University at Buffalo - The State University of New York
Skip to Content

News and views for UB faculty and staff

Campus News

Institute for Jewish Thought and Heritage organizes Levinas Seminar

The writings of Emmanuel Levinas (above) (1906 -1995) will be the subject of UB's second Levinas Philosophy Summer Seminar


Published June 19, 2014

“For Levinas, neither science nor aesthetics but rather ‘ethics is first philosophy.'”
Richard A. Cohen, director of the Institute for the Study of Jewish Thought and Heritage
University at Buffalo

UB will be the site next month of an intensive discussion of the work of twentieth-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906 – 1995) as the university hosts the second Levinas Philosophy Summer Seminar (LPSS), "Levinas and Kant: The Primacy of Ethics."

The inaugural LPSS was held last summer in Vilnius, Lithuania, birth country of Levinas.

Organized by Richard A. Cohen, director of the Institute for the Study of Jewish Thought and Heritage, and a recognized authority on the work of Levinas, the seminar will be held July 7-11.

Ten invited scholars are participating — graduate students, postdoctoral students and professors — selected from applicants from around the world.

Each summer seminar examines a different aspect of Levinas’ philosophy.

This summer, to better understand what is new in Levinas’ thought, the seminar will compare and contrast Levinas to philosopher Immanuel Kant, and specifically to the Kantian “primacy of practical reason.”

With Kant’s “primacy of practical reason” as a reference point, the focus will be the “primacy of ethics” considered in the encounter of Levinas and Kant.

Cohen points out that both Levinas and Kant assert the primacy of ethics, and both see this primacy as “supporting, rather than undermining science.”

“Indeed, for Levinas, ethics provides the very justification of truth,” Cohen says. “Nevertheless, despite their proximity, these two thinkers are as far apart as classical and contemporary philosophy.”

The critical idealism of Kant concludes and culminates the grand project of representational philosophy — the primacy of knowledge — which began with Parmenides’ equation of being and logos, Cohen says.

In the “Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant shows the grounds and the boundaries of natural science and metaphysics, Cohen says. “Building on these analyses, he shows the grounds and boundaries of rational ethics.” Post-Kantian thought — from Schelling to Nietzsche to Heidegger, and from Romanticism to Expressionism to Dadaism — breaks with Kantian objective rationality by shifting to creative imagination.

Levinas, Cohen explains, opens up a radically different post-Kantian path: renewing the primacy of ethics Kant proclaimed by liberating it from its Kantian dependence on objectivist rationality. 

“For Levinas, neither science nor aesthetics but rather ‘ethics is first philosophy,’” he says. “Only in this revolutionary ethical reorientation of philosophy do science and aesthetics for the first time find their proper significance.”  

Thus, Levinas does not reject ethics in a positivist or pretentious “beyond good and evil,” he says. But this is because ethics begins in responsiveness to the suffering of the other person, rather than in respect for law, autonomy or pure freedom.

“Moral responsibility emerges in — and as the primacy of the other — the other’s transcendence as ethical obligation.”

During the seminar, participants will enter into a dialogue between Levinas and Kant based on the idea that though these two thinkers are radically separated by the divide between classical representational philosophies oriented by eternity, the soul, and divinity, and contemporary philosophies which take seriously time, history, language, the body and worldly being.

The seminar is directed by Cohen, who is assisted by two additional scholars: James McLachlan, professor of philosophy and religion, Western Carolina University, and Levinas scholar and LPSS co-organizer Jolanta Saldukaityte, PhD, Vilnius, Lithuania.

The seminar participants will prepare by reading selections from Levinas’ two major works, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974), as well as selected articles or portions of articles related to the Levinas-Kant encounter.

The seminar location is 640 Capen Hall, North Campus.

For more information about the seminar, visit:

The Levinas Philosophy Summer Seminar is sponsored by The Levinas Center; The Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage; and the Humanities Institute.