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The Double-bind of Education for Autonomy
(First Part: in the Forecourt of Theology)

Autor:Sandler Willibald
Publiziert in:Paper for a presentation, held in 1988 at the COV&R Symposion in Paris


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The topic I have originally chosen was „imitation of Christ and discipleship" and to avoide a restriction on an exclusively innertheological discourse I sharpened this rather wide subject to the title: The double-bind of education for autonomy and imitation of Christ. For this is an interdisciplinary symposion and for I have only little time to present my proposal I will concentrate now on the first part of my reflections that take place in the forecourt of theology. All I want is to smooth the way for a specific theological argumentation, which you can look up in my paper. My short lecture will be divided into eight items, which you can find in this hand-out.

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1. The double-bind of education: A Girardian illustration

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Just the most promising apprenticeships can capsize into enmity. Girard expounds the example of a student who reveres his teacher passionately. He will esteem him as a paragon of perfection and all he wishes is to become like him. So he will get stimulated to highest performance and this on the other hand will motivate the teacher to do his best. But from a specific point the ideal relationship may get badly disturbed. The teacher begins to feel threatened by the ambition of the pupil. So he cautiously will keep his distance. The guileless pupil will get irritated. Without any idea of suspecting his instructor to be envious he will assume his own fault. He will fear to have disappointed him. And so he will again increase his efforts with the result that the teacher will feel threatened the more so. So a vicious circle is turned on that will destroy the good relations between pupil and teacher, and that will drive the pupil into despair.

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This capsizing of an initially promising apprenticeship into a total failing appears to be tragic: Is it not precisely the good intentions and the well-meaning endeavors of master and disciple that drives the relationship into catastrophy?

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From the viewpoint of communication-theory this disaster can be analyzed as a double-bind. The relation between the two interacting persons is disturbed by two contradictory messages sent by the teacher. In direct intention he demands: „Imitate me!", but at the same time owing to his longing for superiority he subliminally indicates: „Don't imitate me!".

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Undoubtedly Girard's example is impressive. But is it also a typical problem of education and of today's culture in general? Girard has esteemed this double-bind characteristic for modern culture. I agree and maintain that this double-bind-problem represents the most serious dilemma of modern education. I hold that since autonomy has become a central goal for humanity in enlightenment, education in all its forms - from teaching to advertizing - is shaped by the double-bind of models teaching others: „Don't be told by anyone!".

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In my paper I have developed this claim a bit further, but there's no time to do this just now. Instead I will continue to reflect on the logic of education for autonomy by expounding Girard's double-bind-model with the help of a concrete example.

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2. First example: Elias Canetti and Karl Kraus

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Certainly, Girard's example is not characteristic for everyday's school-practice. Rather you will find its realizations by looking at the biography of writers and scientists, who in the days of their youth tied to dominant personalities. Elias Canetti is an impressive example. As a young Viennese student in the twenties of our century he revered the famous playwright, publisher and professor Karl Kraus like a God. Later he dissociated himself so completely from him, that he even refused to go to his funeral. Initial fascination and later detestation were supplied from the same characteristics of his idolized model. It was especially the arrogant mockery, which Kraus in his lectures poured eloquently over all differing from his own convictions, that elicited enthusiastic applause from the audience and that lent Kraus the aura of a God. Canetti had not learned his lesson from Kraus completely until he also imitated his air of independence by pushing Kraus from the throne of his admiration.

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I consider this story as exemplary for the problematic nature of education for autonomy. Education is more than mere instruction. Education includes not only the passing on of information but also the mediation of values and ideals. And - what is central to my use of this term - education is also practiced, where it is not at all intended deliberately or provided institutionally. Maybe that Kraus did not intend to educate his students, but in fact he did. He educated not only by passing on informations on values but the more so by acting as a very tempting model. Canetti described this clearly in his autobiography. Karl Kraus was a teacher not only of literary knowledge but the more so of a certain mode of being and self-presenting. By means of his high critical claim he demanded from his disciples: Be original, creative, independent from political, economical and also personal influences. He taught this by the strongest means available, by living these ideals by his own in the face of his students. But exactly by this way, by tearing his students into his wake, he made the demanded independence impossible for them. This double-bind may leed to hardest confrontations but it does not make education for autonomy impossible. As the fate of Canetti shows, this kind of education for autonomy functions in a dialectic way by means of two different acts of violence: the first one was the impact of the dominant model Kraus on the still pliable character of young Canetti. And the second was Canetti's forcible self-distancing as by which he broke free from the strong gravitational field of the fascinating Kraus. To say it again: This educational process was by no means uneffective! Canetti had learned a lot of Kraus, although he was not able to admit this fact for a long time.

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But the type of education for autonomy illustrated by the encounter of Canetti and Kraus is a violent one. The mode of autonomy transported by this educational process is violence. I mentioned two acts of violence: The first one is carried out by the model, the second one by the imitator. Both are from the same type, and the latter is the disciple's masterpeace, by means of which he becomes a master by his own, having defeated the model by use of his own weapons. So the successful disciple has become by his own a master of autonomy. And here autonomy means the fighting skill of fascination: the skill to attract others and to keep them at a distance at the same time and so to force them into one's own wake.

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So the double-bind of education for autonomy is not simply a disaster, it is a skill or method, that promises a lot of success to its master. One cannot comprehend the difficulties to surpass this kind of procreation of violence without having grasped the lure of its twin sister, the art of fascination.

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3. Second example: the modest physics professor

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Are there any alternatives? Does there exist any different, non-violent type of education for autonomy? Or is the only way to reach autonomy a mental patricide? Let's try to find a contrary example. A highly talented student who later was to become a world-famous physicist began to study with an acknowledged professor. Unfortunately I have forgotten the names of both and could not find them out again. The apprenticeship was very satisfying for both, teacher and pupil. After a few years the professor revealed to the student that there was nothing left he could teach to him. And so he recommended him to a colleague at another university.

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Is this an example for education for autonomy? Obviously there's no autonomy in the sense of self-distinguishing by the help of fascination. Instead, in this story one can find a modesty that refers to a peculiar kind of greatness. It seems that this modesty is based on a voluntary subordination of the professor under an ideal - e.g. the good of being a perfect scientist - which he shared with his student by trying to mediate it to him. So not his own reputation but the relation of the pupil and the „matter" was at the focus of his attention. And so this apprenticeship could remain free from all tragic double-binds we have reflected earlier. Admittedly there appears no claim of autonomy in our second story, but just as a result of the missing of any claim for autonomy at the end of this encounter there's in fact a greater independence of teacher and pupil than in the story of Canetti and Kraus. Certainly Canetti had the feeling of complete independence of his former master after he had rejected him completely. But in fact, as I have tried to demonstrate, in this kind of educational interaction the similarity of model and imitator becomes maximum just at the point where the disciple is convinced to have reached full independence from his master. In the second story there's no claim for autonomy, difference and independence. Obviously the teacher doesn't need the fascination of his pupil for his self-confidence, and so he is free to let him go, when this proves to correspond with his ideals. On the other hand the pupil can keep his former teacher in mind gratefully, without the worrying to remaining dependent. In the field of interactions between professor and student there remains a clear space - free from strong forces of attraction and rejection - for a differing, independent development of the pupil.

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4. Two types of autonomy: negative-related and positive-related autonomy

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These two stories suggest to distinguish two types of autonomy: a negative-related autonomy, which is received by a negative differentiation of the subject against all others, - and a positive-related autonomy, which is nurtured by a positive self-commitment to a higher ideal, which the subject shares with others. Corresponding to these two types of autonomy there are two types of education for autonomy. I have already expounded the way of passing on the first, violent type of negative-related autonomy as a process marked by two violent ruptures. Education for positive-related autonomy is passed on in a more peaceful way. The teacher endeavors to realize the ideal, he is serving, in the life and practice of his pupils. In the educational process evoked this way, positive-related autonomy is passed on. The pupil will get stimulated to serve the ideal of his master by himself and in his own way.

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The distinction between these two types of autonomy respectively of education for autonomy is only a first approach. It will turn out that this distinction can only be held as a philosophical one, that means that it cannot be clearly verified in an empirical way. And this distinction will guide us to the threshold of theology. But before this can be shown, the two types of autonomy must be reflected in a deeper way. I will give an approach to that by assigning two philosophical models to the two types of autonomy.

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5. Hegel's dialectics of master and servant as a philosophical model for negative-related autonomy

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The educational mediation of negative-related autonomy can be reflected in accordance with Hegel's dialectics of master and servant. The negative-related teacher-subject depends from his pupils in a similar tragic way as Hegel's master from his servants (especially in the interpretation of Kojeve). The central request for the master is acknowledgement by others. Servants are people who are willing to acknowledge the superiorness of the master. But as they acknowledge the master as superior they prove to be inferior to him. And the respect of an inferior person has only little worth. There's a need of an acknowledgement coming from equals. But how can the master recognize the equality of the other? The other proves as equal when he also fights for his own superiority. So the master will never reach the acknowledgement he is longing for. Either the other is willing for acknowledgment than he is not suitable. Or he is suitable, but that means that he won't be willing. It's just the same dilemma for the negative-related teacher. He's the Hegelian master established by his competence. He needs the acknowledgement of his superiority by his pupils, that means he wants to subjugate them and make them to servants, that means to make them to people being willing to accept his total superiority. But when he has reached his goal and the pupil adores him he will lose interest in him. As the pupil behaves obsequiously, his reverence becomes worthless. Only those pupils are attractive who refuse their acceptance. Their acknowledgement would count! So the teacher will struggle to reach their acceptance. But when he is successfull he will have lost again.

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The double-bind of the two contrary messages „Imitate me" and „Don't imitate me" is just the communicative expression of the dilemma of the master striving for acknowledgment. And this dilemma is again only the consequence of a basic impossibility to realize completely the ideal of negative-related autonomy. Even for pure logical reasons there's no way to establish ones own singularity or superiority by differentiation of all other. I refer to an aporia sometimes called the problem of the blind spot. If you define something (e.g. oneself) by drawing a distinction, it is not possible to objectivate at the same time the distinguished parts and the distinction. That means that a comprehensive definition of the differentiated element requires as a further step the fixing of the distinction by drawing a new distinction. And this new distinction requires a further differentiation again. And so on without an end. In a cybernetic system (defined by mutual interactions) this means that each event (e.g. the act of acknowledgement) changes all elements involved. So by the acknowledgment of the self by others the self is not only confirmed but also changed. And in its variation the self needs again a confirmation by others. And on the other hand also the other is changed by his act of acknowledgement. The dilemma of the master longing for acknowledgement is only an application of this principle: The acknowledgement the master is gaining is no more the same as the acknowledgement he was striving for. He necessarily misses what he is grasping for, because the act of grasping changes its object. Due to this law of missing, the striving for acknowledgement or autonomy turns into an endless process, which at the same time leads to a contagion and proliferation of this fatal desire. This is the way the process of education for negative-related autonomy is stimulated.

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6. Levinas' priority of the Other as a philosophical model for positive-related autonomy

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As a philosophical model for deepening the approach for positive-related autonomy I propose the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas has developed his philosophy in opposite to an ontology, that is characterized through the fundamental desire of the subject to relate all other, he is recognizing and striving for, back to its own identity. In opposite to this reditio completa and conatus essendi Levinas invokes an initial experience of being appealed by the other as Other. It's the face of the Other, his countenance in his neediness and nudity that thwarts my impact of appropriating. That failing is not due to my weakness but to a shame that forbids me to abuse the other for my interests. Levinas does not ignore that every concept and act is unavoidably shaped by a reflexive structure. But he wants to concentrate on a very initial aspect in the encounter with the other, - an aspect situated precisely at the blind spot of all reflection and that is, as he emphasizes, of fundamental interest for ethics. To focus on that blind spot is only possible by shifting one's attention from one's own self to the other and one's responsibility for him. This shift cannot be initiated by one's own initiative, but it is naturally provoked by the Other in his demand. As Levinas points out, the focus concentrating on the Other is the original and natural view. All re-flecting of this experience back to self-performance is a only second step, which - to be sure - covers fully the peculiarity of the initial selflessness.

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It is possible - but not compelling, as soon will be demonstrated - to reflect our second example of the modest physics-professor in the light of Levinas' phenomenology of the Other. Let's assume that for the professor his renunciation of any claim of superiority and finally of the highly regarded student was no moral feat but rather a matter of course. It's this shifting of attention from oneself to the Other which makes a conduct easy that for a Hegelian master would be pure moral overtaxing which would take its toll in uncontrolled aggressions.

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In spite of these similarities, a concept like „positive-centered autonomy" sounds a bit strange in the context of Levinas' philosophy. That's because the term autonomy implies a self-reflection, a shifting back of attention to oneself which just makes a concentration on the „blind spot" of the other as Other impossible. Positive-centered autonomy is a legitimate concept from an outer perspective of an observer (Levinas speaks from the „third person") or from a later retrospect. And from such a perspective it's possible to see that the new blind space of the focus concentrating on the Other, namely one's own self, is not fallen into nothingness, but -- just the other way round -- has shaped perfectly in an unintenional way. The gap between I and self, which is unclosable by ones own efforts, and which drives all efforts of safeguarding oneself into desperation, this gap closes unexpectedly when one meets the initial responsibility for the Other. As the gospel says: „He that findeth his life shall lose ist: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Mt 10:39). But it is characteristical for this insight that it is only observable in an outer perspective. To the person affected it is obstrued necessarily. The moment this person attends to this insight by reflecting on the status of his own self, his status of completeness fades into past.

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When I speak about „positive-centered autonomy", what's the matter autonomy is centered at? I mentioned higher ideals and the combination of higher ideals and the Other, and in fact this was rather vague. Apparently Levinas does not reflect on „higher ideals". But Levinas emphasizes an absolute responsibility for the Other. And this responsibility is on the one hand very relevant for practice, but on the other hand it does not consist in certain acts being totally different to a normal self-centered behaviour. To a certain amount the subject made to a hostage of the Other, as Levinas puts it, will act in a similar way as a well-bred egocentric person, at least in the perspective of an outer observer. The radical difference which Levinas accents by speaking from „beyond the being" is a different mode of perceiving and acting, a different focus that is centered on the Other. So the positive-centered teacher, called into responsibility by the countenance of the pupil - his Other - will mainly do what a teacher has to do. He won't sell all his property to give the proceeds to the poor, that is the Other. At least he won't do this literally. Rather he will try to mediate the stuff of his syllabus and he will try to pass on his own enthusiasm for this subject, similarly to any other good teacher. But really similarly? For an uninvolved observer it may be the same, but he will do the same in a totally different way. By all he is doing he intends the acknowledgement of the other instead of the acknowledgement by the other.

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So what is „positive-centered autonomy" centered on in education for „positive-centered autonomy"? It is centered on the pupil as the Other and on the best aspects of his striving for studying. And this striving of the Other is projected back to the striving of the teacher-subject for the striving of the Other. Levinas has reflected this type of subjective striving in favour of the Other as desire. And this term of desire in the sense of Levinas has much in common with the pacific mimesis Girard is mentioning sometimes.

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7. The impossibility of a precise empirical distinction between the two types of autonomy

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I have begun my lecture with two examples and I have related to them two types of autonomy, respectively two types of education for autonomy. This proceeding was by no means unproblematic. Now we have reached a level of reflection where I can fix the problematic aspects. As I have already shown, the specific difference of an authentic Other-centered behaviour is hardly distinguishable from a neutral point of view. The teacher or model striving in favour of the Other normally does not do other things but he rather does the same things in another way. There's still a second way to demonstrate the impossibility of a precise empirical distinction between the two types of autonomy. And this second way is based on the peculiarity of the other-centered autonomy. As I have explained, the striving for other-centered autonomy results in double-binds, e.g. in the simultaneousness of contradictory messages. that means: it contains not only an appeal for keeping distance, but at the same time the enticement to come near; not only the message of detestment, but at the same time the promise of love. So the fight for negative-related autonomy is a fight by every means. There exists absolutely no expression that is immune to be abused by the ruses of the struggle for negative-related autonomy. The naivety of my second example of the modes physicist consisted in the underestimation of these capacities for perversion . This story could also have been part of an especially mean game, the professor was playing with his student. As part of a double-bind the professor's allegedly modest confession of his lost superiority could have served as an ironic and furious throwing out, it could have been intended to provoke a bad conscience of ungratefulness, and all this in a disguised way, so that the attack was made incontestable.

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8. Humanities - philosophy - theology. Some preconditions for a continuation of our reflections in the field of theology.

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The foregoing reflections have led to a very oppressive result. Though the differentiation between violent and non-violent modes of autonomy and of education for autonomy cannot be denied, in a world ruled by violence and competition the idea of a positive-related autonomy or of pacific mimesis seems to have no place and no chance neither to assert itself in practice nor to get recognized. (1) For a critical-neutral perspective there is no problem to reconstruct the compelling mechanisms of the evil. But the „real good" is undistinguishable for a neutral perspective. „The wind (to pneuma) bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." (John 3,8). All that's possible is to guess the traces of the real good - the avoidance of expected violent revenge, unexpected reconciliation - but never in an unambiguous way. There still remains the possibility that these appearences of the good couls serve as the visible part of a hidden deal containing a concealed catch or -- even worse -- that they would be part of the masquerade of a disguised evil.

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Supposed that for humanities a critical-neutral perspective is specific, the modes of the „good" like positive-related autonomy and pacific mimesis cannot belong to their peculiar topic. But it's true though that critical-neutral theories can reveal the ruses of disguised violence, and so they can smooth the way for the appearance of the good. These critical impulses are nurtured from a fundamental hope that a real good exists though it cannot be demonstrated directly. Without that hope the endless endeavour for uncovering violence - in theory as well as in therapeutical practice - must appear frustrating and finally cynical.

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Philosophy can deconstruct every closed system gained by the exclusion of the possibility of a „real good" like positive-related autonomy and pacific mimesis. But supposed that philosophy also is obliged to a critical-neutral perspective, an explicit reflection on these good modes is impossible also for philosophy. The complicatedness of the philosophy of Levinas, always a hair's breadth from self-contradiction, seems to be rather a confirmation than a refutation of this claim.

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Nevertheless an explicit reflection on modes of the „real good" is indispensable, because without any verifying even the philosophical refusal of exclusion of the „real good" will appear as mere unworldly illusion.

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This task of reflecting on the real „good" -- without neglecting the ruses of the bad -- belongs to theology, which this way proves indispensable for humanities. Theology differs from other sciences by a specific perspective, which is no more critical-neutral but a perspective of faith, hope and love. This means that theology may reflect on events with an „eschatological" presupposition that the „real good" will be finally successful. Particularly theology reflects on certain historical events with this presuppositions, especially the life and fate of Jesus Christ. Far from being irrational these historical interpretations make possible a critical communication with other sciences that are shaped by a critical-neutral perspective. So theology provides ideal interpretations of certain actions in the context of the hole life and fate of Jesus, which confirm the claim that his words and deeds are part of the final revelation of the truly good and peaceful God. For critical-neutral theories such ideal interpretations must seem at least improbable and they will formulate objections against the ideal interpretation. A theological theory will be refuted when these objections prove the theory directly as impossible. When critical-neutral perspectives cannot show any direct contradiction to a theological interpretation but only the possibility or even probability of competing critical interpretations, than the theological theory will remain undisproved.

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Now we have reached the point where a dialogue between humanities and theology regarding human autonomy and its passing on by education appears as possible and promising. So the way would be free for a theological discourse, where I wanted to show that the double-bind of education for autonomy is surpassed by the discipleship of Christ and that this discipleship provides a general structure of behavior, described above as positive-related autonomy, which is also relevant where the name of Christ is not revered explicitely. But time is over, so if you are interested in the theological part of my reflections please take a look at my paper.

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 1. Therefore for Levinas peace is a topic of eschatology, not of politics. Cf. the first chapter of totality and infinity.

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