Teaching, Thinking, Thanking: An Ode to an Impossible Gift Part 2

Martin Heidegger–sounding very Platonic indeed–once wrote that, “[t]eaching is even more difficult than learning. We know that; but we rarely think about it. And why is teaching more difficult than learning? Not because the teacher must have a larger store of information, and have it always ready. Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than—learning… The teacher is far ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they—he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices.”  I agree completely with idea that teaching is a facilitation of learning that is marked by a receptivity in the teacher that is unlikely to by matched in the student.  Yet, it seems to me that this dynamic of “letting learn” is only visible from the perspective of the teacher and that from the perspective of the student, it is always the case that the teacher comes to every problem with the solution–and its variants–already in hand.  However, having taught, I know that this is never the case–despite the fact that it seems so in the experience of the student.  I would argue that the explanation for this strange dialectic is at the heart of this, the second part of Bill Hutchison’s guest-post: Teaching, Thinking, Thanking in that students and teachers–properly engaged–participate in an unknowing that is knowing–that is, in nothing less than a teacher drawing the borders of both she and her student’s ignorance so that all may explore the newly recognized frontier.



Thinking is thanking.” —Heidegger

With Heidegger, the notion of the debt that must repaid has shifted. If I am to thank my teacher, I must continue to think. I must think slowly and deeply. It must be effortful and it must be honest. It must be charitable; there can be no short-cut. Whether my teacher is gone in the sense of either life or locality, I must continue to think.

I find this, in many ways, the most onerous of the aphorisms I am pulling from the texts of these thinkers, these teachers. I think of my undergraduate thesis adviser, a great teacher who showed me the door to philosophy and demonstrated (in a truly Heideggerian sense) that one must turn the knob oneself, but the thinking creature has a hand that is made for turning such knobs, and that knobs await their use by hands. Doors exist to be opened. Hinges, like knobs, are made things. They swing because it is in the nature of hinges to swing. It is in our nature to make that which our bodies, our minds, our hands, can grasp and use. It is in our nature, imperfect but always given toward the impossibility of perfectibility, to think.

I think, too, of my UChicago Master’s thesis advisor. I have been caught up with her in the external circuit, but struggle still to thank her, to repay her, by surpassing myself as a pupil. When cornered in my thinking, when I find myself gnawing on a particularly difficult thought, I too often default to beautiful language over proper thinking. My thesis advisor is my teacher, in part, because she is not fooled by lovely words devoid of thought. I share this because I think I must not be alone, that there must be those who have style, but do not always use style in the service of thought, as Nietzsche did. (cf. Derrida’s Spurs) But beautiful words without proper thinking is not poetry. Heidegger says that the poet has one thought that is never said, but pervades every poem. That thought both governs and enlivens the poetry. One may dazzle with words that are trained to behave like poetry, but if they are not animated by that thought, they are dead things, plastic fish on invisible strings pulled by a child through shimmering water. They do not leap of their own accord. They react but never respond. They cannot be read, for there is nothing in them to read.

I have done my teachers this disservice. It is a simple thing to make hollow beauty. We may make jewels of paste and vases of papiermâché. To thank, the beauty must be in true thinking, and only then may we adorn it with the style that befits the thought. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida—their thought is transmitted through our thinking, and the effect of that thinking moves us to action and thought and beauty, like music, through the ineffable beauty of style.


If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is impossible. Not impossible but the impossible. The very figure of the impossible. … For there to be a gift, not only must the donor or donee not perceive the gift as such, have no consciousness of it, no memory, no recognition; he or she must also forget it right away [a l’instant] and moreover this forgetting must be so radical that it exceeds even the psychoanalytic categorality of forgetting. . . . we are speaking here of an absolute forgetting – a forgetting that also absolves, that unbinds absolutely and infinitely more, therefore, than excuse, forgiveness, or acquittal.” —Derrida

There is a greater struggle in Derrida’s notion of the gift, which is inexorably bound up with, for our purposes, in thanking the teacher, in repaying the debt of the pupil. What is it to repay a debt of which we have already been absolved? How can we thank if we forget instantly that we have been given a gift? It is, as Derrida says, “the impossible.” Perhaps this impossibility is related to the striving for perfectibility. Perhaps there is no gift but the idea of the gift. Or perhaps it is only when I have forgotten, through death or age or other means, what I have been given by teachers, when those I have taught or will teach have forgotten me, and their pupils have forgotten them, and thinking lives its way through thinkers in the long lineage of thought that the gift becomes evident.

The gift I am given by my teachers is repaid as a debt until it is forgotten enough to become a gift. The instantaneous forgetting will never come to pass until we are outside of time. Until death, until world-collapse, until our time is not a narrative and our understanding is beyond metaphor, the time after story and past symbol, the thinking we have been given and to which we have been given only approaches “gift.” To borrow a thought from Lacan, thinking, thanking, and the gift all run on an asymptotic trajectory, forever approaching but never arriving.

That is to say, I will never give proper honor to my teachers. Not for lack of effort or will, not because I do not—I can not—desire it enough. It is because life is thanks, the repayment of a debt that can never be paid until the debt is at once forgiven and forgotten. As long as I know what I owe to my teachers, I cannot use what I have gained from them to its fullest capacity. To do so is to emerge into something beyond, into the Nothing. It is to engage in pupil-hood and teacher-hood until the distinction disappears. It is to think such that thinking surpasses thanks; until the head bowed in gratitude and the head bowed in study face one another in becoming one another. It is to receive the gift and live the gift so that we forget the giver, cease to be the given, and give ourselves properly to the thought, to the impossible, the Nothing that is not a thing, that is thinking beyond thinking.

This is what I hope to give to you, my teachers, in the mode of the gift that cannot be: through thinking, to join that which is inexhaustible, forever interpretable, always read, and drinking thinking from the overflowing cup alongside you.


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