This year in France is a “Levinas Year.” The French philosopher was born in Lithuania in 1906 and died in 1995, just a few weeks short of his ninetieth birthday. There is something perversely appropriate about the commemorative sequence. In many respects Emmanuel Levinas was the anti-Sartre. Like the author of Being and Nothingness, he was enamored of German philosophy. And like Sartre, Levinas viewed himself as an heir to the phenomenological method conceived by Edmund Husserl and consummated by Martin Heidegger. But that’s more or less where the similarities end. It would not be an exaggeration to describe Levinas’s entire philosophical endeavor as a machine de guerre directed against Sartrean existential humanism. With Sartre, it is the “For-Itself,” or consciousness, that constitutes philosophy’s Archimedean vantage point. For Levinas, conversely, it is the “Other,” l’Autrui, in all its uncanny metaphysical strangeness.
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