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Studies in Philosophy and Education (2005) 24:139160 DOI 10.


Springer 2005



ABSTRACT. Using insights from the tradition of via negativa and the work of Emmanuel Levinas, this paper proposes that unknowability can occupy an important place in teaching and learning, a place that embraces the unknowable in general, as well as the unknowable Other, in particular. It is argued that turning toward both via negativa and Levinas oers us an alternative to conceptualizing the roles of the ethical and the unknowable in educational praxis. This analysis can open possibilities to transform how educators think about the goals of education in two important ways. First, creating spaces for embracing unknowing in educational settings is an act of ethical responsibility that recovers a sense of the Other and his/her uniqueness. Second, rethinking the value of unknowing in the classroom may inspire in students and teachers a sense of vigilance, responsibility and witnessing. Unknowing is an act of embracing otherness and presents a curious element of redemption; in the lack of knowledge, the meaning of its absence is found. KEY WORDS: education, ethics, knowing, learning, Levinas, Other, unknowing, via negativa

In 1989 in an article that stimulated considerable discussions in educational circles, Elizabeth Ellsworth questioned whether a fruitful teacherstudent relationship is possible, given the dierent life experiences of teachers and students as well as the power imbalance between them. In presenting her argument, Ellsworth focused on how the lives of societal groups dier from one another in a sense, they are unknowable to each other, as she argued. She particularly emphasized that her own teaching experience left her wanting to think through the implications of confronting unknowability. What would it mean to recognize not only that a multiplicity of knowledges are present in the classroom . . . but that these knowledges are contradictory, partial, and irreducible? (p. 321, added emphasis). Given that the various societal groups have separate knowledges, inaccessible to one another, Ellsworth advocated a practice grounded in the unknowable (p. 323, added emphasis).



Education has always been a game of knowing and unknowing, learning and ignorance. In addition, teaching students to encounter the Other has been a worthy educational goal. But what if otherness, as Ellsworth argues, is not epistemologically available, i.e. the Other is unknowable? What sense does ethics or knowing about the Other make then? How can educators and their students consider the possibility of unknowing and still encounter the Other, respecting his/her irreducible otherness? It seems that there is an inherent paradoxical interaction between knowing and unknowing, learning and ignorance: At the same time that we are eager to explore and learn things (including learning about the Other), we have to admit that things (and the Other) are mysterious and unknowable. Can this paradox be embraced in teaching and learning, and form a pedagogy of unknowing, a communication with the unknown, that perhaps oers us inspiring ways of approaching unknowability?1 Using insights from the tradition of via negativa and the work of Emmanuel Levinas, this essay proposes that unknowability can occupy an important place in teaching and learning, a place that embraces the unknowable in general, as well as the unknowable Other, in particular. I argue that despite the dierences between Levinas and via negativa neither by themselves adequately explain unknowing as such; that is, I develop an idea of unknowing that relies on both of these traditions. Following a trajectory that begins from tracing unknowing in the tradition of via negativa in the late Middle Ages, and then identifying connections and tensions to Levinass philosophy, educators can shed light on the ways in which unknowability may be viewed in education. On the one hand, via negativa is based on the notion that God is ineable and that the best way to God is through silence and un-knowing (Zembylas and Michaelides, 2004). Thus, we un-know the normal content of our awareness in order that an awareness of God may ow in (Jones, 1981). Where we have no rational understanding of something, or are unable fully to describe or explain it, we can nonetheless experience it, and the experience is strikingly real (Green, 1986). This is a form of knowledge that St. John of the
Here, it needs to be claried that pedagogy is not meant to signify classroom pedagogical practices; broadly speaking, pedagogy may be dened as the relational encounter among individuals through which unpredictable possibilities of communication are created. Pedagogy is the site of intersubjective encounters that entails transformative possibilities.



Cross refers to as unknowing.2 This idea was later picked up by the medieval English contemplative who authored The Cloud of Unknowing, by Meister Eckhart, and by a few others. For example, Nicholas of Cusas De Docta Ignorantia speaks of learned ignorance in a Socratic sense: learned ignorance is knowing that we are ignorant.3 On the other hand, Levinas (1969), inuenced by such religious traditions, writes about encountering the face of the Other, the epiphany of the face, an idea that emphasizes the recognition of the irreducible dierence, fundamental unknowability, and radical exteriority of the Other. Responding to the Other, then, is not an issue of knowledge about the Other (otherness is not epistemologically available), but implies approaching the Other as an unknowable alterity. I will argue that there are interesting connections as well as important tensions between Levinass ideas and the tradition of via negativa as far as the notion of unknowability is concerned. In De Mystica Theologia, Dionysius the Areopagite (1997) spoke of a divine ignorance (Greek, agnosia) whereby we need to unknow things so that we can permit Gods ray of darkness to enter in. Similarly, Levinas suggests that we need to approach the Other with ignorance so that we can learn from the Other and permit him/her to enter in (Todd, 2003). These similarities add another interesting layer to our earlier paradox: we attend to (Simon, 2003) the Other precisely by recognizing that the Other is unknowable. On the other hand, there are also serious tensions between Levinas and via negativa such as the individual, contemplative nature of the mystics that goes against the grain of Levinass view of the relation to the Other as an eminently social one. Nevertheless, these tensions enrich our attempts to become witnesses of unknowability in teaching and teaching, because they provide a more nuanced perspective on unknowing.
St. John of the Cross lived in Spain (15421591) and is considered one of the most important mystical philosophers in (Catholic) Christian history. He was the founder (with St. Teresa) of Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites, a strict form of monastic life. He left behind remarkable works of Christian mysticism such as: Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, and the Spiritual Canticle of the Soul. 3 Nicholas of Cusa was German (14011464), served the Roman Catholic Church as a papal advocate, canon lawyer and a cardinal, and wrote many philosophical and spiritual works. His two best-known works are De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance) and De Visione Dei (On the Vision of God).



Thus, it seems to me of some value to embark on this journey from via negativa to Levinass work and explore the art of unknowing (Turner, 1998) in educational philosophy. UNKNOWING AND THE TRADITION OF VIA NEGATIVA The teaching belonging to the so-called Via Negativa (as understood in the Latin tradition) and apophatic thought (as understood in the Greek tradition) refers to the mystical theology developed by mystical philosophers, such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius Areopagite, and added to this tradition are the interpretations and innovations made by later scholastic teachers such as Hugh and Richard of St. Victor, the representatives of Augustinian, cataphatic mysticism. The via negativa or apophatic thought emphasizes knowledge of God through unknowing. Entering into this unknowing (or a-gnosia) might be called a kind of gnosis that is, in unknowing, one realizes or acquires spiritual understanding through ignorance. In contrast to willful ignorance, though, which involves a self-conscious refusing to understand, unknowing describes a realization of inadequacy to anything approaching full and comprehensive understanding. According to the tradition of via negativa, knowing that one does not know is essential to understanding God.4 Via negativa takes its origin from Dionysius the Areopagite (a fth century A.D. monk, now known as Pseudo-Dionysius), whose treatises on via negativa remain a cornerstone of Christian mysticism to this day. Dionysius argued that human intellect is incapable of formulating any but inadequate propositions concerning God. The best way of approaching God, according to Dionysius, is through silence and ignorance (Dionysius, 1997). In the work of Dionysius, unknowing has a positive role in the mystical process. To approach God, one must become disenchanted with knowledge, i.e. one has to denounce approaching everything in epistemological terms. In the 15th century, Nicholas of Cusa (1954) further developed the tradition of via negativa in his De Docta Ignorantia (that may be translated either as On Learned Ignorance or On Learned Unknowing). He emphasized the wisdom of recognizing the fallibility of human intelligence to comprehend the totality and innity of God. In other words, he argued that the nite human mind cannot know
4 In practice, unknowing corresponds to the believers experiences such as desert, fasting, and silence.



innite truth (i.e. God), because God is beyond all knowledge we can construct. Thus, since we cannot know God in any direct way, we have to approach him through ignorance by considering what he is not, always admitting that God can never be known through learning. Like Dionysius and Nicholas, St. John of the Cross (2001) in the 16th century points us to a similar direction, based on apophatic unknowing and the otherness of God. According to St. John of the Cross, silence and unknowing are tting responses to mystical experience. As he states in an interesting commentary on The spiritual canticle:
In contemplation God teaches the soul very quietly and secretly, without its knowing how, without the sound of words, and without the help of any bodily or spiritual faculty, in silence and quietude, in darkness to all sensory and natural things. Some spiritual persons call this contemplation knowing by unknowing. For this knowledge is not produced by the intellect that the philosophers call the agent intellect, which works on the forms, phantasies, and apprehensions of the corporal faculties; rather it is produced in the possible or passive intellect. This possible intellect, without the reception of these forms, and so on, receives passively only substantial knowledge, which is divested of images and given without any work or active function of the intellect. (stanza 39)

St. John of the Cross argues that there is a type of passive knowledge or receptive understanding which is dierent from our everyday consciousness, but which gives us a very real knowledge or awareness of God. It is received, and, therefore, it is a type of knowledge which cannot be measured by our limited intellectual faculties, but which is the ground for approaching God: i.e. unknowing. Unknowing is a state of understanding all but thinking about no specic item of knowledge (Green, 1986); it is not conned to reason, imagination or the senses, but it embraces everything. To know nothing, as St. John says, is to empty oneself of all particular ideas and images about the otherness of God. Thus unknowing has the potential to transcend the dichotomies and dualistic structures of rationalistic thought (Green, 1986). Perhaps by this St. John means that unknowing contains everything in a state of latency or potentiality, but nothing in actuality or in a state of manifestation (Green, 1986, p. 32). St. John (2001) insists that unknowing is a powerful way of approaching God and one does not achieve this in an intellectual manner but it must be experienced:
I entered into unknowing, and there I remained unknowing transcending all knowledge.



This knowledge in unknowing is so overwhelming that wise men disputing can never overthrow it, for their knowledge does not reach to the understanding of not understanding, transcending all knowledge. (Stanzas concerning an ecstasy experienced in high contemplation)

St. Johns poem describes a very real type of powerful experience which provides a new and deepened way of becoming aware of God. Later in the essay, I will point to some striking similarities between St. Johns discussion of passive reception of God and Levinass analysis of passive reception of the Other. Also, St. John maintains that God is essentially incomprehensible, and we can never attain full knowledge of him; similarly, I will show how Levinas argues that the Other is incomprehensible and we can never attain full knowledge of him/her. Both emphasize a simple apophatic idea that God (or the Other, in Levinass case) cannot be known intellectually or epistemologically. Levinas clearly pushes this idea further in the next section it will become clear how. Finally, I will make a brief reference to one of the best known works of European mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing (1978) written some time in the second half of the fourteenth century, by an unknown author who is thought to have been the spiritual director of a monastery. The book reiterates some basic ideas in via negativa (e.g. makes references to Dionysius) and is a series of spiritual exercises which rest upon the belief that God is incomprehensible. Since God is essentially unknowable to human beings, according to the author of The Cloud, any activity of the intelligence is a hindrance in approaching God. As it is argued, there will always remain a cloud of unknowing between us and the origins and foundations of our existence we want to know; therefore, the best thing we can get in our process of knowing is unknowing. In other words, the soul has to embrace unknowability and move towards God in a cloud of unknowing. With their writings, Dionysius, Nicholas of Cusa, St. John of the Cross, and others in the tradition of the via negativa point the way towards a profound understanding of the ineable, i.e. God, in and through unknowing (Zembylas and Michaelides, 2004). In via negativa, speech is never an armative naming as what is named is



always Other, is always more elusive than apparent. Thus, as Zembylas and Michaelides argue, via negativa identies the breakdown of speech before the unknowable. Far from being a dogma of despair or an anti-epistemological doctrine, via negativa asserts that the believer can experience God even through the painful awareness of his absence (Lawrence, 1999). The dark night of the soul, as John of the Cross (2001) called this experience, is a time of radical stripping away of everything which the seeker values more than God and a reordering of the seekers being (Lawrence, 1999, p. 98). The role of unlearning and ignorance, and the need to go beyond them are signicant in the believers eort to an understanding. Unknowing serves a positive role in that it becomes a position of gaining access to God, by escaping the seduction of approaching God in an epistemological way. One can thus know this only through an unknowing of understanding God that is, emptying the mind of all normal content. VIA NEGATIVAS UNKNOWING IN DIALOGUE WITH LEVINASS WORK The notion of unknowability in via negativa echoes in Levinass work when he argues about the unknown Other, and the modest, humble and ethical manner of approaching the Other who is otherwise than being.5 It is well known, of course, that Levinas has been greatly inuenced by Judeo-Christian tradition in general and the tradition of via negativa, in particular (e.g. see de Vries, 1999; Srajek, 2000; Kosky, 2002), thus it is not dicult to nd parallels between the via negativa and Levinass work.6 My focus here will be to identify some parallels as well as some important diversions between via negativa and Levinass work concerning the notion of unknowing. This discussion will oer signicant insights in grounding the discussion
For Levinas, the Other is in the rst place the other human being who calls for our ethical responsibility, yet the Other is also the Most High. Translators of Levinas contemplate the distinction between Autrui and autre, although Levinas is never entirely consistent. In this essay, I use one or the other (Other/other), often without distinguishing them; the distinctions are made carefully when it matters. 6 For example, Levinas himself acknowledged that Judaism has greatly inuenced his philosophical texts, particularly his reading of the ethical (not mystical) encounter between self and the Other.



about the place of unknowing in educational philosophy which comes in the last part of this essay. One way of beginning to identify some parallels between via negativas notion of unknowing and Levinass attempts to emphasize the meaning of the unknowable Other is to think of God (the holy other, as Derrida says; see also Summerell, 1998) as the inexpressible and the unknowable. God is the holy other because he keeps silent and remains unknowable, just as the Other is unknowable (Levinas, 1985). If God and the Other were somehow knowable to us, they would not be others; we would have been homogeneous with them. Both Levinass philosophy and via negativa attempt to assert what cannot be asserted, what is impossible to know. In via negativa, God cannot be expressed in any meaningful sense, because human intellect is nite; this ineability is also a Levinasian understanding of the Other as an unknowable alterity (Levinas, 1985). The epiphany of radical Otherness emphasizes the Others inassimilable exteriority (Levinas, 1969, 1987a). Like via negativa, Levinass philosophy turns on its desire for the totally Other.7 Of course in via negativa, the totally Other, that which is sublime beyond representation, is God. In this sense, it may be said that Levinas embraces a kind of via negativa towards the ethics of otherness; i.e. knowing the Other is impossible. The relation with the Other becomes an experience of the impossible, of the impossibility of knowing him/her (Levinas, 1987b). The unknowability of the Other is not presented as absence but is correlative to an experience of the impossible (p. 40); the unknowability of the Other signies that the very relationship with him/her is a relationship with mystery (ibid.). Levinas questions the primacy philosophy has given to knowing, with its propensity to grasp the otherness in epistemological terms; understanding the Other as known, argues Levinas, the Others alterity vanishes as it becomes part of the same. Both via negativa (especially St. John) and Levinas emphasize the importance of the passive reception of God and the Other. This means that the self is passively open to the Other and does not aim to assimilating him/her to the same. In general, Levinas and via negativa share the
As one of the reviewers comments, this is true for the Levinas of Totality and Innity; however, by the time of Otherwise Than Being, Levinas drops the idea of desire and tries to paint the relation to the Other in terms other than desire. This is important, because it constitutes a dierence between Levinas and the via negativa. Later in the essay, I discuss the meaning and signicance of desire in this context.



conviction that any conceptualization of God or otherness is automatically inadequate.8 Despite these similarities between via negativa and Levinass philosophy concerning unknowing, there are, of course, some notable dierences. First of all, via negativa posits a godly-Being who resides in a space prior to the purely existential mode of being; in other words, it is clearly caught up in the ontological. However, Levinas attempts to perceive a God (and the Other) who has not become spoiled by being. Thus, Levinas (1985) rejects claims (e.g. in Heideggers philosophy) that ethics is subsequent to Being; instead, as Levinas claims, ethics (ought) precedes ontology (is): ethics is not a moment of being; it is otherwise and better than being, the very possibility of the beyond (1989, p. 179). Levinas also argues that the ontology of the Being does not concern itself with the freedom of the self as something that is questioned. In other words, the Being is locked in ontological terms and thus it is not possible to show that its actions are unjust or evil. Freedom is not ethically questioned and therefore one has no understanding of ethics other than in terms of ontological possibilities and limitations. Levinas makes clear that ethical responsibility to the Other is not a matter of free will, because one has innite responsibility to the Other (Child et al., 1995). The impossibility of knowing the Other is precisely the condition of ethics; the encounter which occurs between self and Other gives birth to an innite ethical responsibility (Levinas, 1985). In other words, while the question in via negativa is about whether nite human (epistemological) categories are adequate to know (grasp, comprehend) God, the question for Levinas is to nd something that comes before (or is deeper than) ontology, namely, the ethical, as a relation to the other.9 Second, via negativa takes on a certain view that directs its gaze toward that which is above, i.e. it is always looking toward the transcendental. Via negativa is mystical, namely, it tries to preserve the sacredness of faith to God and aims at the mystical union between a human being and the Supreme Being. In this sense, the via negativa is an attempt to bring the two close together, in a non-cognitive union. Levinas, by contrast, is no friend of mysticism; indeed, he is
See Levinass (1989) discussion on how we are incapable of knowing God (pp. 166189); also, consider de Vries (1999) for comments on Levinass views of God. 9 I wish to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of the reviewers who suggested several ways to make clearer the distinction between Levinas and via negativa.



adamantly and steadfastly anti-mystical.10 His concern is ethics and favors the otherness of the Other; this concern can be thought as a (profound) alternative to mysticism in two ways. First, Levinass idea of the relation to the Other is not about a union, but always about a gap between the one and the other (even when Levinas uses the trope proximity to describe it); and second, although he does deal with a relation to God in some of his essays even there God is absent, one who withdraws, is present as a trace, an enigma, present in absence.11 Concerning the notion of responsibility for the Other, Levinas (1981) argues that all the usual negativities of via negativa are transmuted into positive statements, which, nonetheless, preserve the trace of innity (see also, Levinas, 1969, 1985). For Levinas there is a call and an ethical responsibility that properly belong to every human being (Biesta, 2003): the call to be a witness for the innite in the Saying of responsibility (Simon, 2003). Saying opens me to the Other and his/her unknowable alterity; the witnessing is thus a witnessing to what the Other accomplishes in me (i.e. the Other creates me as a responsible person). To witness, according to an ordinary understanding of the word, means to say or write of what one saw with ones own eyes or heard with ones own ears. Saying, according to Levinas (1969), is the response of the I to the Other; the I speaks but the Said fails (language fails) by refusing to mean to Others what it means to me. However, the Saying reveals that the I is exposed to the alterity of the Other. The Saying is not addressed to something that demands a response; it is a response that escapes the determination of the relation with the Other. In Saying, one is vulnerable to the unknowable Other ones ethical responsibility to the Other is exposed. The
10 For example, the anti-mystical aspect in Levinass writing can be seen in the following excerpt: The relationship with the other is not an idyllic and harmonious relationship of communion, or a sympathy through which we put ourselves in the others place; we recognize the other as resembling us, but exterior to us; the relationship with the other is a relationship with a Mystery (1969, p. 75). Levinass idea of relation to the other is precisely not an idyllic and harmonious relationship of communion, i.e., mystical union. The other is recognized as exterior to us; and it is this exteriority that Levinas designates as Mystery. Levinass use of mystery has no resemblance to the idea of mysticism. I am deeply grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers who pointed this out. 11 For example, see the essay God and philosophy in Levinas (1989).As a result, the relation to God is through the (human) other, where the trace to God is concretely in the otherness of the (human) other. So there never is a union and there never is direct relation to God.



Saying stages an experience of witnessing and enacts a witnessing; the response and responsibility to the Other is thus one kind of witnessing. As Levinas (1969) writes, I speak to witness; to announce my responsibility for others to others (p. 48). Finally, although both via negativa and Levinas discuss how our knowledge of the subject escapes determination and total description, this does not mean that they share the same understanding. While the mystic of via negativa aims at becoming aware of the unknowable mystery, which exists beyond reality, Levinas uses the discourse of unknowing as the reection of the only existing reality, revealed in ones relation to the Other (see Levinas, 1989). In Levinass ethics, there are no absolute rules prescribing the responsibility toward the Other, which means that no one ever knows if he or she responds in a just manner (Chinnery, 2003). Levinasian ethics, as a relationship, is a matter of sensibility, not the application of objective and universal rules. There is no certainty, no rest for Levinas whether one ever fullls his/her debt to the Other, while for the via negativa theologian there exists beyond reason the ultimate harmony in union with God. All in all, there are interesting parallels as well as important tensions between via negativa and Levinass work. The question is: Is there anything signicant to learn from both via negativa and Levinas in our eorts, as educators, to theorize unknowing and its place in education in a critical manner? This is the question to which I will attempt to respond in the last part of this essay. I believe it is interesting to draw on the via negativa as a way to understand unknowing in the teacherstudent relationship and put this in dialectic contrast with the more Levinasian way of understanding unknowing. Exploring this may provide a useful lens for teachers and students who are struggling with unknowability and otherness and who are not satised with contemporary answers dened in highly instrumental terms. AN EDUCATIONAL PHILOSOPHY OF UNKNOWING As I have discussed earlier, Levinass work and via negativas philosophy concerning unknowing are joined in the idea that communication is bound in the impossibility of ever knowing the Other. This idea, I claim, provides a very dierent starting point from which educators may view the teacherstudent relation as well as the role of unknowing in education. First, the discussion of the innite



to know problematizes the goals of education. Facts can be known, but Others cannot (Abunuwara, 1998, p. 147). One could argue that the focus of education should not be on knowing the Other (since this is impossible, anyway), but on a radical openness in communication and an attention to the (unknowable) particularity of the Other (Todd, 2003). True communication is only possible in terms of absolute otherness, in giving oneself to the Other (Levinas, 1987a). Both via negativa and Levinas challenge the epistemological relationship (Biesta, 2001, 2003) between humans and the world on the basis of a fundamental ignorance. This ignorance is neither naivete nor skepticism (Biesta, 1998); but while for via negativa this is an ignorance that is learned (as in Nicholas of Cusa, for example), for Levinas it is part of an awakening to the elemental relationship to the Other. This tension between the via negativa and Levinas further illuminates the ethical and political implications of unknowing in education: i.e. that there has to be a commitment to the impossibility of knowing. As Biesta (1998) argues, impossibility does not denote what is not possible, but that which does not appear to be possible, and thus the recognition of the impossibility of knowing releases the possibility of transgression. Second, an important implication of embracing unknowing is that educators, as well as learners, especially in a uid and continually changing society, need to give up their position as knowers and engage in ethical relations that welcome and attend to the experiences of the Other (Simon, 2003) and do not reduce him/her to sameness. The contribution of the via negativa here is that it emphasizes approaching the Other through emptying all preconceived beliefs and ideas about the otherness of the other, i.e. the Other has to be experienced. Levinas pushes this further and engages the challenge of what practices might embody a sensibility through which the encounter with the Other is ethically attended (Simon, 2003). While via negativa empties us from past conceptualizations to reveal our nakedness, Levinas sees this nakedness as the obligation of vulnerability to the Others gaze and is a relation that recognizes the singularity of the Other. These two possibilities rst, giving up our positions as knowers and second, engaging in ethical relations with others (e.g. teachers engage in ethical relations with their students) are opened, if educators acknowledge the vital role of unknowing in the education process. The rest of this essay takes on analyzing these two possibilities and their implications in teaching and learning.



Unknowing as Engaging in Ethical Relations with Students Readings (1996) views teaching and learning as sites of obligation, loci of ethical practices and not means of transmission of knowledge (p. 155), and the condition of pedagogical practice as an innite attention to the other (p. 160). To encounter the unknowable mystery of the Other means to be for the Other and attend to him/her (Todd, 2003). It is precisely the ethical responsibility of educators to respond to their students by stimulating and inspiring students reections in new directions; directions that will enable them to develop their capacities in discovering the meaning of ethics within a rapidly changing cultural environment. In particular, Levinass critique does not deny the reality of rules, laws, institutions, policies, and so on; what he is arguing is that the ontology of all these does not exhaust their meaning, because ontology does not respond to the face of the Other (Child et al., 1995). The problem with via negativa on this issue is that it can only think of the individual as a particular instance of something more general; this is precisely why it always remains within ontology. On the other hand, the contribution of via negativa should not be undermined, because the exposure to the innity that emanates from the very nakedness of approaching the Other adds to highlighting the signicance of responding to the Other. Levinass position extends this idea and takes it to a whole new level of opening oneself to another and enacting ones non-indierence (Simon, 2003, p. 51). This requires, according to Simon, a particular embodied attentiveness within which one becomes self-present to, and responsive toward an existence beyond oneself such as reading, watching and/ or listening to the Other (2003, p. 51). Similarly, Readings (1996) proposes an understanding of pedagogy permeated by such an ethical approach that emphasizes responsiveness to otherness, through listening to thought, i.e. hearing that which cannot be said (p. 165). A pedagogy of listening and attentiveness is a pedagogy that embraces otherness and unknowing; put dierently, it is a pedagogy of unknowing. A pedagogy of unknowing is responsive to the Other and creates opportunities that do not consider the learner as knowable and xed. Instead, educators can invite learners to read, watch and listen to others testimonies. For example, a teacher could challenge students to attend to the testimony of an individual who has suered in life. This will provide opportunities for the learner to relate to the



Other (as well as to ones self) in new ways and will provoke new forms of presencing for/with the Other. The point is not to know the Other; the ultimate goal is to witness the unknowable Other. Via negativa has taught us rst that there is a positive, constructive role in unknowing. This is precisely the role that is enacted in a pedagogy of unknowing. Pedagogies also need to be exible enough to take into consideration the Levinasian challenge of constructing sensibility in educational encounters (Simon, 2003). It is important to clarify here that the whole point that Levinas makes is that unknowing cannot be recuperated by any appeal to empathy or identication with anothers life. The signicance of a pedagogy of unknowing is that it provokes educators to reevaluate what constitutes education and educational goals in order to inspire learners to develop and enact relations with one another. Witnessing the unknowable Other means engaging in seeing, feeling, and acting dierently (Boler, 1999; Boler and Zembylas, 2003). What is the signicance of this? Via negativa suggests that approaching the Other marks a break with knowledge and requires the disclosure and abandonment of ones ego in order to unite with the Other. While Levinas does not suggest any unication with the Other, he does emphasize the importance of vulnerability and a loosening of ones ego within which one is still obligated to respond, to be accountable to the demands of the witness, that s/he be take seriously, that his or her speaking matters (Simon, 2003, p. 53, authors emphasis). Being a witness, according to both via negativa and Levinas, implies above all that one is vigilant to the Other. Witnessing acknowledges the contingency of ones subjectivities and nurtures unknowability without ending up creating either an anti-epistemological or an essentialist culture in the classroom. A pedagogy of unknowing calls for action that is a result of learning to become a witness and not simply a spectator. Witnessing is dierent from spectating in that witnessing assumes an engagement in seeing the Other dierently (Boler, 1999). This does not assure any change in our relations with others; however, it represents an important step toward that direction. Therefore, it matters a great deal how educators invite students to engage in witnessing unknowing. Witnessing unknowing in teaching and learning is also dierent from plain critical inquiry in that the latter often promotes educational individualism while the former emphasizes the political and ethical aspects of relationality. One becomes a witness, to use Simons (2003) words, when one nds himself/herself touched , summoned



to be accountable to a saying that exposes and begin to de-phrase the very taken for granted terms through which the stories of others settle into . . . [ones] experience (p. 54, added emphasis). One way, therefore, that a pedagogy of unknowing may connect with teaching and learning is through viewing schools and classrooms as loci of ethical practices (to use Readings words) that subvert the placement of the Other within habitual categories. Teaching, then, would not be focused on acquiring knowledge about ethics, or about the Other, but would instead have to consider its practices themselves as relations to otherness and thus as always potentially ethical that is, participating in a network of relations that lend themselves to moments of non-violence. In this sense, the way in which we engage the Other becomes a central question of ethics and for education (Todd, 2003, p. 9, authors emphasis). Enacting unknowing in education will require educators to acknowledge the priority of the ethical relation in the classroom. On the other hand, framing ethical relations as simply an issue of knowledge about the Other will perpetuate the problematic assumption that we are able to somehow know the Other. In an educational context that embraces unknowing, the ethical relation is given priority over the possession of knowledge. Paying attention to the Other and prioritizing the ethical relation mean attending with an apophatic blindness (Emery, 1999) that is not aiming at controlling or capturing the student/Other but arms his/her unknowable alterity. Vigilance is what Levinas (1987b) suggests as an ethical response: looking where there is nothing to see (since the Other is unknowable) but where one is unable not to look: one approaches the other perhaps in contingency, but henceforth one is not free to move away from him (1989, p. 117). He also says: Ethical responsibility is . . . a wakefulness precisely because it is a perpetual duty of vigilance and eort that can never slumber (Levinas and Kearney, 1986, p. 30). Vigilance is a form of humility which implies that one is being open to an unsettlement. Such a mode of engagement, i.e. humility, is also advocated by mystical theologians in via negativa; however, the centrality of humility in via negativa is associated with the loss of self in order to unite with the Other. The loss of self is not necessarily a bad thing, if one articulates the self in an armative manner (Rosenau, 1992), as a form of working subjectivity. In the pedagogical relationship, vigilance implies being attentive to how teachers and students hear and respond to one another.



Discussing Levinass notion of vigilance, Oliver writes that vigilance is necessary to recognize the unrecognizable in the process of witnessing itself. To demand vigilance is to demand innite analysis through ongoing performance, elaboration, and interpretation (2000, p. 46). In other words, educators should consider how their vigilance could be directed in establishing the quality of relationship with their students through an ongoing process that does not assume students as xed and known beings. Finally, while emanating from dierent perspectives, both via negativa and Levinas engage the issue of what silence might embody as a sensibility toward the Other. Via negativa considers the contemplative implications of mystical silence in uniting with the Other, while Levinas (1985) observes that often things cannot be spoken or known in epistemological terms except in full silence. Here it is important to clarify that it is not enough to be silent in the face of the Other; one also commits oneself through speech as response. Witnessing is eminently involved in language; in addition, silence is not always an ethical response one has only to think of the Holocaust to see that silence can be problematic. On the other hand, it should not be undermined that silence may also act as a means of relating to the transcendence of the Other (Zembylas and Michaelides, 2004). This kind of silence can be an ethical event, contrary to the said that often is unable to express the inexpressible and instead diminishes the meaning of an event. It is possible that in silence the Other is neither absorbed nor dismissed. Silence, then, can serve as a legitimate educational and ethical response to the radical alterity of the Other (Zembylas and Michaelides, 2004). Unknowing as Giving up Our Positions as Knowers As mentioned earlier, in educational settings unknowing has always been marginalized and rationality and knowing have been given priority. However, via negativa and Levinas teach us that no appeal to rationality can overcome the depth of unknowing required in order to begin approaching the Other. Otherness is maintained as an everdeepening mystery (just like silence and unknowability) that continues to revitalize the very meaning of every encounter we have with the Other. Todd emphasizes that to teach responsibly and responsively one must do so with ignorance and humility (2003, p. 15). The teacher has to be able to appreciate the unknowableness of oneself



and his/her students. Humility before the unknowable otherness will invite unknowing and the innite into the classroom. Any attempt to categorize the Other in order to comprehend him/her is to totalize the Other. As Levinas writes: To receive from the Other . . . means exactly: to have the idea of innity. But this also means: to be taught . . . The relation with the Other . . . brings me more than I contain (1969, p. 51). The roles, then, between the teacher and the student are reversed; their traditional relations need to be radically re-thought, if they are to be conceived primarily as ethical relations. Unknowing is primary to becoming, to transformation; teachers and students, according to via negativa, need to approach unknowing in a positive way and entrench themselves in the impossibility of knowing the Other. In this seemingly paradoxical way, educators may begin to approach the Other dierently, and to invoke the value of giving up their positions as knowers especially after the failure of the highly instrumental orientation of education to inspire teachers and students alike. This instrumental orientation has strived for certainty based on rm foundations; thus, ethical issues (such as the relations between teachersstudents, students-curriculum etc.) have been treated as epistemological problems solved through management principles. Terms such as eciency, standards, and quality control precisely reect the absence of unknowing and humility; an absence that is invoked as easily, and yet as falsely, as knowledge connotes presence. That unknowing is a response is neither anti-pedagogical nor anti-intellectual; on the contrary, it marks a readiness to listen and pay attention, an invitation to hear others and oneself, and a positive valuing of the Other. The Western obsession with knowing without listening to the Other rejects the possibilities opened by unknowing. The fundamental concern of Western philosophy, Levinas suggests, is to make the Other an object of knowledge, something to be understood. In this way, strangeness is reduced to sameness and alterity becomes controllable (since it is assumed to be knowable). Levinas preserves alterity, because this kind of experience opens us to the voice of the Other. Inspired by both via negativa and Levinass work, educators may view how unknowing acts primarily as a means of relating to the Other. The praxis of unknowing means the taking of responsibility for the conduct of communication. Such a practice requires radical generosity and sensibility.



Embracing unknowing in pedagogy oers hope in our eorts to become more sensible (Levinas, 1981). I am aware of the danger, of course, of proposing a call for a pedagogy of unknowing. Is not having enough knowledge and skills the ultimate goal of most educational systems? (Zembylas and Michaelides, 2004) However, the impossibility of knowing, as seen through the work of Levinas and the tradition of via negativa, creates a responsibility to the presence of the Other. Enacting unknowing in teaching and learning initiates relatedness, attentiveness, and generosity. Claiming a place for unknowing in educational settings oers hope in opening up to the Other. This kind of teaching and learning can happen only when knowledge is not the ultimate goal of education. The otherness of the student is a permanent reminder to the teacher of his/her inadequacy to grasp the student. The fact that the Other cannot be known, however, should not be perceived as a threat to teachers power, but as a possibility that saves the situation from a deadly repetition (Abunuwara, 1998). Conguring education as a relation with unknowing and innity requires a daring acceptance of the unknowable possibilities of our existence (Abunuwara, 1998, p. 149). In a sense, the student/Other always surpasses the teachers ability to grasp him/her; this is not an issue of power any more, but a matter of desire (Levinas, 1969) or knowing by unknowing (St. John of the Cross, 2001).12 In particular, Levinas (1969) maintains that the face of the Other is a call for which there is never a guarantee that the Other is reached. For example, the teacher has something that the student needs, but the student/Other is what the teacher desires (Abunuwara, 1998). To put this dierently: knowing otherness escapes the learner (as well as the teacher), thus the learner (or the teacher) desires that Otherness. It is a desire for an end that never comes, but which energizes ones desire and keeps it moving and searching. This is precisely what allows Levinas to associate desire with innity. The way that desire is, its way of being, is innite desire. Levinas reminds us that the relationship to the innite is not a knowledge but a desire; we always feel an absence, or, as St. John said, a darkness, that we never nd
12 In this essay, desire is understood as that which produces and seduces imaginations when one attends to the Other, instead of being associated with repression and coercion (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, 1987). Feminist work, in particular, has interrogated desire and how women might re-claim pedagogical or other desire (McWilliam, 1996, 1997). Based on Levinass perspective, desire is not dened simply as absence or lack, but a relational (productive) encounter with the Other.



the perfect match between our desires and their fulllment. For Levinas, there is never a feeling of complete satisfaction, harmony, perfect unity (like that which via negativa mystics claim one can achieve); there is never a feeling of totality. Rather, there is always a feeling of innity of desires that are innite, questions that always open out endlessly. This experience is a rst indicator of an otherness toward which we are always turned. This desire for otherness can revitalize education and its goals, because it enables teaching and learning practices that unsettle ones commitments to knowing. Finally, the loss of closure because of innity is the responsibility to which the innite calls educators. The Other as call and appeal invokes through the glory of the innite an endless responsibility. This is where a dierent kind of teaching emerges: Teaching otherwise, as Safstrom (2003) writes, is an endlessly open exposure, an unfolding of sincerity in welcoming the other in which no slipping away is possible; teaching otherwise is an art when it keeps awake being as a verb (p. 29). As Levinas (1989) says: Perhaps the attitudes of seeking, desiring and questioning do not represent the emptiness of need but the explosion of the more within the less (p. 208). Attitudes of seeking, desiring and questioning, rather than repose, provide the best learning environment for approaching the Other and embracing unknowing in education. To give priority to desire and innity in education means to value a learning with, about, from others that cannot be specied in advanced (Simon, 2003, p. 58). The possibility of learning comes from the relation with the student/Other; a relation that cultivates attitudes of seeking, desiring and questioning, all of which embrace the unknowable.

CONCLUSION In this essay, I argued that understanding the way in which concepts and ideas from via negativa have been woven throughout Levinass writings can help us see the role of powerful concepts such as unknowing in contemporary educational theory, and to decide whether turning toward such concepts oers us an alternative to conceptualizing the role of the ethical and the unknowable in educational praxis. The current educational system in the West is rooted in an obsession for knowledge and that is partly why the value of unknowing has not yet been realized. However, I discussed here some



conditions for understanding unknowing as an act of being attentive to the Other, rather than as an instrumental or technical act identied through knowing. This analysis can open possibilities to transform how educators think about the goals of education in two important ways. First, creating spaces for embracing unknowing in educational settings is an act of ethical practice that recovers a sense of witnessing the Other and his/her uniqueness. Second, rethinking the value of unknowing in the classroom may bring in students and teachers a sense of vigilance, humility and responsibility. Unknowing is an act of embracing otherness and presents a curious element of redemption; in the lack of knowledge, the meaning of its absence is found. The absence of knowing the student/Other becomes a gift; a gift which is the mark that the Other and the relational are irreducible to any contract.13 The gift of it is not so much knowing of the Other as it is vigilance; it is an acknowledgement of the impossibility of avoiding an ethical relation with students. This gift has the potential of interrupting the current system by acknowledging that it is the uniqueness of the Other that educators must preserve and not kill it by betraying it to the general. The gift of unknowing belongs to educators and students; nobody can take it away. REFERENCES
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