Teaching the Other: Levinas, Rousseau, and the Question of Education

By Katz, Claire Elise | Philosophy Today, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Other: Levinas, Rousseau, and the Question of Education


Katz, Claire Elise, Philosophy Today


Until the early part of the twentieth century, virtually every Western philosopher could claim a treatise or text on education as part of his philosophical corpus: Plato's Republic; Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics', Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education; Rousseau's Emile; Kant's On Education; and Dewey's Democracy and Education, to name a few. At the very least, philosophers recognized the role of education in the cultivation, and occasionally even in the oppression, of the subject (see, for example, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Mill's The Subjection of Women ). But with a few exceptions (namely, Dewey, Whitehead, and a few other American philosophers), twentieth century philosophy discarded education as a topic for serious philosophical inquiry, turning it over to the colleges of education where the primary focus is pedagogy.1

This essay returns to the discussion of education as a significant topic for philosophy by examining two recent works that bring together themes in education and continental philosophy.2 The first, Irene Harvey's Labyrinths ofExemplarity: At the Limits of Deconstruction, is a close reading of Rousseau's Emile through the lens of deconstruction. Harvey examines the multiple layers of exemplarity at work in this significant philosophical treatise on education in order to demonstrate the complex way in which the example "works." How does exemplarity function and convey to us what it hopes to teach us? Ultimately, Harvey offers a new theory of examples. Harvey's treatment of Rousseau's work has significant philosophical consequences, since it asks us to consider how examples, certainly not a concept limited to Rousseau's treatise, work within a philosophical framework (here she also invokes Hegel and Kant, and then finally, Aristotle). But her work also has significant consequences for education and moral development. Examples are often the primary way in which we teach children generally, and they are usually the means by which we cultivate them specifically within a moral framework. Thus, the questions Harvey raises with regard to the example, particularly as it relates to Rousseau's Emile, lead us to ask "how do we cultivate children?"

One might say that the second book considered here, Sharon Todd's, Learning from the Other: Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and Ethical Possibilities in Education, continues where Harvey's book ends. Todd's book considers how Levinas's ethical project, if combined with themes in psychoanalysis, might offer us an effective pedagogical tool to educate for social justice. We might, then, consider these two books together so that questions raised in one complement questions raised in the other.

Setting an Example

Irene Harvey's Labyrinths of Exemplarity is well organized and covers quite a bit of territory. It begins with Part I: "Threads of Exemplarity," a careful examination of the role of examples in Rousseau's educational treatise, Emile. This first part is divided into three sections, each one offering a description of how examples function, first for Emile, then for Sophie (or woman), and then for us. That is, we are taken on an in-depth journey, one which travels through Emile's relationship to examples, then Sophie's, and then ours as the readers of Rousseau's book. Harvey then moves to Part II: "Theories of Exemplarity," where different methodologies relating to exemplarity are explained. Parts III and IV, respectively, engage us in a discussion of Derrida's reading of Rousseau and his own employment of the example, and, finally, Harvey ends with a discussion of Aristotle and a new view of exemplarity. Although Harvey's book is fascinating in its entirety, Part I is a tour deforce in its exploration of the layers of exemplarity at work in Rousseau's Emile. Let me begin by focusing on this part of the book.

Harvey opens her introduction with a quote from Derrida, who is responding to a recent collection of essays devoted to his work. …

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