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12. LEVINAS’S EARLY WORK ON HUSSERL Phenomenology stands at the beginning of Levinas’s career as a philosopher, and it is therefore of some interest to consider what aspects of Husserlian phenomenology appealed to and affected the future development of his thought. He arrived in Strasburg (from Lithuania) in 1923 at the age of 18. He began by reading (in the original German, as a student at the University of Strasburg ) Husserl’s Logical Investigations, Philosophy as a Rigorous Science and Ideas I. In 1928–29, he went to Freiburg, Germany to study under Husserl and Heidegger. In 1929 he published On Ideas, a synthesis of Husserl’s Ideas I, and he collaborated with a fellow student, Gabrielle Pfeiffer, to translate Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, a series of lectures on phenomenology given at the Sorbonne. Levinas translated (from German to French) the Fourth and Fifth Meditations. The Fifth (and last) Meditation is by far the longest, and contains the problem of how we perceive (or “apperceive,” to use the Husserlian term) “someone else.” The problems surrounding the perception of the other of course became central to Levinas’s philosophy. The Pfeiffer/Levinas translation of Cartesian Meditations was published in 1931, some 20 years before Husserl’s German original. Husserl was not satisfied with it.1 The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology (1930) was Levinas’s thesis at the University of Strasbourg.2 Levinas had studied under Husserl himself in Freiburg, been received in the Husserl household, and given French lessons to Husserl’s wife in exchange for financial help. While clearly an eager and gifted 122 SMITH_F14_122-126 3/1/05 6:06 PM Page 122 student of the founder of phenomenology, his understanding of Husserl was strongly influenced by Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), as has been convincingly demonstrated in a recent study by Jean-François Lavigne.3 Levinas himself expresses what was new and had a lasting importance for him in his first master, Edmund Husserl: I read Logical Investigations very closely, and got the impression of having come upon — not another new speculative construct but new possibilities of thought, a new possibility of moving from one idea to another, other than deduction, induction and the dialectic : a new way of developing “concepts,” beyond Bergson’s call to inspiration in “intuition.” I became aware that the gaze that focuses on a thing is also covered up by that thing, that the object is a blinding abstraction when taken in isolation, that it lets you see less than what it shows by engendering an ambiguous discourse ; and that by turning back to consciousness — to the forgotten lived experience that is “intentional,” i.e. that is enlivened by an intention intending something other than that mimicked lived experience, and that, always the idea of something, opens an horizon of meanings — one discovers the concreteness or the truth in which that abstract object is lodged. The movement from the object to the intention and from the intention to the whole horizon of intentions contained in that intention — that is true thought, and the thought of the true or, if you will, the world of what is given to you in purely objective knowledge. Sometimes I formulate this by saying that one must move from the object to its “mise en scène,” from the object to all the phenomena implied in its appearing.4 The logic of this development may become clearer if we consider that the phenomenological movement from its inception was oriented toward “meaning.” The “ambiguous discourse” alluded to by Levinas is that of meaning that presents itself as coming from the object, but is at the same time Sinngebung, to use Husserl’s term: the giving of meaning. Intentionality originates in the subject or subjectivity. But in Otherwise than Being Levinas Levinas’s Early Work on Husserl 123 SMITH_F14_122-126 3/1/05 6:06 PM Page 123 discovers a reversal of intentionality in its relation to the other person. “The intention toward another, when it has reached its peak, turns out to belie intentionality. Toward-another culminates in a for-another.”5 Levinas found in phenomenology a new freedom, a way out of rationalism and the elements that would allow him, taking at least as much liberty with Husserlian phenomenology as Heidegger did, to develop first an ontology (this would be the stage at which “reality is exteriority,” as in Totality and Infinity, which is subtitled An Essay on...


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