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Levinas's Philosophy of Time

Gift, Responsibility, Diachrony, Hope

by Eric Severson

Publication Year: 2013

Over the course of six decades, Emmanuel Levinas developed a radical understanding of time. Like Martin Heidegger, Levinas saw the everyday experience of synchronous time marked by clocks and calendars as an abstraction from the way time functions more fundamentally. Yet, in a definitive break from Heidegger’s analysis of temporality, by the end of his career Levinas’s philosophy of time becomes the linchpin for his argument that the other person has priority over the self. For Levinas, time is a feature of the self’s encounter with the face, and it is his understanding of time that makes possible his radical claim that ethics is first philosophy. Levinas’s Philosophy of Time takes a chronological approach to examine Levinas’s deliberations on time, noting along the way the ways in which his account is informed by aspects of Judaism and by other thinkers: Rosenzweig, Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger. The progression in Levinas’s account, Severson argues, moves through his viewing time as a gift or a responsibility in earlier works and culminates in the groundbreaking expressions of his later works in which he rests his resounding philosophy of radical responsibility on an understanding of time as diachrony. Further, by focusing on this progression in Levinas’s thought, Severson brings new insight to a number of aspects in Levinas studies that have consistently troubled readers, including the differences between his early and later writings, his controversial invocation of the feminine, and the blurry line between philosophy and religion in his work. Finally, drawing on Levinas’s own acknowledgment that significant work remained to be done on the concept of time, Severson considers the problems and benefits of Levinas’s understanding of time and ultimately suggests some possibilities for thinking about time after Levinas. In particular, he reconsiders Levinas’s account of the feminine and gender, identifies an implicit “fourth person” that functions behind the scenes of Levinas’s work, and highlights the concept of hope in both a future justice and the possibility of a restoration that is not egocentric but for-the-other.

Published by: Duquesne University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-13

What is philosophy? The study of philosophy had little appeal to me until I read Totality and Infinity and was summoned by Levinas to consider the origins of philosophy in the face of the other person. In this sense, philosophy is merely fumbling for language to describe an encounter that is underway before I am even conscious of the...

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pp. 1-4

Time has mesmerized and perplexed philosophers since prehistory. In the last century, the notion of time has received particularly intense reconsideration, and it plays a substantial role in the development of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995). However, in the scholarly field surrounding his work...

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One: Time, in the Beginning

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pp. 5-38

The earliest of Levinas’s writings indicate his awareness that the next step for philosophy involves a reconsideration of the concept of time. The briefest of glances at Levinas’s biography and bibliography indicate that he was quite familiar with the work of Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl, even before his famous encounter with...

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Two: The Freedom and Horror of the Instant

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pp. 39-75

We can only guess at the significance of this reality: Levinas’s first book-length contribution to philosophy, Existence and Existents (1947), was largely written and conceived while he was in captivity.1 We should not be surprised, therefore, at the raw and haunting images that Levinas now combines with familiar...

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Three: From Darkness to the Other

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pp. 76-107

In a note to himself, probably written in 1942 in the Nazi stalag, Levinas outlined some of the philosophical work he had in front of him. The top three items on this note were “1. Being and Nothingness, 2. Time, 3. Rosenzweig.”1 While Levinas desired to engage Sartre’s work prior to publishing...

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Four: The Recession of Time

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pp. 108-140

The 1950s present a fascinating turn in the development of Levinas’s unique philosophy of time. Returning to Jacques Derrida’s analogy that compares Levinas’s thought to waves crashing higher on the shore, we might say that the tide recedes for nearly a decade in terms of Levinas’s development of his concept...

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Five: Between Four Walls

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pp. 141-178

Levinas asks in the preface of his own book, “Can one speak of a book as though one had not written it, as though one were its first critic?” (TI 29). Answering this question in the affirmative, the preface to Totality and Infinity presents both a first reading and an initial critique...

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Six: Time in Transition

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pp. 179-227

There is a stark difference between Totality and Infinity (1961) and Levinas’s second major work, Otherwise than Being (1974). One need only spend a few minutes with Otherwise than Being to discover that obligation is being configured in even more radical and extreme language. Shocking metaphors...

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Seven: Diachrony and Narration

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pp. 228-266

We have seen the next wave of Levinas’s thought approach from afar, moving through the signs of its beginnings in the works that lead up to Otherwise than Being. Having devoted so much attention to the beginnings of this movement, one would think that Levinas’s second major book could no longer...

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Eight: The Time of Restoration

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pp. 267-302

Despite the radical reconsiderations of time that are evident in Otherwise than Being and other late essays by Levinas, we have ample reason to suppose that he still felt there was significant work to be accomplished on the concept of time. The deformalization of time, which Levinas saw underway...


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pp. 303-340


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pp. 341-358


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pp. 359-372

Back Cover

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p. 386-386

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705910
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704623

Publication Year: 2013