Ontology, transcendence, and immanence in Emmanuel Levinas' philosophy

  • Bergo B
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This essay studies the unfolding of Levinas' concept of transcendence from 1935 to his 1984 talk entitled “Transcendence and Intelligibility.” I discuss how Levinas frames transcendence in light of enjoyment, shame, and nausea in his youthful project of a counter-ontology to Heidegger's Being and Time. In Levinas' essay, transcendence is the human urge to get out of being. I show the ways in which Levinas' early ontology is conditioned by historical circumstances, but I argue that its primary aim is formal and phenomenological; it adumbrates formal structures of human existence. Levinas' 1940s ontology accentuates the dualism in being, between what amount to a light and a dark principle. This shift in emphasis ushers in a new focus for transcendence, which is now both sensuous and temporal, thanks to the promise of fecundity. Totality and Infinity (1961) pursues a similar onto-logic, while shifting the locus of transcendence to a non-sexuate other. The final great work, Otherwise than Being or beyond Essence (1974) offers a hermeneutic phenomenology of transcendence-in-immanence. It rethinks Husserl's focus on the transcendence of intentionality and its condition of possibility in the passive synthesis of complex temporality. If the 1974 strategy ‘burrows beneath’ the classical phenomenological syntheses, it also incorporates unsuspected influences from French psychology and phenomenology. This allows Levinas to develop a philosophical conception of transcendence that is neither Husserl's intentionality nor Heidegger's temporal ecstases, in what amounts to an original contribution to a phenomenology both hermeneutic and descriptive. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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  • Bettina Bergo

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