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  • Jankélévitch and Levinas on the “Wholly Other”
  • Andrew Kelley (bio)

One can say that the first manifestation of metaphysical seriousness had been the acceptance of the wholly-other-order.

— Vladimir Jankélévitch, Philosophie première

One cannot deny the numerous connections between Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903–1985) and Emmanuel Levinas. In addition to serving on the jury at Levinas’s 1961 doctoral defense of Totality and Infinity, Jankélévitch had also known Levinas on account of their mutual participation in the Colloquia for Jewish Intellectuals of the French Language and also in Jean Wahl’s “Collège Philosophique.” As concerns scholarly ties, Jankélévitch formally cites Levinas’s notion of the il y a in his 1953 work on metaphysics, Philosophie première: Introduction à une philosophie du “presque.” Likewise, Levinas mentions Jankélévitch’s 1938 book, L’Alternative, in entries from both 1942 and 1944 in his prisoner-of-war camp diaries (CC 68–69, 124). Later, Levinas occasionally cites works by Jankélévitch in Totality and Infinity (TI 298/TeI 274) and other writings, and he even [End Page 23] goes so far as to write a short piece on Jankélévitch—included in Outside the Subject—right after the death of Jankélévitch.

Here, I want to focus on the topic of the wholly other, a notion that is common to both thinkers. Jankélévitch’s discussion of the wholly other goes back at least to an article from 1939, “De L’ipséité,”1 and the term appears relatively often in his 1949 magnum opus, the Traité des vertus, where he cites the German theologian Rudolf Otto as well as Blaise Pascal as sources for the term “wholly other.”2 Moreover, the wholly other could easily be called one of the major themes in his book on Philosophie premiére (First Philosophy). Accordingly, there are at least two places in which Levinas directly acknowledges the influence of Jankélévitch’s notion of the wholly other on his own philosophy. In a journal article from 1957—“Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite”—Levinas mentions the “absolutely other,” providing a very specific reference to Jankélévitch.3 A few years later, in a footnote to his article, “Phenomena and Enigma,” Levinas mentions Jankélévitch’s book, Philosophie première by name, and acknowledges the debt that his whole philosophy has to the work of Jankélévitch.4 However, to the terms “wholly other” or “absolutely other,” Levinas and Jankélévitch actually attach slightly different meanings. While both thinkers view the “absolutely other” or “wholly other” as that which goes beyond being, they nevertheless pursue different paths in how they understand the notion. On the one hand, Levinas, taking pains to tie the wholly other to ethics, stresses the alterity of the other person. On the other hand, Jankélévitch, who was perhaps not as concerned about using more traditionally metaphysical or ontological language, goes both further than, and at the same time, not as far as Levinas, because for Jankélévitch alterity can involve an experience of other people but does not necessarily have to do so. For this reason, I find it worthwhile to juxtapose the two thinkers on the topic of the wholly other. I shall focus mainly on Jankélévitch’s discussion of the wholly other in Philosophie première—this is the work that [End Page 24] Levinas explicitly cited—and Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, which is closer in time to the work by Jankélévitch that Levinas mentions. Before looking at the differences between the two accounts, I first point out similarities between the two thinkers’ views.

Similarities between Jankélévitch’s and Levinas’s Accounts of the “Wholly Other”

Both Jankélévitch and Levinas explicitly claim that ontology cannot be first philosophy. Although neither philosopher dismisses ontology, both try to show that ontology is founded upon something more basic. In an early section of Totality and Infinity, one entitled “Metaphysics Precedes Ontology” (TI 42–48/TeI 12–18), Levinas takes aim at the presupposition whereby ethics is considered as...


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