Educational Implications of Emmanuel Levinas' Ethics

Beyond “celebrating diversity”: Educating for social and moral responsibility as if difference really mattered.

Principal Investigator: Dr. Ann Chinnery

How This Project is Carried Out

Although Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) has long been considered one of the most influential philosophers in Europe, it is only over the past 20 years or so that his work has been taken up in North American philosophy and even more recently within philosophy of education.

Levinas challenges—or, more accurately, turns upside-down—many of our taken-for-granted assumptions about moral responsibility and what it means to be an ethical self. For example, instead of the typical emphasis on individual rights and freedoms that has characterized morality in the Western world for the past 200 years or so, Levinas says that the only right I have (ethically speaking) is the right to pursue the rights and freedoms of the other. My own philosophical work on Levinas is around how his conception of ethical responsibility might impact our understanding of moral education in increasingly diverse classrooms.

Why This Project Matters

This strand of my research is intended to challenge the ways in which we currently think about educating for social and moral responsibility in schools. The currently dominant approaches tend to fall into one of two strands:

a.  an emphasis on empathy and the ability to see all people as members of a common humanity regardless of differences in race, class, gender, ability, or sexual orientation as a necessary step to seeing others’ well-being as our own moral concern; or

b.  an emphasis on cultivating virtuous behaviour typical of programs in character education.

In my view, Levinas offers us a conception quite outside both of these models, but it is not an approach that lends itself readily to prescriptions for practice. Rather, it is about adopting or embodying a different ethical stance in our relationships with the Other.

Where to Learn More

Chinnery, A. (2010). Encountering the philosopher as teacher: The pedagogical postures of Emmanuel Levinas. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(8), 1704-1709.

This paper is perhaps the clearest example of the intersection of my work on Levinas and teacher education. I rely primarily on interviews, memories, and testimonials from Levinas’ former students, colleagues, and long-time secretary in order to draw out three salient themes, or postures, in Levinas’ teaching during his 40-plus years as teacher and director of l’École Normale Israélite Orientale, a teacher training school in Paris. I then offer some tentative suggestions about what we might learn, especially from the concept of maître à penser, for our own ongoing work in teacher education.

Chinnery, A., & Bai, H. (2008). Justice in the name of the other: Levinas on rights and responsibility. In D. Egéa-Kuehne (Ed.), Levinas and education: At the intersection of faith and reason (pp. 228-241). London: Routledge.

In this chapter, we trace historical discourses of rights and responsibilities in Western thought and contrast them with Levinas’ inversion of those discourses. Whereas the prevailing social contract approach emphasizes rational self-interest, Levinas insists that the only (ethical) right we have is the right to pursue the freedom and rights of the other. In the final section of the chapter we explore what such radically other-centred ethics might mean for moral education.

Chinnery, A. (2007). On compassion and community without identity: Implications for moral education. In D. Vokey (Ed.), Philosophy of Education 2006 (pp. 330-338). Urbana-Champaign, IL: Philosophy of Education Society.

In this paper, which is intended for both teacher educators and philosophers of education, I critique the rather romantic way in which the notion of ‘community’ is often taken up in classroom settings. In contrast to an understanding of community as based on perceived similarity or identity, I draw on Zygmunt Bauman’s conception of community as “permanent coexistence with the stranger” and I posit Levinas’ conception of compassion as a potential moral framework for such an approach.

Chinnery, A. (2003). Aesthetics of surrender: Levinas and the disruption of agency in moral education. Studies in Philosophy and Education 22(1), 5-17.

This paper focuses on Levinas’ conception of subjectivity as an inescapable position of ethical responsibility to and for the other. Using the metaphor of jazz improvisation I highlight three aspects of Levinas’ ethics in order to show that a robust conception of moral agency need not rest on a conception of subjectivity as sovereign rational autonomy.

To learn more about Levinas' ethics and education, see the works of:
Gert Biesta
Sharon Todd
Paul Standish
Clarence Joldersma
Denise Egéa-Kuehne

Egéa-Kuehne, D. (ed.) (2008). Levinas and education: At the intersection of faith and reason.New York: Routledge.

Studies in Philosophy and Education 22 (1). Special issue, “Levinas and education: The question of implication.” (Sharon Todd, Guest Editor).