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  • “My Place in the Sun” Reflections On The Thought Of Emmanuel LevinasCommittee of Public Safety*

The long and prolific writing career of Emmanuel Levinas, beginning in the 1920s, continued into this decade. In the following essay, “Martin Heidegger and Ontology,” published in 1932 yet only translated now, Levinas expounds Heidegger’s Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), expressing unreserved admiration for the book that was first read by Levinas when he met Heidegger at Freiburg in 1928–29. “I always try to recapture the atmosphere of those readings,” he says in conversation with Philippe Nemo in 1981, “when 1933 was still unthinkable” [EI 34]. That year, 1933, witnessed Heidegger’s Rectoral Address to the University of Freiburg and his joining of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), inaugurating an allegiance which, although soon muted, was never recanted in such a way as to placate the anger of postwar European intellectuals, and from which Levinas never absolved him [EI 38]. The essay thus expresses a moment of philosophical kinship between Levinas and the author of Being and Time which, after the events of the ‘30s and ‘40s, would be impossible to retrieve without disenchantment and critique. Indeed, Levinas’s subsequent book, En découvrant l’existence avec Husserl et Heidegger, published in 1949, into which is incorporated an abridged version of this essay, is prefaced with the caveat that it in no measure attempts to plead in favor of a philosophy which, now with the benefit of hindsight, “does not always guarantee wisdom.” There is, of course, no reason why this early essay should not simply mark the juvenile thought of a philosopher still under the influence of his masters—first Bergson, then Husserl, then Heidegger; no reason why Levinas’s careful exposition of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology should not, in the fullness of time, mature into a divergent philosophy of ethical responsibility, still indebted to Heidegger but critically different from him. And this indeed has represented the received wisdom on the matter. Levinas’s early work—mostly comprising these exegeses of the writings of Husserl and Heidegger—has been habitually categorized as preoriginal, antecedent to De l’existence à l’existant and Le temps et l’autre (both of which appeared in 1947), which purportedly mark the beginning of Levinas’s “own ideas” [EI 45]. This essay, thus designated as the “didactic” work of an apprentice, has been valued as “seminal” for being the “discreet inaugurator of the French interest in phenomenology” [Kearney 52–53]; it is cherished less in its own creative right than for being the initial intermediary between Heidegger and Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. In this, our introductory, essay, we attempt two things: we look within this meticulous exposition of Dasein for a concern, expressed even at this early stage, with an existence which is ethical; and we ask to what extent the difference between the two thinkers, that philosophical distance between ontology and [End Page 3] ethics, can itself be understood phenomenologically within the implicit horizon of events in Europe during the years 1933–45. For that distance is not an objective quantity or a theoretical variable but a matter of intentionality immersed in history as lived experience. After all, even God can measure its extent only by traversing it himself.

At the heart of Levinas’s critique of Heidegger is the reproof that the question of man has become submerged in the question of being, and thus that the recovery of the meaning of being entails the forgetting of the meaning of the human. Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism (Brief über den Humanismus), published in 1947, in which he claims that “what is essential is not humanity, but being” [Brief 24] is offset by the title of Levinas’s work, published in the same year, in which he shows how the anonymity of existence, or being, is redeemed only by the existent, or be-ing; hence, De l’existence à l’existant, from existence to the existent—denoting a sense of direction, lost needlessly in Lingis’s translation of the title as Existence and Existents. Levinas depicts the anonymity of being through the il y a, in which the impersonality of the verb mirrors...