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  • The Missing SequelLevinas and Heidegger’s Unfinished Project
  • Eric R. Severson (bio)

Levinas is up to many things over the decades that span his illustrious career as a philosopher, but one of his most distinct and sustained projects is the continuation and completion of the work outlined in Heidegger’s Being and Time. In what follows I propose that Levinas, intentionally or otherwise, takes up Heidegger’s project of fundamentally rethinking Platonic time. I also argue that Levinas’s radical ethical philosophy is both supported and troubled by the difficulty of carrying on this investigation of the concept of time.

Readers of Levinas can hardly be blamed for overlooking the central role played by time in his work. Levinas develops and deploys a thundering philosophy of human responsibility, complete with catchy terminology. He writes of “ethics as first philosophy,” the transcendence of the “face of the other,” and several other themes that become the focus of attention as Levinas is typically read. Less attention has been paid to the supporting, yet pivotal, role played by Levinas’s unique understanding of time. Levinas begins and ends his career with reflections on time and repeatedly utilizes time to support his more notable points along the way. Tina Chanter has pointed out that, “despite the fact that Levinas’s notion of time is central [End Page 123] to his philosophy, it is singularly neglected by even self-proclaimed Levinasians.”1 In response to this challenge, the following will outline some of the insights and possibilities of a concerted effort to trace the development of Levinas’s reflections on time.

Heideggers Unfinished Project

In order to understand why Levinas’s understanding of time is so rarely understood or appreciated, it is important to trace back his focus on time to some of its sources. Levinas came in 1928 to Freiburg to study with Edmund Husserl. He caught Husserl’s attention and seems to have impressed the father of phenomenology.2 His arrival in Freiburg, however, occurred during the transition between the era of Husserl and the era of Heidegger. Husserl had made every effort to promote Heidegger’s career, a move that he would one day come to regret. In 1928, Heidegger had already begun to distance himself from Husserl. One key point at which Heidegger critiqued Husserl was the concept of time, and Levinas attended the packed-house lectures in which Heidegger presented both his critique of Husserl and his own unique philosophical project.

There is ample evidence that Levinas was already prepared to think about time when he reached Freiburg, particularly by reading the works of Henri Bergson and Franz Rosenzweig. Though I propose that Levinas takes up Heidegger’s unfulfilled promise to address the concept of time after Being and Time, it is likely that he is also continuing and utilizing Husserl’s work, as well as Bergson, Rosenzweig, and perhaps others. Yet what we find in Freiburg in 1928 is a cataclysmic event that left the young Levinas mesmerized by a rising star. One can legitimately wonder how the lectures of Heidegger packed houses in the 1920s in Germany. There is a profound difficulty in Heidegger’s prose and his unique use of the German language. For whatever reason, we find Levinas by 1931 stating that Heidegger’s name is “now Germany’s glory.”3 [End Page 124]

Levinas studied in Freiburg just as Husserl was publishing his famous lectures on internal time consciousness and as Heidegger was hastily collecting together the material that would become Being and Time. Time was clearly the keynote concept in Freiburg during these crucial years of Levinas’s development. Levinas found Being and Time nothing short of breathtaking, and his admiration for the text is evident in the way he regularly engages and wrestles with the themes of Being and Time over the ensuing decades. One must always mention, of course, the devastating impact of Heidegger’s participation in the Nazi party, which may have quickly alerted Levinas to a moral danger opened by Heidegger’s sweeping dismissal of Western philosophy’s priorities. Scholars continue to debate the relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and Nazism, but for Levinas the...


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pp. 123-143
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