Stanley Fish (1994) wrote, “Liberalism is tolerant only within the space demarcated by the operations of reason; any one who steps outside that space will not be tolerated…In this liberalism does not differ from fundamentalism or from any other system of thought.” (Emphasis in original; p. 137)
The question then arises as to whether or not toleration is possible at any level? If, as Fish suggests, any system of thought is tolerant only within the limits of its own boundaries, then are we not doomed to living within the limits of our own set of taken-for-granteds, our own imagination, our own cultural, religious, ethnic, gender, sexual orientational traps? And, if this is the case, then how can one claim tolerance?
Here Fish takes a stab at the modern project, pointing to the limits of reason (or of faith) as self-contained systemic approaches to problem solving. It occurs to me that the problem is not one of embracing a single point of departure for thinking but, as Derrida (e.g., 1983; 1994) suggests, exploring the double-bind that purports to re-present both reason and intention. Focusing on the moment of existence as it renders a trace of Différance so that truth is known in multiple ways renders the notion of a singular mode of thought obsolete. Situations, ideas, thoughts are all subject to rigorous analysis from multiple perspectives in order to approach a tentative understanding which, in turn, is always subject to further analysis and, therefore, is constantly in flux.
Levinas’ (1969; 1987; 1997) approach to the ethical may provide some wiggle room here. There is an absolute ethical imperative for Levinas which is to be responsible for the other even before the other exists. For Levinas this is the ethical absolute that exists in what he terms the face-to-face of the ethical imperative. It is only through this exercise of response-ability that one is fully human. There is no reliance on reason or intentionality here. Rather, there is a reliance on action, acceptance of the imperative beyond which there is nothing.
Both Derrida and Levinas practice a religion without religion. Both require an anticipation of that which is to come but which remains just out of reach. There is an anticipation of the infinite, beyond which there is nothing—at least nothing that can be determined or desired. So here is anticipation without desire, waiting without knowledge.
So, what does any of this have to do with teaching and learning? After all, that is what this space is all about! The response-able relationship between teachers and students, the reciprocal requirement of the face-to-face, is the goal of any classroom. As a teacher, I must accept the ethical imperative so that reciprocation begins and ends with me. I have the duty to my students to consider, analyze, plan, and execute and, finally, to reconsider everything I know or do in my classroom. If I do this, I will set the stage for a real partnership with my students so that they, too, will be prepared to reciprocate.
Derrida, J. (1983). Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, J. (1994). Aporias (T. Dutoit, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Fish, S. (1994). There’s no such thing as free speech…and it’s a good thing too. New York: Oxford University Press.
Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and Infinity: An essay on exteriority (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. (1987). Time & the Other (R. A. Cohen, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: DuQuesne University Press.
Levinas, E. (1997). Otherwise than being or beyond essence (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.