Religious Studies | Religious Philosophy: Emmanuel Levinas - Ethics as First Philosophy
R462 | 3792 | Morgan
Emmanuel Levinas is one of the most fascinating and important philosophers of the twentieth century. His central insight is that
ethics is fundamental to philosophy and to human existence. Simple as it sounds, this insight is deep and subtle. In this course
we shall explore what it means, how Levinas arrives at it, what its implications are for philosophy, politics, religion, and
Judaism, and much more. Levinas's writings and interviews are challenging and difficult, but the rewards of understanding his
thinking are great.
Born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1906, Emmanuel Levinas ventured to Strasbourg in 1923, where he turned to the study of philosophy and
especially the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. In 1928-1929 he traveled to Freiburg, studied with Husserl, and became infatuated
with the philosophical teaching of Martin Heidegger. Returning to France, he wrote a book on Husserl's phenomenology and began an
exploration of Heidegger's thought. But the rise of Nazi fascism and Heidegger's Nazi affiliation led him to serious and life-long
doubts about the viability of Heidegger's philosophy. By the late 1940s these doubts were expressed in two short books and
thereafter in essays and writings that showed the emergence of his own response to Husserl and Heidegger and the contemporary crisis
of Western civilization. These reflections culminated in his first major work Totality and Infinity, published in 1961. The ideas
explored there continued to be developed, ramified, and enriched in a host of essays, articles, interviews, and subsequent books
during the seventies, eighties, to his death in 1995.
Levinas believes that there is a dimension of human life that is hidden by our institutions and by much of modern experience. It
concerns the way that our encounters with other people are fundamentally shaped by the responsibility we have toward them. He seeks
to clarify and explore this dimension of responsibility in a number of ways; he shows how it is related to other conceptions of
human existence prominent in Western philosophy and how it expresses itself in various types of social relationships. Yet, in a
certain sense, Levinas thinks that this fundamental relationship with others is beyond ordinary language, while at the same time it
plays a special role in language and communication, in our experience of time and history, in our sense of social justice, and in
our religious lives and thinking.
In this course we shall read essays, interviews and chapters from Levinas's work from the 1940s through the 1980s. We shall explore
the development of his thinking, its central themes, and his indebtedness to others - from Bergson, Husserl and Heidegger to Buber
and Rosenzweig. The course is intended for upper level undergraduates and for graduate students with an interest in twentieth
century philosophy, religious thought, and Judaism. No special previous courses are required, but acquaintance with nineteenth and
twentieth century European philosophy and intellectual culture would be helpful. There will be exams and written assignments.
This course is new, and I am very, very excited to be teaching it. To my knowledge, no course at I.U. has ever been devoted wholly
to Levinas. My goal will be to use every means I have available to help us understand this extremely demanding and important
philosopher; it will be very much a cooperative venture. If you have any questions about the course, please contact Michael Morgan
Meets with R541.