existence of all other consciousnesses. For Husserl, it is possible to be conscious of an object whilst still doubting the objective existence of that object without doubting the reality of ones own consciousness.  The epoché discloses a transcendental Ego which is not a part of the objective natural order but signifies the knowable world through intentional acts. So, for Husserl “consciousness is primary and absolute and the transcendental Ego is the first apodictic certainty from which all others must be derived.”[5] (Davis 1996).

Getting back to the things themselves inevitably involves reflection about the ways in which the Ego observes and encounters those things as the object of attention cannot be separated from the consciousness that intends it. As this line of thinking could easily lead to the belief that only oneself and ones own experience exists, (solipsism), Husserl demonstrated a further epoché which he called a ‘reduction of transcendental experience to the sphere of ownness’. This was an even more radical reduction than the first which Husserl said would reveal the apodicticity of not only other egos but the external world as well. In revealing what is firstly and unquestionably ‘mine’ this second reduction now attempts to dispose of all hypotheses regarding other subjects. Through these processes, the phenomenologist determines a level of experience that cannot be further reduced and discovers that the transcendental Ego possesses a body which interacts with the physical world, a world in which is inhabited by creatures which are similar to itself (Davis 1996).

For Levinas, Husserl’s main achievement was the liberation of philosophy from the stranglehold of naturalist epistemology through his re-thinking of the notion of the phenomenon. Levinas insisted that phenomenology is a philosophy of freedom and tended to ignore any conflicts that may arise when the intentions of a consciousness come upon a potentially hostile world. However, at an early stage in Levinas’s thinking he did present two avenues of criticism with Husserl’s ideas. Firstly, Levinas was critical of Husserl’s reflexive and contemplative consciousness as revealed through phenomenological reduction, placing historicity and temporality not as the very conditions of the transcendental Ego but as secondary properties. Secondly, and with time, more significantly, Levinas alluded to problems of intersubjectivity and the existence of other minds posed by the theory of the transcendental Ego (Davis 1996).

Levinas acknowledged that his reading of Husserl was heavily influenced by Heidegger and portrayed Husserl as laying the groundwork for Heidegger’s work. Accordingly, Levinas searched for those traces in Husserl’s writings that anticipated Heidegger’s transformation of phenomenology (Davis 1996). Levinas said that Heidegger’s philosophy, “completely altered the course and character of European philosophy.” And that “Being and Time, which is much more significant and profound than any of Heidegger’s later works, represents the fruition and flowering of Husserlian phenomenology.” [6]

Heidegger provided Levinas with a way of understanding Beings and beings, represented by the fact that they are always engaged in time and history. Levinas finds in Heidegger a philosophy completely immersed in the world, in experience, facticity and desire. Because Being is characterized as the mode of existence of beings by Heidegger, phenomenology and ontology were no longer in conflict and Being is that which beings understand and seek to know (Davis 1996).

However, Heidegger’s inquiry into Being was through the analysis of Dasein, (Being-in-the-World), and the underlying principle of Dasein is that it is the only being for whom Being is an issue. The Being of Dasein relates to itself with an elemental characteristic referred to as ‘mineness’, the way in which each person is responsible for their own self fashioning with individuals acting in accordance with the situation in which they find themselves to the exclusion of others. For Heidegger, the self understands the other as another self. Levinas became critical of this procedure of Heidegger’s because it reduced reality to what it can appropriate for the use of Dasein. In opposition to what he called this “egology”, Levinas contended that we are confronted with an incomprehensible something that challenges the independence of our actions. That something, he argues is the “Other” or, the moral relationship that we have with another person. Because the nature of the Other is totally beyond our understanding, our methodology cannot attempt to understand it, even though our very own subjectivity is “grounded” in this association with the Other. The argument that Levinas put forward was that it is only through ethical language that this transcendence can be articulated and, importantly, any understanding of reality must emerge from within the acceptance of a radical responsibility for the Other (Furrow 1995).

Levinas’s analytical engagement with phenomenology diverged during the nineteen thirties and forties. He developed his own unique positions which were indebted to his teachers but at the same time departed from them. Levinas undertook detailed critiques of Husserlian phenomenology and the premises of Heideggerian ontology. By 1940 Levinas doubted that “intentionality can ensure the self-transcendence of consciousness through the encounter with something other than itself: as conscious of something”[7] and be a mode of contact with the external world. Levinas believed that the intentional object lay outside of the subject, but he was equally adamant that intentionality created a monadic subject that is closed in upon itself and sealed off from the outside world and discerning only those meanings that it itself has created (Davis 1996).

Levinas was afraid that if meaning was given solely by the subject instead of originating in the world, “then consciousness cannot experience, perceive or learn anything that it did not already contain.”[8] He was concerned that the consciousness should encounter something other than itself, but he was aware that the theory of intentionality may preclude the consciousness from ever meeting anything that is truly alien to itself if the external world is a product of its own activity (Davis 1996).

Levinas also discovered the contradiction that while phenomenology was predicated on the privilege of presence there is an implication that that presence is initially split and never possessed completely. It followed for Levinas that if an object is not present to itself then it would not easily be re-presented to a transcendental Ego with an insecure self-presence. In 1959 Levinas wrote,

“Phenomenology is a destruction of the representation of the theoretical object. It denounces the contemplation of the object – (which, however, it seems to have encouraged) – as an abstraction, as a partial vision of Being, as a forgetting, one might say in modern terms, of its truth.” [9]

For Levinas, because the object can never be completely and impartially encountered as it is, it can never be re-presented to the subject (Davis 1996).

Heidegger’s individual Dasein was called back from its lostness in the ‘they’ into the lone undertaking of an accurate retrieval of its past, and a prognosis of the potential of its future. Individual Dasein is concerned with its life as a whole because of its concern with its eventual demise as Being-toward-death, the one possibility that summons a person to take responsibility for their own existence. Heidegger contended that one must recognize ones own finitude to be able to live authentically and that ones possibilities cannot be shared. Thus, for Heidegger, social relationships play no part in the solitary condition which is the self actualization process (Furrow 1995). However, Levinas does not view death in this way. He does not see death as the proof of ‘mineness’, but that the proper ethical reaction would be to view it as the death of the other and so recognize the limits of the possible in suffering (Hand 1989). Levinas wrote,

“Death in Heidegger is an event of freedom, whereas for me the subject seems to reach the limit of the possible in suffering. It finds itself enchained, over-whelmed, and in some way passive. Death is in this sense the limit of idealism.”[10]

For Levinas, death is that which lies irretrievably beyond experience, cannot be seen known or comprehended and it marks “the end of the subject’s virility and heroism”[11]

For Levinas, Heidegger’s Dasein and Husserl’s transcendental Ego are fundamentally solitary, but this solitude is broken by death because there is the likelihood of an encounter with something outside of the self.  The onset of death indicates to the subject that an event is about to take place that is totally alien and that evades the dominion of intentionality and the understanding of Being. Levinas wrote,

“This approach of death indicates that we are in relation with something that is absolutely other, something bearing alterity not as a provisional determination we can assimilate through enjoyment, but as something whose very existence is made of alterity. My solitude is thus not confirmed by death but broken by it.”[12]

Levinas maintained that the Other is established by alterity and is not another self, it is not knowable and consequently not compliant to the knowledge claims of the phenomenologists, and upsets the self enclosed totality of a world portrayed as harmonious and in communion (Davis 1996).

Levinas saw the social relation as not being constituted by a shared understanding or common interests, and he did not understand autonomy to be a conscious disconnection from this social perspective. Accordingly, there was an unmediated relationship between the absolute alterity of the other person and the total passivity of the self (Davis 1996). Levinas rejected the synthesizing of phenomena in favour of a thought that is open to the face of the other. The face signifies the philosophical precedence of the existent over Being and creates an uneven indebtedness on the part of one person towards the moral summons of the Other. This is not a summons that is based upon prior knowledge but on the right of the other to exist and, importantly, on the edict that “Thou shalt not kill” (Hand 1989). Levinas said,

“Responsibility for the other, this way of answering without a prior commitment, is human fraternity itself, and it is prior to freedom. The face of the other in proximity, which is more than representation, is an unrepresentable trace, the way of the infinite.”[13]

For Levinas, the foundation of social reality is the tangible naked presence of another human face, the recognition of otherness, but without any regard for social standing, capability, appearance etc. that would draw the Other into the influence of a shared understanding. What secures the relationship between self and Other is the complete difference between the two, because the Other is what I myself am not (Furrow 1995). As a consequence, to be oneself is to be for the other (Hand 1989).

To Levinas, both Husserl and Heidegger seemed at first to have presented philosophy with systems that enabled investigation of experiential relationships to meaning, subjectivity and Being enabling a new direction for philosophy. But over time Levinas began to see that their advances were associated with a failure to think outside of the traditional lines of philosophy (Davis 1996). Levinas is critical of Heidegger for not escaping the Greek language of intelligibility and presence. Additionally, although Heidegger presaged the end of a metaphysics of presence, he sustained the notion of being as a coming-into-presence and didn’t appear to be able to break away from the dominion of the presence that he condemned. Levinas maintained, against Heidegger, that philosophy could be ethical as well as ontological, and could be at the one time Greek and non-Greek in its inspiration (Levinas 1986).

Levinas’s dissatisfaction with phenomenology developed into a criticism of western philosophy for its failure to think of the Other as Other. Levinas wrote,

“Western philosophy coincides with the unveiling of the other in which the Other, by manifesting itself as a being, loses its alterity. Philosophy is afflicted, from its childhood, with an insurmountable allergy: a horror of the Other which remains the Other. It is for this reason that philosophy is essentially the philosophy of Being: the comprehension of Being is its final word and the fundamental structure of man.”[14]

He compared philosophy to the story of Ulysses who “through all his wanderings only returns to his native island” [15] but preferred the story of Abraham, “To the myth of Ulysses returning to Ithaca, we would like to oppose the story of Abraham leaving his country for ever to go to a still unknown land and forbidding his servant to take even his son back to this point of departure.”[16] According to Davis (1996) it was Levinas’s enterprise to take philosophy to other than the familiar ground of Being, Truth and the Same, and to make it receptive to an engagement with what had hitherto been suppressed. Davis (1996), continues that the problem of the Other has been posed incorrectly; rather than looking for knowledge of it (and thereby reducing its otherness), what needs to be recognized “is that we do not, cannot and should not know the other.”[17]

Levinas admitted that his method was not phenomenological to the end when he explained a situation where his dialectic is accomplished. He wrote,

“The relationship with the Other, the face-to-face with the Other, the encounter with a face that at once gives and conceals the Other, is the situation in which an event happens to a subject who does not assume it, who is utterly unable in its regard, but where none the less in a certain way it is in front of the subject. The other ‘assumed’ is the Other.”[18]

Levinas spent a quarter of a century studying Husserl and Heidegger as well as laying the ground work for a critique of phenomenology. In doing so he isolated the ethical gap required in the suppression of the Other. Levinas urged us to think along the existential plane and to recall that we have an ethical responsibility that pre-exists us. In addition, he urged us to recall that ethics are trans-mundane and that the ethical relationship should occur prior to moralities. Levinas asked us to remember the ‘human-qua-human’ instead of the ‘human-qua-citizen’.

[1] In Hand, S. 1989, 'Introduction' in The Levinas Reader, ed Hand, S., Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford,

p 2.

[2] In Levinas, E. 1986, 'Dialogue With Emmanuel Levinas' in Face to Face With Levinas, p 14.

[3] Apodictic, (Gk – showing what to prove). Necessarily true or provable or possessing certainty beyond dispute.

[4] In Davis, C. 1996, Levinas: An Introduction, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, p 10.

[5] Ibid., p 11.

[6] In Levinas, E. 1986, 'Dialogue With Emmanuel Levinas' in Face to Face With Levinas, p 15.

[7] In Davis, C. 1996, Levinas: An Introduction, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, pp 18-19.

[8] In Ibid. p 19.

[9] In Levinas, E. 1974, En decouvrant l'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger, Vrin, Paris.p 114, as cited in Davis, C. 1996, Levinas: An Introduction, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, p 20.

[10] In Levinas, E. 1989b, 'Time and the Other' in The Levinas Reader, Cohen, R. (trans), ed Hand, S., Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, p 41.

[11] Ibid., p 41.

[12] Ibid., p 43.

[13] In Levinas, E. 1989a, 'Substitution' in The Levinas Reader, Lingis, A. (trans), ed Hand, S., Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, p 106.

[14] In Levinas, E. 1974, En decouvrant l'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger, Vrin, Paris, p 188 as cited in Davis, C. 1996, Levinas: An Introduction, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, p 32.

[15] Ibid., p 188, as cited in Ibid., p 33.

[16] Ibid., p 191, as cited in Ibid., p 33.

[17] In Davis, C. 1996, Levinas: An Introduction, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, p 33.

[18] In Levinas, E. 1989b, 'Time and the Other' in The Levinas Reader, Cohen, R. (trans), ed Hand, S., Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, p 45.


Davis, C. 1996, Levinas: An Introduction, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.

Furrow, D. 1995, 'Levinas: Ethics Without Limit' in Against Theory: Continental and Analytic Challenges in Moral Philosophy,

Routledge, New York, pp. 139-160.

Hand, S. 1989, 'Introduction' in The Levinas Reader, ed Hand, S., Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, pp. 1-8.

Levinas, E. 1974, En decouvrant l'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger, Vrin, Paris.

Levinas, E. 1986, 'Dialogue With Emmanuel Levinas' in Face to Face With Levinas, pp. 13-33.

Levinas, E. 1989a, 'Substitution' in The Levinas Reader, Lingis, A. (trans), ed Hand, S., Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, pp. 88-125.

Levinas, E. 1989b, 'Time and the Other' in The Levinas Reader, Cohen, R. (trans), ed Hand, S., Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, pp. 37-58.

Emmanuel Levinas
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