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David O. Mckay Lectures

Being and Being Taught: Levinas, Ethics, Education

In talking of rights and responsibilities, and the relationship of that to existence, let’s start with this talk. What right do I have to be here today? By what right am I speaking to you? The question may seem insecure, but I’ll ask it, and one way to take this is that I may be asking about my rights. And that view of the question assumes that I am first of all a person who exists with certain rights that I might exercise. I might have a right to speak to you all, earned or granted, and I have decided to exercise it by standing here and saying what I would like to say. I might also be asking what purpose my speaking could serve. This perspective assumes my actions should accomplish something. This still focuses on my existence and how this talk fits into my world.

There is an outcome, but what is that outcome’s purpose? We could still ask “why”, which could just lead us to follow a chain of purposiveness in a world of things. A third option comes closer to the pressure I feel right now. A lot of you are sitting here, right now, giving me your time, and I feel obligated to make it worth your while. What will justify your sitting here for about an hour of your day? I do not ask this question, however, out of insecurity.

I ask it because it bears on the subject about which I want to talk, which is precisely this difference between a seeing a world of free beings with rights to which we feel entitled and an alternate way of seeing the world that makes us free through our obligations. It is the difference between being and what is beyond being, what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would call the difference between totality, a world that is within our grasp, understood, and controlled, and infinity, that which is beyond our control, that which intrudes upon our freedom and, paradoxically, gives us meaning.

But, now I’m not giving you anything. I am certainly not giving you something that you will recognize as relating to my title. In fact, you may feel betrayed, so I will explain. We will be talking about ethics, though of the sort Levinas talks about rather than a code you might follow, and I will get around to education. In fact, I will make a claim that the only sort of education worth having or giving is an ethical one. But along the way we will have to detour through existence, being, ontology (that’s the fancy word for thinking about existence.).

Emmanuel Levinas developed an unease with the idea of existence for its own sake. Existence, the bare fact that things are, became haunting for him. To understand what he found so horrifying (and he uses the word horror), it helps to imagine there is nothing: no world, no other worlds, no stars. It’s just darkness. Just the blackness of being. It’s not nothing. It is the bare fact of existence. Levinas calls this the “there is,” and he compares it to insomnia—the inability to escape existence. Quote, “One cannot say of this “there is” which persists that it is an event of being. One can neither say that this is nothingness, even though there is nothing.”1 If there was nothing, you wouldn’t be able to move, for instance.

Because where are you moving from and to? You would lose track of who you were, because there would be nothing to relate your selfhood to. Again, quoting Levinas, “In insomnia, one can and one cannot say that there is an “I” which cannot manage to fall asleep. The impossibility of escaping wakefulness is something “objective”, independent of my initiative.” 2 And this impossibility of escape horrifies him. “In the maddening ‘experience’ of the ‘there is,’ one has the impression of a total impossibility of escaping it, of ‘stopping the music’.” Existence goes on, with or without you, with or without anything, as long as you can think and longer.

Of course, we do not live that way; we live in a world. But for Levinas that blankness of existence is still “rumbling” behind the world we know. We experience a world, but that world doesn’t automatically have meaning. Try an experiment. Imagine yourself here in this arena, as you obviously are, but with no one else here. With no one else anywhere. And this room is all there is. You must be here, in this room, forever. There is no one else and nothing else. Do what you want. You are free. It seems a little better than the blankness of existence.

But what difference does anything you do make? Does it matter whether you carefully care for everything or smash it to pieces? Does it matter whether you make art from the chairs? And what art would you make if it can have no relation to anything outside this room or anyone else at all? Now expand to the whole CAC, but remember there is no one else—just you—and things. Now to the Campus, to the island. How big would things have to get before, given enough time, you would not weary of them? You see, with no one else there, what you do doesn’t much matter. It would soon not matter that you had 2 or 5 Ferraris, a mansion, and everything you wanted to eat or every toy you wanted to play with. If you want freedom, I don’t think it would feel free. Speaking of his book Time and the Other, Levinas declares what he sees as the exigency “to escape the “There is”, to escape the non-sense.” 3

For Levinas, there are only two possible reactions to the blankness of the “there is.” The first is to enjoy existence. Take up a hobby. Go do things, earn money, buy toys. And this doesn’t have to be excessive or obviously greedy. Hike a mountain. See the Taj Mahal. We need to survive, if nothing else. Go out and provide for yourself. But we are still just rearranging fixities in a world of stuff. And it is a lonely existence if we simply throw ourselves into existence because for Levinas existence cannot be communicated. We are isolated as, “The fact of being is what is most private; existence is the sole thing I cannot communicate; I can tell about it, but I cannot share my existence.” 4

And so we are alone with a concept of what the world is. You can learn more of what it is, but it is still a totalized entity. You understand every piece of the world as you know it, even if what you understand is that something is not understandable. If you don’t get calculus, it is just not understandable from where you are. That is what calculus is for you. When you do understand it, it becomes an understandable part of your world, but it is still just part of the stuff. Elsewhere, Levinas points out, “There is no rupture of the isolation of being in knowledge.” Enjoyment is an escape from the “There is” into isolated being only. “In enjoyment, I am absolutely for myself. Egoist without reference to the Other, I am alone without solitude, innocently egoist and alone. Not against the Others, . . . but entirely deaf to the Other . . . without ears, like a hungry stomach.” 5 The self creates for itself a dwelling, the place where it feels at home with itself. But this separate “at home” feeling allows the individual to “close itself up in its egoism, that is, in the very accomplishment of its isolation.” 6 That is one choice.

But there is another option, hospitality—welcoming the Other. The Other is what is not part of me or of my existence in the world. The other can “oppose to me a struggle, that is opposed to the force that strikes him not as a force of resistance, but the very unforseeableness of his reaction.” 7 The other, that is, is not simply a challenge to be overcome, but that which cannot be overcome, precisely in that the Other is unpredictable. Any one of you could walk up the aisle and throw a rotten tomato at me. I cannot control that. I suspect no one will do this because you are all too polite or think you would get in trouble, though I would not press charges. In this way, the Other is not an object in the world I encounter.

They are completely other. I can never know their being, just as they can never know mine. You may see similarities to the ideas of Martin Buber on the I-thou versus the I-it if you have done Arbinger Institute training in that the Other is different than the rest of the world. Levinas was influenced by Buber. He then goes further to claim that when I meet that Other, my world and the very nature of choice for me are changed. The Other, symbolized or embodied in the idea of the “face” for Levinas, signifies responsibility. In speaking to Phlippe Nemo, he says:

There is first the very uprightness of the face, its upright exposure, without defense. The skin of the face is that which stays most naked . . . It is the most destitute also: there is an essential poverty in the face; . . . The face is exposed, menaced, as if inviting us to violence. At the same time, the face is what forbids us to kill. 8

The Other that we meet in the face is vulnerable. We can do good or evil to the Other. We can decide to fulfill or not to fulfill the Other’s needs. Thus with the Other breaking in on our alone-ness, this eruption of the infinite into the finite totality of our being, suddenly what we do has meaning. On one hand, welcoming the other is “the commencement of moral consciousness, which calls in question my freedom.” 9 We cannot do just what we like, as there are the needs of another to consider. On the other hand, responsibility to the Other means my choices have meaning. Levinas claims, “The presence of the Other, a privileged heteronomy, does not clash with freedom, but invests it.” 10

And gain later, “This presentation [the face] is preeminently nonviolence, for instead of offending my freedom, it calls it to responsibility and founds it.” 11 That is, responsibility might seem to restrict us but actually gives us moral agency. We do not make random, meaningless choices, but choices with meaning and import. And in doing so, we become not simply random patterns in the world, material beings operating according to material laws or engaging in hedonistic pleasure. We become agents who may aid others or not. “I am he who finds the resources to respond to the call” (EI 89). I become who I am when presented with the need of another, the responsibility to another which I have.

My choices then individuate me. “I am then called upon in my uniqueness as someone for whom no one else can substitute himself.” 12 We sometimes think of freedom as doing just what we want with the fewest restrictions, but the Lord doesn’t define it that way. In 2 Ne 2:27, we read that “Men are free to choose liberty and eternal life . . . or to choose captivity and death.” There is no real freedom, which implies choice, outside of moral responsibility.

Levinas at one point says all philosophy seems to him “a meditation on Shakespeare,” so I’ll risk a reference to Shakespeare. In perhaps his most famous line, contemplating whether life is worth the pain, Prince Hamlet muses, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Elder Uchtdorf, in a 2016 devotional featured in this year’s Come Follow Me manual, claims, “Shakespeare was wrong.” 13 I will only disagree with this so far as to say that Hamlet was wrong more than Shakespeare. To be or not to be, for Levinas, and for me, is not the question at all. Both options are about existence. It’s no wonder Hamlet seems lost.

He is worried about the “Slings and arrows” of the world and his own suffering. He cares little about confronting the Other: Gertrude, Ophelia, or even Claudius. He has considered no options that could give his choices meaning, rather admiring the ambition of soldiers that fight for a meaningless piece of land. Seeking his own life, he loses it long before he dies. Perhaps we can see here the Lord’s injunction that “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33). We can only ever have real identity through our moral choices, not through the pursuit of life in a material sense.

But I promised you that this was about teaching and learning here at BYU-Hawaii, and I had better get to keep that promise. What does all of this have to do with education, particularly here? Most basically Levinas says that “to welcome the other is to put in question my freedom.” 14 This means that we can’t simply do what we want. Ethical responsibility must guide our choices. In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain gives four questions he asked himself while preparing to teach his first college course. They were: “Where’s the classroom?

What textbook will I use? What will I include in my lectures? How many tests will I give?” 15 These questions address the necessities of life as an instructor. But they focus on my needs. They ask, essentially, “What will I do.” A more advanced version might include thinking about more spectacular things to do in the classroom, perhaps things that will be more valued by academic leadership or our colleagues. We might even think about what will make our students comment positively on our course evaluations. But this is all on the level of existence.

So what would it look like to approach our classes from the standpoint of responsibility? Bain offers four alternate questions that I think address this better. What should my students be able to do intellectually, physically, or emotionally [and I might add spiritually or morally] as a result of their learning? How can I best help and encourage them to develop those abilities and the habits of the heart and mind to use them? How can my students and I best understand the nature, quality, and progress of their learning? And How can I evaluate my efforts to foster that learning? 16

Rather than focusing on the requirements of our position, our advancement in our profession, or simply getting through the day, these questions invite us to think about the Other in our classroom, or with whom we communicate online and how to meet the need they present to us. Rather than in terms of what we will do in class, we can ask ourselves “What will my students do in class?” Is there an activity, a game, or practice to involve them in? Even if I am lecturing, it is less what I am doing and more what my students experience that will help them learn, so we should think first about that. It is their responsibility, perhaps, to take notes, listen attentively, etc. But my responsibility for the other, my concern personally must be to do what I can to make that learning happen.

I may feel that they should have learned to take notes, to study, or other skills before they got to my class, but I am faced with the students before me, whether or not it is, indeed, possible always to provide for their needs. Helping students learn to learn is, I believe, the heart of the “Improve” section of the BYUH learning framework. In Otherwise than Being, Levinas quotes Dostoyevsky, “Each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone, and I more than the others.” 17 No, we cannot fix every problem, and it is not always good for the Other that we fix her or his problems. But my ethical duty is defined by the confrontation with the actual needs of those before me. I am the one with the resources (or not) to respond to the call.

And we should consider what areas of research that are available to us might be of most value to our students or others. This might differ from the areas most popular in our fields or that will project us towards prominence, though the two may easily intersect, as well. One inspiring colleague expressed that her choice to work with students lengthened the research process, but it is worth it because that is the point. I certainly do not want to provide any rules in this respect. The point is to be careful and prayerful.

And students, you are not exempt from that responsibility. Ethical responsibility is not only for those in positions of authority. Those for whom you have ethical responsibility surround you. You can benefit or hinder your classmates and instructors. For example, 49 percent of students surveyed had been distracted by other students who were off task. Despite this, most students also wanted to be able to use technology in the classroom however they choose.18 Do you think about personal rights first or responsibility?

And you can approach your own education merely as a utilitarian pursuit, looking to gain more money when you finish, or to get a stable job—not, certainly an unworthy goal. But that is simply navigating existence. But you might think first of what will be of most value to those you might serve. This is difficult, of course. Our encounters with the Other are all in the future, so it is difficult to know what will be of most use. This is why we must stay in tune with the spirit, worthy of its presence. The spirit is the most reliable way for us to be better servants in meeting the needs of others. So pray about your courses schedules and your programs of study. I love our present Holokai program because it gives you the freedom to pursue what you feel will make you most prepared to serve in the kingdom.

A second, more foundational point with regard to the application of Levinasian ethics to our teaching and learning is that the encounter with the Other is essential to any real learning. In fact, welcoming of the Other is his definition of being taught. Many researchers point out that learning implies change. As Susan Ambrose et. al. sum up, “Learning involves change in knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes. This change unfolds over time; it is not fleeting but rather has a lasting impact on how students think and act.” 19

In Levinasian terms, this means that the totality of the self must be breached. We must receive something that is not already there. As Levinas points out, “The relation with the other as a relation with his transcendence—the relation with the Other who puts into question the brutal spontaneity of one’s imminent destiny—introduces into me what was not in me.” 20

Explaining, he adds, “A being receiving the idea of infinity, receiving since it cannot derive it from itself is a being taught.” That is, teaching is more than getting a student to find what was already in him, drawing it out as in the Socratic method of questioning. Neither is it enforcing ideas or knowledge a student simply accepts. As their being is private, we have no way, in any case, to assure that acceptance.

So we need to think of being taught as an encounter with the Other. The learner must encounter that which is not the self. This means that choosing what material to present to our students is terribly important. What materials and situations will present students with paradigms that will challenge who they presently are in productive ways. We might present students with a variety of cultural contexts, for instance, or ideas that we feel might challenge their assumptions about current knowledge. We might think of this primarily as cultural, but it also concerns economic and other divisions. Slavov Zizek notes that globalization has tended to segregate “those included in the sphere of (relative) economic prosperity and those excluded from it.” 21 Of course, exposing students to what is culturally or economically different is always uncomfortable. Levinas always calls the encounter with the Other a “rupture” of being, a “breaking in.”

We cannot, however, simply hand out the diversity of whatever sort. To do so risks allowing us all to absorb the other into the totality of our world. We must not perpetuate the problem Ghanaian author Atukwe Okai laments, saying “all of our best work . . . appears first to an audience which either regards us like some glass-enclosed specimen . . . or like an exotic weed to be sampled and made a conversation piece.” 22 This is, I believe, part of why Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiongo stopped writing in English altogether. He didn’t want to be a piece of Africa to be handed to undergraduates in America so they could say they had Africa under their belts and claim understanding. A book or a concept in a class is not equal to an ethical encounter with an Other who can speak back and thus break into our world. Not all encounters end in breaking into our totalizing view of the world, as the long history of European colonization has made terribly clear.

So as important as representation is in our materials, more important may be how that encounter happens. Do we select materials and present them assuming a particular reaction from our students? Do we present, for instance, texts from a particular cultural framework assuming they will produce in our student's particular reactions of sympathy with that framework? Or do we present depictions of poverty, assuming they will produce a sense of responsibility to alleviate that poverty?

Speaking of the desire to educate for social justice, Sharon Todd opines, “Insofar as demand has intention and purpose, the demand for empathy ironically becomes a demand for that which cannot be demanded. I do not wish,” She continues, “to imply that one ought simply to dismiss empathy as insignificant to moral considerations, but that the demand for it within education must be rethought.” 23 Todd is speaking of social justice education in light of Levinas’ theories, but the idea has broader applicability. We cannot simply present material and expect students to absorb it, understand it, and reproduce it. Instead, they must grapple with it in ethical engagements, in encounters with others that can produce a new self.

For Levinas, the ethical encounter takes place in discourse. It is meeting the absolute alterity of the Other in language. And this discourse happens in the realm of saying, which he opposes to the said. The said is linked to the idea that language can transmit knowledge entire to another. It is merely saying words to another. But the saying is the essence of the ethical encounter. It is exposure, not confrontation. To quote Levinas, again, “this exposure is the frankness, sincerity, veracity, of saying. Not saying dissimulating itself and protecting itself in the said, just giving out words in the face of the other, but saying uncovering itself, that is, denuding itself of its skin, sensibility on the surface of the skin, at the edge of the nerves, offering itself even in suffering—and thus wholly sign, signifying itself.” 24 The said, that is, is part of being. It is the putting in the discourse of the world. We have the sense that the world is ours, that we have assimilated the world to our knowledge base, in a sense colonized the world verbally with the self. The saying, coming from another human being, breaks in on that totality.

And this only takes place because we speak different languages, not just unitary languages, Spanish, Greek, Tagalog, but what Michael Bakhtin calls heteroglossia, our own languages that arise because we all have different associations with every word we encounter and use. None of us speaks just the same language, with the same associations, as any other. And that means language breaks in on the totality of being when we approach the Other in discourse. And that is when we can open ourselves to the Other and take in what was not in us before, being taught, fundamentally changing. Not simply assimilating the world to what we assume we know. So much of what we say is political. We cannot learn from politics, though it protects us.

Let me give an example. A colleague recently presented a series of concepts in class that he believed (and he is a very reliable source) to be central to the discipline. Each concept was key in understanding the field. As we often find, however, some students did not understand. This colleague then engaged these students directly and found that one of these concepts did not have any corresponding concept in the language or culture of the students involved. This concept was both central to the material at hand and untranslatable. Close concepts in the other context did not capture what was essential to this idea, recognized as important in this context. I applaud this colleague for engaging his students. It revealed not only that the cultural contexts were different, but in the process that the concept in question was contingent, though still very practically important.

This enriched the experience of both the students and the faculty member. The list of concepts was the said, a set of rules or fixities that tries to totalize the world and control it. The said has to do with what Levinas calls politics, the fact that we live in a world that has to mediate between groups of people, all with infinite responsibilities to a myriad of Others. It is not counter-ethical, but it is not ethical in a Levinasian sense. It does not directly relate to my responsibility for the Other. It seeks on some level to reshape the Other, making them part of my totality.

The saying, to the contrary, leaves me open to the Other. It allows me to be taught. And this is an invitation not only to instructors to remain open to the Other, not to try to absorb the other, students, but also for students to open themselves to the ideas of classmates, to instructors. In fact, in meeting the Other, there are not truly instructors and students. There is only the self that must seek to be taught in being open to the other.

Many have seen in the post-structuralist idea that language does not carry truth in a concrete and present way a dodging of responsibility. I think that in Levinas we can see the post-structuralist critique of meaning as the heart of learning and of Ethics. Derrida’s difference tells us that language never captures truth in any absolute way, and his idea of the trace, influenced by Levinas’ similar and identically named concept, claims that while we can never reconstruct the context of a speech act, we can never erase it entirely, either. Nothing is ever over.

The past is always with us, though we can never claim it, capture it. And this might seem frightening. We want to lay hold on the past. This post-structuralist move threatens meaning. But for Levinas, who is, as I have said, very influential for Derrida, we find an Other whom we can never know but for whom we can never abdicate responsibility. In language, we never have access to the other, we can never say we understand them, but we can be open to them. In the said, a hard, decided language that seeks to tie down the truth, we only have the absorption of the other and the totalizing of the world in the self. Only because language is broken and inadequate to expressing truth do we have ethical engagement, the saying, discourse, in which we are truly taught by the other. This broken language leads us to progression rather than stagnation.

The essence of this is listening. To simply speak is just to say words in the face of the other. And before anyone who knows me has cause to say so, yes, I know I talk too much—I need to listen more. If I do not listen, I am left to myself and my totality of the world. I am left to existence. Again from Levinas, “Everything that claims to come from elsewhere, even the marvels of which essence itself is capable, even the surprising possibilities of renewal by technology, and magic, even the perfections of gods peopling the heights of this world, and their immortality and the immortality they promise mortals—all this does not deaden the heartrending bustling of the there is recommencing behind every negation. There is not a break in the business carried on by essence, not a distraction.

Only the meaning of the other is irrecusable and forbids the reclusion and reentry into the shell of the self. A voice comes from the other shore. A voice interrupts the saying of the already said.” 25 As Elder Bednar has stated, “Teaching is not talking and telling. Teaching is observing and listening so that we can discern, and then know what to say.” 26 And that is why we need assessment so greatly in our learning, not program assessment in this sense, but listening to learners.

This openness, however, is always a risk. Being open to the Other leaves me vulnerable. It is risky to lose a degree of control. As Derrida points out, the other whom I welcome could “come with the best or worst of intentions: a visitation could become an invasion by the worst.” 27 It is comforting to feel like we have ready-made what students need and that we can simply give it to them. It is comforting as a student to think that what we need for the test can be put on a sheet and that if we simply know that sheet we will do well on the test, and by a terribly bad extrapolation, in life. It is risky to step outside the parameters of what feel we safely understand. But perhaps all good learning requires this risk. As Sharon Todd points out, “the meanings students create for themselves cannot be foreseen, where learning to become is not a seamless project of success." 28

Elsewhere she notes, “In gaining insight, one risks altering the very parameters of self-perception and one’s place in the world, and risks losing, therefore, one’s bearings and conventions.” 29 We want to be able to control the understanding a student will make of the knowledge we want to give them. What if a student makes something of what we teach them that is not for their good? We might feel a responsibility especially keenly given our goal to produce genuine gold, servants in the kingdom.

We want to ensure that the process always ends well. But perhaps that sort of control is always impossible, except as coercion that makes learners into little versions of teachers. For the instructor, this would be a sort of colonization of the student, making them in theory the same as the self. And though this might be attractive for the student as well, safe and directed—just tell me what to learn and who to be— the alternative means assimilating whatever we encounter in our education to a self as we already are. There is no way of bringing in that which is not already the self—no real change.

But in the classroom, how do we negotiate the possibilities? What happens, for instance when a student’s participation in our class moves in directions that we disagree with, perhaps very strongly, or that we feel is simply wrong? What if their ideas are offensive to us or to other students? If welcoming the other is the base of ethics but can become an invasion, how far are we willing to go in encountering ideas? What if a student raises ideas we find to be racist, sexist, or culturally insensitive? There may be very strong pressure or personal impulse to shut down such arguments.

“That sort of idea is not welcome in this class.” This is a very difficult position, as in such a case we have to weigh a variety of ethical obligations. We have an obligation to the other students in the classroom. But we have an obligation as well to a student with whom we disagree, or even that society very generally disagrees with. And I do not think that what may be called “free speech” and which, I would claim, is the saying is unlimited, though the welcoming of ideas other than our own may be at the heart of learning. Anna Strhan recognizes, “As a teacher, I am always already responding to the demands of my profession, and in a sense am constituted as a political subject through the ‘becoming conscience’ that Levinas speaks of, uncontained by the state, yet operating within the state.” 30 That is, some of our expectations in this sense may be either legal or otherwise a part of our obligations to society that we cannot ignore.

But we should realize discourse is central to learning and be careful about when and how we limit it. Levinas redefines teaching to some extent declaring “The height from which language comes we designate with the term teaching.” 31 The Other is the only way something can come to us that is not part of the self and change us. That is, in meeting the other we are taught, limits to our ability to meet the other should be few and imperative. If we limit such opportunities, we may limit true learning. As Levinas continues, “Teaching is not a species of a genus called domination, a hegemony at work within a totality, but is the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality.”

To be fair, what he is talking about here is not the equivalent teaching at a university, and being taught in this sense is not the equivalent of being a university student. In fact, it may have little to do with such positions at all. I don’t want to equivocate. The teaching that I am talking about today is something that happens to us in the face of the other, something both professors and students should be doing all the time, while our job as instructors is sometimes removed from that in what Levinas would call political, the demands of a system that requires certifications, standardized assessments, and the following of codes of conduct—not inconsiderable, as those codes, assessments, and certifications may have good reasoning in negotiating the infinite labyrinth of ethical obligations we all have to one another. And yet, we should understand that when we feel obligated to control our classroom, something we must do (I want to make that clear.) we may limit the degree to which true learning may take place.

When we close an avenue of response, we sacrifice not only the student who may express ideas that we simply cannot countenance, but to whom we have, nevertheless, a very real ethical obligation, but we also risk limiting the chance for other students to face those ideas in a structure in which they can confront them with aid. So, both instructors and students need to be more willing to allow ideas to work out in conversation, in the saying of the ethical encounter, rather than insisting on some particular version of the said and its enforcement.

And it perhaps goes without saying that this has meaning well beyond the classroom. Teaching in this sense, as I have stated, always results from the ethical encounter. And we need to be more willing to engage in that encounter—to engage ideas in the saying rather than insisting on whatever our version of the said is, insisting some ideas are unspeakable. In meetings, in hallways, in our homes, including our dorm rooms, let’s meet the ideas of our families, colleagues, roommates, friends. If they are wrong, or if we are wrong, we may each make new networks of knowledge, accept that which was not part of us, and become something more than we are.

There may be frustrating encounters with those unwilling to engage. We cannot predict their response to us, and that response may be closed. We cannot, in fact, tell if they are open or closed. That is part of their existence, to which we have no access. We have only our own obligation ethically. We can act to close ourselves to them, and that may be necessary in some cases, but I would hope they are few. You see if we only feel an ethical obligation to those with whom we agree, at some point we have no ethical obligation to anyone, only a mission to disseminate our ideas.

And now it is time for me to stop. So far, I have imposed on you a lot of my ideas, ideas I have had through engagement with others, but ideas with which you have had no chance to engage directly. And chances are some of them are wrong. Certainly, even where they may be called right, I do not want to just transmit them. It has been a challenge to give, essentially, a monologue on the importance of dialogue. There is, later today, a panel discussion. I ask you very sincerely to come. Then we can have the discussion that I wish could happen here. More learning has come to me talking with my colleagues, my students, and my wife in this project than in the reading and research that went into it.

To quote Levinas one more time, “the relationship between the same and the other, my welcoming of the other, is the ultimate fact, and in it, the things figure not as what one builds but what one gives.” 32 I opened this talk by asking what justified my giving it, and my answer was that this talk could not be just an opportunity to transmit my ideas but to give you something worth having come for, a gift. I hope that I have given something worth having come for, and I hope we can come together to be taught of each other later today.


1. Emmanuel Levinas and Phillipe Nemo, Ethics and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2011), 49.

2. Ethics and Infinity, 49.

3. Ethics and Infinity, 51.

4. Ethics and Infinity, 57.

5. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 2007), 134.

6. Totality and Infinity, 157.

7. Totality and Infinity, 199.

8. Ethics and Infinity, 86.

9. Totality and Infinity, 84.

10. Totality and Infinity, 88.

11. Totality and Infinity, 203.

12. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being (Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 2016), 59.

13. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Reflection in the Water,” Church News, 1 Nov. 2009,

14. Totality and Infinity, 85.

15. Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge: Harvard UP), 48.

16. Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 49.

17. Qtd in Levinas, Otherwise than Being, 146.

18. James Lang, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What you Can Do About It (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 62.

19. Susan Ambrose, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Josey Bass, 2010), 3.

20. Totality and Infinity, 203.

21. Slavoj Zizek. “What Does Europe Want?” Slavoj Zizek-Bibliography/What Does Europe Want?/Lacan Dot Com, 1 May 2004,

22. (Qtd. S. I. A. Kotei, “The Book Today in Africa,” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, et al. (London: Routledge, 1995), 481.

23. Sharon Todd, Learning from the Other: Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and Ethical Possibilities in Education (Albany: State U of New York P, 2003), 23.

24. Otherwise than Being, 15.

25. Otherwise than Being, 183.

26. Qtd in Russel T. Osguthorpe, “Teaching is not Talking, it is ‘observing, listening, and discerning,’” Church News 10 Dec 2011,

27. Jacques Derrida. “Hostipitality,” Angelaki, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2000, 17.

28. Todd, 37.

29. Todd, 11

30. Anna Strhan, Levinas, Subjectivity, Education: Towards an Ethics of Radical Responsibility (London: Blackwell, 2012), 15

31. Totality and Infinity, 171.

32. Otherwise than Being, 77.