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Teaching Philosophy

Levinas on the Border(s)

Jules Simon
University of Texas at El Paso

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ABSTRACT: This essay explores my own situation of teaching philosophy in a more or less traditional undergraduate setting but in a way that is especially relevant to the theme of this Congress, namely, the theme of "philosophy educating humanity." In my case, I teach philosophy but from a perspective that is non-traditional and which undercuts the standard questions originating from and orienting around a "philosophia perennia." Specifically, I teach philosophy of religion from the perspective of Jewish philosophy, and even more specifically, from the perspective of the French Jewish philosophy of Emmanuelle Levinas. Moreover, I teach philosophy in an educational environment that is representative of the greater global community because I teach at the University of Texas at El Paso, situated on the border that separates the United States and Latin America. Finally, my teaching situation is one that is further marginalized because of the precarious nature of my academic position, namely, trained outside the traditional borders of philosophical faculty and working at first as a part-timer and only recently as a full-time, non-tenure track teacher of philosophy and humanities. Hence, I offer my experience of doing work of successfully teaching philosophy "on the borders" in the hope that others gathered here will be challenged to think differently about their own way of educating others.

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What follows is about teaching the philosophy of Levinas, on the Mexico/USA border, on the border of a traditional discipline of philosophy (the philosophy of religion), and on the border of academia--as a non-tenure-track, non-traditionally trained Lecturer in Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Texas at El Paso. The relevance of these three interrelated themes for the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, whose theme is "Philosophy Educating Humanity," should be at least initially obvious, but a few preliminary remarks should clear up any confusions about my title.

Most important of all, my scope is broader and deeper than the stated regional or academic limits. I contend that how I do what I do where I am at, and with whom I teach and learn has inter-national and inter-cultural significance which justifies inclusion of my remarks in an international Paideia forum. As a non-Jew with a degree in Religious Studies, I teach the philosophy of Levinas, a French-Jewish philosopher, in a relatively traditional Program of Philosophy to Spanish-speaking-Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Anglo-Americans. Moreover, I do so in the predominantly Christo-centric and conservative cultural climate of the border region of El Paso, USA and Juarez, Mexico. Fortunately, while the University administration and some of the other Departments at UTEP are regrettably conservative (previous attempts at unionizing the faculty have utterly failed), the Programs from which I teach are decidedly not so. Thus, I have been invited to continue teaching philosophy and humanities and do so with some clear measure of enjoyment and successful effectiveness. The criteria by which I gauge my level of enjoyment and effectiveness have to do with what I teach and how I teach those I teach; specifically, I teach and learn Jewish philosophy from a model of Jewish teaching and learning with an eclectic and diverse range of students who are eager and able to engage in some very difficult courses of study.

Teaching Philosophy on the Mexico/USA Border

The peculiar geographical situation of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is that it is situated in the city of El Paso, Texas which is across the river from the largest border city in Mexico, Juarez. That should be relatively well-known. What may not be as well known is the extent to which UTEP reflects the demographic dynamics of its border situation. Despite political resistance, burgeoning border patrols and a government proposal to erect a fascist fence to divide the two communities, UTEP truly is a University of the border and, generally and for the most part, I have come to teach from the border. The student profile reflects this border reality since over 50% of UTEP's students are Hispanic and UTEP enrolls a higher percentage of Mexican nationals as full-time students than any other University in the U.S. Consequently, most students in UTEP's classrooms have deep bicultural concerns because of their roots which extend well below the surfaces on each side of the Rio Grande. Because I teach in this border situation I have found that teaching Levinas is especially helpful.

Teaching Jewish Philosophy

I teach philosophy primarily by way of how I was taught philosophy by Jewish teachers of philosophy. Hence, for me and for this essay, "Levinas" stands for "teaching Jewish philosophy" as well as "teaching philosophy Jewishly." As many others before me have observed, it is not very easy to determine what is meant by "teaching philosophy" or for that matter what is meant by "teaching Jewish philosophy." And to explicate what I mean by "teaching philosophy Jewishly" will be the hardest task of all, a task which I have not yet adaquately clarified, and perhaps never will. Nonetheless, elaborating why I choose Levinas to stand for such teaching is how I orient myself in those teaching situations within which I find myself.

To begin with, Levinas does not encompass all of what Jewish philosophy entails nor does invoking his name entirely account for teaching philosophy Jewishly. Rather, for this essay, Levinas merely "stands for" one such relational teaching activity. Levinas presents me with a way to teach philosophy that takes into account the demanding dynamics of teaching at a university in a bicultural border town through reminding me of my responsibility to the Other. While Levinas reminds me of such a responsibility, there are other Jewish philosophers who could likewise do so and whose lessons, in fact, I am more familiar with and am more capable of sharing with others. While I am still learning Levinas' philosophy, I nonetheless still teach Levinas for the same reasons that I teach philosophy at the university and especially at this border university, namely, because teaching from a border situation is as much a learning situation as is learning from Levinas.

I teach Levinas because Levinas reminds me that to do philosophy is to do so face-to-face with an other who is not reducible to any kind of totalitarian conceptual scheme whereby I can substitute an idea for the radically other in my teaching relation. Levinas reminds me to resist the temptation to reduce the other to an idea, a vessel, a cipher or any other individual instrument of my owmost ethos. As Levinas reminds me, the other resists comprehension. But this does not mean that the relation is irrational. Rather the relation is precisely characterized by the other who commands my intellectual attention and desire. In his first seminal text, Totality and Infinity, Levinas specifically discusses the task of philosophy which is the critique of knowing which leads to the Other: "The knowing whose essence is critique cannot be reduced to objective cognition; it leads to the Other. To welcome the Other is to put in question my freedom." Roughly put, for Levinas, freedom is a correlate of the power which is a function of my self-identity. While Levinas claims that "If I can no longer have power over him it is because he overflows absolutely every idea I can have of him," he does so because of his conviction that a relationship of justices conditions any intellectual endeavor. As he notes in that same text, "The sense of our whole effort lies in affirming not that the Other forever escapes knowing, but that there is no meaning in speaking here of knowledge or ignorance, for justice, the preeminent transcendence and the condition for knowing, is nowise, as one would like, a noesis correlative of a noema." Relating to the other is accomplished through a face-to-face welcoming of the other in a discourse such that I place the other before me in a relation of priority and non-reciprocity that Levinas calls justice and which accounts for and continues to establish our heterogeneous, pluralistic society.

Teaching Jewish Philosophy on the Border

Such a philosophy of teaching is demanded by the very heterogeneous nature of the border situation where what it means to be on a border is both to relate to the other as non-assimilable and to thereby retain one's own self-identity. In fact, relating to the other as non-assimilable other is only possible if that very relationship is grounded by one's own self-identity which entails an ongoing assertion of the cultural separations of what it means to be culturally rooted as a US citizen or as a Mexican citizen. An assertion of this cultural separation is what I read in Levinas' philosophy of the infinite, of the other (l'autre). Consequently, when I teach philosophy I am not in the business of indoctrination or proselytization. Rather, what I do I do from respect for the other who calls the security of my own identity into question by not allowing me to appropriate their self-identity in my conceptual schemas. Levinas teaches me to accept the gift that is the cultural identity that my Mexican and Mexican-American students offer on a daily basis; and I have been learning Spanish in order to better accept and to give in return.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion

There are two topics which fall under this second area that are interrelated in my own peculiar situation. The first is that since I teach Levinas, I teach outside the accepted canon of philosophy of religion by drawing attention to what has previously been marginalized as an area worth studying. While I draw specific attention to Jewish philosophy as a philosophy of religion, this does not mean that I exercise by my selection a variation of selective imperialism. On the contrary, an ongoing dialogue between various philosophers about various philosophies of religion is a precondition for my own presentation of any alternative at all. What I try to avoid with the help of Levinas, is encouraging students to either perpetuate or precipitate perspectives of monological exclusivity.

While "philosophy of religion" is a traditional discipline within the stream of academic philosophy, teaching Jewish Philosophy as "philosophy of religion" clearly and undeniably is not within that traditional stream. This lamentable state of affairs is well-documented in almost every standard philosophy of religion textbook. Hence, Levinas stands for transgressing those borders of homogeneity of teaching from the perennially Christian agenda of scholastic-dominated metaphysics. Moreover, teaching Levinas as an alternative in the area of philosophy of religion allows for broadening the possibilities for teaching alternatives to more than the more readily accepted alternatives of the Asian philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

For example, Frederick Ferré claims, in his Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion, to attempt to make his text more "centrally philosophical" but in fact his final chapter is, predictably, entitled "Current Quest for Responsible Christian Theism" and, although he claims to be unsatisfied with any theistic model because of the untenability of institutional imagery, his fundamental Western Christian orientation leads Ferré to revise such Christian formulations as "Thy will be done" and "Thy kingdom come" in a secular model of value formations which nonetheless still rely upon a backbone of Christian metaphysics. Another text, Melville Stewart's very recent collection of essays from both continental and analytical traditions of the philosophy of religion, Philosophy of Religion:An Anthology of Contemporary Views, is impressive by its comprehensiveness and philosophical acuity. However, Stewart begins and ends within a Christian framework, notably from the first essay by the renowned German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg on traditional issues involved in "Faith and Reason" to his concluding essay by S. Mark Heim exploring Paul Knitter's argument for religious pluralism (in No Other Name?) in an essay likewise predictably entitled, "Thinking About Theocentric Christology." Finally, in perhaps the most widely used and definitive work in the area, John H. Hick's Philosophy of Religion, Hick distinguishes his work as philosophizing about religion as opposed to the apologetic task of natural theologians to prepare the student for the acceptance of religious convictions. However, he likewise remains within Christian parameters, albeit in a variation of negative inclusion, when he ends his text with the disclaimer: "Thus it seems that if the contradiction at the heart of the traditional Christian attitude to non-Christian faiths is to be resolved, Christian thinkers must give even more radical thought to the problem than they have as yet done. It is however not within the scope of this book to suggest a plan for the reconstruction of Christian or other religious doctrines." To be fair, Hick does go on in later works to reexamine the roots of his own and others' Christian orthodoxy especially in his work on religious pluralism, God Has Many Names. His circle of concern, however, primarily remains how to make sense of Christian categories over against the invalidating challenges and truth-claims of other world religions. As Pomerlaeau points out in yet another very recent Christian-dominated text, Western Philosophies of Religion, Hick, "like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas ... is committed to the philosophical project of 'faith seeking understanding.'"

From these admittedly few selections out of the many that could have been chosen, it is obvious at least to me that the predominant model for reading and teaching philosophy of religion seems to have been and largely still is determined by Christian concerns. While there are many Christians in the world and, evidently, in publishing and teaching positions which determine the agendas of philosophers of religion and the texts available from which to teach, it seems that some of their more intractable difficulties could be addressed by allowing for a philosophy of religion that is not chained to the dominant model. This I do with Levinas.

In groping for alternatives, the last few times that I have taught Philosophy of Religion I taught mainly from three authors and used their primary texts as a basis to establish and initiate a discourse. The three major authors and their texts have been Spinoza's Ethics, Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption, and Levinas' The Levinas Reader. Additionally I include at least two female Jewish philosophers such as Laura Levitt, Edith Wyshogrod or Hava Tirosh-Samuelson as well as utilize background texts such as Norbert Samuelson's An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy. My future projections include a more vigorous inclusion of women philosophers' voices in what I teach as I become more attentive to what they have to say.

While it would be tiresome to recount the many positive student responses to this exciting and challenging alternative to the standard fare of philosophy of religion, I would like to merely add at this point that while the initial response of my students is incredulity and resistance to reading such difficult and foreign material, they by and large remain and demonstrate growth in and respect for philosophy as a discipline and approach to life. Also, I know that what I do has some merit because my classes continue to be full and many students continue to study with me from course to course.

Non-Tenure Track Teaching

This final section has to do with the academy in general and teaching philosophy either as a part-timer, which I did for several years, or as an itinerant laborer on a yearly renewable contract, namely, in a position to be fired by the administration with merely a whim of disapproval. While I am not sure what I would do if I were ever hired to fill a tenure-track line, or if I ever did receive tenure, I find some solace in teaching Levinas precisely because of the insecure and transient nature of the conditions of my teaching position. Perhaps if I followed a more traditional path of preparation than the one that I did, I might very well be more firmly ensconced in a position somewhere doing the committee routine and losing sleep over not publishing as much as I should or could or would, . . . if only.

What is the case, however, is that I began graduate school because of my love for teaching, studying the dominant Christian model of religion because of my Roman Catholic background, but soon found my field of study incomprehensible without first learning more about its Jewish origins. Such a realization led me to desire to know more about Jewish thought and thinkers and I was drawn into the teaching orbit of one of the founders of the Academy of Jewish Philosophy in Philadelphia, Norbert Samuelson of Temple University. Samuelson has is well-respected for his expertise in Medieval Jewish philosophy, and in the last few years has done considerable and impressive work in the cross-disciplinary areas of religion and science. However, when I met him and began studying with him he was just finishing a close, line-by-line reading of Spinoza's Ethics and was beginning a close, line-by-line reading of Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption. And thus I began a six-year process of reading Rosenzweig's text with Samuelson and a series of other reading partners who would come and go through our Havura.

Which eventually led me to Levinas. I actually never did get directly to Levinas while in graduate school but did come into contact with another extraordinary teacher who helped lead me there and who worked with me through some of the Heidegger material included in my dissertation on Rosenzweig's philosophy. I met Bob Gibbs through Samuelson while Gibbs was just publishing his comparative work on Rosenzweig and Levinas, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas. While it was too late in my own writing process to substantively include Levinas in that predominantly Rosenzweigian work, I do make stronger connections in a Rosenzweig-Heidegger work I am currently attempting to publish. More importantly, I did begin to read Levinas and, a few years later, when I had my first chance to develop and to teach a Philosophy of Religion course at UTEP, Levinas figured prominently as the capstone of the course, as his philosophy does for me today.

Again, this is not to say that I consider myself by any means an expert in Levinas' work nor even especially good in Jewish philosophy. But I am capable enough to know not only the value of studying his work in itself, as well as in studying and teaching Jewish philosophy, but also that there are great rewards in sharing that work with my students because the process of "reading through" the work of an other with an other is what teaching philosophy, through teaching Levinas, has come to mean for me. What this ultimately meant is that I found myself in a program in Religious Studies studying philosophy, that is, studying Modern to Contemporary Continental and Jewish Philosophy. Along the way, I was trained to teach Humanities in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University and found that not only was my cross-cultural, interdisciplinary interests and training applicable in such a teaching venue but even enjoyable and productive. It was productive in the sense that teaching Humanities was enjoyable, nourishing labor for me and for the students who came my way. However, it was not productive in resulting in a full-time job anywhere after graduate school and so I followed my wife's possibilities in her field in midwifery and found myself in the southwest, specifically in Las Cruces, New Mexico within driving distance of the University of Texas at El Paso. This was fortunate because UTEP happened to need someone to fill in for some last-minute vacancies in the Humanities and Philosophy Programs on a part-time basis. I happened to be that someone. The additional fortunate circumstance in my case was that I was prepared to teach Humanities from my training at Temple, but more importantly, I was offered the possibility to teach Ancient Greek Philosophy through the risk taken by the then-current Chair of the Philosophy Program, Jack Haddox. As I found out a short while later, the risk that Haddox took was not as unusual as it would have been in other universities-for example, I was told by the chairperson at New Mexico State University in no uncertain terms that I could never teach in his Department because not only was my degree in religion but because my controversial area is Modern-Contemporary Continental philosophy. The members of the Philosophy Program at UTEP, however, beginning with Haddox but including each of the others, are remarkable by their Levinasian welcoming openness to "other" possibilities.

Hence, after two grueling and increasingly challenging years of teaching and proving my effectiveness at UTEP I was offered a full-time joint position in their Humanities and Philosophy Programs with enthusiastic support by the members of each of those programs. While I would love to be enmeshed in a tenure-track position, especially at UTEP, I am not. Nonetheless, my current position is one which concretely exemplifies an instance of "philosophy teaching humanity." But beyond that impersonal level, my teaching is a source of profound enjoyment because of the continued possibilities that I have been offered to teach in and explore Levinas through the ongoing remarkable openness and demands of the now countless students with whom I am responsibly engaged.

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(1) I am thinking here especially of Franz Rosenzweig (The Star of Redemption, trans. by William W. Hallo, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985) or Martin Buber (I and Thou, trans. by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970), both of whom have had an enormous influence on Modern Jewish Philosophy (cf. Norbert Samuelson, Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989) and a fairly direct influence on Levinas' own peculiar concern to pursue discourses of the Other, the ethical, and the relationship of Athens and Jerusalem.

(2) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. by Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969).

(3) Ibid., 85. Levinas devotes the entire section of "Truth and Justice" to this discussion of the limiting demands that the other makes upon my own sense of freedom.

(4) Ibid., 87.

(5) Ibid., 89.

(6) Frederick Ferré, Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967).

(7) Melville, Y. Stewart, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology of Contemporary Views (Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1996). Note especially that of the 35 essays included in the volume, at least 30 are by established Christian scholars and deal with traditionally Christian themes from traditional Christian perspectives.

(8) Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985).

(9) John Hick, Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 129.

(10) John Hick, God Has Many Names (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980).

(11) Wayne P. Pomerleau, Western Philosophies of Religion: Great Religious Epistemologies from Augustine to Hick (New York: Ardsley House Publishers, Inc., 1998), 558.

(12) Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics and Selected Letters, trans. by Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982). Emmauel Levinas, The Levinas Reader, ed. by Seán Hand (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989). I ust this collection of essays by Levinas because of the possibilities for increasing the correlative applications of his ideas and because they are more accessible to a typical undergraduate. For Rosenzweig, see fn. 1.

(13) Hebrew for "circle of friends" and which was also a movement of Jewish intellectuals who formed clusters of small study groups, initiated in the late sixties by the Jewish academic and mystic, Zalman Schachter.

(14) Robert Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

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