13 SES 11 B, Social Bond, Inclusion and Exclusion, and Education as a Human Right
What it is to think outside? Totality and Infinity, one of the most important works of Emmanuel Levinas, is an attempt to answer this question, as its subtitle - ‘an essay on exteriority’ - indicates. For Levinas, the outside appears in the form of the alterity of the other, which I can reach towards but never reach. It is from this point that the radicality of Levinasian ethics comes to the fore. Ethics is to be understood not as a matter of attaining coming to understand moral principles or acquiring a set of virtues but rather as an orientation toward the other.
Levinas has been widely discussed in education, with regard, for example, to social justice, to literature education, to religious education, and even to subject matter (see for example Standish 2002; Todd 2007; Eppert 2011; Strhan 2012). While some discussions relate more to the direct application of Levinas’s philosophy to educational contexts, others are concerned more with preserving its radical ethical dimension as such and are less explicitly practical. Yet, on the other hand, and in reaction against such readings of Levinas in philosophy of education, Alistair Miller questions whether this work is useful at all. In his recent paper ‘Levinas: Ethics or Mystification?’, Miller doubts whether Levinas’s philosophy can, in any way, be helpful when it comes to the practical matter of ethical decisions. He argues that the ethics of the other is ‘more likely to generate an esoteric discourse; instead of practical solutions, consoling utopian visions of the abolition of injustice and oppression; and instead of rational argument, poetic imagery and mystical incantation’. From Levinas, then, there can be no ‘practical inferences – philosophical, ethical, educational and political’ (Miller 2017, 526).
The aim of this paper is to read Levinas against this indictment by Miller. Far from being a matter of mystical incantation, as Miller puts it, Levinas’s philosophy provides an ethical ground for ethics beyond the binary classification of the empirical and the transcendental. My purpose is not only to discuss moral education (as a part of the curriculum) but also to think of the ethical dimensions of teaching and learning themselves. I particularly question dominant discourses of education particularly in relation to the idea of the educated person. According to Levinas, it is by confronting the infinite distance between oneself and the other – exteriority – that we come to infinite responsibility. And this leads us to an alternative concept of human subjectivity, within a dynamism rather than confined to an enclosed self. Thus, such concepts as autonomy, identity, therapy or citizenship will be re-considered.
Education seems to be in a pendulum swing between the idea of the rational autonomous self (which puts the emphasis on rationality and which Miller seems to be celebrating) and education as therapy (where the emphasis is on the development of happy persons, partly as a reaction to the former). At some point these feed into the discourse of consumerism and capitalism (the requirement to be a ‘good consumer’, the reduction of human beings to ‘human resources’, the precept that you should ‘do what you want to do’, and so on). Is there any space, in such a context, for us to be broken open to infinity – the infinite responsibility toward the other? Working with the alternative concept of human subjectivity that Levinas offers, the present paper attempts to open up new possibilities for thinking about ethics and education. This is to think ethics as a condition of education – i.e., ethics before education.
I begin with the discussion of Alistair Miller’s ‘Levinas: Ethics or Mystification?’ (2017). Miller argues that Levinas’s ethics of the other has no purchase on our daily lives as it cannot motivate or guide people to act ethically and thus that it has no practical relevance either to education itself or to the broader relms of ethics and politics. Miller goes on to say that Levinas’s ethics, with its prejudiced view on systems, can provide at most ‘the possibility of ethics without compulsion, without conformity, without recourse to traditional “totalising” ethical systems, and without recourse to the fiction of a deity’ (Miller 2017, 534). Contra Miller, I attempt to illustrate the ways in which the ethics of the other is powerful at the level of our daily lives. In so doing, I refer also to Jacques Derrida, who developed upon Levinas’s ethics further. This is in the end to acknowledge that any kind of human practice (or even language itself) is possible only upon the condition of ethics in this Levinasian sense – that is, in relation to infinite responsibility. In relation to education specifically, the idea of completing the self, which is pervasive at least in Western culture, will be investigated. I shall attempt to illustrate that it is rather an incompleteness of the self that gives the space for the dynamics of relationship that is needed. In Levinas’s terms, it is through the breaking open of my sovereign ego that I come to contain more than myself. In this sense, two dominant discourses in education will be discussed in the light of alternative perspectives. To be brief, I suggest that while the idea of autonomy cannot capture the fundamental human condition of finitude, education as therapy only alleviates and anaesthetises the disturbance that our sense of our own mortality provides. Both in the end collude in and reinforce the picture of the human being as free from this fundamental relationship to the other. There are relationships, but they are only contingent. Hence, this only serves to deny fundamental human condition as responsibility, which is Levinas’s sustained purpose to illustrate. (This shall be further indicated in Conclusions part below)
(1) Although I acknowledge the importance of autonomy, I suggest that to see it as the most important aim of education can blind us to the fact that ethics is not a matter of dilemmas that arise on particular occasions in my life but a matter of what is happening now, between people, in the ordinary world. To the extent that it attempts to develop a fully autonomous person who is capable of moral reasoning, ethics tends to fall within an abstract set of values or knowledge. Yet, ethics becomes ethical only when it includes the relationship with others. (2) The other is education as therapy. There is a danger to think of the aims of education in terms of producing happy people as this in some sense denies what is fundamental to the human condition. It is rather through embracing the disturbance and discomfort that one is broken open to what is exterior. It is through this crack in experience, this being broken open, that one learns. In this sense, it is in the light of this ethical condition that teaching and learning must be understood. It is ethics in this sense, rather than a certain set of fixed norms or principles of reasoning, that must be present in the making of decisions, which are ethically legitimate only where they involve imagining something more or better than now. This is a kind of decision that does not derive from pre-given set of norms, thus requires that we are repositioned in order to think otherwise. Such a repositioning cannot be separated from our everyday difficulties, including our conscious decision-making but also those casual, sometimes inadvertent harms that are part of what we ordinarily bring about in our lives together. It is here that there is the possibility of the good.
Eppert, Claudia. 2011. ‘Emmanuel Levinas, Literary Engagement, and Literature Education’. In Levinas and Education, edited by Denise Egéa-Kuehne, 1 edition. London: Routledge. Miller, Alistair. 2017. ‘Levinas: Ethics or Mystification?’ Journal of Philosophy of Education 51 (2): 524–537. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12225. Standish, Paul. 2002. ‘Disciplining the Profession: Subjects Subject to Procedure’. Educational Philosophy and Theory 34 (1): 5–23. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2002.tb00282.x. Strhan, Anna. 2012. Levinas, Subjectivity, Education: Towards an Ethics of Radical Responsibility. 1 edition. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. Todd, Sharon. 2007. ‘Promoting a Just Education: Dilemmas of Rights, Freedom and Justice’. Educational Philosophy and Theory 39 (6): 592–603. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00310.x.
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