Rational Communities and Communities of Strangers
The “rational community,” as described by Alfonso Lingis, is the categorization of people based on common ideas or ideals, and the subsequent creation of a society. In his book The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, Lingis writes “The insights of individuals are formulated in universal categories, such that they are detached from the here-now index of the one who first formulated them.” Those within each rational community speak as “rational agents” of their community; abiding by the set rules of their group, they form identities based on the influence around them. Conversely, Lingis states that there can be communities of those who have nothing in common; this is very different from the ideologically-unified rational community. The main scholarly debate surrounding these ideas revolves around two major lenses: education and ethics. What scholars debate is the importance of these two factors in the creation of a community of those who have nothing in common. Some believe that without the formulation of an accepting ethical code, often through the education system of a rational community, differences and those who possess them will never be accepted. Conversely, other scholars believe that the importance of educational and ethical factors in the creation of diverse communities is greatly overstated.
The power of education in the formation of rational communities of the communities of those who have nothing in common is heavily debated among scholars; many believe that the education system within rational communities blocks strangers from integrating into those communities. Dutch professor Gert Biesta, writing in his peer-reviewed essay The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common: Education and the Language of Responsibility, writes that education is the most pervasive factor in forming rational communities: “The idea of modern education is to release children and students from their local, historical, and cultural situation and bring them into contact with a general, rational point of view.” Biesta believes that education systems within modern rational communities perpetuates the inaccessibility of these communities by creating a uniform thought process, therefore making a stranger out of anyone not in the same education system. Along with author Glenn Rikowski, writing “the insertion of postmodernism within educational discourse…makes thinking about human emancipation futile” in the British Journal of Sociology and Education, Biesta thinks that modern education renders a community of those who have nothing in common impossible.
Conversely, there are those who think that modern education is making great strides in increasing societal accessibility to strangers. Robin Usher and Richard Edwards write in their essay Postmodernism and Education, “As time progresses, the importance of tolerance has increasingly become ingrained in education.” All of these authors writing on education agree that it is a key factor in creating and maintaining rational communities. Where Usher and Edwards disagree with Biesta and Rikowski, however, is in its ability to allow access to strangers. They believe that in this postmodern state of education, those within rational communities are being taught that these communities thrive when they are open and accepting of strangers. According to them, as this idea makes its way into rational communities, it causes a paradigm shift: when the zeitgeist of like-minded communities turns towards acceptance, strangers can make their way into these communities. This, Usher and Edwards argue, is how communities of those who have nothing in common can be created.
Scholars also debate the importance of ethics in the creation of a community of those who have nothing in common. The first argument on the community of those who have nothing in common is that it is only created when the rational community preaches humanistic ethics. Lingis himself writes, “The violation of the existence and natures of things, of oneself, or of others is evil. Disrespect encroaches upon the space of others, and alters or empties their nature…Morally good action designates the active respect for others, for things, and also for ourselves.” With this statement, Lingis condemns what he views as unethical conduct in many rational communities. The members of these communities “violate the existence” of those outside of it, and therefore barricade their community from these outsiders. “Morally good action” is the only way to create communities of those who have nothing in common, he argues. Biesta shares very similar ideas on the power of ethical codes in creating welcoming communities. He writes “The community of those who have nothing in common is constituted by our response to the stranger, the one who asks, seeks – demands, as Levinas would say – my response, who seeks to hear my unique voice.” A community of those who have nothing in common is only created when those already within the rational community decide that it is part of their society to be accepting of voices different than their own. This ties back to the educational lens: without the implementation of education that approves of and normalizes the difference of ideas and ideals, a community of strangers can never be created. Batista claims that it is only when the rational agents, speaking together through the influence of their community, already believe that allowing “unique voices” into their group is acceptable that a community of those who have nothing in common can be created.
Oppositely, some scholars believe that the community of others is the cause of the ethics of the rational community; thus, the two can never merge. French-Algerian philosopher Jaques Derrida writes in The Politics of Friendship “the other community troubles the rational community, as its double or its shadow.” Derrida agrees with Batista that the ethics of the rational community dictate the acceptance of the “other” community. However, he claims that it is for this very reason that the community of those who have nothing in common will never be created. The other community “troubles” the rational community, he writes, causing a sense of disdain for it within the rational community. It is not in the education system where negative sentiments for outsiders is created, but in fact it is through the rational community’s interaction with outsiders. This creates a negative ethical code towards these “others,” ensuring that the community of those who have nothing in common can never be created.
The scholarly conversation surrounding Lingis’s ideas of rational and stranger communities can be best understood through an examination of the educational and ethical lens. Within this framework, the power of an ethical code created by the education system of a rational community is highly contested. Biesta and Lingis himself believe that a community of those who have nothing in common cannot be created if the ethical code of the rational community is not welcoming of outsiders; thus, education and ethics hold great power in the formation of communities. Conversely, scholars like Derrida believe that educational and ethical systems have proven futile in the intermixing of rational and stranger communities because their differences and, often, their disdain for each other stems from interactions instead of theoretical classroom ethics. Lingis’s ideas continue to be heavily debated.
Biesta, Gert. “The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common: Education and the Language of Responsibility .” Interchange 35, no. 3 (September 2004): 307-24. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2FBF02698880.pdf.
Derrida, Jaques. The Politics of Friendship. 1994. Accessed November 15, 2019. https://unmtheorygroup.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/derrida-the-politics-of-friendship.pdf.
Lingis, Alphonso. The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Indiana University Press, 1994. Accessed November 15, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16gzc06.
Rikowski, Glenn. “Left Alone: End Time for Marxist Educational Theory?” British Journal of Sociology of Education 17, no. 4 (December 1996): 415-51. Accessed November 15, 2019. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248992863_Left_Alone_end_time_for_Marxist_educational_theory.Usher, Robin, and Richard Edwards. “Postmodernism and Education.” PhilPapers. Accessed November 15, 2019. https://philpapers.org/rec/USHPAE.