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Concurrent Papers

Vasco D’Agnese: Fear, angst, and the ‘startling unexpected’. Three figures of teaching in the time of Covid-19


In this paper, I focus my attention on teachers’ lived experience in the time of Covid-19. Specifically, the study I am presenting explores the emotional impact the abrupt shift to online teaching had on teachers’ work and life throughout the various phases of the lockdown. I develop my argument by analysing teachers’ everyday work, using a qualitative approach, and constructing a small-scale empirical study. The study involved 13 teachers from different disciplines in secondary school (with students aged from 13 to 18). The research group, stemming from an in-service teachers’ educational course I conducted, was selected based on teachers’ interest and willingness to share and discuss their feelings and emotions. The study is based on a combination of in-depth interviews, dialogues and email conversations. Methodologically, my attempt is located in an emerging research horizon combining educational philosophy with empirical research (Feinberg, 2006; Mejia, 2008; Santoro, 2015; Shuffelton, 2015; d’Agnese, 2016; Hansen, 2017). However, in order to expose and justify my approach, a brief clarification about the way I conducted the research, and its background is needed.

Throughout my experiences as teachers’ educator, I have often encountered groups of teachers who passionately deal with their profession. Often, these teachers, given their deep commitment, were radically exposed to difficulties, frustrations, and failures, as well as, more than others, they could deeply feel the joy, passion and possibilities stemming from being-in-education. During the discussions staged in the courses I conducted, these teachers would often share insightful considerations and revealing feelings about several aspects of teaching, ranging from teachers-students’ relationships, curriculum, professional judgment, and side effects of passion and commitment. I would always take note of their interventions, and sometimes, at the end of the course, given the quality of interactions, I would stage research settings with the aim of systematically gathering such insights. However, at times, when comparing gatherings from experimental settings with the rough material emerged during the courses, I felt that something went lost. In those occasions, I was left with a subtle sadness and desire to recover the lost insights.

Of course, I cannot exclude that such a difference was due to a lack on my part to create an adequate experimental setting. However, I do believe that something more was at stake. Simply put, the matter teachers shared throughout the open time of discussions was something too slippery to reproduce in a dry experimental setting; the urgency they felt to communicate their deep feelings and insights was part of the matter they were sharing, and something hardly replicable on demand. Simply put, deep insights and emerging feelings are not at our disposal; if we wish to shed a light on the lived, bodily educational experience, we must carefully listen when and where such experience arises.

So, this time I decided to proceed in a different manner: I would have collected teachers’ witnesses, and insights in the instant they were produced, reserving myself the opportunity to deepen the most interesting aspects in the way and time teachers would have preferred: email, interviews via Google meet, WhatsApp messages and conversations. Of course, I informed the teachers from the very beginning about my research purposes and experimental setting. So, when something revealing was coming up to the surface, I invited the teacher involved to deepen her experience, focusing on her sensations and feelings, while exploring the possibility to further deepen her insights. Sometimes I also asked the teachers about an image or metaphor which should better convey the sense of the experience being shared.

Right from the outset, it was clear that difficulties, discomfort, and even suffering were important figures of teachers’ emotional state. Helplessness, dread, a “permanent sense of warning”, a “loss of oneself”—as two teachers described their emotions—were the prevalent mood of the online teaching experience. However, discomfort, anxiety and even angst were not the only feelings experienced by teachers I met. Along with these feelings—and, admittedly, to my surprise—some teachers also spoke about an “entirety”, a “fulfillment never experienced in their profession”, and even about “a deep sense of joy” and an “unknown freedom” in encountering their classes online. So, how should one make sense of such a diversity of emotions? Of course, one might argue that this question makes little sense, in that diversity of sensations simply relies on the diversity of persons and approaches—and, in a basic sense, this is true. One might even argue that teachers experiencing fear and angst when going online were simply unable to teach, for teaching also involves facing unexpected situations. However, it is my contention that much more was going on in teachers’ emotional horizon and lived experience. When listening to teachers, attempting to understand and unravel their emotions, I felt a common root: all those diverse and even opposite feelings were connected to a deep ethical engagement with students and profession, and the struggle to face an unknown situation in an unknown way. Otherwise stated, it was the entanglement between the unknown space in which teachers were thrown and their commitment and responsiveness to students that caused such a deep and diverse bunch of emotions. It is my hope that unraveling the common terrain where teachers were thrown, the feelings involved and the way they found—or not found—to deal with the new situation may help us to shed light on some aspects of teaching.

Philosophically, my attempt is phenomenologically developed, and is framed by Arendt’s and Heidegger’s thought. More specifically, I will analyse the cases drawing from three questions: a) Heideggerian understanding of “praesens” as the condition upon which the continuity between past, present and future arises (Heidegger, 1982/1927, 306-312); b) the variations of fear Heidegger points out in Being and Time and his analysis of angst (Heidegger, 1996/1927, 131-136; 173-178; c) Arendt’s thematization of action, beginning and the “startling unexpectedness” of living (Arendt, 1998/1958; 1977/1961).

The paper is organized in two parts. In the first one, I attempt to make sense of teachers’ sensations of discomfort and anguish through Heidegger’s thought. In the second section, I analyze feelings of joy and fulfilment via Arendt. In this section, I also give a hint about what the consequences of teachers’ gesture are for the formation of the educational community. I begin with the question of praesens, fear and angst as understood by Heidegger.

Praesens, fear and angst

In this section, I attempt to make sense of teachers’ sensations and feelings through Heidegger’s thought. The section is phrased into three steps: in the first one, I report some significant excerpts of teachers’ conversations and interviews; in the second step, I analyze praesens as the condition upon which “enpresencing” and the continuity between past, present and future may be understood (Heidegger, 1982/1927, 306-312); in the third step, I connect teachers’ witnesses with Heideggerian analysis of fear and angst (Heidegger, 1996/1927, 131-136; 173-178). I begin with teachers’ interviews.

Teachers’ interviews[1]

Silvia’s report[2]

“During the lockdown, I woke up with a weight on the chest, and a sense of permanent warning … I reached my computer, went online, and began the lesson. Sometimes it was not that bad. I could see their faces and I could imagine what was going on their mind… But there always was a gap I couldn’t fill. It was something like a permanent lack I was unable to compensate, and I felt guilty for that, although I knew it was not my fault. But this awareness didn’t help me make sense of my work.”

Luigi’s report[3]

“The Third B [Luigi’s class, ed.] had always been a hard class. But online it was even worse. When you see them and can interact face to face, you can draw their attention, make examples, use irony, or effectively reproach. When you are on Meet none of these things make any sense. Any reproach becomes comical… In two weeks, I find myself in a spiral… It was a total nightmare. Sometimes I was so panicked that I had to break up my lesson. I felt like I was going crazy… I had to call my wife just to speak with her and break that sense of anguish.” When asked about an image conveying such a sense of angst, Luigi reported about “an empty room, all dark, with my voice banging around… A total collapse.”

Gennaro’s report[4]

“When going online my prevailing feeling was that the class didn’t follow me… I was speaking in front of that screen with no evidence that someone would listen… I feel the right word for my experience is fear… It’s difficult to explain, but I felt the whole situation as an actual threat, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it ... At times, I couldn’t think, for if I did, I would have been paralyzed, in panic. I would just go on with my lesson trying to not think.”


In Chapter One, Part Two of The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, when explaining the “temporal interpretation of being as being handy”, Heidegger introduces the question of praesens as the “horizonal schema of the ecstasis of enpresenting” (1982/1927, 303). As other basic Heideggerian questions—e.g., Temporality, existence, aletheia—the meaning and function of praesens is not so easy to capture—and in fact Heidegger, at the end of his analysis, states that praesens is “non-conceptually understandable.” (ibid., 309)

However, Heidegger furnishes a first indication of the meaning and function of praesens when stating that praesens is the condition upon which “presence and absence” present themselves to us (ibid., 304). Praesens is both the condition of possibility of the “beyond itself” (ibid., 304) and the condition of the possibility of the present, of the now. Moreover: praesens “as horizon” is the condition of “that which determines the whither of the ‘beyond itself’ as such” (ibid., 306). Even enpresencing, in Heidegger’s words, “understands itself as such upon praesens. […] Everything that is encountered in the enpresenting is understood as a presencing entity […] on the basis of praesens.” (ibid., 307). Praesens, then, is the very texture upon which world and things—emotions including —may be encountered, and the condition of the possibility of any understanding.

Based on this understanding, when analysing the statements from teachers I met, we may note that their words bear witness to a deep modification of the structure of praesens, of the horizon in which the very perception of students, themselves and teaching arise. Otherwise stated, any word, silence, gesture or act, any omission stands on the basis of such a modification. Even one’s commitment and projecting come to be felt upon such a different horizon, by means of which “anything like existent commerce with entities handy and extant becomes possible” (ibid., 309). This is also due to the relationship between praesens and temporality: given that Heidegger states that praesens is “already unveiled in the self-projection of temporality” (ibid., 309, emphasis added), such a deep structure goes hand in hand with temporality itself. The way in which temporality is given to teachers—or, in a Heideggerian vein, the way in which temporality temporalizes itself in teaching—relies on praesens, too.

Then, what happens to such a fundamental structure when one is “paralyzed, in panic” and cannot think at all? (Gennaro’s report) What if one is “so panicked… to break up” the lesson (Luigi’s report)? What if teachers in distress were to experience, using Luigi’s powerful words, “a total collapse of time”? In such a condition one is unable to think and act—to say nothing of projecting. Relationships are blocked, felt as threatening. The totality of gestures and emotions teachers feel and enact is under the shadow of such a curtain. Hoping, listening, projecting, awaiting, looking at, hanging back, inciting, caring, namely, the whole patrimony of comportments teachers enact in daily classroom activity is, as it were, swallowed by this unknown and disquieting kind of praesens; what Heidegger calls the “intentional comportments toward the futural” (1992/1928, 204) undergo the sway of this new texture of time-space, which, as I wish to display further, is permeated with feelings of alarm, fear and angst.

Teachers’ witnesses through Heidegger

Thus far, I have attempted to unravel the meaning of praesens as related to teachers’ words. In this second step, I respond to the question as to which modification of praesens teachers experience during pandemic. In a sense, I attempt to put to work Heideggerian analysis by connecting it to teachers’ words. My hope is that by filling Heidegger’s powerful phenomenological insights with the flesh and blood of teachers’ experience, we may shed a light on some deep aspects of teaching.

First to develop my analysis, two brief clarifications are needed. One of the strengths of Heidegger’s analysis of fear and angst is the exceptional rigor with which he describes the way these feelings inhabit and seize human beings. Heidegger’s description of fear, alarm, terror and angst as different states is exemplary in displaying how phenomenological analysis speaks from and to our body. However, it is exactly such a difference that is, at the same time, necessary and too rigid when compared with the modulations and the bustle of emotions experienced by teachers I met. Gennaro’s, Silvia’s, and Luigi’s words bear witness to a mess of feelings in which the distinction between, say, fear, alarm and panic is more a matter of nominalism than a means for understanding and penetrating their condition and emotional magma. The second clarification concerns the use of alarm, fear and angst as contiguous states—I take angst as also a modulation of fear. I understand that in Heidegger’s analysis angst is definitely distinguished from fear. Angst is a “fundamental kind of attunement” (1982/1927, 171), and in Heideggerian analysis it deserves to be treated differently. Since my paper is not concerned with Heideggerian phenomenology per se, I cannot delve into the argument, but it is clear enough that while Heidegger understands fear as a “mode of attunment” (ibid., 131), angst is framed as the “eminent disclosedness of Dasein” (ibid., 172). Moreover: in being implied in the fundamental questions of “being-toward-death” and “resoluteness”, we could say that angst is the door to the core of Being and Time. In my analysis, I will partially depart from this difference, for I will discuss angst as best suited to understand both teachers’ lived experience and important features of teaching. That said, let us begin with Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis. I will quote two passages from Being and Time describing fear and angst, and then provide my comment.

“The phenomenon of fear can be considered in three aspects. We shall analyze what we are afraid of, fearing, and why we are afraid […]. That before which we are afraid, the ‘fearsome,’ is always something encountered within the world, either with the kind of being of something at hand or something objectively present or Mitda-sein […]. What is feared has the character of being threatening. Here several points must be considered.

1. What is encountered has the relevant nature of harmfulness. […]

2. [H]armfulness […] comes from a definite region.  […]

4. As it approaches, harmfulness radiates and thus has the character of threatening.” (ibid., 133)

About forty pages further, in Chapter VI, Heidegger describes angst as “[t]he fundamental attunement” and the “[e]minent disclosedness of Da-sein”:

“That about which one has Angst is being-in-the-world as such […] What Angst is about is not an innerworldly being. […] The threat does not have the character of a definite detrimentality which concerns that is threatened with a definite regard to a particular factical potentiality for being. What Angst is about is completely indefinite […]. The totality of relevance discovered within the world of things at hand and objectively present is completely without importance. It collapses. […] The fact that what is threatening is nowhere characterizes what Angst is about […] But nowhere does not mean nothing […]. It is so near that it is oppressive and stifles one’s breath—and yet it is nowhere […]. In Angst, the things at hand in the surrounding world sink away, and so do innerworldly beings in general.” (ibid., 176)

When comparing Heideggerian analysis with teachers’ experience, we note that teachers’ words and emotional texture bear witness to both fear and angst. Gennaro, Silvia and Luigi encountered the fearsome within the world, in a definite context, and it is also true that such an “harmfulness radiates and thus has the character of threatening.” What is problematic in defining their experience as just one of fear is that harmfulness, rather than aiming “at a definite range of what can be affected by it”, extends to the whole professional and even personal experience. Even their sense of self when being-in-education was jeopardized by a deep change. Then, while Gennaro, Silvia and Luigi encountered fear in the realm of “innerworldly beings”, they clearly experienced a sinking away of the world: Gennaro’s inability to think, his paralysis and panic, bear witness to the fact that being-in-teaching as such was the source of his angst. What Gennaro experienced while being-on-line was a total breakdown of intelligibility; in his experience the ecstatic projection of Dasein felt down. Otherwise stated, both acting and thinking collapsed, and the world itself pulled back. And yet, such an angst, comes—as fear—from a well-defined region: being-on-line with his students.

Similarly, Silvia speaks of “a sense of permanent warning”. Such a sensation, as I understand it, is a kind of mix between alarm, as the precursor of fear, and something very similar to the “nowhere” and “nothing” of angst. It is an indefinite yet stinging sense of danger, which looms over at any time. In this case too, what Silvia experienced is a collapse of the former praesens and the irruption of a new kind of praesens—as Heidegger writes, we cannot lose praesens, for praesens, simply put, is what enables the possibility of experiencing something. (1982/1927, 310) When teaching online, Silvia felt severed from both students and her profession. Even the bodily sensations Silvia experienced were akin to those provoked by angst: the “weight on the chest” she felt when getting up is akin to the angst’s feeling described by Heidegger, one which “stifles one’s breath”. And yet, in this case too, the threatening comes from a well-defined region and activity.

However, amongst the experiences reported, the one which better displays the features of angst was that of Luigi. He spoke about a “total collapse”, a sense of panic which forced him to break the lesson and call his wife. Even the image he found “an empty room, all dark, with [his] voice banging around” is a powerful representation of such a pervasive yet unphatomable feeling. And yet, in this case too, Heidegger’s description is at the very same time, apt and partial. When speaking of angst Heidegger states that “[w]hat Angst is about is completely indefinite” and “[a]ngst does not know what it is about which it is anxious.” (1996/1927, 176) However, this was not the totality of Luigi’s experience. Luigi did know where angst came from, and he could exactly locate the source of his angst; and yet such a root—being-on-line-with-students—provoked a sinking away of the world or, in Heideggerian terms, of the “innerworldly beings in general” (ibid., 176). Luigi was not oppressed by this or that problem of teaching: Luigi was oppressed by the possibility of teaching as such. That which was threatening approached Luigi from a well-defined region—and yet, as Heidegger states, it also was “nowhere”.

It is important to note that Luigi was forced to move on with a lesson which not just didn’t make any sense: he was forced to move on with a lesson which put such a loss of meaning in his body, pushing him to a limit possibility, namely, the death of his project. By drawing from Heidegger’s analysis of death, we could say that Luigi was experiencing “the possibility of an impossibility” (ibid., 330). His project, namely teaching, was impossible to pursue in the situation he found himself in, and yet the project was there, hideously disfigured, and it was throwing him in angst. By drawing from Thomson’s acute interpretation of Heidegger, Luigi was experiencing “a global collapse of […his] identity-defining life project”. However, what rendered Luigi’s experience so peculiar was that Luigi was experiencing the collapse of any projecting without being freed by projecting itself; he was experiencing a collapse of praesens, of the connection with temporality and wordly horizons, without the possibility of being released by the praesens of teaching. Otherwise stated, Luigi, in being a committed teacher, passionately chose the praesens and projecting that he has to endure. While human beings are thrown in “the possibility of an impossibility” which death is Luigi, in being committed to his students, was the author of his own “possibility of impossibility”.

Freedom, joy and fulfilment

Thus far, I have attempted to make sense of teachers’ experiences of fear and angst through Heidegger’s thought. In this section, I analyze a different range of emotions emerging from online teaching, namely, feelings of “entirety”, “fulfillment” and “joy”. I shall make my point by drawing from Arendt’s questions of action, beginning and “startling unexpectedness”. The section, as the first one, is phrased into three steps, respectively committed to a) reporting significant excerpts from teachers’ interviews; b) analyzing Arendtian questions of action, beginning and “startling unexpectedness”; and c) analyzing teachers’ emotional experience while sketching out the building of the educational community. I begin with teachers’ interviews.

Teachers’ interviews

Davide’s report[5]

“During the lockdown, I had to leave my study room to my son; thus, I worked in my bedroom. At the beginning it was awkward: in the background you could see the bed and clothes lying all over the room… I managed to put a background from Google tools, but for some reason it didn’t always work. After a while, I resolved to accept the situation, and began to joke about my mess… I began to feel a kind of coziness in that situation. I mean, not just my own coziness in being in my bedroom with a cup of coffee… I felt a kind of shared, common coziness… everyone in her bedroom or living room, with her cup of coffee, chocolate, juice or whatever… So, we decided to have coffee-break together. Some students would prepare toasts, others would even cook… It was strange, for we were separated, far from each other, and yet we were closer than ever. At some point I thought it would have been nice playing some music in the background when teaching. Classical music, rock, pop… we all felt a kind of togetherness in that strange situation… New connections began to emerge… I mean, connections among topics, among students, between me and them, between them and such new topics… At last, I felt students speaking with their voice. I mean, they began reading poetry, making personal comments writers… Everything was new in those months.”

Giovanna’s report[6]

“At the beginning it was bewildering… before the screen, speaking to everyone as ever, but in a very different way… You couldn’t know whether your students understood the topics… it was even difficult to understand whether they were there to listen. In some way, it was embarrassing. So, as a way out, I began to concentrate on the topic being explained.” When asked about her focus, Giovanna said: “I intentionally decided to exclude any thought about whether students were there and what they understood about the lesson. I began to delve into my topic. Should I find an image, I felt as a researcher at a microscope...” At this point I asked if one could label her lesson as a kind of study. Giovanna told, “yes, I was studying, but I was studying in front of my class!” When asked about the outcomes of her gesture, Giovanna said: “Unexpectedly, students were interested in such a strange lesson… They were following me… They began to interact and delve into the topics… I discovered a new way to teach… I experienced an unknown freedom by teaching online, from my bedroom.”

Action, beginning and “startling unexpectedness”

The questions of action, beginning and the “startling unexpectedness” (Arendt, 1998/1958; 1977/1961) are central to the understanding of Arendtian oeuvre. They are not just extensively treated by Arendt throughout her career; they are also the core from which many cherished questions unfold. Through them, questions of humanity, natality, existence, connect and illuminate one another in a web of significances that enriches the meaning of these themes, thus presenting an open and powerful conception of life. However, with my end in view, far from presenting a full-developed account of these themes, in this step I will present some features which may help shed a light on the excerpts I selected.

In The Human Condition, when discussing the common ground upon which action and speech should be understood and their “unique distinctness” within the wide range of “activit[ies] in the vita activa,” (1998/1958, 176) Arendt states that “action reveal[s] [human beings’] unique distinctness.” Through action, human beings “distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct”. Action is the way “in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men. This appearance, as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative, but it is an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human.” (ibid., 176-177).

Through this statement, Arendt overturns the meaning of action, with far-reaching educational consequences. For Arendt, by means of action, newness and human beings come into the world as such. In the Arendtian account, in fact, action takes place “between men,” and only through action may human beings’ “specific, objective, worldly interests” arise. These interests, in Arendt’s words, “constitute, in the word’s most literal significance, something which inter-est, which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together.” (ibid., 182) Then, for Arendt action is strictly related to the possibility human beings have to take upon themselves the responsibility, burden, and bearings of their distinctness. Without denying the well-known Arendtian concern about any attempt to find the essence “of human existence,” (ibid., 9) we may infer that, in Arendtian terms, action is essential for being human and that to take “initiative” is, for Arendt, something that characterizes human beings as such: by means of action, human beings come into the world accomplishing the newness to which they are destined. How and when such an initiative should be taken and enacted is left open and undetermined by Arendt. However, to enact ourselves on our own initiative is what makes us human. As Birmingham aptly noted, in Arendt action is grounded in the “archaic and unpredictable event of natality.” (2006, 3)

We should also note that for Arendt being human and being a beginner who performs her own beginning through action in a public space are one and the same thing. This is because the significance of action is twofold. First, action is central to understand and act freedom. As Arendt states, human beings “are free […] as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same” (Arendt, 1998/1958, 153); second, because action is essential to addressing and producing the new, and education reflects exactly such a broad and persistent commitment to newness. Through their capacity to act, human beings fulfill the promise contained in their birth: “The new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting.” (ibid., 9) Women and men are free because they are “a beginning” (ibid., 167).

At this point, I wish to highlight that the accomplishment of newness, its “character of startling unexpectedness” (ibid., 177-178), is not something added to human beings, something we as humans may or may not accomplish. As humans, we come into the world as “initium, newcomers and beginners” (ibid., 177). As Arendt states in The Crisis in Education acting “for the sake of what is new and revolutionary” (Arendt, 1977/1961, 189) for “the infinitely improbable which actually constitutes the very texture of everything we call real” (ibid., 170) is the first aim of education.

Such an understanding comes to reframe the interpretation and construction of one’s identity. Here, we should bear in mind that in Arendt the public and political space precedes and grounds individuality: according to Arendt, the subject reveals itself through its actions and speech, activities one may pursue only when one is connected to other human beings in the public arena. Then, it is not just that we cannot know in advance how our actions will be taken and understood by others, but rather that, more radically, through action one discloses oneself to oneself. That is to say, one comes to know who one is when acting and speaking, not before. Human beings thus come to know who they are through their ongoing engagement with others, in endless and ever-changing processes, whose structure and aims come to the fore in concrete situations of life.

According to Arendt, then, we may conceive of the educational space as one in which human life takes form in all of its features, not just as places where one acquires knowledge and competencies in order to face and manage the world. This is so for living is established in the dimension of togetherness. Failure to recognize such a public dimension of meaningfulness results in “modern world alienation,” that is, the “flight from […] the world into the self.” (Arendt, 1998/1958, 6) To clarify, the central point in Arendt’s understanding is that the uniqueness of human beings emerges by them revealing to others who they are through their actions and speech while, at the very same time, revealing to themselves who they are. Therefore, we cannot know who we are before such a revelation occurs. The dimension of educational community is thus the root from which both one’s being and becoming can grow, changing in unpredictable ways, accomplishing the “miracle” of natality.

Teachers’ witnesses through Arendt

At this point, we may put the question as to what kind of teaching and educational community emerge from Giovanna’s and Davide’s words. A first thing worth noting is that the lockdown interrupted the space-time of normal schooling, producing the conditions by which a different space-time was able to emerge. Such a different space-time, with everyone in one’s room with one’s belongings and private things, rather than creating a sense of distance and dispersion, created a new intimacy and nearness, in which private and public were not just mixed: private and public were unrecognizable in their own features, and, in a sense, their very split was useless for understanding the context, because a new environment emerged. As Davide effectively said, “everything was new”. In such new environment connections themselves were caught in a new web of meanings which transcended them, thus building a new community.

Such a newness also is a defining feature of Giovanna’s teaching. Albeit Giovanna’s response to embarrassment and discomfort was quite different from that of Davide, the arrival point was similar. The intentional neglect of students she enacted, rather than resulting in a kind of solipsistic teaching, resulted in a new, engaging teaching. Students were more involved than ever; from an exclusion of the community and even of communication, came out a the discovery of a new behavior towards topics being studied. Giovanna, in a sense, was teaching in a gap. So, which kind of terrain may come out from a gap, and which kind of meaning may be built and found, given that when teaching we are always-already in the presence of some meaning? In order to set up a tentative answer, I wish to focus on the pronouns used by Giovanna in her report. At the beginning of the interview, while openly speaking about the intentional decision to exclude any thought about the students, she reported: “I began to concentrate… I began to understand… I began to delve”. It is as if she had to exclude students in order to teach at all. At the end of her interview she stated, with a smile of surprise, “we discovered a new way to teach”. Students, unintentionally imitating her gesture, built a new community while building a new gesture for themselves. I do not wish to go too far, but I cannot help to wonder whether in that moment a community of friendship and research come to light (Lewis and Jasinski, 2021)

However, what is enough clear is that in both Giovanna’s and Davide’s case, through online teaching emerged an environment of intimacy, which deeply transformed students’ receptivity to both teacher’s words and the emerging community. Students became more sensitive, susceptible to transformations, open to what is being said. Davide’s sense of joy and discovery while giving lesson enables us to see how teaching is an ongoing pointing to that region in which education and community joyfully emerge, while Giovanna’s experience speaks about a sense of collective, ongoing delving into the topics being discussed. Their words bear witness to an educational experience in its own right, one in which a realm of joy, freedom, fulfilment and learning may emerge. “The fact of natality… the miracle that saves the world” (Arendt, 1998/1958, 246) is displayed in Davide’s and Giovanna’s witnesses. In this sense, education illuminates the territory between what is known and the open space of radical possibilities before us. It is exactly such an unpredictable space of pure, radical possibility that is worth exploring educationally.


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Lewis, T. E.; Jasinski, I. (2021). Rethinking Philosophy for Children. Agamben and Education as Pure Means. London, Bloomsbury.

Mejia, A. (2008). My Self-as-Philosopher and My Self-as-Scientist Meet to Do Research in the Classroom: Some Davidsonian Notes on the Philosophy of Educational Research. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 27(2–3): 161–171.

Santoro, D.A. (2015). Philosophizing About Teacher Dissatisfaction: A Multidisciplinary Hermeneutic Approach. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 35: 171-180

Shuffelton, A. (2015). Estranged Familiars: A Deweyan Approach to Philosophy and Qualitative Research. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 34: 137-147.

Thomson, I. (2013). Death and Demise in Being and Time, in Heidegger’s Being and Time (Ed. Wrathall, M.) Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 260-290.

[1] By prior agreements, the interviews are anonymised; teachers’ names are pseudonyms.

[2] Witness gathered during the course’s conversations.

[3] Witness gathered through in-depth interview.

[4] Witness gathered during the course’s conversations.

[5] Witness gathered through course’s conversations and in-depth interview.

[6] Witness gathered through in-depth interview.

Katja Frimberger: An Anarchist Aesthetics of Education in Bertolt Brecht’s Gestic Theatre


This paper explores Bertolt Brecht’s view of the relationship between education and the theatre, with particular reference to his notion of the Verfemdungseffekt and gestus. Epic theatre aims to educate its audience into a form of critical, practical curiosity about the world. Positioning his theatre as being anti-Aristotelian, Brecht seeks to not only make social reality recognisable in the theatre. He wishes to render possible (through the V-effekt aesthetic) the observation of the social and aesthetic processes, which bring forth what we name our reality. I will show that Brecht’s pedagogical intention pivots around his (rather Aristotelian) view that pleasure resides at the heart of the theatrical mimetic task. This is a pleasure that does not however emerge from Aristotelian identification, but instead from theatre’s pedagogical task. Brechtian theatre wishes to make observable the coming-into-meaning of our ideas about, and representations of, the world. As a form of concept-making, theatre is hereby called to not erase individual experience in the name of representing higher ideals. Theatre is tasked instead to not obscure the uneasy congruence between the individual’s experience of the world and its ideal presentation (in the metaphors of art, science). The artist is to acknowledge this theory-practice connection in the imitations of the world that s/he creates, as well as in her/his conduct towards the audience. Theatre is not to aim to ‘govern’ the audience through its images by instructing them into a worldview. It is to position people’s innate capacity to reason and govern themselves at the heart of theatrical mimesis. The V-effekt acts hereby as an aesthetic pedagogy that is to forestall Aristotelian catharsis, and with that, the act of instruction into a fixed image of the world. The ‘dialectic (non-Aristotelian) theatre’ is to instead heighten the contradictions of a mimetic work that creates as much as it represents things, people and actions. As a consequence, the theatre leaves a productive, pedagogic gap that can only be ‘closed’ by the audience’s own consideration as to the truth of what is presented to them on stage. In other words, the pedagogical act is not to be fully controlled by the artist. Brecht’s somewhat anarchist educational tendency is hereby revealed in his concern with the artist’s role in creating the conditions for social virtues and human propensities to flourish. Attending to the productive conditions specific to the theatre, the artist is to care for its ultimately ‘superfluous’ creation of metaphors about human actions. Drawing on Brecht’s Me-ti texts (and editor Antony Tatlow’s editorial comments), I will also show how Brecht’s concern with the interdependent relationship between theory and practice echoes his own examination of the Marxist-Leninist doctrinal distinction between idealism and materialism. This includes its materialism’s assumption that the individual’s consciousness simple reflects matter (as ‘real being’), but cannot shape (or question) it. As a last step in the paper, I will look at actress Helene Weigel’s gestic acting in her role as Mother Courage. Her gestus of showing the complex process of Courage’s (self-)formation, productively illustrates Brecht’s pedagogical concern. The modern theatre is to not obscure, but make observable in mimesis, the ‘critical dialectical’ relationship between an individual’s conscious experience, their actions in the world, and the material circumstances they live in.

Brecht in Philosophy of Education Journals

Bertolt Brecht is certainly no total stranger to Philosophy of Education Journals in the Anglophone world. His work, however, is normally only touched upon relatively briefly, and placed as part of broader discussions around the nature and purpose of the arts (film, media literacy, socially engaged public arts) in/as education (Yun 2021; D’Olimpio 2014; Kellner 2021). More sustained engagement with Brecht’s work is rare. An exception presents Alan Scott (2013), who explores the role of Brecht’s estranged, realist theatre as a form of political education. (Applied) theatre-focused publications in turn engage with Brechtian theory and practice usually in relation to specific educational institutions and educational theory. Just to mention a few: Franks and Jones (1999) re-read Brecht’s theatre theory for its contribution to the pedagogic underpinnings of drama and media education. Russo (2003) applies Brecht to educational theory (esp. Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’), drawing a comparison between progressive education’s student-centred and Brecht’s audience-centred pedagogy. Otty (1995) connects Brecht’s Lehrstücktheorie to Freire’s conscientization and Boal’s theatre; and my own publications have looked at Brechtian theatre pedagogy as a ‘philosophical ethnography’, that prioritises a productive over a representational orientation in education research (Frimberger 2016; 2017). Rather than ‘applying’ Brecht to a particular educational context, institution, or putting his work in service of progressive theory, this paper is driven by a curiosity to explore Brecht as a philosopher of education on his own terms. But I first need to manage the readership’s expectations. ‘Brecht was not a systematic thinker tied to one specific mode of [textual] reflection, but rather he developed and tested his ideas across various literary and non-literary genres. As a result, many of his key insights are reiterated in multiple forms, for example: as dramatic dialogue, song text, journal entry, aphorism, prose fragment, and theoretical essay (…)’ (Wessendorf, 2016, p. 122). In other words, we will encounter Brecht the philosopher of education and his theatricum philosophicum (ibid), not in the systemacity of his ideas (alone), but only when reading his reciprocative theatricalisations of ideas in the same productive, interpretive stance, which he demanded of his audiences. Let us start the journey then with Brecht’s arguably most well-known piece of theory in the Anglophone world.

Theatre as Knowledge

Brecht’s Short Organum for the Theatre (written in 1947/8) was produced at the tail end of his exile years, just before he settled in (post-WWII) East Berlin. The unusual title Organum (meaning ‘a body of principles’), written in 78 aphorisms - short pithy statements in prose – refers, in form and title, to renaissance scientist Francis Bacon’s 1620 book Novum Organum (2019). Brecht was likely attracted to making the link with Bacon and his empiricist natural philosophy, as a way of giving aesthetic expression to his own (implied) anti-Aristotelian ‘scientific’ position in the theatre (Brecht 1978, p. 205). Bacon’s interpretation naturae is considered the ground work for what we now think of as the scientific method. With its emphasis on empirical and rational observation, and methodical, inductive reasoning, it was composed as an ideological refutation of Aristotelian deductive logic as anticipation naturae in his Organon (2017). Brecht indeed shared Bacon’s concern regarding the authoritative finality of concept-making that can potentially result from a purely anticipatory approach, even when supposedly grounded in the scientific observation of the material world. This is reflected in Brecht’s own critical examination (from the 30’s) of the Marxist-Leninist doctrinal distinction between idealism and materialism; and its (practical, political-tactical) assumption (turned into dictatorship under Stalin), that consciousness is solely determined by matter as ‘real being’(Brecht, 2016, p.18). In Nietzschean (1873) fashion, Brecht reminds his fellow countrymen in particular of the danger of obscuring that theory and practice are interdependent. Knowledge, Nietzsche and Brecht would agree, might be best considered (playful) metaphor rather than eternal truth. And knowledge is to firstly serve life, rather than a narrow conception of (e.g. rational) truth. It is to aid our understanding as to how our human cultural productions - including our political systems and our concept-making - nourish (or stifle) our human capacity to live a flourishing life. Accordingly, Brecht warns his fellow artists to not forget (and deny in their artistic expressions) the pleasure of playful exploration that resides at the heart of our acts of knowledge production.

‘And here one again let us recall that their [the artists’] task is to entertain the children of the scientific age, and to do so with sensuousness and humour. This is something we Germans cannot tell ourselves too often, for with us everything slips into the unsubstantial an unapproachable, and we begin to talk of Weltanschauung [worldview/ideology] when the world in question has already dissolved. Even materialism is little more than an idea with us. Sexual pleasure with us turns into marital obligations, the pleasures of art subserve general culture, and by learning we mean not an enjoyable process of finding out, but the forcible shoving of our nose into something (…)’ (Brecht 1978, p. 204)

Education in the theatre is to be a joyful process of finding out about the world. It is not meant to be an act of moralising from the stage. It is no self-satisfied act of shoving one’s nose into how people live up to, fail, or can be best instructed into a set of universal norms. This applies even if these norms are evoked in the name of greater idea(l)s (‘culture’, ‘materialism’, ‘marital obligations’). Theatre, Brecht claims, would in fact ‘be debased’ if it tried to become a ‘purveyor of morality’ and failed to make its ‘moral lessons’ enjoyable - not only to people’s reason, but also to their senses (ibid, p. 180). In an earlier essay (written in the 1930’s), Brecht already highlights the inadequacy of art when it only anticipates the nature and workings of ‘the great and complicated things that go on the world’ (ibid, p. 73). Theatre is instead to draw on the insights and methods of the new sciences of his time (e.g. modern psychology).

‘People are used to seeing poets as unique and slightly unnatural beings who reveal with a truly godlike assurance things that other people can only recognise after much sweat and toil. It is naturally distasteful to have to admit that one does not belong to this select band. All the same it must be admitted’ (…) (ibid, p.73).

This is of course not to imply that, in Brecht’s view, art is science or that art should operate by the same means. Even if the artist makes use of the (new) sciences, in order to gain an understanding of an increasingly complicated modern world. The poet’s task is that of translating any such knowledge about the world into poetry. ‘Whatever knowledge is embodied in a piece of writing has to be wholly transmuted into poetry. Its utilization fulfils the very pleasure that the poetic element provokes (…)’(ibid, p. 74). In other words, the pleasure evoked by poetry is to be derived from aesthetic elements that are indeed shaped by the poet’s efforts to ‘penetrate deeper into things’. Most importantly however, this search for ‘truth’ is always to be undertaken with a view to the artist’s primary task: to entertain his audiences ‘with sensuousness and humour’ (ibid). Given Brecht’s eudemonistic emphasis, he echoes a rather Aristotelian premise. Theatrical mimesis allows artists and audiences to exercise their capacity for recognition and understanding; an activity, which is naturally pleasurable to humans (Poetics, 48b12-17).

Brecht’s anti-Aristotelianism

As part of his (self-styled) anti-Aristotelianism however, Brecht critiques a way of making modern art that represents an unchangeable world. He critiques a presentation of world that is either determined by invisible metaphysical forces or by individual motive forces alone - especially when these are represented as the result of (an already) fully formed moral character in-action (Brecht, 1987, p. 70). Brecht rejects certain poet’s overreliance on individual feeling and individual artistic intuition, when it is devoid of the commitment to investigate the complicated workings of those cultural productions that mark the (modern) world. These modern phenomena include the individual politician’s ‘lust to power’, embedded in the very workings of politics; as much as the coming into being of a (Nazi) propaganda newspaper (like the Völkische Beobachter); the workings of global capitalist business (his example is Standard Oil); as well as the complicated moral discourse around war-profiteering (ibid, p. 73). But Brecht’s antagonism towards Aristotle must also be considered as part of Brecht’s dialectical theatricalisation of ideas. Aristotle was by no means simply an ‘ideological opponent’ for him. Brecht in fact accords with Aristotle’s emphasis on theatre’s mimetic function. ‘Tragedy [drama] is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life’ (Poetics, 50a16f). Flourishing, for both Brecht and Aristotle, can only be achieved in action. And the imitation of such actions, as to how one flourishes (or perishes) in life and death, are the stuff of (both their) theatrical mimesis. As already hinted at, Brecht also affirms Aristotle’s eudemonistic premise. ‘Thus what the ancients, following Aristotle, demanded of tragedy is nothing higher or lower than that it should entertain people (...)’ (ibid, 1978, p.181). Brecht however refuses Aristotle’s position on the nature of this theatrical pleasure. And he differs with him also with regards to the kind of aesthetics that is to constitute a ‘plausible’ theatrical imitation of life’s actions. According to Aristotle, the well-constructed tragedy is to bring forth a pleasurable experience in the audience. It is to evoke empathy with the fate of the hero and the arousal of the tragic emotions of fear and pity, and their subsequent physical relief as catharsis (Poetics, 53b10f; 49b27f).

‘This [Brecht’s] dramaturgy does not make use of the ‘identification’ of the spectator with the play, as does the aristotelian, and has a different point of view also towards other psychological effects a play may have on an audience, as, for example, towards the ‘catharis’. Catharsis is not the main object of this [Brecht’s] dramaturgy. It does not make the hero the victim of an inevitable fate, nor does it wish to make the spectator the victim, so to speak, of a hypnotic experience in the theatre’ (Brecht, 1978, p. 78).

The pleasure of recognition, according to Brecht, does not reside in a theatrical mimesis that stimulates tragic emotions and their cathartic release, because it shows the world as it is. The pleasure of the poetic element, for Brecht, emerges from theatre’s pedagogical function. Theatre is tasked with not only making reality recognisable in the theatre (‘as does the aristotelian’), but with opening out for consideration to an audience the very aesthetic-social processes that constitute this imitated ‘reality’ in the first place. Through a theatrical mimesis that is to appeal to people’s reason and their senses pleasurably, Brecht aims to educate his audience into a disposition of a certain practical (critical) curiosity. The (aesthetic) gesture of showing/pointing to theatre’s double mimetic activity is hereby at the heart of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. The (Aristotelian) theatre of illusion emphasises the spontaneous unfolding of actions in front of the audience, as if these happen for the first time. Brechtian Verfemdungs- theatre deliberately points to the fact that its theatrical activities are imitations of actions that have already taken place. It doesn’t hide the rehearsed nature of its performances or the fact that texts have been learned by heart. In fact, it aesthetically heightens theatre’s artifice. It brings forth the contradictory nature of its imitative work by revealing – and putting in juxtaposition (in acting, stage design, lighting, music) - its various processes of production. The Verfremdungseffekt does hereby not just serve an aesthetic but a social-dialectical function. It is to make striking and strange (to audience and actors alike) what is normally taken for granted about people and their actions in the world. In other words, it is to instigate a practical philosophical inquiry into human being (as a noun and verb). Theatre is to turn spectators (as well as actors, as we will see later) into observers and commentators on the very reality that is brought forth on stage. Asserting the pleasure that resides at the heart of theatre’s acts of knowledge production, the audience is invited to deliberate. How do social phenomema (like war, politics, business) and the concepts and discourses that give life to them map onto people’s everyday life actions, and their capacity to live a flourishing life therein? This philosophising audience is hereby conceived as ‘a collection of individuals, capable of thinking and of reasoning, of making judgements even in the theatre; it [epic theatre] treats it as individuals of mental and emotional maturity, and believes it wishes to be so regarded’ (p. 79).

(In)complete images of the world

Through the V-effekt, Brecht seeks to draw attention to the (often) uneasy congruence between our everyday, material experiences and their ideal representation. The dialectical theatre is to evoke reflection. How is it that explanations of the world can end up governing the very world and people that they seek to represent? As Brecht’s Daoist-inspired teacher Me-ti (2016) formulates it:

‘Judgements reached on the basis of experiences are not usually connected as are the events that led to the experiences. The combination of judgements does not amount to an exact image of the events that gave rise to them. If too many judgements are connected with each other, it’s often very difficult to reconstruct the events. It takes the whole world to come up with an image but the image does not include the whole world. It is better to connect judgements with experiences than with other judgements, if the point of the judgements is to control things. Me-ti was against constructing too complete images of the world’ (p. 50).

As editor Tatlow suggests, the Me-ti texts also echo Brecht’s own engagement with what happened to Marxism. Me-ti can be read (in parts) as a (poetic) reflection on ‘dialectical determinism’ (e.g. under Stalin; later the GDR) and its disregard of people’s ‘experience’ of socialism; including the control and censorship of individual ‘dissident’ productions (ideas, art) in the name of freedom from bourgeois rule (ibid, p. 21). Brechtian theatre’s key artistic-pedagogical premise then pivots around the (anti-Aristotelian) artistic distanciation (Verfremdung) of the audience’s full identification with the images of the world, presented in the world – and of course on stage. Aiming to forestall catharsis, Brechtian mimetic practice is to bring forth a stance of active observation and inquiry: into the productive relationships that constitute the coming-into-meaning of our images of the world. In order to serve such pedagogical aim, theatrical representation, as a form of concept-making that positions art as a form of knowledge, has to be also wary of its own anticipation naturae. In other words, the ‘scientific theatre’ must not sever and obscure the connection between theory and practice in its own imitations, so as not to ‘debase’ the theatre into a ‘purveyor of morality’ (Brecht, 1978, p. 180). Brecht seems indeed aware of the tricky balancing act required of the (modern) theatre. On the one hand, he does not wish to obscure that his theatre indeed pursues a pedagogical intention to influence the way that people attend to/intervene in the social world. And having a pedagogical intention of course implies that the theatre has a view-point. It has ‘moral lessons’ to convey, even if these are partial and not a closed Weltanschauung. On the other hand, Brecht is conscious of the danger. A pedagogical intention, when too willingly burdened by a theatre claiming a ‘higher status’, can too easily obscure that it is in the business of metaphor-creation. And as such, it can slide into normative impositions as to how people should think and act. Brecht was indeed accused of betraying his own ‘scientific’ principles, even by his admirers, such as the philosopher Paul Feyerabend (1991). Feyerabend lauded Brecht’s anti-ideological, dialectical approach to presenting knowledge in poetry (e.g. in his 1939 poem To those who follow in our wake). Feyerabend praised his poetry for the way it 'enlarges faults and lets different incommensurable jargons run side by side' (Feyerabend, 1991, p. 95) without harmonising different aspects into a more systematic account. But he also accused Brecht (many of his plays in particular) of humourless, Marxist intellectualism and, indeed, of moralising from the stage (ibid: p. 81; 143). Brecht then perhaps reminds himself, e.g. in is Organum. Epic theatre is not only tasked with making enjoyable the very act of inquiry into the workings of the social world. It is also called to acknowledge, through the kind of imitations it presents, that its audience is capable of reasoning and governing themselves. ‘There is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind’, as Oscar Wilde (2018, p. 15) formulates his view on the role of socialism for the attainment of individualism. Wilde points us to Daoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu. In the fictional persona of the Chinese elder in his Me-ti, Brecht equally evokes the Daoists’ dislike for (Confucian) moral teachings, critiquing the espousal of virtues as a way of organising and controlling populations.

‘There a few occupations, which so damage a person’s morals than the occupation with morality. I hear it said: You must love the truth, you must keep your promises, you must fight for the good. But the trees don’t say: You must be green, you must let the fruit fall vertically to the ground, you must rustle the leaves when the wind passes through them’ (Brecht, 2016 p. 70).

Too much normative imposition - ‘too much administration, whether moral or political is counterproductive’ to human flourishing, Tatlow (ibid) comments in his editorial notes. Me-ti’s reflections on the nature of morality echo Brecht’s own struggle with his theatre’s striving for a ‘higher status’ and the (perhaps) ever looming desire of becoming a ‘purveyor of morality’ to the masses. The temptation of the abstractions of Western thought (e.g. mirrored in Brecht’s own Marxism) is here counteracted with Daoist-inspired allegorical description. Nature’s drive to life needs no further justification in abstraction; other than a pointing to what nature does. The human capacity for life, Me-ti implies, is not spawned through normative imposition. It is fostered instead by creating the productive conditions for growth, so people can act freely on their innate capacities. This is however not a simple act of ‘leaving mankind alone’. Brecht clearly pursued a pedagogical intention to influence ‘mankind’s’ relation to social reality. He presumed that a better society has to be actively created, even if our human capacity for living a flourishing life is innate. As is evident, Brecht wished to radically challenge the institutions (artistic, political, economic) of his time, driven of course by his first-hand experience of fascism. Theatre was considered to play a part in creating the conditions for a socialist future. But as to what kind of social-ism was exactly to be endorsed on a political level was a recurring question over his life-time.

As Brecht’s exchanges with ‘dissident’ Marxist philosopher and life-long teacher Karl Korsch (2012), and his Me-ti texts (which were likely inspired by their discussions), reveal, Brecht struggled with Marxist-Leninist’s false idealist/materialist distinction. Dialectical determinism turned materialism into a ‘doctrine equated with Being, which consciousness simply reflects, but does not shape or question’ (Tatlow/Brecht, 2016, p. 25). And Brecht experienced of course the disastrous results of its politics. Many of his collaborators (e.g. the actress Carola Neher and director Asja Lācis), communists who had moved to the Soviet Union after the revolution were, under Stalin, branded Trozkyist spies and part of a literary opposition. Seen to undermine the higher purpose of (Soviet realist) art for the direct illustration of Marx's class laws (Paškevica, 2006, p.118f), they were imprisoned and forced into labour camps (Gulags). As Reinhold Grimm (1979) aptly summarises Brecht’s (necessarily tragic) political position:

‘The Marxist Brecht was faced with a terrible decision. In service of the final humanising of human beings, in which he believed, he either had to demand their total de-humanisation and objectification … or to question – even to negate - this ideology, his life’s and work’s prime value.’ (p. 100)

It might be argued then that Brecht reveals, in his pedagogical and aesthetic ideas, what we shall call a certain social- anarchist tendency (likely inspired by Korsch, 2012). In other words, he can be said to share anarchism’s pedagogical ‘faith in the idea that human beings already possess most of the attributes and virtues necessary to create and sustain such a different society, so do not need to either undergo any radical transformation or to do away with an ‘inauthentic consciousness’ (Suissa, 2010, p. 149). In fact, in Me-ti, Brecht comments on Marx’s observation that consciousness is shaped by being or ‘life’. e.g. the way we make a living. For him, this interdependency does not prove people’s in-capacity for reason or joy in life. Brecht simply points to the undeniable dependency between our ideas about the world and how we engage with it materially. He admits that Marx’s observation sounds rather depressing, but suggests pragmatically that ‘the simple realisation that all great works were nevertheless created in this dependency and that conceding this dependency doesn’t make them any less great, settles the matter’ (Brecht, 2016, 76). Brecht also argues that Marx’s principle of the dependency of thought won’t seem so depressing, when dependency on the economy won’t be felt as so oppressive anymore by people. Brecht’s unorthodox Marxist, perhaps anarchist, proclivity then takes shape in his pedagogical positions. He believes in the capacity to reason of his theatre-going audience. He emphasises theatre’s eudemonistic role. Brecht refuses to (fully) instrumentalise theatre for an abstract, ‘higher’ cause, disconnected from people’s individual experience. And he believes that too much (moral, political, social) governance stifles people’s capacity to be good, and live a flourishing life. A certain anti-teleological notion is equally articulated in his belief that the artist cannot control the pedagogical/political outcome of his artistic work. In other words, the exact pedagogical outcome between what is presented to an audience in the materiality of theatre, and the way that the audience interprets and acts (or not) on the insights thus gained, must remain unpredictable.

‘Not even instruction can be demanded of it [the theatre]: at any rate, no more utilitarian lesson than how to move pleasurably, whether in the physical [aesthetic] or the spiritual [moral] sphere. The theatre must remain something entirely superfluous, though this indeed means that it is the superfluous for which we live. Nothing needs less justification than pleasure’. (Brecht, 1978, 180-181) 

The conditions for change can be created, and the effects of this (indirect) education can be of course ‘hoped for’. But it is firstly in the careful attending to the productive conditions particular to the theatre – e.g. when (co)-creating the aesthetic imitations of theatre’s ultimately ‘superfluous’ and necessarily playful metaphors - that the artist can hope to influence his audiences. In other words, Brecht draws attention to what it means for an artist to partake in the (indirect) creation of conditions (e.g. in the theatre) for the purpose of ‘social virtues and human propensities to flourish’ (Suissa, ibid) – in a way that does not deny the relation between theory and practice. Tatlow (Brecht, 2016) reminds us (p. 53) hereby of the very purpose of the Verfremdungseffekt. It is to not only invite inquiry into the productive relationship between theory and practice in ‘other’ acts of cultural production. The V-effekt is to render possible the questioning of Brechtian theatre’s own artistic and pedagogical ways and means of presenting the world on stage. The audience is to be invited to read and judge: do theatre’s metaphors still ‘move pleasurably’ and ‘superflously’? - or have they hardened into a Weltanschauung? Are the images disconnected from the particularity of their emergence in (everyday life) practice, and the question of people’s flourishing therein? Do they seek to organise and govern the world in their own image? Do they create the conditions for social virtues to flourish? If Brecht himself honoured, or failed, his own principles has of course been discussed (see e.g. Arendt, 1948; Feyerabend 1975; Bloch et al. 1977). What can perhaps be stated for the purpose of this paper, is Brecht’s intention. Tatlow gets to its heart in his editorial footnote to Me-ti: ‘Brecht disliked any (artistic) practice without space to question its aesthetic intentions. In such a world you either manipulate or are manipulated. To provoke such questions was, of course the purpose of the so-called estrangement effect (Brecht/Tatlow, 2016, p. 53).

Gestus in Mother Courage

Having established the pedagogical role of Brecht’s ‘anti-Aristotelian’ aesthetics, I now wish to illustrate its coming-into-meaning in the acting practice of one of his closest collaborators: the actress (and his wife) Helene Weigel. In accordance with Brecht’s key idea, that the ‘producer of ideas’ should not obscure the reciprocative translations between theory and practice, I will focus on a practice example from Weigel’s portrayal of Mother Courage (in the eponymous play). Brecht wrote the play in Swedish exile in 1939, in just over a month, as a furious reaction to Hitler’s occupation of Warsaw, Poland. Due to the looming Scandinavian occupation, the play was premiered, in Brecht’s absence, in neutral Switzerland (Zürich) in 1941 (Brecht, 2015, p.181). Unable to assert his directorial influence, Brecht was disappointed that his play seemed to have evoked an unwanted Aristotelian catharsis in the audience. They had read Mother Courage (as Brecht wrote in his journal) as a ‘hymn to the inexhaustible vitality of the mother creature’ (ibid); a mother who victoriously thrives in the face of an inescapable fate (‘war’). When returning to Europe in 1947/48, he immediately revised the script to make Courage a less sympathetic character. She was not be so easily assimilated as an unchanging mother archetype. Her social behaviour and attitude were to provoke more uneasy questions as to the processes of her (self)formation. The result of the script changes led to the 1949 production in East Berlin at the Deutsches Theater, whose success firmly placed epic theatre on the (East) German arts scene’s map. Like all of Brecht’s plays, Mother Courage is historicized, in order to shine a new light on contemporary issues. It tells a story from the past. Mother Courage is set in 17th century Europe during the Thirty Year War; one of the most destructive wars in European history, fought over struggles for political hegemony and religious allegiances. The play explores the complicated (dialectical) process of moral (self)formation set in motion by our concrete ways of engaging with each other and the physical world around us. It deals with the complexity of formative processes in situations when finding ourselves in de-humanizing social structures  that are not of our own making. In other words, it explores what (moral) formation means in those conditions that are not conducive to the flourishing of social virtues and human propensities. The play follows the fortunes of Anna Fierling known as Mother Courage. A feisty canteen woman with a keen sense for business, she is determined to feed herself and her children, and make a good living, by selling provisions to soldiers on the battlefields of Europe. We first encounter Courage pulling her cart loudly and proudly and ready for business. Over the course of the play and her various business dealings, we see her lose all her three children - Schweizerkass, Eilif and Kattrin - to the very war that she hoped to make a profit from. And surprisingly, at the end of play, even after her money has run out, her children have all been killed, and peace has arrived, she still pulls her cart towards what she hopes will be the next (profitable) battlefield. ‘A play is therefore more constructive than reality, because in a play the situation of war is set up as an experimental situation, for the purpose of giving insight; that is the spectator assumes the attitude of a student – provided the type of performance is right’ (Brecht, 2015, p. 221). When watching a play as an experimental educational situation, the audience is to have enough distance from the events and characters on stage. They are to compare, and criticise, the various influences that form human behaviour, as well as to consider the implied alternatives. The art of incorporating the V-effect into the art of acting was hereby a key way of making this observation of the character’s (self-)formation possible.

‘When s/he [the actor/actress] appears on stage, besides what s/he is actually doing, s/he will at all essential points discover, specify, imply what s/he is not doing; that is to say, s/he will act in such a way that the alternative emerges as clearly as possible, that this acting allows the other possibilities to be inferred and only represents one out of the possible variants (…) whatever s/he doesn’t do must be contained and conserved in what he does. In this way, every sentence and every gesture signifies a decision; the character remains under observation and is tested. The technical term for this procedure is ‘fixing the “not ... but”.’ (Brecht, 1978, p. 137).

Gestus describes the various ways that the actor makes manifest these ‘not…but’ moments in the art of acting. She is to show the complicated and contradictory social influences and personal decisions that have lead to the character’s (self)formation. Gestus is brought to presentation through gestures, postures, tone of voice, facial expression, ways of handling props, and standing in relation to other characters on stage. As such, it is an expression of a ‘social attitude’ rather than of the character’s fixed psychological make-up. ‘Human behaviour is shown as alterable; man himself dependent on certain political and economic factors and at the same time as capable of altering them’ (ibid, p. 86). Not all of the actor’s gestures embody gestus of course. It is only those gestures which act as social gests; ‘the social gest is the gest relevant to society; the gest that allows conclusions to be drawn about the social circumstances’ (ibid, p. 105). Brecht explains:

‘(…) one’s efforts to keep one’s balance on a slippery surface results in a social gest as soon as falling down would mean ‘losing face’; in other words losing one’ s market value. The gest of working is definitely a social gest, because all human activity directed towards the mastery of nature is a social undertaking, an undertaking between men. On the other hand, a gest of pain, as long as it is kept so abstract and generalised that it does not rise above a purely animal category, is not yet a social one…The “look of a hunted animal” can become a social gest if it is shown that particular manoeuvres by men degrade the individual man to the level of a beast (…)’ (ibid, p. 104-105).

Helene Weigel’s gestic acting is documented in Ruth Berlau’s extensive 1949 production photographs for the Courage Modellbuch (Brecht, 2015). They illustrate how gestic acting productively translated, and with that also co-created, Brecht’s pedagogical intention. Gestus renders observable the non-teleological - what Tatlow (Brecht, 2016, p. 29) calls ‘critical dialectical’ - relationship between an individual’s conscious experience and the material social world they find themselves in. There are many of Weigel’s fine acting moments documented in the modelbook. Given the limitations of the paper, I will focus on the ‘mute scream’ sequence in scene three. It is here where we learn that Courage's honest son Swiss Cheese has been arrested and is about to be executed by the enemy army (the Catholics). He did not hand to them the regiments' cash box of the besieged army (the Protestants), which he was entrusted with as their paymaster. The honest Swiss Cheese, when realizing that the enemy was trailing him, threw the cashbox in the river. Captured by the army, he is now suspected of keeping it hidden somewhere. He is threatened with execution. The camp prostitute Yvette, a sympathetic friend of Mother Courage, wants to help her to get her son back. She uses her intelligence and wit to convince the officer (called ‘One Eye’) responsible to court martial Swiss Cheese to let him free - for the price of 200 florins. Yvette also arranges for an admirer to buy her Courage’s cart as a gift, so the ransom can be paid. Courage agrees to the asking price of 200 florins and sells Yvette her beloved cart. Courage is aware of the urgency of the situation. But she also realises that she and her daughter Kattrin will run the risk of becoming destitute, when losing their way of making a living. Secretly, she had hoped that her son had hidden the cash box somewhere. She had hoped that she would be able to use that money to buy back her cart later. But when she learns that honest Swiss Cheese was in fact (again) too honest, and threw the cashbox in the river, she makes the decision to haggle over the demanded ransom. Finally, she offers 120 florins instead of 200 for his release. At the key turning point in scene three, Yvette has raced three times to haggle with the officer holding Swiss Cheese captive. Yvette is furious at Courage’s stubborn refusal to pay the full asking price, regarding it as a straightforward betrayal of her son.

‘YVETTE comes running in.
Yvette: They won't do it. I warned you. One Eye was
going to drop it then and there. There's no point, he
said. He said the drums would roll any second now
and that's the sign a verdict has been reached. I
offered a hundred and fifty, he didn't even shrug.
I could hardly get him to stay there while I came
MOTHER COURAGE: Tell him I’ll pay two hundred. Run!
YVETTE runs. MOTHER COURAGE sits, silent.

The CHAPLAIN has stopped doing the glasses
I believe—I've haggled too long.
In the distance, a roll of drums. The chaplain stands
up and walks toward the rear, mother courage re-
mains seated. It grows dark. It gets light again,
MOTHER COURAGE has not moved. YWETTE appears, pale’ (Brecht, 1966, p. 63-64).

Yvette runs off once more to see if she can save Courage's son by offering the full price. Meanwhile, we see Courage and the Chaplain sit in silence, motionless. In the distance we hear drumming - the sign that Courage' son is now being executed. And here, the mute scream sequence starts.

(Brecht, 2015, p. 211f.)

Two minutes of silent screaming by the actress. Her mouth is wide open, head raised, but no sound is heard. In the only bit of dialogue in this sequence, Courage admits her mistake: ‘I reckon I bargained too long’ (p. 64). The chaplain gets up silently and goes to the rear. Mother Courage remains seated. Her face is a screaming mask. She must have sat there for a long time, as the stage grows dark. The drumming stops. Then the stage grows light once more. Her son is dead. He has been executed. Yvette was too late. Mother Courage is still sitting in the exact position, when Yvette arrives. She tells her, full of righteous anger, that Courage got what she asked for. Courage already knows. Her hands are balled fists placed firmly on her lap. Courage is used to getting her way. In scene one, we witnessed her confident entrance. Her head was held high, loud singing voice, proud purveyor of provisions for soldiers. She knows how to get a good deal in a bad situation. She is used to traversing the theatres of war with cunning and humour - coming out the other side with a purse full of money. But here, we see, again, that all her learned behaviour; all the routines and talk and smart moves have their limits. They could not save her son. She did not calculate that she could not bargain with war. As the audience we are rightly exasperated with her. Does she not get it? Why does she still think she can win this one? Why does she still measure the value of her children's lives against the value of money? But things are complicated. Courage implored Yvette:

‘I need a minute to think it over, it's all so sudden. What can I do? I can’t pay two hundred. You should have haggled with them. I must hold on to something, or any passer-by can kick me in the ditch. Go and say I pay a hundred and twenty or the deal's off. Even then I lose the wagon.’ (ibid, p. 62).

Courage is scared of destitution and she is certain as to what will prevent it. She just has to keep back some coins to ensure a new start, even if the cart is lost. The common sense decision leads to her son's execution. In the mute scream sequence, the actress Helene Weigel shows us Courage's behaviour, in all its contradictions. She heightens the ambiguity of her attitude, rather than solving it. In her acting, she in fact points the audience to Courage’s split persona – as business woman and mother. Courages urgently wants to liberate Swiss Cheese; she haggles for the price of his freedom. But she haggles because she knows that, otherwise, she and her daughter could end up homeless. And, as a result of her hesitation to pay the full price, her son gets killed. And she suffers; unspeakably perhaps (the mute scream). She is aware, for a brief moment at least, that she has bargained too long. She knows that her decision had deadly consequences. But her scream is silent. It does not manifest audibly. The audience cannot fully empathise with the mother's pain and experience catharsis. Courage's scream acts as a social gest. It allows the other possibilities, and outcome, of her action (i.e. paying the full price) to be inferred. In the last image, Courage’s pain mixes with anger at the loss of her son, perhaps at her own behaviour, perhaps – finally - at the circumstances that she was unwillingly forced into, and left her seemingly no decision? (We cannot be sure – what would we have done?). Is she going to learn from this and curse the battlefields? But then, her silent scream recedes and her usual stubbornness is returning. In the next moment, she takes her daughter’s hand to comfort her. At the same time, she also denies her son’s identity when asked to identify his dead body, so as not be associated with a traitor. Courage acts as pragmatic as ever. The contradiction between trader and mother has not been resolved in Weigel’s acting. The theatre of war will go on for Courage. In the mute scream sequence, Helene Weigel’s gestic portrayal turns the audience into observers of the complex process of human (self)formation, in all its variables. She invites the audience to reflect on how our social-material being impacts on our behaviour, our decision-making and even our enacted values. But she also provokes us to consider what it might mean to act on our capacity to reason, and to trust and learn from our individual experience. How does one live without re-enacting the very circumstances that stifle and extinguish our human capacity for life?


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Erik Hjulström (MDU) & Johannes Rytzler (MDU): Herbart with Rancière on the educational significance of the “third thing” in teaching


The aim of this paper is to highlight both the educational and the aesthetic significance of the subject matter in the didactic relationship between teacher and pupil. This is done through a reading of two texts, one written by the 19th century educationist and German philosopher Johann Fredrich Herbart [1776-1841], and one written by the contemporary philosopher and political theorist Jacques Rancière [1940-]. The reading is rooted in the humanistic tradition in Nordic educational research, and the methodological design is inspired by philosophical hermeneutics. The texts deal with the significance of what in both texts is described as the “third thing” in the relationship between a teacher and a pupil, and an artist and its spectator. This third thing represents, in both texts respectively, the subject matter. As we interpret the texts there is an interesting resonance and similarity between Herbart’s and Rancière’s ideas. Rancière describes this third thing as something that is owned by neither the artist nor the spectator and something that mediates an interest of which no one is in full control. Herbart describes the third thing as something with which the teacher and the pupil are at the same time occupied, and he claims that this shared activity is something that distinguishes teaching from other educational relationships. Objects of art and teaching, such as a play, a novel, a poem, or a specific subject matter are always part of some specific socio-cultural context or horizon, which give them a specific meaning and value. However, the objects of art and teaching, in both their aesthetic and educative sense, should always be seen as carriers of something more than that and both Herbart and Rancière bring insights that help us understand the practices of art and teaching as something beyond functions such as socialization, qualification, learning and development. By emphasizing this third thing between the pupil and the teacher it is possible to reimagine both the educative and aesthetic values of those timeless things around us, such as objects of art and education, that give life a meaning beyond our limited socio-cultural desires, interests, concepts, and identities. Teaching, from this “fusion of the horizon” of Herbart and Rancière, could thus be seen as an activity created by the heterogeneity already integral to the essence of the subject matter, something that always creates situations of disputes and dissensus among those who share an interest in it. As such, this reading is not only a fusion of the horizon between Herbart and Rancière, but also between aesthetics and Didactics, and hopefully opens discussions about the educative potential of both objects of art and teaching, and how a shared interest in such objects opens both art and education for dialogs that cut across different interpretations, generations, cultures, individuals, etcetera.

Full paper:

Herbart with Rancière on the educational significance of the “third thing” in teaching

Erik Hjulström (MDU) & Johannes Rytzler (MDU)

In this paper, we present a reading of two texts, one written by the 19th century educationist and German philosopher Johann Fredrich Herbart [1776-1841], and one written by the contemporary philosopher and political theorist Jacques Rancière [1940-]. Both texts deal with the significance of the “third thing,” a thing in between, which appears in the relationship between a teacher and a pupil, or in Rancière’s case, in the relationship between an artist and a spectator. This third thing represents, in both texts respectively, the subject matter, as an object of interest, shared by the participants in a specific situation. The aim of the paper is to highlight both the educational and the aesthetic significance of the subject matter in the didactic relationship between teacher and pupil. The theoretical framework of our paper is rooted in a humanistic tradition in Nordic educational research (Kvarnbekk, 2011), and the methodological design is inspired by philosophical hermeneutics (Kemp, 2005). By reading Herbart together with Rancière on the significance of the “third thing” in the didactic and aesthetic relationship, our hope is to highlight an educative dimension in Rancière’s philosophy of emancipation and an emancipatory and aesthetic dimension in Herbart’s didactical philosophy. In a hermeneutical fusion, in the Gadamerian sense, between the horizon of Herbart and that of Rancière, we believe that something important can be said about what it is that makes teaching educative in a radical and aesthetic sense.[1] By educative we mean in this context not a transmission of knowledge, skills, and norms from someone more knowledgeable to someone less knowledgeable. Instead, and in relation to “the third thing,” i.e., the subject matter, educative signifies that which can open and transform the relationship between a teacher and a pupil into something unforeseen and transformative. We are for that reason also addressing the bigger philosophical question of what it is that makes teaching educative, and why education needs teaching. As this is a question that we as writers have often discussed, this paper does not only offer a fusion of thoughts between Herbart and Rancière, but also between us as writers and philosophers of education. The paper could therefore also be seen as a didactic experiment where we intend to explore and expose our shared interest in a specific subject and question. As such, the paper explores what can happen when such an “inter-esse” is used productively in, what Carl Anders Säfström (2005) once described as, “the productive moment of teaching.” (p. 23, our translation)

Didactics, and the triadic relationship

The late 19th century educationist John Adams (1897) once wrote that “Verbs of teaching govern two accusatives, one of the person, another of the thing; as, Magister Johannem Latinam docuit – the master taught John Latin.” (p. 16). The book, from which the quote is taken, was titled The Herbartian Psychology Applied to Education. There, Adams tried to introduce both a Herbartian and German perspective on teaching for an Anglo-Saxon audience. Adams explained why this double accusative, or double knowledge as he also called it, is important:

Not so long ago it was considered enough to know Latin. Nobody denies that the master must know his subject nobody but Jacotot, that is, for he maintains that the master need not know even that. But while all the world agrees to treat the French educationist as a crack-brained theorist for his gallant attempt to free the master from the drudgery of learning what he has afterwards to teach, no outcry was raised at the neglect of John. To know Latin was regarded as all-sufficient. John was either taken for granted or held to be not worth knowing. (p. 16)

According to Adams, a teacher is always in need of a double knowledge, as the teacher needs to know both their subject and their pupil to find a point of contact between them.  This double knowledge could be seen as the foundation of both the Herbartian theory and German didactics as they identify the relationship between the pupil and the content as the key question in didactical thinking (Roth, 2000). Michael Uljens (2017) has defined teaching as the practice of showing something as something to someone. However, when German didactics is translated into English this emphasis on the something showed to someone often becomes understood as part of the teacher’s knowledge and activity. This already happens when the German term Unterricht is translated into the English equivalents teaching or instruction. Teaching and instruction are terms connoting something that a teacher does or has, i.e., the activity and knowledge of the teacher. However, what the English terms lack in relation to the German term Unterricht is the prefix unter. This unter is the equivalent of inter in English and points towards an activity between the teacher and the pupil in relationship to a shared interest, question, or content.  This could be the reason why there is a much stronger emphasis on the subject matter, and the pupils’ and teacher’s relationships towards it, in German didactics compared to its Anglo-Saxon counterparts. In German didactics, the triadic relationship, which consists of the teacher’s and the pupils’ interaction with the subject matter and with each other, is seen as the key element in teaching. This triadic relation has often been highlighted in discussions concerning the educative substance [Bildungsgehalt] of the content (Uljens, 1997; Künzli, 2020). The central task in a teacher’s lesson planning, or what Klafki (1995) also has called didactical analysis, is how the specific content of the lesson can have an educative value for the pupils. Otto Willman is often recognized as the one who made this the central task of a teacher’s didactical thinking (Uljens, 1997). However, as Uljens (1997) explains, Willman’s ideas were criticized for over-emphasizing the subject matter and its educational value. Nohl and Weniger, and later Klafki, according to Uljens, emphasized the relationship between the content and the specific pupil’s own lifeworld, and claimed that the educational value was to be found within not only this relationship, but in the social aspects of the interaction between the participants of a lesson (see also, Klafki, 1995). Instead of placing the educative substance (or value) in the subject matter itself, it was now recognized in each pupil’s social and critical interest and reflection in relationship towards it (Månsson & Nordmark, 2015). Such a shift of focus, from the subject to the pupil, from education to socialization, has similarities to John Dewey’s educational theories and his critique of both Herbart and the German tradition for its emphasis on, what he called, a recapitulation of traditional subjects, thought and ideas (Dewey, 1913; 1916, see also Hjulström, 2020).

From teaching to social learning

These kinds of social ideals of education together with the emphasis on the different life-worlds of the pupils had a profound influence on 20th century educational thinking (Dunkel, 1970; Stormbom, 1986). It especially changed the ideas on what should be seen as the most important relationship in the didactic triad between teacher, pupil, and the subject matter. Such a shift has, according to Michael Oakeshott (1972/2001: 84ff), led to a substitution of “education” to “socialization”, where everything that should happen in a classroom is reduced to some specific instrument of political, democratic, economic, and/or ideological values. What seems to get lost in this shift, we claim, is the educational significance of the subject matter but not in terms of a conservative recapitulation of some specific disciplinary knowledge, viewpoint or understanding. What is getting lost is the educational significance of the subject matter that is released in the relationships of teaching. This “essence” or ontology of teaching as Vlieghe and Zamojski (2019) have described it, has nothing to do with knowledge-transmission and the adoption of the pupils' life-worlds to the world of the adult generation (i.e., conservatism). Nor does it turn teaching into only an adaptation of the subject-matter to what for instance Gert Biesta (2017) has described as the pupil’s own “egological” lifeworld, desires, and personal knowledge (i.e., constructivism). Rather, supported by our readings of Herbart and Rancière, we will show that teaching is a specific form of human co-existence, where “the third thing,” i.e., the educative essence of the subject matter plays a crucial part.

Herbart on the “third something” of teaching

Herbart is often recognized as being the founder of educational science (Hilgenheger, 1993). Although he and his influence on educational theory have been criticized for depicting a too mechanistic view on educational practices, his extensive writing on the concepts Bildsamkeit, Tact and Erziehenden Unterricht has gained interest within contemporary educational philosophy, and since the 1990s there is a renewed interest in Herbart’s theory of education (English, 2014; Uljens, 1998; Siljander, 2000). Of special interest in this paper is primarily the latter concept, Erziehenden Unterricht,[2] by German educationists recognized as Herbart’s most import and the only concept he himself invented (Herbart, 1893). Erziehenden Unterricht is a concept that connects important aspects of didactics and pedagogy, teaching, and education (Hopmann, 1998; Hopmann & Riquarts, 2000). According to Norbert Hilgenheger (1993), the concept paved the way for a new paradigm in educational theory by making teaching the primary, instead of a secondary educational question. Before Herbart, questions of education and teaching were handled separately, and teaching [Unterricht] was seen as less important than education [Erziehung]. Herbart challenged this view. Instead, Herbart took an interest in what it is that makes teaching not only educative, but more educative than other educational relationships. In The Science of Education [Allgemeine Pädagogik] Herbart (1806/1904) explains this himself writing, “The concept of instruction has one conspicuous mark which will afford the simplest starting point for our course. In instruction [Unterricht] there is always a third something with which teacher and pupil are at the same time occupied” (p. 227f). This “third something” is what makes teaching more educative than other educational relationships, such as government, discipline, fostering and other dyadic relationships according to Herbart.  


In every other function of education […] the pupil is immediately in the teacher's mind, as the being upon whom he has to work, and who must maintain a passive attitude towards him. Thus, what causes the teacher's labor on the one hand the knowledge to be imparted, on the other the restless boy supplies the basis of division between instruction and education proper. (p. 228)


In the above quote, Herbart uses the difference of activity and passivity to make a distinction between teaching and other educational relationships. In teaching, “there is always a third something with which teacher and pupil are at the same time occupied” (p. 228). This third something is the specific subject matter. In Herbart’s didactics, the aim of teaching is not to transfer knowledge and skills to a passive pupil. Instead, “to create and develop […] interest is the task of instruction” (Herbart, 1841/1908, p.120). To Herbart, this interest does not only mean an interest in a specific subject. Instead, the aim of teaching is the creation of what Herbart called a “many-sided interest.” However, such an interest consists of an interest in a diversity of subjects and for that reason teaching must start with the creation of an interest in some specific subject. With such an emphasis on the creation of an interest in the subject matter, Herbart made another important shift in the theory of education and teaching. Herbart explains:


It is […] a familiar precept that the teacher must try to arouse the interest of his pupils in all that he teaches. However, this precept is generally meant and understood to denote the idea that learning is the end and interest the means to attain it. I wish to reverse that relationship. Learning must serve the purpose of creating interest. Learning is transient, but interest must be lifelong (quoted by Hilgenheger, 1993, p. 657)


There is a crucial difference between interest and learning that Herbart uses in this quote. Learning, as Kant (1790/1989) described it in his Critique of Judgment, can foremost be seen as a reproduction of someone else’s knowledge, ideas, and skills. Learning, for that reason, is always limited by a model and some specific, understanding, and socio-cultural horizon. From such a position, knowledge is also foremost understood as mere information and a collection of that which is known. According to Herbart (1841/1908), such a view,


does not suffice; for this we think of as a supply or store of facts, which a person might possess or lack, and still remain the same being. But he who lays hold of his information and reaches out for more, takes an interest in it. (p. 44)


By stressing, this “more”, and the will to go beyond not only what we know, but also what we are, Herbart emphasized interest in a subject matter as something different from learning as a reproduction of someone else's knowledge. Interest is an interest in that which cannot be reproduced in a subject matter, it is an interest in its persistent questions. The essence of the subject could for that reason be understood as something that creates an “inter-esse”, and a free play of imagination and understanding between those who share an interest in it. To Herbart, who took inspiration from Kant (1790/1987; see also Beiser, 2014), such an immediate interest in a subject matter is also an aesthetic interest, a disinterested interest in something other for its own sake, and something that can create a free play of imagination and understanding in those who share this interest. Here, Herbart emphasized the importance of other individuals who share an interest in relation to which they still have their own understanding and interpretation. A difference of understanding that, instead of being a didactical problem, becomes an educational asset. In other educational relationships the educator has its interest in the “educand” and in their development as a person of good knowledge, values, and behavior. The educator then exercises their power over the educand by deciding what is worth knowing, how to behave and how to judge what is good. Such a relationship is governed by the educator’s own interest, norms, ideals, and socio-cultural history. In educative teaching, however, it is not the teacher’s interest and norms that govern the practice. Instead, it is their interest in the subject matter itself – the “inter-esse” – that is the guide. The purpose of the teacher, as a creator of interest according to Herbart, is not to govern what to know, and how to behave because that would reduce teaching to discipline and fostering. Rather, it is to incite an interest that can transform the relation of who is a teacher and who is a pupil in their shared relation to the subject matter, and to each other. As such, teaching does not become a quest for a specific truth and agreement that would freeze the subject and its questions in time. It is an interest in that third something, placed between teacher and pupil. We now turn to Jacques Rancière, and his writings on the significance of the third thing in the relationship between not only teacher and pupil, but also between the artist and its spectators.

Rancière on the “third thing” of both teaching and the theater

In the book The Ignorant Schoolmaster – Five Lectures in Intellectual Emancipation (1991), Jacques Rancière, recounts the story of how Joseph Jacotot, uses a bilingual version of the book Télémaque as an educational device for his Flemish speaking students to study the French language (something that they also did with an unexpected success, according to Jacotot himself). Through the pedagogical adventures of Jacotot, Rancière starts to question the very foundation of educational practices and their explanatory logic. Even if the book could be read as an allegory of how society’s institutions reproduce societal inequalities, its pedagogical insights gained interest in unexpected audiences, especially among artists and people with an interest in aesthetics. Consequently, Rancière was invited to art-schools to discuss the book and started himself to think about the relation between intellectual emancipation and the role of being a spectator. In his text The Emancipated Spectator, one finds an elaborate discussion on the democratic pitfalls and potentials of spectatorship. There, Rancière (2009) begins by questioning the distinction between activity and passivity, a distinction that always has created problems for artists who address the role of spectatorship, thus, developing his own thoughts on intellectual emancipation, especially in relation to what it means to share a common interest in a specific play, poem, or other objects of art, and how a democratic community can take shape through the activity of sharing this interest in such objects.

Spectatorship is in fact an implicit theme in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, to be found in Rancière’s intricate elaborations on the prerequisites of intellectual emancipation – work, will and attention. To Rancière (1991), the key to intellectual emancipation is to be found in what he calls “the reasonable will”, which is the activity of paying attention to a radical exteriority of the linguistic order. It is through the disciplined activity of paying attention one becomes an active spectator and thus becomes aware of and can work with this exteriority, in close relationship with a teacher who verifies this work (Rancière, 1991; Rytzler, 2017). In The Emancipated Spectator (2009), Rancière develops this democratic notion of the spectator by placing them at the heart of the discussion of the relation between art and politics. For the accusers of theatre, being a spectator was bad for the following reasons: a spectator is ignorant and passive and is separated from the capacity to know and the power to act. This means that theatre is bad by definition since it enacts scenes of illusion. Rancière describes how the reformers of the theatre tried to address this problem in two different ways, both as attempts to transform the passivity of the spectator into activity. In the first attempt, the spectator is a scientific observer, put in front of a mystery where a certain distance was needed for the spectator to refine their gaze. In the second attempt, the spectator is drawn into the magical circle of theatrical action, reducing the distance, and thus making them abolish the position of the viewer. Here, Rancière starts to question the network of equalities (audience/community, gaze/passivity, exteriority/separation, mediation/simulacrum) and oppositions (collective/individual, image/reality, activity/passivity) that underpin the principles of the spectacle as separation. The theatrical spectacle tries to teach the spectators how to cease being spectators and to become agents of a collective practice, very much like teachers wanting their pupils and students to be self-active learners (Rytzler, 2017). Here, Plato is one of the earliest and perhaps most famous accusers of both theatre and teaching and their pacification of spectators and pupils. However, even his attempts to emancipate them were doomed to fail. This pedagogical paradox, imaginatively explored in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, is that in teaching practice the distance between teacher and pupil will always be reinstated in each effort to reduce it. Thus, even Socrates becomes a stultifier when he cannot hide his own teaching superiority in the Menon-dialogue (Rancière, 1991; Todd, 2003). To avoid this paradox, or rather by using it productively, Rancière focuses on the relationship between spectatorship and the event of intellectual emancipation, through his critique of different attempts to reform the theatre. The problem with these attempts was their way of abolishing the distance between spectacle and spectator, as this distance is based on the definition of a certain distribution of the sensible that sets out false logical oppositions between viewing/knowing, appearance/reality, activity/passivity, i.e., oppositions between capacities and incapacities. Pupils, as spectators, are discredited in advance by this a-priori definition. However, Rancière finds a way out of this vicious circle of stultification in formulating the central thesis of The Emancipated Spectator:


Emancipating begins when the opposition between viewing and acting is challenged, when we understand that the self-evident facts that structure the relation between saying, seeing, and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection. (Rancière, 2009, p.13)


Viewing becomes active if we see it as a transformation of this distribution of positions. It is possible to be at the same time a distant spectator and active interpreter. Spectators can therefore create their own poem, through that which has been presented to them. In emancipative teaching, teachers make it possible for the student to learn something that they themselves might not know about that which they teach. The fundamental problem for artists and teachers is that, even if they want to abolish the distance between the spectator/student and the teaching content, they also claim to know and define what distance that should be abolished and how the pupil should learn to think, interpret, and become active in relation to this content (conservatism) or to themselves and their own social-cultural backgrounds (constructivism). However, in an emancipative relation, both the aim and the content of the lesson, as well as the intention of the play or the poem is recognized as something that is not just a question of transmission of an intended meaning, or that the real truth lies in each spectator’s own interpretation. Instead, there is, in a genuine subject matter as well as in a play or poem, that which Rancière describes as a third thing, something that appears in between those who try to understand what it is. Rancière explains,


[T]here is […] the distance inherent in the performance itself, in so far as it subsists, as a spectacle, an autonomous thing, between the idea of the artist and the sensation or comprehension of the spectator. In the logic of emancipation, between the ignorant schoolmaster and the emancipated novice there is always a third thing - a book or some other piece of writing - alien to both and to which they can refer to verify in common what the pupil has seen, what she says about it and what she thinks of it. The same applies to performance. It is not the transmission of the artist's knowledge or inspiration to the spectator. It is the third thing that is owned by no one, whose meaning is owned by no one, but which subsists between them, excluding any uniform transmission, any identity of cause and effect. (Rancière, 2009, p. 14f)


In the quote, Rancière identifies “the third thing” as that which challenges the opposition between an artist and the spectator that is created in the theater. In the theater, and in all other situations where at least two people share something significant to them both, everyone becomes a translator of that which is being shared. This is because the third thing, even if it is created by someone with some specific intention and purpose, also has something which escapes its ability to be reduced to some specific interpretation. It is, on the one hand, “unfamiliar to both” and “owned by no one” and, on the other hand, owned by everyone as an object of attention and interest. It is in this shared ownership of, and attention to, the third thing between them that it is possible to “verify together that which the pupil has seen, what she has to say about it, and what she thinks about it.” (Rancière, 2009, p.15). What Rancière’s discussions on emancipated spectatorship add to his notion of intellectual emancipation, is an aesthetic understanding of the democratic element in teaching practice. He detects a communal power in the relationship between the people on stage/the teacher and the people in the audience/the pupils. However, this power is not a product of them sharing the same event. Rather, it is the power of equality of intelligence that turns it into an event of subjectification. This event is possible because the emancipated spectatorship involves both an acknowledgement of the essence of the third thing and a recognition of everybody’s capacity to engage with and to speak of this thing. Here we find an extension of the notion of “the democracy of the book”, something Rancière (1991) introduces in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (see also Vlieghe & Zamojski, 2019). By gathering around an educative object, such as e.g., a book, a certain communal power is unleashed. This through the capacity of the anonymous, the power of associating and dissociating, and everything else in relation to that third thing which is shared between teachers and students (Rancière, 2009). The individual student is always a spectator but every spectator, especially if we understand this democracy of the book in a radical sense, is already a unique (i.e., irreplaceable) spectator, allowing the book, the poem, or the mathematical theorem to exist regardless of any pre-conceived cultural context or tradition. Emancipation is the blurring of the boundary between those who speak and those who listen, between the individuals and the community. An emancipated community, to Rancière, is a democratic community of narrators and translators, trying to make sense of the third thing, the truth of which never can be spoken, only felt (Rancière, 1991). It is also in this aesthetic event of intellectual emancipation/spectatorship we find the point of contact between Rancière and Herbart.

The educative, aesthetic, and political value of the “third thing” in Herbart and Rancière

As we have interpreted the texts by Herbart and Rancière, there is an interesting resonance and similarity between Herbart’s quote about the third “something” between the teacher and pupil, and Rancière’s quote about the third thing between the artist and the spectator. More accurately, by reading the two quotes together, we can detect a fusion of horizons between Herbart and Rancière as well as between aesthetics and Didactics. We interpret these quotes as reminders of the educative and aesthetic potential of that third thing, which in teaching lies between the teacher and the pupil, and which in art lies between the artist and the spectator. Rancière describes this third thing as something that is owned by neither the artist nor the spectator and something that mediates an interest of which no one is in full control. Herbart describes the third thing as something with which the teacher and the pupil are at the same time occupied, and he claims that this shared activity is something that distinguishes teaching from other educational relationships. Objects of art and teaching, such as a play, a novel, a poem, or a specific subject matter are always part of some specific socio-cultural context or horizon, which give them a specific meaning and value (c.f., Popkewitz, 2004). Neither the teacher nor the artist can avoid filling the content with some specific meaning and intention, something that is part of their own horizons. Vlieghe and Zamojski (2019) describes this closure of a subject-matter as its “pedagogical content” (pp. 55), and such a reduction of the subject to its specific content is a crucial part of school-teaching and forms the basic functions of didactical discourses (e.g., the transmission of some specific meaning or understanding). However, the objects of art and teaching, in both their aesthetic and truly educative sense, should always be seen as carriers of something more than that. Vlieghe and Zamojski (2019) use Heidegger to describe this “more” as that thing which transcends some specific meaning, interpretation, or horizon. This thing is what we interpret as the “third thing”, addressed in both of the texts by Herbart and Rancière. It is the heterogeneous essence, or timelessness that gives “the objects” of art and teaching their educative and aesthetic values.  Even if there is a possibility to reconstruct and find some specific artist’s or teacher’s meaning, intention, and own interpretation, there is still to be found, in these types of objects, something – a third thing – that transcends the possibility to give them a final and “true” meaning. In educative teaching, that thing is something that is “put on the table”, as Masschelein and Simons (2013) have described it, and thus makes a specific “pedagogic subjectification” possible. This subjectification works as a verification of the equality of the participants, through that “thing” in the subject matter which disrupts both the institutional relationships between teacher and student, and the didactic discourse which reduces a subject matter to something transferable (Simons & Masschelein, 2010). This is what makes teaching, and the third thing of the subject matter educative, at least if we by teaching understand it as an educative unterricht, as something pointing at this between – the inter esse – which goes beyond the socio-cultural limits and horizons of the participants. As such, a play, a novel, a poem, or a specific subject matter become shared objects of interest, but not in the form of some specific knowledge and understanding aimed at being transmitted from the one who knows and understands to those who lack true knowledge and understanding.

The thing

Objects of art, and subjects of teaching, in their educative and aesthetic sense, are not foremost intended as transmitters of knowledge and experiences to passive onlookers. They are instead intended for active “at-lookers” [Anschauung] in the Kantian sense, who are not passively just looking, but who are interpreting and creating meaning from their own imagination and understanding. It is important to acknowledge that it is for that reason all the constituents of the didactic relationship become equally important, not only the pupil’s activity as a self-directed learner or the teacher as a model, and inspiring enthusiast. Teaching is about the activity created by the heterogeneity already integral to the essence of the subject matter, and which always creates situations of disputes and dissensus among those who share an interest in it (Rancière, 1999). This is a crucial difference to the emphasis on learning as an autopoietic process in different constructivist learning theories as indicated by Siljander (2000). But it is also different from the interpretation of Ranciére as emphasizing, through Jacotot, teaching as some kind of being with the world, or as an adoption of concepts as Biesta (2017) has described it. Following both Vlieghe and Zamojski (2019), and Masschelein and Simons (2013), but also the German didactic tradition stemming back to Herbart, it is the thing of the subject-matter which matters in both teaching and education. The third thing which in both the didactic and aesthetic relationship is connected to the inter of an “esse”, of that thing that is part of no one, and thus also open for everyone. That does not mean that the teacher’s and the pupil’s activities need to be the same, and that their knowledge and interest are quantitively and qualitatively equal. The teacher of a subject matter, as well as an artist, or a writer of a play or a poem is important as mediators of the will to interpret, to imagine, to discuss and to dispute. They put things on the table and create openings in that which seems closed. Such a teacher is not an assessor of the pupil’s understanding and knowledge, but instead someone who invites someone else to share their interest. A sharing that is not about who knows, and who does not, but about an adventure in the will to go beyond what we know about that which we share an interest in. When sharing such an interest, the traditional opposition of knowledge between a teacher and a pupil is challenged as this interest cannot be measured as a difference between teacher and pupil. Instead, the relationship between them becomes a relationship between individuals who share an equal interest in something other than themselves. A thing in or of the world which speaks to, and calls, both teacher and pupil into awareness and action.

Summary: The significance of the “third thing” in teaching

The aim of our paper was to highlight both the educational and the aesthetic significance of the subject matter in the didactic relationship between teachers and pupils. It is important in this discussion to make a distinction between a subject matter in the aesthetic sense, as both Herbart and Rancière highlight, and a subject matter as a school subject. As a school subject, a subject is framed by some specific disciplinary knowledge and as a specific idea of the distribution of ways of knowing, doing, and acting formulated in a syllabus or learning objectives and made into a hierarchy of different both quantitative and qualitative measures that can be used to assess a pupil´s performance in relationship to such a hierarchy. The school subject is for that reason often used as a tool for something else than the subjects intrinsic educational and aesthetic value. Teaching is, according to Herbart (1841/1908), only educative when it is the subject matter, and the dialog around it for its own sake, that is governing the situation. It is this dimension in the subject matter we understand as its aesthetic dimension. A dimension which separates the subject from its instrumental value, and specific and limited socio-cultural understanding. With Rancière, and his aesthetic interpretation of intellectual emancipation, we can further understand the educational significance of the subject matter. By introducing the subject matter as that third thing, to which no one can claim ownership, it is freed from its role in reinstating a hierarchy of intelligences. Instead, it cuts through the domain of senses, and deconstructs its own role as a school subject and calls for attention and action. Although such events - educative events, to speak with Herbart and emancipative events, to speak with Rancière - can and do happen in schools it is not what schooling seems to be intended for today, and it is not what is understood to be the purpose of either school teaching or the schoolteacher. It is within this context the need for a rediscovery of the third thing in teaching, beyond the confines of what Biesta (2014) has described as the aims of qualification and socialization, we think our reading of Herbart together with Rancière is important. Both writers bring insights that help us understand teaching practice as something beyond its function for socialization, qualification, learning and development. By emphasizing that third thing between the pupil and the teacher it is possible to reimagine both the educative and aesthetic values of those timeless things around us, such as objects of art and education, that give life a meaning beyond our limited socio-cultural desires, interests, concepts, and identities.


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[1] We are aware that Gadamer's (1971/2013) concept “fusion of horizon” is often, at least in education, understood as a model for a shared understanding between pupil and teacher, and that the purpose of the dialogue between teacher and pupil is “consensus”, as a situation when the pupil reaches the same understanding as the teacher. We are also aware of Biesta’s (2017) critique of hermeneutics and the hermeneutic way of highlighting teaching as a quest for understanding, and the anthropological worldview contained in such an idea. However, we don’t understand the concept of fusion of horizon as a fusion of understanding. Instead, we are inspired by the Brazilian-Swedish philosopher Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback’s (2006) interpretation of not only the concept of the fusion of horizons, but also of the task of hermeneutics. In her writing the concept fusion is rather a fusion or a sharing of the lack of understanding. As such, the fusion is the situation in which both teacher and student, as well as a writer and its interpreter, realize that it is something more to the text, the object, or the specific subject-matter than what they already believed they understood. The fusion is thus not a closure of understanding, but an opening, and this opening of understanding in the midst of what was thought to be understood, is the basic theme of this article.

[2] Erziehenden Unterricht is often translated as “educative teaching” (Hilgenheger, 1993).

Kai Horsthemke: Knowledge, Truth and (Higher) Education in Post-Normal Times


The advent of Covid-19, a new and highly contagious form of Corona virus, in late 2019 led to an unsurprising rejuvenation of appeals to traditional knowledge, with some rather bizarre assertions and recommendations. The purported democratisation of knowledge and truth has also been perceived to affect secondary and tertiary education, arising in particular from the enforced switch to online learning in the wake of the outbreak of the pandemic. Thus, Ephraim Gwaravanda and Amasa Ndofirepi, in their introduction to an edited volume on African university education in times of Corona, seem to suggest that the nature of knowledge is changing. They argue, with Stephen Downes and Jane Gilbert, that “‘important’ or ‘valid’ knowledge now is different from prior forms of knowledge, particularly rationalistic and empiricist accounts of knowledge. The internet is seen as providing multiple and democratic sources of knowledge, thereby enriching students from a variety of knowledge paradigms. New technologies allow for the de-institutionalisation, de-marginalisation and deconstruction of knowledge.” They quote Gilbert’s reference to Manuel Castells as arguing that “knowledge is not an object but a series of networks and flows. The new knowledge is a process[,] not a product … it is produced not in the minds of individuals but in the interactions between people …” The authors then reiterate Gilbert’s reference to Jean-François Lyotard’s view that “the traditional idea that acquiring knowledge trains the mind would become obsolete, as would the idea of knowledge as a set of universal truths. Instead, there will be many truths, many forms of knowledge and many forms of reason. As a result, the boundaries between traditional disciplines are dissolving, traditional methods of representing knowledge (books, academic papers, and so on) are becoming less important, and the roles of traditional academics or experts are undergoing major change.” Among the questions that arise, according to the authors, are the following: “What forms of justified true beliefs arise in the context of online learning? What are the online epistemic opportunities and threats for the African university student?” Apart from attempting to address these questions, this essay will formulate a few of its own, arising especially out the assertions quoted above: What does “de-marginalisation of knowledge” involve? What are “democratic [and undemocratic] sources of knowledge”? What could be meant by “a variety of knowledge paradigms”? Why would “the idea of knowledge as a set of universal truths” and the “idea that acquiring knowledge trains the mind … become obsolete” with the advent of new technologies? Finally, the chapter investigates the relational conception of knowledge and truth suggested by Gilbert and Castells, with special reference to tertiary education on the African continent.


The advent of Covid-19, a new and highly contagious form of corona virus, in late 2019 led to an unsurprising rejuvenation of appeals to traditional knowledge, with some rather bizarre assertions and recommendations. The president of Madagascar introduced a health drink called ‘Covid Organics’, which is manufactured on the basis of the local Artemis plant and supposedly strengthens not only the immune system but also offers protection against numerous viruses, fever and especially lung disease. After being distributed among school children, shipments were made to several other African countries. In India, the Ayurveda ministry announced shortly after the first Corona cases were made public that traditional medicine can help against Covid-19. Following criticism, the statement that it offered a cure was retracted and replaced by the suggestion that alternative medicine could strengthen the immune system. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro issued a recommendation on Twitter to use a herbal mixture as a cure, while China’s president Xi Jinping claimed that 90% of all recovered Corona patients had received traditional Chinese medicine. Similar claims were made by Bolivia’s deputy minister for traditional medicine, Felix Quilla Muni, who recommended steaming with a mixture of eucalyptus and chamomile. In Indonesia, the demand rose for red ginger, resulting in a drastic increase in market prices, as in the case of curcuma powder in Sri Lanka, following which the government set an upper limit. Nepal’s prime minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli recommended steam therapy and drinking hot water. Surely the most bizarre claim came from the recently unseated US president and self-proclaimed expert on medical treatment and health care, who suggested that American citizens inject or imbibe disinfectants. Needless to remark, demand for disinfectants rose exponentially in the United States.

The purported democratisation of knowledge and truth has also been perceived to affect secondary and tertiary education, arising in particular from the enforced switch to online learning as a result of the outbreak of the pandemic. Thus, Ephraim Gwaravanda and Amasa Ndofirepi (in their introduction to a forthcoming volume they have co-edited) seem to suggest that the nature of knowledge is changing (see also Bates 2019, chapter 2.7). They argue, with connectivists like Stephen Downes (2007) and Jane Gilbert (2005), that

‘important’ or ‘valid’ knowledge now is different from prior forms of knowledge, particularly rationalistic and empiricist accounts of knowledge. The internet is seen as providing multiple and democratic sources of knowledge, thereby enriching students from a variety of knowledge paradigms. New technologies allow for the de-institutionalisation, de-marginalisation and deconstruction of knowledge.

They quote Gilbert’s reference (2005, 35) to Manuel Castells (2000) as arguing that

knowledge is not an object but a series of networks and flows. The new knowledge is a process[,] not a product … it is produced not in the minds of individuals but in the interactions between people …

The authors then reiterate Gilbert’s reference (2005, 35) to Jean-François Lyotard’s view (1984) that

the traditional idea that acquiring knowledge trains the mind would become obsolete, as would the idea of knowledge as a set of universal truths. Instead, there will be many truths, many forms of knowledge and many forms of reason. As a result, the boundaries between traditional disciplines are dissolving, traditional methods of representing knowledge (books, academic papers, and so on) are becoming less important, and the roles of traditional academics or experts are undergoing major change.

Gwaravanda and Ndofirepi end their introduction by posing these questions: “What forms of justified true beliefs arise in the context of online learning? What are the online epistemic opportunities and threats for the African university student?” In what follows, I will try to respond to these questions, before formulating a few of my own, arising especially out the assertions quoted above.

“What forms of justified true belief arise in the context of online learning?”

In posing this question, Gwaravanda and Ndofirepi acknowledge the traditional philosophical definition of knowledge-that (i.e., propositional, theoretical or factual knowledge) and its three necessary components, belief, justification and truth.[1] Epistemology as a normative field of inquiry (i.e., concerned with what qualifies as ‘knowledge’) reflects the classical philosophical understanding of knowledge. According to Socrates, in Plato’s Meno (1970, 65),

True opinions, as long as they stay, are splendid and do all the good in the world, but they will not stay long – off and away they run out of the soul of mankind, so they are not worth much until you fasten them up with the reasoning of cause and effect. ... When they are fastened up, first they become knowledge, secondly they remain; and that is why knowledge is valued more than right opinion, and differs from right opinion by this bond.

And in Plato’s Theaetetus (1978, 909) the (rhetorical) question is, “... how can there ever be knowledge without an account and right belief?” Relevant distinctions are made here between knowledge and belief, between mere belief and well-warranted (or adequately justified) belief, and between true belief and justified true belief. The inquiry here is essentially normative, for example, evaluating beliefs and belief strategies, investigating what beliefs are trustworthy enough to be acted on, how researchers should validate their findings, what forms of argument and what kinds of justification are acceptable, who (if anyone) counts as an epistemic authority, etc. This is by no means an exclusively Western or Eurocentric understanding, contrary to what Gwaravanda (2019, 3) maintains. In Yoruba, too, pertinent distinctions are made between gbàgbó (belief; the subjective/private/personal component of knowledge) and (knowledge in the sense of ‘knowledge-that’). Barry Hallen and J.O. Sodipo (1997, 81) observe that

gbàgbó that may be verified is gbàgbó that may become . Gbàgbó that is not open to verification and must therefore be evaluated on the basis of justification alone (àlàyé, papò, etc.) cannot become and consequently its òótó [truth] must remain indeterminate.

If Gwaravanda and Ndofirepi had asked, “What forms of knowledge arise in the context of online learning?”, the response might have mentioned both knowledge-that and knowledge-how, i.e., practical or skill-type knowledge – knowing how to conduct independent research and how to access primary and secondary sources, requisite computer skills, digital literacy and internet intelligence, and so forth, and perhaps even acquaintance- or familiarity-type knowledge. The question, “What forms of propositional (theoretical/factual) knowledge arise in the context of online learning?”, however, is nonsensical since there is only one form: knowledge-that. Perhaps the authors mean something different – for example, what forms of justification, truth or belief arise in the context of online learning. Inquiring into different forms of justification makes excellent sense.[2] Thus, we commonly distinguish not only between different degrees and different contexts but also between different kinds of justification: observation, self-evidence, reason, introspection, testimony, memory, deductive and non-deductive reasoning etc. The idea of different forms of beliefs also makes good sense. Beliefs vary not only in degree of strength and in intensity but also in duration: beliefs may be fleeting, longer-lasting or indeed life-long. They may be rationally held, or they may be irrational and non-rational. They might be guided by our emotions and by our moral convictions, as well as by our rational commitments and logical reasoning. The question of ‘different forms of truth’, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to get a handle on. David Bridges (1999) has argued, quite compellingly, that different theories of truth might be seen to fit different areas of knowledge or (educational) research models – without implying relativism about truth. For example, the correspondence theory of truth seems to have its natural home in at least some of the empirical sciences, while the coherence theory of truth pertains, for example, to mathematics and symbolic logic. The pragmatist theory of truth (with utility as its characteristic mark; i.e., a proposition is true if it is useful to believe) is appropriate for technology and certain applied sciences, whereas the consensus conception of truth has a distinct appeal in the realm of social and political decision-making and is also relevant in matters of aesthetics and taste. So, perhaps in online learning the pragmatist theory of truth has particular purchase – without the status of truth as the objective component of knowledge thereby being compromised in any way, or knowledge itself being in a state of constant flux.

Tony Bates’s (2019, chapter 2.7.4) “difficulty … with the broad generalisations about the changing nature of knowledge is that there have always been different kinds of knowledge … Thus while beliefs about what constitutes ‘important’ knowledge may be changing, this does not mean that the nature of academic knowledge is changing. Gilbert argues that in a knowledge society, there has been a shift in valuing applied knowledge over academic knowledge in the broader society, but this has not been recognised or accepted in education (and particularly the school system). She sees academic knowledge as associated with narrow disciplines such as mathematics and philosophy, whereas applied knowledge is knowing how to do things, and hence by definition tends to be multi-disciplinary. Gilbert argues ([2005,] 159-160) that academic knowledge is:

‘authoritative, objective, and universal knowledge. It is abstract, rigorous, timeless – and difficult. It is knowledge that goes beyond the here and now knowledge of everyday experience to a higher plane of understanding. … In contrast, applied knowledge is practical knowledge that is produced by putting academic knowledge into practice. It is gained through experience, by trying things out until they work in real-world situations.’”

Bates adds (op. cit.), “Other kinds of knowledge that don’t fit the definition of academic knowledge are those kinds built on experience, traditional crafts, trial-and-error, and quality improvement through continuous minor change built on front-line worker experience …”


In the extract quoted above, Gilbert and Bates distinguish between propositional (academic) and practical (applied) knowledge. Of course, the different senses of knowledge may overlap. Thus, language skills may be characterized in terms of propositional, practical and acquaintance-type knowledge: if I know (i.e., if I am acquainted or familiar with) a particular language, then this implies that I can speak and/or read it, and that I know what the words I am using mean and refer to. Similarly, if I know how to do online research, then I know that I need to activate certain search engines, and that I am familiar with the pertinent commands and functions, etc.


“What are the online epistemic opportunities and threats for the African university student?”

Gwaravanda and Ndofirepi presumably see the internet and online technology “as providing multiple and democratic sources of knowledge, thereby enriching students from a variety of knowledge paradigms”. The “new technologies”, online learning and increased connectivity arguably provide distinct epistemic opportunities since they “allow for the de-institutionalisation, de-marginalisation and deconstruction of knowledge”. But what does this mean? Clearly, each of these ideas needs to be critically scrutinised – they cannot be taken for granted, as I will show in the following sections. A quick and obvious answer to the question regarding online epistemic opportunities will highlight students’ exposure to a wide range of theories, viewpoints and ideas, opportunity to conduct independent, self-governed research and to select sources, and so forth. With epistemic opportunity comes epistemic responsibility, however: being clear about the trustworthiness of the respective sources, awareness that ‘liking’ a particular theory, point of view and idea is not the same as that theory being correct. The twin responsibilities of pursuing truth and avoiding error remain uppermost among the epistemic commitments of the university student, in Africa as elsewhere.

Regarding the latter part of the question, an “epistemic threat for the African university student” that comes to mind is conceptually linked to what Miranda Fricker (2007, 1) has called “hermeneutical injustice”, which occurs “when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences”. Hermeneutical injustice involves a general failure to marshal the conceptual resources necessary to understand and interpret information, research findings and knowledge claims. If students have not been given the tools to make sense of their own situation, then this will place them at an epistemic and cognitive disadvantage. However, I suspect that the issue on the African continent, with regard to online learning in post-normal times, is not so much the lack of conceptual-interpretive resources as the dearth of material resources (computers, laptops, notebooks, iPads, inadequate connectivity) – which raises questions of social and distributive justice rather than epistemic and cognitive justice.

I also worry that an over-emphasis on traditional or local knowledge, and on indigenous knowledge systems, may have this very effect of marginalisation. As Elizabeth Rata (2012, 107-108) contends, “the turn to localised cosmologies, where knowledge of the world is tied to the experience of that world, limits access to one of the most important resources in the contemporary world: the knowledge developed in the scientific disciplines”. She adds (108), “Localised knowledge contributes to re-racialising social groups into pre-modern forms of organisation, confining people to the limited and limiting world of experience”. Discussing “the consequences for education of the shift to localised knowledge”, Rata considers the

working class, and in particular the re-ethnicised section of the working class, [to be] doubly disadvantaged. These groups are incarcerated into a never-ending present as schools [and universities] fail to provide the intellectual tools of objective thinking and its medium in advanced literacy that lead to an imagined, yet unknown, future. Indeed, supporters of ethnicised knowledge specifically reject objective knowledge, with indigenous writer Linda Smith (1999) referring to ‘objectification (as) a process of dehumanisation’ (39).

Rata’s blunt but compelling conclusion is that “the localisation of knowledge in the curriculum is disempowering knowledge” (2012, 120; see also Horsthemke 2021, 90).

What does “de-marginalisation of knowledge” involve?

Broadly, epistemic marginalisation refers not only to the unequal provision of knowledge and of epistemic goods (like hermeneutical tools, to be able to make sense of one’s situation), but also to the failure to acknowledge knowers and their legitimate claims to knowledge. Given the experience of ‘indigenous’ Africans of physical and mental oppression, it stands to reason that de-marginalisation of knowledge would have as educational priorities matters of transformation and redress, processes that are inextricably bound up with epistemic justice. Epistemic justice refers to the fair and equal distribution of epistemic benefits and burdens: it involves due acknowledgement of individuals as knowers with corresponding rights and responsibilities. In her influential account of epistemic injustice, Fricker (2007) distinguishes between two types of epistemic justice, testimonial and hermeneutical justice. In order to bring about “collective social political change” (8), what is required at a testimonial level is “reflexive awareness of the likely presence of prejudice”, and this “anti-prejudicial virtue is the virtue of testimonial justice” (91-92). Testimonial justice, says Fricker, is “both ethical and intellectual in character, at once a virtue of truth and a virtue of justice” (124). Thus, apart from being able to rely on the competence and sincerity of speakers (72), i.e., African students, and apart from sensitivity (ibid.) and empathy (79), “hearers [online instructors] need dispositions that lead them reliably to accept truths and to reject falsehoods” (115). “Hermeneutical justice, like testimonial justice, is a hybrid virtue” (174). It is an original virtue of both truth and justice. Testimonial justice involves accepting the credibility of students’ knowledge claims, just insofar as these claims are not only believed sincerely but also justified and true, while hermeneutical justice involves a general effort of marshalling the conceptual resources necessary for understanding and interpreting these knowledge claims. The result is that African students are supported in their self-development and in the realisation of their full human potential: in “becoming who they are” (5).

If educational and epistemic concerns and priorities arise from different forms of social life, then those that have emerged from a social system in which a particular race or group has been subordinate to another must be suspect. In addition, given the (especially vicious) history of physical and psychological colonisation on the African continent, it is plausible that one of the educational priorities will be to educate against development of a subordinate or inferior mindset, as well as against a victim- and beggar mentality – despite the continuing economic crisis and low level of economic growth. Given, too, the ravages of the disease on the continent, education about pandemics has special resonance: Covid-19 (like HIV/AIDS) does not only snatch away educators; it also leaves children orphaned and students infected.

If what has been established above is correct, then the solution to the problem of epistemic marginalisation cannot be to revert to traditional, local or cultural knowledge, or to indigenous knowledge systems. It is, rather, epistemic empowerment on a different level, viz. to ensure advanced literacy, to provide the tools for active, critical engagement, deliberation and debate.

What are “democratic [and undemocratic] sources of knowledge”?

It is important to distinguish carefully between multiple and democratic sources of knowledge provided by the internet and online platforms, and indiscriminate postings of opinions, prejudices and ‘alternative facts’. ‘Post-truth’ politics and conspiracy theories (e.g., regarding Covid-19) are not democratic: in fact, they are quite the opposite. If the internet and online platforms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards then the real dangers are obvious. Studies indicate that children, teenagers, students and also adults are increasingly unable to distinguish between news and fake news, between a scientific study and a sponsored advertisement. (The latter is usually marked by the indicator ‘sponsored content’.) What makes this even more remarkable is that the internet also greatly facilitates the cross-checking of received information. People have always been gullible and easily persuaded by data and statistics, however fabricated. Thus, the ‘digital intelligence’ so frequently attributed to learners and students is a bit of a myth, or at least only half-applicable. This points to the urgent need for courses promoting internet intelligence and digital literacy, which many schools and universities have now begun to offer.[3]


What are the implications for the curriculum? Not included, at least not under the guise of ‘knowledge’, should be mere beliefs or opinions unanchored by reason/s, bald assertions, superstitions, prejudice, bias – in fact anything that involves myth, fabrication and constitutes an infringement on the cognitive rights of learners and students. However, it may be pedagogically and epistemically useful to teach these qua beliefs, opinions, assertions, superstitions, prejudice and bias. This would no doubt strengthen students’ reasoning and critical thinking abilities, something I take – without adducing reasons – to be desirable. While something might be said for teaching strategies that are not directly truth-promoting, like playing devil’s advocate or trying on an argument for size, good practice is arguably modelled by educators who pursue truth and who are truthful and sincere in their interactions with others.


Yet, it is no longer enough to present knowledge, to make facts available. Especially in times of increasing online instruction, there is also a need for second-order elucidation that – over and above transmission and mediation of contents – also provides information about their origin, how they came to be, and that advertises its criteria of rationality. Classical gate-keeping must be accompanied by “gate-reporting” – which goes beyond selection of relevant information and knowledge to include also making one’s selection criteria transparent, providing information about one’s sources, and self-reflective, dialogically oriented justification of relevance, plausibility, and claims to objectivity. Simply put, academics and teachers have to explain again and again how they work and why they say what they say. Gate-reporting also has to be used, without false modesty or politically correct restraint, to counteract disinformation, moral and political manipulation, and the like.  

What could be meant by “a variety of knowledge paradigms”?

The term ‘knowledge’ has been employed in some kind of rhetorical inflation, thus obscuring rather than clarifying important issues and distinctions. Over the centuries, arguably beginning with Socrates and Plato (and manifest in other philosophical traditions, as I indicated earlier), epistemologists have reached a general agreement about a basic division, that between knowledge and belief. A related distinction has been made between normative and descriptive inquiry, regarding beliefs and knowledge. How, then, do these distinctions bear on the idea of “a variety of knowledge paradigms”?


Acquisition of knowledge is sometimes, mistakenly, confused with how people acquire beliefs. This understanding of ‘knowledge’ serves an essentially descriptive function – and belongs less in philosophy than in the so-called ‘sociology of knowledge’ (what might be called, more fittingly, the ‘sociology of belief’) and perhaps in the psychology of learning. Finally, ‘knowledge’ is sometimes employed as a description of a set of beliefs – a description of the specific content of beliefs that are held, or are accorded the status of being knowledge, by ethnic or cultural groups (see Levisohn and Phillips 2012, 44-55). ‘Various knowledge paradigms’, in this usage, are simply those differing sets of beliefs held by different communities and, again (as in the first descriptive sense), have little to do with ‘knowledge’.

It follows that there is a number of senses in which ‘variety of knowledge paradigms’ might be (and indeed has been) used, denoting

  • a variety of beliefs and belief systems,
  • a variety of research method(ologie)s,
  • a variety of research questions,
  • various researchers and their cultures, and
  • various epistemologies and epistemological perspectives.

Although the reference to ‘knowledge’ in the first four of these examples is arguably inappropriate (in that philosophers do not understand ‘knowledge’ in any of these ways), the use of ‘variety’ is uncontroversial. Beliefs and belief systems vary, as do research methods (although this should not be taken to imply some kind of methodological relativism, as advocated – for example – by Linda Tuhiwai Smith; 1999) and research questions. Similarly, there is considerable variation in researchers’ backgrounds, their individual and cultural identities, interests, and objectives. The ‘variety’ in question becomes more controversial, and indeed problematic, in relation to ‘epistemologies and epistemological perspectives’. This, says Harvey Siegel (2012, 73), goes to the ‘heart of the matter’.

‘Variety of knowledge paradigms’ in the sense of different normative theories of knowledge (which are concerned with what ought or ought not to be called ‘knowledge’) makes good educational sense, i.e., in terms of introducing learners and students to foundational – rationalism, naturalism, empiricism, positivism – and non-foundational epistemologies: postpositivism, antifoundationalism, pragmatism, relativism, feminist standpoint epistemology, postmodernism, constructivism, and the like. However, whereas defenders of empiricism, rationalism etc. typically think that only one epistemology can be correct, the case of so-called ‘multicultural’, ‘localised’ or ‘indigenous epistemologies’ is strikingly different, in that they are all considered equally valid. Why is this problematic? The problem is that this understanding of ‘knowledge paradigms’ leads in the direction of relativism. While none of these ‘multicultural’, ‘localised’ or ‘indigenous knowledge paradigms’ can be critically interrogated[4], it is also impossible for them to achieve “normative status [or validity] beyond their specific group of origin” (Levisohn and Phillips 2012, 49). If it were logically possible to establish relativism as correct, then there would be no way to elevate African women’s knowledge paradigms above European androcentric knowledge paradigms. Racist and sexist ‘epistemologies’ would be no less valid than “Afrocentric feminist epistemology” (Hill Collins 1990). In all these instances, however, the reference to ‘knowledge paradigms’ and ‘epistemologies’ is philosophically unsound. Racist and sexist worldviews constitute no epistemologies, no paradigms of knowledge: they are threadbare collections of questionable beliefs, dubious values and prejudices. But only a non-relativist can coherently and consistently can judge them so. This observation also has a bearing on the next set of points I wish to make.

Why would “the idea of knowledge as a set of universal truths” and the “idea that acquiring knowledge trains the mind … become obsolete” with the advent of new technologies?

Some of the conclusions Gilbert (2005, 35) draws from Lyotard’s view (1984) are compelling, especially in times of diminishing contact or face-to-face instruction. “Traditional methods of representing knowledge (books, academic papers, and so on)” are, indeed, “becoming less important” – or at least they are increasingly being replaced by online and electronic sources, e-books, e-articles, podcasts and film clips. The “roles of traditional academics or experts”, too, “are undergoing major change”. Academics, experts and authorities are increasingly assuming the roles of facilitators, designers and producers of online resources, creative directors of audio and video clips, and the like. Conversely, as I have shown above, students are required to assume greater control of their learning, with correspondingly increasing epistemic responsibilities and obligations as quasi-independent researchers. But does all this really follow from the premises that “the traditional idea that acquiring knowledge trains the mind would become obsolete, as would the idea of knowledge as a set of universal truths”, that “there will be many truths, many forms of knowledge and many forms of reason”? It is difficult to accept these premise-statements.

Acquisition of knowledge continues to be the mainstay of education, and mental training is all but inconceivable without it. Of course, it is not a matter of rote learning and regurgitation – but education has not been about unthinking reproduction for a long time, even on an African continent plagued by centuries of instructional force-feeding and information-bulimia. Education is all about the reflective and critical assimilation of knowledge, learning to apply it creatively in previously unfamiliar, new contexts, and establishing parallels, links and connections with other learning areas, disciplines and problem contexts. 

What about the alleged obsolescence of “knowledge as a set of universal truths” and the prediction that “there will be many truths, many forms of knowledge and many forms of reason”? Bates (2019, chapter 2.7.5) asserts (against Gilbert, it seems) that

while academic knowledge is not ‘pure’ or timeless or objectively ‘true’, it is the principles or values that drive academic knowledge that are important. Although it often falls short, the goal of academic studies is to reach for deep understanding, general principles, empirically-based theories, timelessness, etc., even if knowledge is dynamic, changing and constantly evolving. Academic knowledge is not perfect, but does have value because of the standards it requires.

There seems to be a confusion here between knowledge and the object of teaching, i.e., the information that is being transmitted in academic and other instructional contexts. Bates appears to characterise the latter here. In simple terms, teaching-that does not imply knowing-that. One may teach what is false. Nor does learning-that imply knowing-that. One may learn what is not true. No serious academic or scientist thinks that what s/he teaches or has discovered is anything more than provisional. Sometimes (in fact, very often) it stands the test of time, sometimes it does not. It is furthermore difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of the assertion that “knowledge is dynamic, changing and constantly evolving”. If this, too, constitutes knowledge (and surely Bates must claim it does), then this bit of knowledge will, by definition, be “dynamic, changing and constantly evolving”. Unless Bates wants to claim that all knowledge is changing etc. except the knowledge that it is changing etc. But then why should there not also be knowledge that is constant and unchanging? It would appear that universalists are on considerably stronger ground than anti-universalists.

What about the assertion, “there will be many truths, many forms of knowledge and many forms of reason”? Will this be one truth, one piece of knowledge, one form of reason among many? If so, why should this be veritistically, epistemically and/or rationally compelling for anyone who does not share this view?

A relational conception of knowledge and truth

Gilbert (2005: 35), as we saw, refers to Castells (2000) as arguing that

knowledge is not an object but a series of networks and flows. The new knowledge is a process[,] not a product … it is produced not in the minds of individuals but in the interactions between people …

This understanding resonates with what is arguably characteristic of African (and other traditional or indigenous) conceptions of knowledge, viz. a strongly relational element that is also found in African ontology and ethics. This is also captured in the verdict, “Indigenous knowledge has a trans-generational, communal and cultural nature”.[5] Further examples abound. Thus, Ladislaus Semali and Joe Kincheloe (1999: 51) refer to the ‘metaphysicality’ of indigenous knowledge systems, “based on the forces that connect people to one another”. R. Sambuli Mosha (1999: 214) asserts that “Whatever is known, and passed on as knowledge, is known in the context of its relationship to life and the world”. And Rodney Reynar (1999: 290-291) points out that indigenous knowledge “is indigenous precisely because it is incorporated in a way of life.” It “does not derive its origins from the individual but, rather, in the collective epistemological understanding of the community”. This understanding of knowledge relations and knowledge communities then serves to validate indigenous insights and multitudinous ways of knowing, alternative conceptions of knowledge and a great “variety of knowledge paradigms”.

A charitable and generative reading of Gilbert’s (and Castells’s) view would seek to dissociate it from both self-undermining relativism and self-marginalising culturalism. But this would almost certainly require stripping this account of knowledge of any references to flow or fluctuation, indigeneity, and social and cultural construction. How then could one make logical and epistemological sense of knowledge being produced “in the interactions between people”? Coming to know is understood as a process of persons developing insights in relation with one another and with all that exists. This indicates not only an intimate relationship between knower and known, between what it is to know and what it is to be known, but in effect also a communalist understanding of knowledge: I know because we know. Or, A knower is a knower because of other knowers.[6] This also gives new meaning to the idea of an online community, where educational and epistemological priorities are determined by exposure to a common threat (in this case a new, highly contagious and often lethal virus) – and also by shared opportunities of debate, mutually beneficial deliberation and critique, sober and measured reflection, and also joint resistance to the global pandemic.


Bates, Anthony W. 2019. Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for Designing Teaching and Learning. https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/ 

Bridges, David. 1999. “Educational Research: Pursuit of Truth or Flight of Fancy?” British Educational Research Journal 25(5): 597-616.

Castells, Manuel. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Downes, Stephen. 2007. “What Connectivism Is.” Half An Hour, February 3. https://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Funtowicz, S.O. 2021. “A Quick Guide to Post-Normal Science.” Integration and Implementation Insights, October 19. https://i2insights.org/2021/10/19/guide-to-post-normal-science/


Gilbert, Jane. 2005. Catching the Knowledge Wave: The Knowledge Society and the Future of Education. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Gwaravanda, Ephraim Taurai. 2019. “An Epistemological Critique of the African University Education System.” Education Systems Around the World. Intech Open: 1-11. https://www.intechopen.com/online-first/an-epistemological-critique-of-the-african-university-education-system


Gwaravanda, Ephraim Taurai and Ndofirepi, Amasa P. 2020. “Towards Knowledge Pluriversality in African Universities.” In African Higher Education in the 21st Century: Epistemological, Ontological and Ethical Perspectives, edited by E.T. Gwaravanda and A.P. Ndofirepi, 57-73. London/Boston: Brill/Sense.

Gwaravanda, Ephraim Taurai and Ndofirepi, Amasa P. forthcoming. “Introduction.” In Coronavirus and Online Learning in Universities in Africa: Philosophical Reflections, edited by E.T. Gwaravanda and A.P. Ndofirepi. London/Boston: Brill/Sense.

Hallen, Barry and Sodipo, J.O. 1997. Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft: Analytical Experiments in African Philosophy (2nd edition; 1st edition 1986). Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Horsthemke, Kai. 2020. “Epistemological Issues in African Higher Education.” In African Higher Education in the 21st Century: Epistemological, Ontological and Ethical Perspectives, edited by E.T. Gwaravanda and A.P. Ndofirepi, 38-56. London/Boston: Brill/Sense.

Horsthemke, Kai. 2021. Indigenous Knowledge: Philosophical and Educational Considerations. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Levisohn, Jon and Phillips, Denis C. 2012. “Charting the Reefs: A Map of Multicultural Epistemology.” In Education, Culture and Epistemological Diversity: Mapping a Contested Terrain, edited by C.W. Ruitenberg and D.C. Phillips, 39-63. Dordrecht: Springer.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Mosha, R. Sambuli. 1999. “The Inseparable Link Between Intellectual and Spiritual Formation in Indigenous Knowledge and Education: A Case Study in Tanzania.” In What Is Indigenous Knowledge?: Voices From the Academy, edited by L.M. Semali and J.L. Kincheloe, 209-225. New York & London: Falmer Press.

Plato 1970. “Meno.” In The Complete Texts of the Great Dialogues of Plato, translated by W.H.D. Rouse, W.H.D. and edited by E.H. Warmington and P.G. Rouse, New York, Toronto & London: Plume.


Plato 1978. “Theaetetus.” In Plato – Collected Dialogues, edited by E. Hamilton, E. and H. Cairns, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Rata, Elizabeth. 2012. “The Politics of Knowledge in Education.” British Educational Research Journal 38(1): 103-124.

Reynar, Rodney. 1999. “Indigenous People’s Knowledge and Education: A Tool for Development?” In What Is Indigenous Knowledge?: Voices From the Academy, edited by L.M. Semali and J.L. Kincheloe, 285-304. New York & London: Falmer Press.

Semali, Ladislaus and Kincheloe, Joe. 1999. “Introduction: What is Indigenous Knowledge and Why Should we Study It?” In What Is Indigenous Knowledge?: Voices From the Academy, edited by L.M. Semali and J.L. Kincheloe, 3-57. New York & London: Falmer Press.


Siegel, Harvey. 2012. “Epistemological Diversity and Education Research: Much Ado About Nothing Much?” In Education, Culture and Epistemological Diversity: Mapping a Contested Terrain, edited by C.W. Ruitenberg and D.C. Phillips, 65-84. Dordrecht: Springer.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books.

[1] Whether these components are also jointly sufficient has been the subject of vigorous debate for more than fifty years; see Horsthemke 2021, chapter 3. Elsewhere, Gwaravanda (2019: 3) rejects this definition as lacking the social or interpersonal component “that is fundamental in the African knowledge paradigm”. This objection is baseless, as I show in Horsthemke 2021 (71-94, 224-227).

[2] It should be noted at this juncture that the notion of “valid knowledge” (see Gwaravanda 2019, 5), like ‘true knowledge’ (or “genuine knowledge”; ibid., 4), is a tautology. Knowledge cannot, by definition, be anything but valid, or true (or ‘genuine’). Knowledge may be generated via ethically dubious (if not repugnant) means, as in Mengele’s Auschwitz experiments on Jewish twins or as in vivisection, but this does not make it any less ‘valid’ or ‘true’.

[3] To take an important example, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook clearly have a responsibility to filter out fake news, notwithstanding their invocation of the impossibility of such a task. After all, they have developed algorithms for crowdsourcing, eliminating pornographic content, and for tailoring feeds relating to users’ interests and attitudes.

[4] It should be noted that this is, of course, a decidedly non-relativist mandate.

[5] http://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/feature/2002/08/30 (retrieved 7 May 2020). See also Gwaravanda 2019; Gwaravanda and Ndofirepi 2020.

[6] See Horsthemke 2020: 38, 39; Horsthemke 2021: 27.

Renato Huarte Cuéllar: Traditions within Philosophy/ies of Education? (Subtheme: the role of tradition/s in education)


We usually tend to think that the authors, problems, ideas, proposals, answers to those problems, books, articles, ways of doing things, etc. are connected to whatever activities we develop, academic ones especially. In a sense, these activities and ways of thinking might seem obvious to everyone we share those ideas or activities with.  Even criticism of those ideas, authors, etc. is part of what we get to perceive as a statu quo.  Based on the Latin noun traditio or the Latin verb tradere, we might call those ideas and activities as being part of a tradition. 

                     In this paper, we would like to focus on how to define a tradition from a philosophical point of view. We will offer some perspectives on how to think about a tradition at least in the discussion held by T. Kuhn, L. Laudan, and K. Popper in what has been an important issue in the philosophy of science. On the other hand, an approach from Hermeneutics would also give a broader philosophical perspective, taking H.-G. Gadamer into account. His idea on tradition’s role in hermeneutics might open up many ways in which “prejudices” build up in many ways what we think and do.

                     Then, we will try to think about what a tradition is within the realm of Philosophy of Education.  We will bring at least two perspectives from two different traditions, the first one being the approach of Richard Pratte within the anglophone tradition. His discussion of two traditions of philosophy of education is quite fruitful as a way of understanding how he sees traditions.  On the other hand, we will “translate” Stella Mari Vásquez’s perspectives of the Spanish-speaking tradition of the French, German, and English traditions of Philosophy of Education.  Her perspective is necessarily different from that of Pratte. In this way, by coincidences, but so much so by their differences, we will see how “Traditions” might work for the Philosophy of Education.

                     Finally, we will discuss the aims and opportunities of having an approach to Philosophy of Education or, as we would like to argue, Philosophies of Education in the plural. Having this in mind, how one perceives the limits, aims, and blind spots of each tradition of philosophy of education could shed light on how we approach education, and philosophy in general terms.  In this way, understanding “traditions” would enable a more dialogical perspective towards whatever philosophers of education think, feel, and do; what are the standing points where their way of doing philosophy of education starts, and specifically where those ideas, problems, critiques, are built form within a specific tradition.  In any case, only when two or more traditions come together, is that we can find the “limits” of our tradition.

Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident.

[If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.]

 Isaac Newton

  1. What is a Tradition?

One way to start this paper is by reading with a certain amount of care Isaac Newton’s phrase, which is coincidentally not his, but rather “borrowed” from a long tradition.  We are not sure that those were Isaac Newton’s words.  In a quite angry letter written from Robert Hooke to Isaac Newton in 1676 the former states that the latter is responsible for this phrase. (Koyré, 1952). Nonetheless, the famous phrase dates far back than just between two philosophers and scientists of the 17th century.  We know that John of Salisbury attributes the following phrase to Bernard de Chartres: “Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique propria visus aucmine, aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subenimur et extoliimur magnitudine gigantea [Bernard de Chartres used to say that we are like midgets on the shoulders of giants so to see far beyond themselves and things that stand at a farther distance, not by visual keenness nor by body strength, but because we have been elevated to the magnitudes of those giants] (Southern, 1966, II B).  From what it was thought was Newton’s phrase it is that it was minted on the £2 coin.  The impact has also reached papers on Sociology of Science or Physics and Astronomy.  R. K. Merton has written On the Shoulders of Giants: a Shandean Postscript (1965) and S. Hawking wrote On the Shoulders of Giants. The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy (2002).  Even outside of the academic world, people have felt like midgets on the shoulders of giants.  This is the case with Noel Gallagher and his band, Oasis.  They named their fourth album Standing on the Shoulder of Giants.  The rock band R.E.M uses the same phrase in one of its songs, King of Birds.

                     So far, the idea was to show how tradition works with quite a famous example.  A phrase, attributed to a famous person, could have not been even thought of by them. Nonetheless, the phrase or idea is “inherited” by others assuming several contexts and meanings, at the same time that a new context and meaning is attributed. Then, this process goes on and on within specific groups and realms of human actions and thoughts.

                     “Tradition” comes from the Latin verb trādere which means “to hand over, deliver, or betray." Tradere was formed by the roots trans- ("over, across") and dare ("to give"). (Merriam-Webster) The dictionary makes a special remark that in English the words “trader” and “traitor” come from the same root.  On the one hand, the verb allows us to think about heritage, when a thing or idea is delivered from a parent to a son or daughter, from one generation to another.  Nonetheless, it also means to betray since giving away someone “over” or “across” a certain boundary is also trādere

Philosophers have also been quite keen on how the idea of “tradition” has important implications for philosophy itself or other realms of human knowledge and human behavior.  Trying to “visit” different traditions, several philosophers with different approaches and aims will be presented to have a panoramic view of their ideas about tradition. We will visit the discussion among philosophers of science. Thomas S. Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Larry Laudan, and Karl Popper have coincidences and differences in how “traditions” play a role in understanding science. On the other hand, but not too far from Popper’s hermeneutical perspective is Hans-Georg Gadamer.  “Tradition” is a very important notion for him and his hermeneutical approach to human life and worldviews.  What are the limits and possibilities of traditions? Among other cultural and linguistic aspects of humans, hiding, passing on, and revealing, among other actions tend to be part of our nature.

Thomas S. Kuhn was widely known because he introduced the historical approach to the Philosophy of Science.  It is not true that no philosopher, or even historians of science, had ever missed the point of showing that whatever is accepted at any given moment will still be “true” at a different time and within a different scientific community. Tradition has been articulated as being the array of elements that keep a paradigm and try to solve the puzzles that appear through time. That may be the case with Natual Sciences, but it is not for Social (or Human) Sciences. We would like to focus on the second perspective of tradition since, for the latter, there are no traditions in this proper sense.

                     Beyond The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn directly deals with the problem of tradition in one of his compiles essays that appeared in The Essential Tension. Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition (1977).  Kuhn explains how a paradigm gets established.  He studies the role of the textbook, within the education of students of different (natural and physical sciences).  Unlike the “textbooks” in the social sciences, where a compilation of different essays and, thus, perspectives are put together giving a much broader sense of any approach, in a Geography of Physics textbook there is “one” idea.  Textbooks are used as a way of establishing a paradigm.  He says:

Except in their occasional introductions, science textbooks do not describe the sorts of problems that the professional may be asked to solve and the variety of techniques available for their solution.  Rather, these books exhibit concrete problem solutions that the profession has come to accept as paradigms, and they then ask the student, either with a pencil and paper or in the laboratory, to solve for himself problems very closely related in both method and substance to those through which the textbook or the accompanying lecture has led him. Nothing could be better calculated to produce “mental sets” or Einstellungen. Only in their most elementary courses do other academic fields offer as much as a partial parallel. (1977:229)

There is a difference between how students are treated and trained through a rather less divergent way of thinking, like the ones in the social sciences and the arts.  Although this is a big criticism of natural sciences, as Kuhn puts it, this explains why social sciences and the arts would never settle a paradigm, and thus, a scientific revolution would never happen within these realms of human knowledge. (1977:231)

                     This is how a “tradition” is built for any given science.  A scientific tradition is, in many ways, the set of ideas that are established by a group, mainly through the theories, problems, activities, etc. established by concrete ways of “passing on” those theories, ideas, and ways of solving problems, etc.  In this sense, this is how a tradition is inherited.

                     Through means of settling a paradigm, tensions are generated and “anomalies” build up. Without this “essential tension,” there is no way of a scientific revolution. In many senses, this Kuhnian idea of paradigm and scientific revolution has been applied to social sciences and even philosophy.  Nonetheless, he is quite clear that his model would not work if there is not this “essential tension” between the established tradition and the anomalies that are presented by the critics.  Thus, although he might not deny the possibility of having “traditions” within social sciences or art, there are no “science traditions” and their implications.

Another philosopher that was quite keen on criticizing Thomas S. Kuhn and Imre Lakatos is Larry Laudan. The American philosopher of science agrees in “From Theories to Research Traditions” (1977) with Kuhn and Lakatos that general theories are a good way of assessing theories. Nonetheless, Kuhn does not explain clearly, according to Laudan, how to evaluate those theories.  On the other hand, Laudan would criticize Lakatos’ perspective on how he sees progress.  Laudan’s critique undermines the idea that research programs and theories seem to have progressed.  He states that the only possible progress is given throughout empirical testation. Theories and research programs cannot progress.  They are part of a more or less fixed series of human characteristics that cannot “advance” in an orderly way, not even if the appreciation of that supposed progress is felt as such by a scientific community.  In this sense is that Laudan suggests the research traditions.  These are enabled by a group of specific theories, a certain metaphysical and methodological standpoint, on top of having lasted a good number of years being tested in some way.  Research traditions have ontological worldviews and they use research methods within this tradition.  For Laudan, “a research tradition is a set of general assumptions about the entities and processes in a domain of study, and about the appropriate methods to be used for investigating the problems and constructing the theories in that domain.” (1977:81)

                     Which tradition is better? That which can solve problems in a better way.  Laudan considers that Kuhn and Lakatos have a high degree of relativism.  It is up to the “paradigm” or the “research program” to decide.  In this sense, Laudan states that it is through testing that the “best” theory wins. We are not able to know a priori which tradition will state de best theory. That would depend on how these theories are tested and not only circumstantial events in different research groups or sets of people.

Karl R. Popper says clearly: “Having studied for some time the methods of the natural sciences, I felt that it might be interesting to study also the methods of the social sciences.  It was then that I first met with the problem of tradition.” (2002: 161)

                     In many senses, some rationalistic colleagues had argued that their approach could not tolerate “traditions” being mingled with natural sciences, since too much was at risk. Nonetheless, Popper tries to reflect upon the fact that he had to move from a Continental perspective, and then to an English one, just to go ahead and be part of a community in New Zealand.  “These changes have, no doubt, stimulated me to think about these matters and to try to look further into them.  Certain types of traditions of great importance are local, and cannot easily be transplanted.” (2002:163) He aims to give a method to these traditions for two reasons. The first one is that there has to be a way in which we can prevent the “anything goes” argument bringing any argument to a complete relativism.  On the other hand, he distinguishes “first-order theories” and “second-order theories”.  The first ones serve as a basis for the second ones.  Even if there is disagreement on the second level theories, there has to be a rationale and proven coherence among them. There has to be a correlation with empirical referents to understand these theories.  On second-order theories, traditions have a much deeper role in shaping them. Nonetheless, within first-order ones, the role of tradition is diminished. This distinction is important when we assess theories and how they work in different academic spaces, or in any other realm of human activity for that matter. 

Popper continues by saying the following:

 It should be clearly understood that there are only two main attitudes towards tradition.  One is to accept a tradition uncritically, often without even being aware of it. In many cases we cannot escape this; for we often just do not realize that we are faced with a tradition. […] The other possibility is a critical attitude, which may result either in acceptance or in rejection, or perhaps in a compromise. Yet we have to know of and understand tradition before we can criticize it […] (2002:164)

Against other perspectives, Popper does not see a direct relationship between the ontological or metaphysical perspectives of a tradition and its principles.  There could be a case in which a theory predicts an event after being tested.  Even in that case, that theory could be rejected, but not its empirical relation.  There might be the case that there are other presents or future theories, in this tradition or in another one, in which a better explanation can be given.

                     In any case, for Karl Popper, to study traditions, we would need to go to a social explanation.  He says: “A theory of tradition must be a sociological theory because tradition is a social phenomenon. I mention this because I wish briefly to discuss with you the task of the theoretical social sciences.” (2002:167)  His approach is that social sciences are theories based on rational conceptions of the world, in which an analysis can be made, especially around institutions and their foundation. Thus, traditions can be linked to the analysis of societies in which these theories interact and give a certain direction to human life in general. 

To have an approach to Hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer has to deal with the issue of traditions.  Beyond only traditions of research, or academic traditions, the whole sense of “tradition” is a key point for understanding Gadamer’s philosophy in general.  It can be said that in the first pages of Truth and Method (2004) he is acknowledging his tradition as a standpoint for his worldview.

                     In the chapter called “The elevation of the historicity of understanding to the status of a hermeneutic principle” (2004:267-304) Gadamer starts a discussion with Martin Heidegger’s idea of ontology.  This discussion starts with the disclosure of the Fore-closure of Understanding.  In Gadamer’s own words, “The point of Heidegger's hermeneutical reflection is not so much to prove that there is a circle as to show that this circle possesses” an ontologically positive significance.” (2004:269) Through language, as he will later address, ontology and consciousness can be highly problematic, since “consciousness”, as a word, tends to lose its meaning when used by Descartes himself.  He has been influenced, according to Gadamer, by the Greek vision of logos.  In that sense, he introduces the importance of tradition.  He states: “It is the tyranny of hidden prejudices that makes us deaf to what speaks to us in tradition. […] The recognition that all understanding inevitably involves some prejudice gives the hermeneutical problem its real thrust.” (2004:272)

                     His recognition of the role of tradition in the hermeneutical problem is decisive. Gadamer explains this idea furthermore in the following paragraphs.  He mainly blames the European Enlightenment for having “prejudice” as a prejudice.  Ideas were supposed to be uncovered or “clarified” by reason. Thus, we inherited the idea, the prejudice, that it was possible not to have prejudices.  The only thing true about this is that we are unable to see them, or at least fully. “It is not tradition but the reason that constitutes the ultimate source of all authority.” (2004:274)

                     In this sense, the hermeneutic circle enables, at least partially, to identify which are some lines of what we assume as a given. Going against Wilhelm Dilthey’s proposal in differentiating human and natural sciences, based on their object, and thus methodologically, there are traditions in any of our ideas and activities.  Thus, although there might be methodological distinctions between different scientific traditions, these distinctions are also part of traditions themselves.  Human sciences have traditions just as natural sciences do.  Hermeneutics gives an opportunity not to ignore prejudices by acknowledging that they exist and that they can be invisible to our consciousness. Furthermore, the hermeneutical circle enables an individual in dialogue with others, and also among collectives, to identify how a tradition is, at least partially built.

So far, we have seen several approaches to the role of traditions and how they work in different groups, being academic or not.  Philosophers of education – or should we say “philosophy of education” (not only philosophers)? – are also part of traditions.  Let us delve into two possibilities of understanding tradition(s) within the philosophy(ies) of education.

  1. Two approaches to traditions of philosophy of education

How can we understand traditions within the philosophy of education? Several problems go beyond what we can imagine firsthand.  First of all, are traditions of philosophy of education mere “traditions” within the philosophical traditions? In that sense, we might think that they are sort of a “department” or “area” of philosophy as a greater category. Nonetheless, the approach can be much more complex. What if dealing with education gave a different nuance to philosophy itself?  What if how philosophy gets in touch with a certain phenomenon determines what philosophy is all about? In that sense, the philosophy of education might have different traditions that would not necessarily coincide with those traditions in philosophy. 

If we could approach philosophy and education as two possible ways in which we can approach traditions, what about the preposition “of”?  It is not obvious that in most languages, prepositions speak about the relationship between words and, thus, the relationship among things or ideas.  What if philosophy “of” education was already a standpoint that enables us to see the relationship “between” philosophy “and” education in a very specific way.  At least two Spanish philosophers, both exiled into Mexico due to the Spanish Civil War, make a case for understanding a relationship between philosophy “and” education and not philosophy “of” education.  María Zambrano (2007) and Joaquim Xirau (1999) make very interesting remarks trying to support that philosophy “and” education could give a different perspective on how to think, feel, and perceive education, rather than “applying” philosophy “to” education as a phenomenon. 

                     So, as we have tried to see, the panorama is not that simple.  Let us start, then, with two approaches to traditions in the philosophy of education. The first one is offered by Richard Pratte, a professor at the University of Ohio in the United States of America.  His book Philosophy of Education: Two Traditions (1992) is inspired by Alasdair McIntyre who noted that there are traditions of philosophy of education, although, as we are about to see, he tries to give a methodological approach up to the last decade of the twentieth century.

                     On the other hand, we are going to delve into Stella Maris Vázquez, an Argentinian philosopher of education, that tries to explain how three traditions of philosophy of education (according to their language of expression: English, French, German) get a different approach when “arriving” in Latin America. In that sense, should we call whatever philosophers of education do in that region of the world another tradition? It seems that Vázquez brings a very broad and complete panorama on how doing philosophy of education, and philosophy in general terms, in Latin America integrates, discusses, and re-appropriates European traditions that came to be the main referents for academia. Thus, there might be an approach to a Latin American way of doing philosophy of education, but maybe not a tradition in itself.

Let us start with Richard Pratte.  He starts discussing the idea of  “two” traditions of philosophy of education by asking similar questions as we have just stated.  He calls “analytical” (in quite a different way than we can generally understand “analytical” philosophy) the approach in which one delves into the philosophical ideas, terms, and questions of an author, and tries to understand, having clarified those terms, what education is all about.  On the other hand, he argues for a perspective in which one can “philosophize” around educational experiences and how we can make interesting questions that deal with it practically. 

Pratt even goes further on by asking if the methodology of philosophy of education should be that of philosophy, rational and conceptual, or rather from social sciences in general.  Also, he makes this very interesting question about the connection between philosophy of education and educational practice and policies.

                     He is quite clear by saying that, no matter what is the case, our approach to traditions of philosophy of education is a “rocky road”, not simple at all.  He tries to understand that those traditions are explained historically, by decades in the twentieth century.  He starts by saying that originally the approach to the philosophy of education had to do more with the –isms (Realism, Idealism, Pragmatism, Essentialism, etc.) or rather making a historical approach to specific authors that became “classics” such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Marx, Sartre, Dewey, etc. In them, philosophers of education qua philosophers examined educational theories and practices (Soltis, 1981 apud Pratte 1992:19). This is considered to be the analytical approach to philosophy, and philosophy of education specifically.  “One must not focus on the noun ‘philosophy’ (of education), but rather on the verb ‘philosophize’ (about education).  In other words, philosophy of education is conceived as a project in which a set of linguistic and logic tools should be applied to complex issues and problems around education” (1992:20)

                     Nonetheless, according to Pratte, in the eighties of the twentieth century, the analytical approach to the philosophy of education received several critiques, especially towards the assumption of mere descriptive and neutral standpoints.  Those assuming this tradition were criticized because of having the perception that they were talking about how things were, and not as if the whole program of philosophy (of education) had been constructed and had prejudices towards several issues, like any other tradition. 

                     On top of that, the different critiques were not a homogeneous body of thought, but rather a plurality of ideas based on Postmodernism, Post-Structuralism, Feminism, Marxism, and even Post-Marxism.  Some of those that held those critiques were Rorty, Bernstein, Nozik, and MacIntyre. 

                     Another set of critiques came from authors like Foucault, and Derrida, among others, especially based on the notion of “Power”, the use and meanings of language, among other implications.  The feminists and those that criticized the partiality and bias would not be recognized by the authors themselves. This is the case, according to Pratte of Bordo, Lloyd, Martin, Harding, and Hintikka.  The unilateral rational justice was set in doubt, and authors, like Nel Noddings, made a hard critique of the male, white, European authors that could not see that they were talking from a male, white, European perspective. An ethical and caring perspective to philosophy is a female perspective, and thus a different approach.

                     Pratte gives a starting point to solve the problem of the traditions in the philosophy of education, at least as a way of acknowledging the difficulty of the task: “As a result, anyone who wants to write a book about the philosophy of education, where systematic conceptions on education are thought and debated, he or she will notice that he or she has entered a rough debate or a radical conflict” (1992:22)

Stella Maris Vázquez writes in Spanish from another “tradition”.  In her book, La filosofía de la educación. Estado de la cuestión y líneas esenciales [Philosophy of Education. State of Affairs and Basic Guidelines] (2012) she speaks about three different traditions.

                     First of all, she talks about the German tradition.  Great thinkers, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thought about the idea of understanding Pädagogik as a way of applying philosophical perspectives on whatever each one of them understood for Bildung or Erzhiehung – both translated as “education” in their perspective of the Modern State, the role of society, culture, among many other elements.  In that sense around the late eighteen-century philosophy of education, not with that name per se, was already part of the philosophical systems at the time.  Many educational perspectives, like those of Humboldt, Kant, or Hegel, are based on a model in which a philosophical approach was the optimal one for developing a theory on the educational phenomenon. 

                     The next tradition is the French one, in which the whole project would go through the transit from Pedagogy to “Sciences de l’éducation”.  It is hard to translate both terms into English, but epistemologically the idea of having not one science, like Dilthey’s proposal of Pädagogik as the “Science of Education”, but rather a wider set of “sciences” that dealt with educational phenomena was the project. Thus, Psychology of Education and Sociology of Education, among others, were different sciences that could give epistemic and methodological approaches to education. Philosophy of education was then thought of as another “science” that dealt with educational issues but did not have, like in the German tradition, the major epistemological and methodological importance as the other “sciences.  In this sense, education could be studied and progress could be achieved.

                     Unlike their German neighbors, French thinkers restricted the philosophy of education and quite often used the term “pédagogie” as a way of naming didactics.  Thus, in many texts and authors, a “pedagogical approach” could be understood as a “didactical approach”.  Pedagogie in French is not the translation of Pädagogik in German.

                     Last but not least, Vázquez deals with the Anglophone tradition.  The English-speaking world was the origin of the “philosophy of education” per se, due to the importance of John Dewey’s perspective on the matter, but also because there were associations such as the Philosophy of Education Society, both in the United States (PES) and in Great Britain (PESGB). In those societies, the influence of the genera philosophical traditions was a given, be it Empiricism, Pragmatism, or any other relevant among the members of the societies. 

                     Later on, Vázquez deals not only with the epistemological differences but also with different practical approaches and different methodologies suggested or enables by different traditions of philosophy of education.  She is keen to show that in Latin America all of those perspectives have “lived together” implying that there might not be a tradition of the region in itself or, rather, that the Latin American tradition would be the eclectic perspective given while learning, discussing, and applying the other traditions in concrete circumstances. Vázquez’s perspective tries to give a broad panorama of the traditions of philosophy of education worldwide and does not try to tackle the problem of how these traditions are generated, transformed, developed, etc.  Nonetheless, it is a very good first shot, especially for Spanish-speaking audiences.

Why “traditions” of philosophy of education? – Closing (and hopefully opening) remarks

At least one thing is clear. It is plausible to state that there are “traditions” within the philosophy of education. What are these traditions specifically? Maybe there will never be a clear answer. Nonetheless, there are at least several things that could help build a community of philosophers of education. The idea of tradere (or receiving/inheriting) is a good starting point.  We always receive our concepts, authors, and ways of doing things, from a particular perspective which can be called “tradition”. In that sense, even though in philosophy of education, they are not fixed like in Natural Sciences, so much so we must understand we start from a perspective. This enables dialogue because we recognize that there might be other traditions that I am not aware of.  We tend not to be aware of our own tradition unless we start to see the limits whenever another tradition comes to play.

                     Just the fact of recognizing that there might be other worldviews is a positive starting point.  Whatever I think that philosophy of education is, by acknowledging the idea of “traditions”, I can recognize other traditions and maybe understand that whatever is obvious to me and my tradition, might not be obvious to others. In that sense, a dialogical perspective can be built. Not even “the famous or central” author or problem that is so fond to me might be even known to others.

                     A second issue that appears problematic is “translation”.  Of course, to have access to other traditions, a language barrier might appear.  Assuming that translating (as a linguistic process) does not represent a problem, we still have the bigger translation problem, that of a cultural or even philosophical one.  Translation as a cultural and philosophical way of understanding traditions as a whole implies a great deal of work. We could even think that establishing the basic rule games could be extenuating.  Maybe what seems philosophical for one tradition, might not be for the other.  Or maybe how education is understood in my tradition is just a given. Maybe even in some traditions, there is no such word for “education”.

                     That takes us to a more philosophical standpoint on language problems. At least from a structural perspective, not every language in the world necessarily has the word for “education”. For example, indigenous languages in the American continent have words or metaphors for saying “to become human”.  To go to school is not necessarily understood of these concepts. 

                     We can also point out that “education” could imply different phenomena.  In this sense, a tradition might try to apply “philosophy” to what they seem to understand THE educational institution par excellence, i.e. school, especially the Western and Modern schooling system to make a clear change in its policies and ways in which we can improve different problems that appear in our schools?  But maybe for another culture, a way of improving education does not go through schooling, but rather through thinking about other options for “being or becoming human” – or even going beyond a system of thought where humans are at the center of everything, including our questions and answers. For some Ancient Eastern cultures, like Taoism or Buddhism, to understand how and why we are human is understanding our role in this World, not necessarily becoming one, for example.

                     In any case, we can still be optimistic about the fact that, although the path is steep, acknowledging that it is worth trying to understand tradition a priori, gives the conditions of discussion and approach a much broader sense of discussion, analysis, a much richer way of approaching the philosophy of education, philosophy in general, education, and even the preposition(s) that can relate all of the above.


Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2004) Truth and Method. London, Continuum

Koyré, Alexandre (1952) An Unpublished Letter of Robert Hooke to Isaac Newton. Isis, Dec. 1952, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Dec. 1952), pp. 312-337 The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1977) The Essential Tension: Tradition and Innovation in Scientific Research.  The Essential Tension.  Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. Chicago. The University of Chicago Press. pp. 225-239

Laudan, Larry (1977) From Theories to Research Traditions. Progress and its Problems. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1977. pp. 70-120. 

Popper, Karl R. (2004)2Conjectures and Refutations: the Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London, Routledge. (Classics)

Pratte, Richard. (1992) Philosophy of Education: Two Traditions. Springfield, Illinois, Charles C. Thomas Ed.

Southern, R.W. (1966) The Making of the Middle Ages. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Vázquez, Stella Maris (2012) La filosofía de la educación: estado de la cuestión y líneas esenciales. Buenos Aires, CIAFIC.

Xirau, Joaquín. Filosofía i educació. Obras completas Tomo II Escritos sobre educación y sobre humanismo hispánico. Barcelona. Caja Madrid y Ánthropos editorial, 1999.

Zambrano, María (2007). Filosofía y educación (Manuscritos). Málaga, Ágora

Kanako W. Ide: A Lesson of Mutual Support for Peace: Socially-Distanced Friendship as a Way to Harmonize Indigenous Moral Values and Philanthropy as Military Culture


This paper is a philosophical attempt to explore the idea of morally valuable social distance, a well-balanced point at which people can get along without fighting, even in the context of political disagreements. In order to explore the idea of a good social distance and its educational meanings, the paper applies some theoretical aspects of philosophy as translation onto a specific and tough situation: interactions between locals and American military associates in Okinawa, Japan, where fundamental political disagreements have been held over the existence of American military facilities on the island for almost eighty years, and where the term ‘friendship’ is often used to manage the conflict. What is a good social distance? How do we maintain a social distance that prevent conflicts? What are the educational factors involved?

First, the paper establishes a theoretical framework by addressing some key characters and interests of Paul Standish’s philosophy as translation, namely: duality, neighborhood, and asymmetry, three major ideas which value the idea of distance. Second, the paper describes the term ‘friendship’ and its application in addressing the relationships between locals and American military associates in Okinawa, classifying its dual meanings, in this context, as feminine and masculine. Masculine friendship refers to the one “officially” announced by American military officials; feminine friendship describes a type of unofficial friendship nurtured by The American Welfare and Works Association (AWWA), a philanthropic American military spouse volunteer group in Okinawa. In addition to comparing the two different meanings of friendship, the paper examines how each type assumes the meanings of duality, neighborhood, and asymmetry. Then, the paper demonstrates masculine friendship as the kind that the theory of philosophy as translation might criticize, and shows how feminine friendship is uniquely different. Third, the paper examines the aspects of AWWA’s feminine friendship which philosophy as translation cannot fully explain, taking the position that these forms of friendship still remain distinctive in character, and are not fully withdrawn from the aspects of political ideology or from the aspects of philosophy as translation for the following reasons. Firstly, because it does not emphasize individuality; secondly, because it does not seek a solution for political conflicts; and thirdly, because AWWA’s friendship would only be possible in Okinawa. Finally, the paper discusses the educational aspects of this harmony between the moral value of mutual support in the American military community, and Yuimahru: a folkloric expression of the moral value in the Okinawa/Ryukyu area, meaning “reciprocity”.


Social distancing, one of the most distinctive social values in the pandemic age, reveals a unique moral contradiction. While people are concerned about the negative side of social distancing, and worry that it risks damaging positive connections between family members, friends, and colleagues, people rarely pay attention to the possible positive side of the norm – i.e., that distance could function to lessen the likelihood of conflicts among politically discordant groups. The contradiction leads us to ask some educational questions: what is a good social distance? What kind of social distance can prevent conflict?

This paper is a philosophical attempt to explore social distance as a morally valuable idea, a well-balanced point at which people can get along without fighting, despite disagreements. In order to pursue the concept of a good social distance, this paper considers a unique and tough case: that of the interactions between locals and American military associates in Okinawa, Japan, where fundamental political disagreements have existed for almost eighty years due to the existence of American military facilities on the island, and where friendship is an idea often deployed to manage the conflict. In such a complex situation, there are two ways to use the term ‘friendship’. In order to classify these two uses in this specific context, this paper expediently applies a gender framework of feminine and masculine friendship. In addition, in order to critically examine the ideas of masculine and feminine friendship, this paper applies some key theoretical concepts used in the philosophy of translation as a means of exposing aspects of language that are often taken for granted. Are these usages of friendship consistent with its action, resonance, and meaning? The paper’s key aim is to extract the core factors of feminine friendship, those which make it possible to maintain a good distance without losing the meaning of friendship. Lastly, the paper will pursue the educational aspects of harmony across philanthropic practices in the American military community, and Yuimahru, the moral value of indigenous philosophy in the Okinawa islands.

A Gender Framework for Friendship

                     Several philosophers of education use gender frameworks to pursue alternative ways of thinking at various levels. Carol Gilligan (1982) and Nel Noddings (1986) employed gender to formulate their ethics of care. Jane Roland Martin (1985) developed gender sensitive theory by examining social gender norms. Stanley Cavell (1972) and Naoko Saito (2005 & 2007) apply the gender framework in reverse to explain the educational process of acquisition and reacquisition of language. Martha Nussbaum (1986) and Paul Standish (1992) apply gender to lay out two types of “normative conceptions of human practical rationality.” (Nussbaum, 20)

                     In order to prepare the ground for some classifications of feminine and masculine friendship, this paper will apply some techniques of what Standish terms “philosophy as translation”. One of the greatest strengths of philosophy as translation is to create “distance” by capturing multiple/dual meanings within a single term, and to accept complication and asymmetrical contrast. (Saito 2018, ii) Standish, for instance, points out that morally innocent words are particularly at risk of being faced with specious logic in practice. He identifies the term “social justice” as one such example, a powerful and persuasive term accepted unquestioningly in contemporary society. (2018, 23) He carefully points out that the usages of such morally correct terms often mistake the means for the end, and that, due to the sound of the term, which is morally so correct, people do not recognize that they are actually misusing it, distorting its resonance and literality. Standish is concerned that contemporary accountability culture, with its pressure to make visible actions, accelerates further distortion of the resonance and meaning of such terms and, as a result, people slip into the inability to think. (2018, 27) For Standish, the term of social justice constitutes a trap, because once invoked, it has the power to justify any action. It indicates that, although social justice studies and associated educational approaches are supposed to expand alternative ways of thinking, many of them end up shutting them down by proclaiming what constitutes goodness without necessarily practicing it.

                     To support Standish’s argument on the aspect of “duality,” Naoko Saito writes that using the literary device of metaphor to capture “asymmetrical contrast” can help to illuminate the “duality of the social justice discussion.” (2018, 226) In order to ensure that the word does not become an “empty shell,” (2018, 229)[1] she asymmetrically writes, “people need to learn how to correctly close their eyes.” (2018, 234) Saito indicates that an asymmetrical contrast can be achieved in this case by critically examining the established procedures of social justice studies, (2018, i) which involve the struggle to “escape [from] ideological debate or the assumption of a how-to book.” (ii) Moreover, Saito claims the importance of a sense of “neighborhood” in guaranteeing individuality. In this case, social assumptions, norms, and commonsense are double-edged swords in terms of individuality, because while they can guide individuals to deliberate on the meaning of goodness, they also can provide the authority that permits them to give up the need to. In other words, the point of philosophy as translation is that it is important to maintain “distance” when using morally innocent terms, so as not to lose critical perspective. (2018, 23)

Again, taking these three ideas for holding distance into account, this paper applies a gender framework to address dual meanings of friendship in Okinawa.[2] Masculine friendship is applied as a general term of “officially” announced friendship, and feminine friendship is applied as a general term of unofficial friendship but in the context of the specific friendship nurtured by The American Welfare and Works Association (AWWA), a philanthropic American military spouse volunteer group in Okinawa. The feminine friendship practiced by this specific group, as will be shown, allows us to maintain asymmetrical characters of masculine and feminine friendship, whose classification appears symmetrical, but is not. In contrast to philosophy as translation, Martin’s perspective on gender sensitive theory offers a different way to distinguish asymmetry from symmetry. Martin states:

any […] theory worth recording is readily accessible in books or academic journals [but] becomes unreasonable when the objects or the subjects […] are considered marginal […] as the larger effort of reclamation proceeds, we will have to look to sources of data that the history of educational thought regards as far from standard […]. (1985, 180)

Here, the ways to capture feminine and masculine values are asymmetrical because one has been historically treated as a preserved standard, while the other has remained out of scope. We could even argue that, from this perspective, philosophy as translation’s assumption of “asymmetry” is in fact “symmetrical”, because the theory of translation itself rests on historically-established knowledge, which is a masculine value.

Taking Martin’s perspective into account, thus, masculine friendships in the context of Okinawan military culture are addressed here nonspecifically, but have already been historicized by officially and broadly recorded materials, written culture, and official publications. Feminine friendship, on the other hand, is evoked using the specific example of AWWA, which has almost no official historical record, but rather has been privately maintained through oral culture and gifts of amateur art. The intention here is not to disregard philosophy as translation’s perspective of asymmetry. In fact, masculine and feminine friendship exhibit an aspect of this asymmetry in their contrast, in that masculine friendship stands on the framework of the established political debate (while the practical reality of this claimed friendship, like that of social justice, depends on who is viewing it), whereas feminine friendship slips out from the standardized political debate.

Masculine Friendship

The American military frequently applies the term of friendship as a synonym of alliance. For instance, they describe The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)[3] as “a unique friendship” and even celebrate NATO on International Friendship Day.[4] The American military also uses the term of friendship to express its alliance with Japan. The joint operation of the American military in Japan to rescue Japanese victims of the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 was named “Operation Tomodachi” (meaning “Operation Friends”), captioned as “a friend in need is a friend indeed”.[5] “Friendship Festival” and “Friendship Day” are names given to open, public, yearly events on American bases located in Japan. Also, the names of a number of facilities on American military bases include the word “friend” or “friendship”, either in English or Japanese, even though Japanese civilians do not have access to these facilities without a gate pass.

The most concentrated usage of “friendship”, however, has been in describing American military forces in Okinawa, where they have been stationed since 1945. After the battle of Okinawa in 1945, and until 1972, Okinawa’s islands were ruled by the American military, and even today, all US military forces (Air Force, Army, Marine, and Navy) are stationed there. Statistically, about 20% of Okinawa’s main island is US military bases[6] (McCormack and Norimatsu, 2013, 7). It is estimated that about 50,000 American servicemen and associates live in the Okinawa prefecture, comprising about 4% of its entire population.[7] In such a remarkably highly condensation of American military in a community outside of the United States, and indeed on the islands, which are not adjoining continental land, the appeal to friendship comes largely from the American military community’s side.

Such a long-lasting “friendship fever” is an extension of the American military’s lines of cultural policy for governing Okinawa. According to Etsujiro Miyagi (1992), historian and journalist of America’s occupation of Okinawa, this cultural policy[8] was actively installed during the occupation period in the 1950s and 1960s by the American military government, and it functioned well to justify the control of Okinawa and to reduce local resistance to its presence. Even today, fifty years after reversion, traces of this cultural policy can still be found. For instance, the Communication Strategy and Operations Marine Corps Base Camp Butler in Okinawa (COMMSTRAT) publishes a quarterly, bilingual Japanese and English magazine named Big Circle/Ohkina Wa[9] (phonetically it sounds almost the same as “Okinawa”). Every single issue reports some “friendship” between American military and Japanese/Okinawa locals, with photos of various events and social services, such as off-base volunteering work by either uniformed, or clearly designated American military associates (cleaning the beach, on a food drive, giving toys to the children in the local hospital, visiting various welfare institutions), as well as cultural and social interactions such as sports events and cultural festivals, language exchange opportunities, Covid-19 pandemic policy discussions, and even classes to learn about Okinawa’s battle history.

The masculine friendship described above also functions as a good role model, giving the United States an opportunity to internationally celebrate the success of its military diplomacy, showing how American armed forces have been deployed to democratize, protect, and develop Okinawa. Those “friendship” social services are counted as part of the work of American military culture.

Feminine Friendship

In contrast to the masculine friendship described in a broad sense above, the example of feminine friendship is presented by focusing on a specific group, AWWA. According to the oral history, the Ryukyu American Welfare Council was a philanthropic American military spouse volunteer group in Okinawa, Japan, established under American Military rule in 1952.[10] As Miyagi points out above, the group was established as a result of cultural policy at the time. To continue in post-reversion Okinawa society, in 1972 the organization changed its name to the American Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA). Until 2018, AWWA consisted of five military spouses’ clubs of Army, Airforce, Navy and Marine, and Enlisted.[11] In 2019, AWWA changed its name again, from American Women’s Welfare Association to American Welfare and Works Association, to reflect what was becoming a more diversely-gendered organization.[12] Today, AWWA is formed of six organizations: four military spouses clubs of Airforce, Marine, Navy, and Enlisted, and two gift shop groups, the Marine Thrift Shop (MTS) and the Marine Gift Shop (MGS). AWWA has its own cabinet, president, vice president, treasurer, historian, and translator. The spouse of the top American military commander/general in Okinawa traditionally takes the highest role, as the honorary advisor. Without an office, and despite continuous changes in members, AWWA has maintained its practice for almost seventy years.

AWWA’s aim is to “quietly foster a relationship with the Okinawan community through charitable contributions, friendship, and community involvement.”[13] AWWA generates funds for their philanthropy activities from gift shop sales at military bases,[14] selling local, international, new and second-hand products.[15] These gift shops are well known in the American military community in Okinawa, with some shoppers waiting in line before opening on the first day that new shipments go on sale.[16]

AWWA’s policy creates a unique way to express friendship between locals and Americans. Fifty percent of their donations go towards on-base welfare, and 50% to off-base welfare. This principle is distinctive in understanding AWWA’s friendship, because although American military spouse clubs are formed at individual bases all over the world, always functioning to provide mutual support, they limit this support to the immediate geographical territory of each base’s community. AWWA is unique in that it distributes its donations on- and off-base equally.

AWWA’s philanthropy follows a particular sequence. Before all else, each spouse club operates a gift shop for fundraising. Those who are hoping to receive support from AWWA send a written application (either in Japanese or in English, as AWWA has its own translator). These applications are screened and discussed by the respective groups in AWWA before their monthly meeting.[17] Applications are various, including requests for support with travel fees for on-base high school club activities, or to fund memorial photos at a coming of age ceremony for socially disadvantaged local girls off-base. Each AWWA group evaluates applicants’ requests before hearing their oral presentations during the monthly meeting, reviewing, discussing, and deciding on the donation amount they are willing to offer. The sum of the donation offered by each group becomes AWWA’s donation to the applicant.

AWWA mostly conducts monetary transactions, with few opportunities for face-to-face interaction with local Okinawans. AWWA creates such interactions with locals in a few circumstances: delivering supplies such as rice and detergent to social welfare institutes;[18] having its yearly luncheon with locals at a restaurant served by handicapped Okinawans; and on yearly trips to the remote islands.[19] These trips are recognized as some of the biggest, most emotional, and most memorable yearly events for AWWA members, during which they visit all facilities that have received donations, checking that they have been appropriately used, and interacting with donation recipients.[20] Members call these opportunities to meet donation receivers “rewards”, and often describe these as emotional experiences.[21]


Feminine friendship and masculine friendship are a jumble of uniqueness and commonality. There three commonalities are that, firstly, both forms of friendship are made possible and sustained by political conditions. Neither one would exist if American military troops were to pull out of Okinawa, indicating that personal will is not the original motivation in either friendship. Active-duty personnel and AWWA members are in Okinawa not providing services for friends in Okinawa of their own free will, but rather are expected to accept the military order as active-duty personnel, or as their family members. Due to the temporary nature of military culture, the expected average length of time for a military family to be stationed in Okinawa is a couple of years, and so both types of friendship identify those human resources as replaceable. Second, both types of friendship rest on a heightened awareness of giving and providing service as an action which is also characteristic of the military community. Third, both types of friendship are verbally limited because Americans speak in English and local Okinawans/Japanese speak in Japanese.

On the other hand, masculine and feminine friendship show duality in their definitions of justice, distance, consistency between speech and action, and reward. In terms of justice, masculine friendship is a way to prove the appropriateness of stationing in Okinawa. Therefore, it is a friendship that is necessary in terms of the extent to which it can be shown off in public. On the other hand, feminine friendship is quiet and basically invisible to the public. In fact, it is rare for those who belong to off-base local Okinawan society to know of AWWA’s existence, let alone its long-term social contributions, because it does not make public announcements about itself, nor does it receive compliments or social recognition. The value of feminine friendship is complete in itself because its main goal is associated with the well-being of its members and their “friends.”

Second, these two types of friendship interpret the meaning of distance differently. Masculine friendship needs to display images of physical closeness, or official written records of scenes of actual contact. Feminine friendship, however, maintains its remoteness from the local islanders. As described above, their physical contact is very limited, and most of their engagements happen in the shadows. Their fundraising efforts are basically invisible to locals because they are practiced inside of the military base. Also, their monetary transactions are prompt, without any attachment or ceremony. However, the feelings of intimacy between gift givers and gift receivers can be intense. 

                     Third, they interpret the meaning of consistency between speech and action differently. Friendly actions in masculine friendship are used demonstratively as a way to proclaim definitions of goodness and justice. Friendly events and rescue operations are valuable actions, of course, but the emphasis on this friendship, from the American military side, does not cancel out the region’s historical colonial power balance.[22] Feminine friendship, on the other hand, is an outcome of philanthropic engagement. AWWA introduces itself by saying that it “has forged a vital link between American military families and their Okinawan neighbors.”[23] AWWA’s “vital link” can be interpreted as a justification of the US military in Okinawa. However, it also can be interpreted as an a-justification of it. In support of the latter interpretation, we can consider a gift given to AWWA by a lady at a nursing home for former leprosy patients. She created a pair of shell art pieces, decorating each with the word “Friendship”, but using Chinese characters, which most Americans are not able to understand (“friendship” is written in English at the bottom, in a small font, for American readers).[24] One was gifted to AWWA and now hangs on the wall of the staff room in the Marine Gift Shop.[25] The other stayed at the nursing home and hangs on the wall in the community room. This gift teaches that the authenticity of friendship, while suspicious when claimed by the stronger party, looks very different when claimed by the weaker one, in a language unfamiliar to the stronger party, by its own free will.

Figure 1. A pair of shell art pieces. The left one is photographed by Kanako Ide at Nansei-en on January 21st 2018 and the Right one is photographed by Kanako Ide at Marine Gift Shop on January 25th 2018.

Fourth, the meaning of reward is different. While American military facilities in Okinawa have been financially supported mostly by the host’s national budget (Japanese taxes), AWWA’s fundraising takes advantage of money for daily expenses, which comes from members’ salaries and personal funds, to buy gifts for friends and family, or to cultivate and to decorate their homes and rooms. It indicates that, while masculine friendship is identifiable as a reaction – a quid pro quo from the American military to the host nation who pays for their existence – feminine friendship is identifiable as a reward of the generosity practiced by AWWA itself, where the circle of the gift begins.

Socially-Distanced Support

                      The perspectives of those who engage with philosophy as translation, such as Standish’s critique on the usage of ‘social justice’, are helpful in examining the usage of ‘friendship’ in the context of Okinawa. In Standish’s framework, masculine friendship seems to be making the same mistake as orthodox social justice studies, in that it uses friendship to justify a political position, and as a means to claim and define notions of what is good and just. Masculine friendship, thus, does not hold a space for duality in friendship. Also, the idea of neighborhood seems to be misaligned in masculine friendship, used to display and emphasize moments of actual physical closeness and unification between locals and Americans, thus following the performativity of accountability culture that Standish names. Furthermore, masculine friendship wipes out asymmetry, because in order to justify its political standpoint, it has to insist upon the symmetrical or equal nature of the relationship.

What of feminine friendship, then? Could a parallel be drawn between masculine friendship on the battle lines, and feminine friendship on the home front? After all, feminine friendship is not irrelevant to the political context; AWWA’s long-term philanthropy and social services more or less have taken the role of a fortress, defending the occupation with a moral vindication that America is here for protecting, rescuing, and democratizing Okinawa. Nevertheless, feminine friendship still accepts duality but maintains it by not speaking out about it publicly. Their idea of neighborhood is also uniquely maintained because, while American military spouses and locals rarely have face-to-face meetings, they recognize each other as neighbors through empathy and social distance, resident on the same island but without much opportunity for active communication. As a result, without visible actions, they achieve the quality of neighborhood by continuously completing the gift circle for each other; one side serves as giver, and the other as receiver. This offers a way to understand distance as neighborhood that differs from masculine friendship or the understandings of philosophy as translation. The idea of asymmetry or symmetry is also uniquely demonstrated in feminine friendship. Each side of feminine friendship is socially and politically placed at very different positions, which can be considered a kind of asymmetry. However, on both sides, these women’s lives share the similar characteristic of being so often at the mercy of social and political powers far beyond their control. In this sense, they seem to share symmetry.

This paper takes the position that the forms of feminine friendship exemplified by AWWA still remain distinctive in character, and are neither fully withdrawn from the aspects of political ideology, nor from aspects of philosophy as translation. Rene Arcilla considers alternative methods of philosophical translation that have been out of scope in the orthodox social justice discussion. (2018, 73) Arcilla indicates that the most important philosophical issue is not to disclose orthodox social justice studies as unjust, but to discover alternative ways of thinking about and understanding them. This paper presumes that the feminine friendship of AWWA can be a response to Arcilla’s question – that a piece of justice, a well-balanced point of distance where people can get along without fighting, despite disagreements, is attained by feminine friendship. This friendship is, however, partly located in the orthodox social justice discourse which Standish criticizes.

Feminine friendship takes a distance from the ideas of philosophy as translation on three points. First, it does not clarify its individuality in order to establish communication. It is the nature of military family life to accept voicelessness and replaceability at the personal level. Anyone in the military community must be ready to give up a sense of themselves as an irreplaceable individual when it is necessary; that is how they contribute to society. In such a context, those friendly and supportive communications function without individuality. Just as AWWA member gift givers are not recognized as indispensable, neither are local gift receivers identified as essential individuals. Nevertheless, their faceless communications are understood as friendship, on a personal level, by both sides, because the generosity involved is authentic. In spite of, or we could rather say because of these different political standpoints, AWWA and Okinawan locals can discover ways to communicate with each other nonverbally. The American military spouses and the local former leprosy patients, for example, are socially and politically placed at distant positions. However, the quality of emotion involved in their interactions, which is personal and uncontrollable for those on both sides, is actually very intimate. One side has to be ready to bear the anxiety of their spouses going to battle at any time, and the other lives in forced separation and lifelong quarantine from their family due to discrimination justified by the disease. As a result, without emphasizing individuality, this language-less communication reaches directly into each other’s personal lives, and has been recognized as a type of friendship among them.

Second, feminine friendship is known as limited and temporary by those involved. Walter Benjamin writes:

Is any nonviolent resolution of conflict possible? Without doubt. The relationships among private persons are full of examples of this. Nonviolent agreement is possible wherever a civilized outlook allows the use of unalloyed means of agreement. [… These] are never those of direct solutions but always those of indirect solutions. […] Its profoundest example is perhaps the conference, considered as a technique of civil agreement. For in it not only is nonviolent agreement possible, but also the exclusion of violence in principle is quite explicitly demonstrable by one significant factor: there is no sanction for lying. (1996, 244)

Feminine friendship sets aside the tough political debate to maintain the quality of humanity within it. It may not directly solve any political problem, as in Benjamin’s formulation. However, instead of providing another way of thinking about or changing the conditions of a limited and difficult situation, feminine friendship demonstrates the possibility of having a creative and a meaningful life within it. Thus, feminine friendship is morally valuable.

Furthermore, location is key to AWWA’s feminine friendship. Here, feminine friendship slips out of the theoretical framework of philosophy as translation, because it can give up its individuality but not its geographical specificity. Although American military stations are located all over the world, philanthropy groups like AWWA exist and remain only in Okinawa. Why is this? As Miyagi explains, the characteristic and unique cultural policies installed during the occupation period in Okinawa created conditions for the development of AWWA. Another possible reason is the density of the American military population on a small island. However, these factors are still too weak to fully answer the question. How is AWWA able to engage in such time- and energy-consuming, non-profitable labors so quietly, despite the continual replacement of its members? Also, how are the nameless, marginalized locals able to accept the gift of generosity from their “friends”, who are also widely seen as the source of social discrimination against them?

In its presumption that the influence of the nature of the Okinawa islands is one of fair and equal treatment and education for everybody, regardless of their heritage, culture, or nationality, when they practice something to support others, this paper argues that the influence of local nature is a decisive, absolute, and foundational factor in understanding the moral values of feminine friendship. Thus, it is not that human beings and nature are sharing a neighborhood, but rather that nature is our absolute teacher. This is different from Cavell’s interpretation of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, for instance, which sees human beings as able to establish a relationship with nature that functions as a kind of neighborhood. (1972)

Yuimahru is a folkloric expression from the Okinawa/Ryukyu area, meaning “reciprocity”, which could be considered as a traditional gift theory and gift economy. “Yui” means providing/receiving labor without any duty/demand of reciprocity; “mahru” means circulation. Yuimahru originated in the 17th and 18th centuries as a practical necessity, but it is understood in Okinawa today as the social norm, and teaches that a way to fulfill social obligation is to share the burdens of social welfare among the community.[26] According to George H. Kerr, the spirit of Yuimahru is deep in the core of Okinawan/Ryukyuan identity because of the ongoing sense and quality of mutual support in its communities and the remarkable mutual assistance practiced among family, relatives, friends, and community members. (2014, 228-229) On the other hand, as described above, the practice of mutual aid is also distinctive to military culture. The community has developed tight and multiple systems for mutual support because the possibility of tragedy and accident are everybody’s business.

It is true that, in the military community, the sense of mutual aid does not originate with Yuimahru. However, it is also true that engaging in social services as a practice of mutual aid is resonant with the spirit of Yuimahru when practiced in Okinawa, especially if the direction of the support goes to local Okinawans. Unintentionally, feminine friendship thus demonstrates the powerful influence of the indigenous moral value of Yuimahru extended to all of its inhabitants. While Saito’s philosophical concern is about words being reduced to an “empty shell” of meaning, a former leprosy patient in Okinawa created an art work with empty sea shells, as an embodiment of meaningful friendship.


Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) indicates that the social distance norm has had no positive impact on today’s domestic, local, national, regional, and international conflicts.[27] The pandemic rather created other, new social conflicts over vaccination, mask wearing, school opening, and lockdown policies.[28] These incidences persuade us that “good social distance” does matter in our lives, because the fact is that people today cannot stop fighting with each other. Thus, it is necessary to deliberate good social distance as an aspect of moral education. What moral education is lacking in contemporary society? While physical interactions can create bad situations, socially-distanced interactions can create humanistic practices. The examples of masculine and feminine friendship in Okinawa teach us that quality of distance does matter, and that physical distance and spiritual distance are two different stories in morality. While masculine friendship is an example which emphasizes face-to-face interaction and camouflages the absence of spiritual closeness, feminine friendship accepts physical distance in order to prioritize the quality of attachment.

Thus, feminine friendship offers hope, and its moral lesson about social distance is that, regardless of difficulty, there are ways to live a meaningful life, affirmatively and creatively. It offers us two ways to create and maintain a morally valuable social distance. First, through the unflashy qualities of quiet philanthropy, undisplayed practice, unobtrusive actions, kindness, nonverbal communication, and infrequent but intentional physical closeness. Second, by embodying the moral values embedded in the local nature. Okinawa, the indispensable geographical factor in feminine friendship, is unique, and can be learned from widely thanks to the ways in which it finds harmony in an artificial military culture.

Standish claims that, in order to be able to become silence, people have to be able to become illocutionary, or to become their utterances. Their silence, as a result, carries the power of manifestation. Such a silence teaches the point at which verbal expression becomes vain.[29] Indeed, AWWA demonstrates how the art of quietness and social distance allow communities to live well together despite social difficulties and distortions. In this way, the idea of social distance can be seen in reverse, as a way to promote positive connections, and the usage of friendship as consistent with its action, resonance, and meaning.[30]


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Sakai, U. ed. 2002. Ryukyu Retto Minzoku Goi [Folkloric Vocabulary of the Ryukyu Islands]. Tokyo: Daiichi Shobo.

Standish, P. 1992. Beyond The Self: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Limits of Language. Aldershot: Avebury.

Standish, P. 2018. “Social Justice and the Occident.” In Honyaku no Sanaka ni Aru Shakaisaigi [Social Justice in Translation], edited by Saito, N., Standish, P., & Imai, Y. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press. 23-40.

Standish, P. 2018. “Hitotsu no Gengo, Hitotsu no Sekai.” In Honyaku no Sanaka ni Aru Shakaisaigi [Social Justice in Translation], edited by Saito, N., Standish, P., & Imai, Y. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press. 137-151.


[1] See p 84. Cavell, S. 1979, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Ide discusses the details of the concept of friendship in “Acrobatic Friendship: A Path to Nurture Friendship in The Midst of Political Dissonance.” In Philosophy of Education, 77, no.3, (2022): 21-36.

[6] This means that even though Okinawa geographically makes up 0.6% of Japan, 74% of American military-related institutes are located in Okinawa.

[7] See Okinawa Prefecture. “U.S. military base in Okinawa as seen by numbers.” Accessed June 27, 2021.


 and https://www.pref.okinawa.lg.jp/site/chijiko/kichitai/documents/h28toukei02.pdf. And Okinawaken

 Soumubu Chijikousitsu Danjyo Kyodo Sangashitsu, 1999, p. 1.

[8] For instance, both the Government and Relief in Occupied Areas Fund (the predecessor of the Fulbright scholarships) and the US Army scholarship program started in Okinawa/Ryukyu in 1949. Ryukyu University was founded in 1950. Five of the Ryukyuan-American Cultural centers were opened, both in the main Okinawa Island and in the remote islands, in 1951 and 1952. The Plaza Housing Shopping Center, an American department store and shopping mall, was opened in 1949. International Social Service Okinawa (ISSO) was organized and officially established in 1958.


See Marine Gift Shop (MGS), “The Marine Gift Shop”, accessed June 27, 2021, marinegiftshop.org/awwa/.

[11] The Kadena Officers’ Spouses’ Club (KOSC), the Marine Officers’ Spouses’ Club Okinawa (MOSCO), the Navy Officers’ Spouses’ Club Okinawa (NOSCO), the Okinawa Enlisted Spouses’ Club (OESC), and the Army Community Group of Okinawa (ACGO). However, due to the scaling down of Army troops in Okinawa, ACGO left AWWA in 2018, and Marines’ Thrift Shop (MTS) joined AWWA instead.

[12] In 2018, each AWWA military spouse club operated a gift shop on a military base excluding that of the army (the Army’s Okinawa Gift Shop on Camp Torii closed in Spring 2018).

[13] See NOSCO, “The American Welfare & Works Association (AWWA)”.

[14] Not all profits go to AWWA. For instance, Marine Officers’ Spouses’ Club engages independent philanthropy with some of profits going to the Marine gift shop. The Marine gift shop gives 50% of its sales to AWWA and the rest goes to MOSC’s independent philanthropy and social service. The Marine Gift Shop: Island Treasures on Camp Foster is operated by the volunteer members of MOSCO, MGS, and their associates. MTS is also located on Camp Foster and is operated by volunteers. Fleet Gift Shop by NOSCO is located on Camp Shields. The Kadena Air base has Kadena Gift Corner[14] by KOSC and Kadena Thrift Store[14] by OESC. The Army on Okinawa Gift Shop on Camp Torii was closed in Spring 2018 when ACGO left AWWA. Since the gift shops are located on base, its customers are American military associates, and the currency for sales and purchases is USD.

[15] For instance, The Marine Gift Shop sells various products such as jewelry, tableware, toys, clothes, fabrics, stationery, interiors, local artists’ art works such as paintings, Asian style antique furniture, secondhand kimonos, and any other home decoration goods shipped from Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, as well as local Okinawan and Japanese products.

[16] These gift shops also practice a unique sales calendar which is consistent with the military family schedule. For instance, they have a summer Christmas sale for families leaving Okinawa, which gives them a chance to collect Okinawa-style Christmas products as mementos of their stationing.

[17] MGS, “Japanese Application”, accessed June 27, 2021, http://marinegiftshop.org/awwa/. The monthly meeting is held in the morning on the third Wednesday of every month.

[18] See Okinawaken Nanbyo Soudan Center, “AWWA Sama Goraisho” [AWWA Visited Us], Ambitious, last modified 21 January, 2020, http://www.ambitious.or.jp/magazine/212/.

[19] See 2013.2.27-28, AWWA in Miyako Island, Nmya-chi! (Welcome)

[20] See “AWWA Ikkou Ga Raitou” [AWWA Visits Our Island], Miyako Mainichi Shinbun, last modified February 17, 2015, http://www.miyakomainichi.com/2015/02/72811/. AWWA visits over ten institutes in a day, per island.

[21] See Interviews by the author in Okinawa, Japan, with: Momoe Miyagi Antell, September 2017; Setsuko Kawamitsu, January 2018; Tsuyoshi Ogawa, January 2018; Lisa Wodarski-Rogers, February 2018; Karen Flores, June 2019; Debbie Nicholson, June 2018.

[22] Cocktail Party, a short novel by Tatsuhiro Ohshiro, sharply points out how impossible it is to achieve a literal “friendship” between ruler and oppressed. (2011)

[23] See NOSCO, “The American Welfare & Works Association (AWWA)”.

[24] Setsuko Kawamitsu, interview by the author, Okinawa, Japan, January 2018. The pair of sea shell art pieces [友愛] were created by Kiyo Tatetsu, dated March 2000.

[25] I found the shell art at MGS by accident, when I asked to use the bathroom and had to go through the stuff room/backyard. It was a few day after I had seen the other pair at Nanseien in Miyako Island.

[26] See Usaku Sakai, ed., Ryukyu Retto Minzoku Goi [Folkloric Vocabulary of the Ryukyu Islands] (Tokyo: Daiichi Shobo, 2002), 50. Yuimahru was originally a way of making tax payments. In the 17th and 18th centuries, each village in Okinawa/Ryukyu was identified as a unit of tax. In order to fulfill the duty, Okinawans in the village covered each other. Yuimahru is also practiced among neighbors when they have scheduled reroofing or have to rebuild their houses after typhoons.

[29] I translated and paraphrased his quote from Japanese into English.

[30] Special Thanks to Masayo Hirata, Momoe Miyagi Antell, Setsuko Kawamitsu, Yuriko Hara, Kiyo Tatetsu, Tadao Nohara, Yuriko Nohara, Kanzou Yonaha, Fujiko Yonaha, Tomi Miyazato, Hatsu Kawamitsu, Kazuo Tomiyama, Yasuhiko Kitakido, Satoru Shimoji, Tsuyoshi Ogawa, Enid Randall, Lisa Wodarski-Rogers, Karen Flores, Veronica Johnessee, Erasmia Iliaki-Smith, Erica Tanner, Maria Rock, Nicole Russell, Chieko Getz, Nancy Cabaniss Schrock, Steve Schrock, Heather Gustin Mendoza, Ann Marie Byrd, and Debbie Nicholson.

Yoonji Kang: Siegel, Cavell and the Cultivation of Reason as an Educational Ideal


The cultivation of reason has long been regarded as a central aim of education. More recently, this is largely discussed against the background of the philosophical tradition of epistemology, with Harvey Siegel being the most influential philosopher of education for his account of critical thinking. In this paper, I seek to lay the way for an account of the cultivation of reason that goes beyond this epistemological conception. Crucially, however, my aim here is not to undermine Siegel’s epistemologically-oriented approach but to seek a way of furthering it, by rethinking it, through the thoughts that Stanley Cavell opens with his existential understanding of scepticism. By attending carefully and closely to the limits of Siegel’s way of architecting and defending critical thinking as an educational ideal, as will be shown, this paper will offer an account of the cultivation of reason that exceeds the epistemological conception, and does more justice to the unrestricted responsibilities we have in rational thought.


The pandemic appears to me a time of intense experience of an unknown that is always near to us but we are somehow oblivious of. In response to the unknown virus, containment measures were followed, but we also witnessed how such measures often foundered with the arrival of a wave of unexpected events, or how they settle some part of our disturbance while giving a way to further complications in other parts of lives. At a time when we finally begin to talk more optimistically about ‘living with Covid-19’, which I believe is credited to the incredible triumph of knowledge and our capabilities for it, we are called upon to be cautious about optimism. For it is not as if we came to know fully what we should and should not do to keep things under control. Of course, that incompleteness of our knowledge and capabilities for reasoning is not new to us. But over the years in pandemic, this has come all the way down in our lives—has revealed the relationship of knowledge and reason to uncertainty and instability more richly than ever.

All this clearly bears on matters not only philosophical but also educational. One kind of response to the massive changes to life brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic might be to say that it shows us the increasing importance of critical thinking in our lives—as a means to navigate and live well with the new kinds of knowledge and elements of uncertainty that we face. Such a position would have a veritable inheritance in the form of epistemology of education which has taken the lead of the discussion and defended the cultivation of reason as an important educational aim. One of the most ardent contemporary discussants would be Harvey Siegel, whose epistemologically-oriented educational vision of critical thinking has earned much prominence in our educational thinking today. A particular feature of Siegel’s conception of critical thinking is its embrace of fallibilism—a position that appears to accord well with the unstable world we inhabit in the wake of Covid-19. But how far would such a conception of critical thinking allow us to live well in the world we have today?

The aim of this paper is to reconsider Siegel’s epistemological account of the cultivation of reason in light of Stanley Cavell’s discussions of scepticism. It is important to remark from the outset that the intention of my discussion is not to renounce reason and rationality as an educational ideal, nor to undermine the contributions Siegel’s critical thinking has on the matter. As we shall come to see, there is much to heed to what Siegel himself provides. What I am attempting in this paper is rather to attend more closely and carefully to the limits of the way Siegel propounds and defends critical thinking as an educational aim, and to seek therein a way to take it further than, and beyond, the epistemological understanding of the aim.

The first task of the present paper will therefore be to draw Siegel’s account of critical thinking in a fuller view. In doing so, my focus will be on the so-called fallibilism critique of Siegel that emerges from his engagement with John McDowell. I will then work to bring Siegel’s fallibilism—a name for the characteristic gesture in his epistemological solution to fallibility that is his account of critical thinking—closer to Cavell’s existential interpretation of scepticism. The second task of the paper will then be to explore the nature of the kind of progress that has potential for going beyond Siegel. For this, I will take what might at first glance seem a detour through Cavell’s way of reading Saul Kripke’s attempt to establish and then refute scepticism of meaning and a quiet acceptance of it. I will show that this line of thought can be extended to argue for a way of understanding human reason that is not confined to epistemological considerations. This paper will close by considering what this discussion might mean for the different ways we understand the cultivation of reason in education.


Let us start with Siegel’s fallibilism that emerges in his engagement with McDowell. In the second essay from Education’s Epistemology, Siegel reads that McDowell elaborates Wilfrid Sellars’s naturalistic account of the normative character of reason, encapsulated in the notion of ‘the space of reasons’. Originally in Sellars, this was a product of reconciliation between the realm of the ‘manifest image’ and that of ‘scientific image’ of human beings, the former concerned with relations that are normative in character while the latter naturalistic or causal. If Sellars’s project is to show ‘that epistemic and other sort of normativity can find their legitimate place in the scientific conception of the world,’ Siegel takes McDowell to have elaborated the way the normativity of reason is naturalistic: ‘reason is a part of the natural world but nevertheless operates autonomously from it and cannot be reduced to it’ (2017, pp. 22-23). The key to this elaboration is McDowell’s re-conceptualisation of ‘nature’ as something of ‘a second nature’ that human beings acquire in the course of ordinary experience. Drawing on and generalising Aristotle’s ethical account on the acquisition of second nature, McDowell puts: ‘rational requirements . . . are there in any case, whether or not we are responsive to them. . . . When a decent upbringing initiates us into the relevant way of thinking, our eyes are opened to the very existence of this tract of the space of reasons’ (p. 23). In this way, our rationality is (re)conceived as natural, or the lives of human beings are naturally (re)constituted through the process of ordinary upbringing to manoeuvre into the space of reasons.

Siegel remains positive throughout his discussion about McDowell’s naturalistic account of how we become rational beings. He in fact sees much proximity between McDowell’s view to his vision of education for rationality. In particular, Siegel takes as compatible the ideas that it is part of our natural maturation that we come into the rational demands, and that to live up to rational demands involves a sort of critical thinking in that we put our thinking ‘under a standing obligation to reflect about and criticize the standards by which, at any time, it takes itself to be governed’ (p. 25). Furthermore, Siegel concurs in McDowell that ‘our thinking can fail to meet such standards’ (p. 27). This failure is not untoward, since the natural emergence of rationality ‘includes or gives rise to both the epistemically good and the epistemically bad, both truths and falsehoods, both justified and unjustified beliefs’ (p. 27). To deal with this fact, ‘more—in a word, education—is needed’ (p. 28). The initiation into certain conceptual ways of thinking as part of normal human development is not enough. Our ways of thinking should be supplemented with ‘explicit educational interventions aimed at enhancing students’ abilities to reason well’ (p. 28).  

Siegel’s discussion of the proximity of his thought to McDowell is interesting for a particular reason. It shows us how the fallibility critique, sometimes made against Siegel, could risk missing the mark. For example, drawing on phenomenological perspectives, Siegel’s account is sometimes charged with ignoring the ‘background’: that presumed context of horizon of our relation to the world which is not subject to rational scrutiny (at least in the way Siegel envisages it). Yet others, such as Chris Hanks indicates that Siegel does not flatly ignore this. Siegel, as Hanks puts it, ‘wisely acknowledges that any specific application of critical thinking must take place under [the messy contingencies of everyday life], but staunchly insists that rationality itself must involve criteria that stand independently of particular circumstances’ (2008, p. 199). Siegel is not surprised that in ‘the mental life of every normal human being . . . lived “in” the space of reasons, . . . irrationality and uncritical thinking abound’, but at the same time, Siegel appears to turn towards a greater guarantee for rationality and critical thinking, the task of which Siegel engrafts into education (2017, p. 28). It is this move that I am interested in exploring in this paper—the move that makes Siegel’s fallibilism, as it were, not fallible enough. I would like to explore if there is more than an epistemological issue at stake in this.

Let us here turn to Cavell’s discussion of scepticism. The turn may see seem abrupt at this point. But, as we will see, it will allow us to bring to sight what else it is that we may find at work in Siegel’s fallibilism, and the ways in which Siegel’s account remains a limited conception of human reason (pace its apparent acceptance of fallibilism).


Scepticism is normally understood in philosophy as a problem of knowledge, and hence deeply connected to the philosophical tradition of epistemology. In this modern understanding, scepticism is concerned with the claims that we cannot know with certainty of the existence of objects or others. Perhaps the most famous version of modern scepticism would be that of Descartes, who used scepticism as a tool to discover certainty, infamously ‘found’ in the Cogito argument. Descartes progresses in stages of doubt over the deception of our own senses, the possibility of dreaming, and the trick by some malicious demon, and elicits the universal doubt that we cannot in fact be sure there is an external world we think there is. This is anything but a complete explanation of scepticism, but hopefully enough to explain how scepticism is, although its claim would at first appear oppositional, a characteristic of epistemology. And Cavell’s sustained interest in scepticism is attributed to this characteristic that scepticism displays as a ‘bedfellow’ of epistemology.

There is a particularly relevant passage to this extension of thought in Cavell. Here, recounting the arrival of scepticism Cavell writes:

In the unbroken tradition of epistemology since Descartes and Locke, . . . the concept of knowledge (of the world) disengages from its connections with matters of information and skill and learning, and becomes fixed to the concept of . . . certainty provided by the (by my) senses. At some early point in epistemological investigations, the world normally present to us . . . is brought into question and vanishes, whereupon all connections with a world is found to hand upon what can be said to be “present to senses”; and that turns out, shockingly, not to be the world. It is at this point that the doubter finds himself cast into skepticism, turning the existence of the external world into a problem (1976b, p. 323).

What Cavell’s recounting brings to the fore is that the sceptic speaks of the limitedness in the intellectual effort to make the world present. She finds herself forced to exclaim the awareness that what was once the best expression of seriousness about our connection with the world turns out to close off the very access to the world. In other words, the sceptic’s expression of intellectual limitedness does bear the truth in that it reveals our connection to the world is fundamentally not made in terms of knowing: that connection cannot be one of knowing, and by the same token cannot be one of failing to know. But the sceptic craves covering over that disturbing truth of unknowability with knowing and falls into a tragedy. In such a frame of mind, ‘skepticism must mean that we cannot know the world exists, and hence that perhaps there isn’t one’ (p. 324).

How does this passage bring Siegel’s fallibilism to scepticism? It is perhaps worth recalling here that Siegel arrived at a refutation of fallibility as a response to his recognition of fallibility. Siegel accepts McDowell’s naturalistic view that human being’s becoming rational involves a normal human development consisting of ordinary upbringing and the opening up of our eyes to conceptual ways of thinking. As such he recognises this presupposes the possibilities that human beings can be initiated into those ways of thinking properly or poorly, that human beings in the space of reasons can reason well or badly. It is precisely for this reason that Siegel argues for an education that ‘somehow prohibits mistakes in reasoning or leads inevitably to epistemically high-quality thinking,’ (2017, p. 28). Is it too difficult to glimpse the mark of a Cavellian sceptic in Siegel’s fallibilism, here? Siegel knows that our being ‘in’ the Sellars/McDowellian space of reasons implies our reasons will sometimes falter: he is drawn to take issue with this knowledge, to address and to escape ourselves from our condition of fallibility.

Let us develop a bit more the connection being made between fallibilism and scepticism by the way of clarifying their point for contact. Notably, the connection is not made upon the epistemic specifications of the two theses; but upon the deeper, existential significance that both theses of fallibilism and scepticism give expression to, namely, a certain frame of mind of us as knowing-doubting beings. To Cavell, scepticism is not confined ‘to philosophers who wind up denying that we can never know’ but applied ‘to any view which takes the existence of the world to be a problem of knowledge’ (1979, p. 46). For what constitutes scepticism is ‘the very raising of the question of knowledge in a certain form, or spirit’ (p. 46). According to this view, a philosophy ‘that takes itself to have answered the question . . . negatively’ is as much scepticism as a philosophy that takes itself to have responded otherwise (p. 46); and an epistemologist Siegel would very aptly be a sceptic in that his vision of education for rationality also returns the question about human condition to an intellectual (knowledge-related) matter.


Having brought Siegel’s fallibilism and Cavell’s scepticism in the same breath, however, it would seem clear that this will not help us to refute fallibility in the way Siegel does. For Cavell is in sharp contrast with Siegel in the respect that his existential understanding of scepticism rather finds in it a certain truth. But it is crucial to remark that the ‘contrast’ here does not indicate affirmation of scepticism, either. But then, the question will arise as to what else way is left that we might call a ‘progress’ from fallibility? In other words, how can such a way that is neither affirmation nor refutation of fallibility help us think ‘better’ of the cultivation of reason that education should aim?

Cavell seems to have received a similar question in a different context of language and rule-following, in relation to his writing on Saul Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein. More specifically, the question concerns Cavell’s hesitation over calling Wittgenstein a sceptic, acceding to Kripke’s influential interpretation of the philosopher. According to Kripke, Wittgenstein shows that ‘another may, for all I know, at any time manifest his use of a conception such a way that is incompatible with the way he has used it in the past, a way I had taken myself to share’ (2005, p. 132). Kripke takes this ‘ungroundedness of concepts’ to constitute a sceptical thesis on meaning that ‘I can never know what another means by his concepts, nor indeed know what I might turn out to mean by mine’—to which Kripke’s sceptical Wittgenstein then offers a solution based on the strength of the ordinary (p. 132). Cavell’s response to Kripke is doubled. Cavell concurs in Kripke that Wittgenstein’s vision of language and meaning takes its importance from scepticism. But he disagrees, this irreducibility of scepticism is presented as a form of sceptical thesis, and subsequently, nor did Wittgenstein propound a solution to what has ‘a reasonably sceptical specter’ (p. 132). Note carefully here the point at which Cavell casts suspicion. It is not related to his disagreement with Kripke’s Wittgensteinian affirmation or refutation of scepticism, but to what would be left out in calling, following Kripke, Wittgenstein to have expressed the ungroundedness of concepts as a form of scepticism, and to have put an end to it himself.

To see in detail why Cavell holds back from calling Wittgenstein a sceptic, let us follow Cavell’s move to Kant and Heidegger on the scandal of philosophy. Kant famously wrote that the scandal of philosophy is that ‘the existence of things outside us . . . should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a proof’ (p. 133). Phrased in this way, I think Kant would be a figure who is comparable to Kripke’s Wittgenstein—and to Siegel. If they can be taken together, it would be because of the certain way in which they have responded to the possibility and the presence of scepticism in different domains. In essence, all three share the sense that scepticism can be, but has not yet been, solved. Kant is committed to put an end to this sensed ‘scandal’, Kripke’s Wittgenstein to the realised absence of a fact of meaning, and Siegel to the recognised fallibility of our reason.

Cavell compares this sense of the scandal to Heidegger’s: ‘the ‘scandal of philosophy’ is not that this proof has yet to be given, but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again’ (p. 133). The scandal of scepticism is here expressed as that it is present in the life of our intellectual conscience as a ‘stumbling block, as running up against the incredible’ (p. 133). Cavell extends Heidegger’s sense of scandal, in some way that runs counter to it. Crucially, this sense of scandal is directed ‘not primarily to philosophy’s response (or lack of it) to skepticism’s thesis or conclusion, . . . but to the question of . . . skepticisms’s necessity and its possibility, to its paradoxical presence within our very possession of language’ that both Kant’s and Heidegger’s sense of scandal is likely to leave out (p. 133).

Let us press a bit more Cavell’s sense of scandal and the flip-side to scepticism this opens us to. This also brings us back to Cavell’s elaboration, and correction, of Kripke’s view that Wittgenstein provides a refutation of scepticism:

Philosophers have often said that skepticism defeats itself, denying a framework of assumption that it must itself assume. My worry is rather that it is (ordinary) language itself that defeats itself, so that if I am ‘confined’ to the ordinary in language, it is I who suffer defeats, tied to a stumbling block. I sometimes refer to this realization as the standing threat of skepticism.

What has to be answered, according to me, is not a sceptical thesis or conclusion (though that of course has to be accounted for) but how it is that philosophy has chronically required of itself a flight from the ordinary, one form of which is Cartesian skepticism. I have even argued that the ordinary from which philosophy flees is the creation of skepticism (language and the world seen as from the leaving of them) (2005, pp. 133-4).

Note here that Cavell takes Wittgenstein to engage with a refutation not of scepticism, but of the attempt to refute scepticism on the strength of the ordinary. And this double-negation of scepticism does not render the adoption of scepticism (as an intellectual position) but realises scepticism as a standing threat. For Wittgenstein, philosophy needs to return from its flight from the ordinary, but ‘there is no ‘back’ to which to return’ (1996, p. 67). The ordinary Wittgenstein calls for return to is ‘anything but invulnerable to skepticism’ (2005, p. 134). And crucially, Cavell finds that what is at stake here is not the intellectual truth or falsehood of the vulnerability. For ‘what regime of a vulnerable ordinary means . . . is that we are judges of what calls for, or tolerates, change in our ways of thinking and wording the world’ (p. 134). This is the existential truth of scepticism.

Let us bring Kripke, and Siegel, back in to the discussion. When Cavell disagree with Kripke’s view that Wittgenstein establishes scepticism and subsequently offers a solution to it, he does not thereby suggest an interpretation that puts the philosopher on the other side of the adoption of our vulnerable ordinary tout court. Cavell’s disagreement goes further to the poignant realisation of the regime of a vulnerable ordinary as a way of living with, and even surviving from, this standing threat of vulnerability. With little doubt, this would rightly explain the reason for Kripke’s Wittgenstein to care that the vulnerable ordinary be replaced by invulnerability in the first place; and perhaps Siegel’s for arguing that the fallible human thinking be supplemented by the educational efforts for ‘inevitably’ good thinking in the first place. But Cavell brings us to the aspect of our lives that precedes, and potentially exceeds, the way of putting a stop to scepticism. For there is something in our constant exposure to the threat of scepticism that can make our words ‘solider’ than those of Kripke’s Wittgensteinian speaker who is given the rules of her language community to follow in speaking; and that can make our thinking ‘better’ than that of Siegel’s critical thinker who is educated to monitor and prevent herself from making mistakes in thinking. Having travelled so far, I think we are finally approaching how this can be seen to be the case.


To recall, Kripke formulates the Wittgensteinian experience of the ungroundedness of language into a scepticism that there is no fact of meaning. And Cavell, objecting to this interpretation, re-articulates the experience as illustrative of ‘the life form of talker, . . . the life of necessities without rules’ (2005, p. 138). ‘In continuing to project ordinary words into further contexts . . . “nothing insures” that we will go on (that is, “make the same projections”) as we have done in the past’ (p. 135). But then, instead of taking this as a trouble that unnerves us, Cavell takes the necessary absence of rules to reveal the depth of our accommodation to one another in speaking, or rather, the bottomlessness of this accommodation which we ever have to find out.

Ordinary examples from Cavell’s The Claim of Reason will help us here (1979, p. 197). Suppose that I was invited to my friend’s house for coffee and broke a cup. I report this to her and she asks me whether I broke all of the cup. I respond I did. But after glancing over the broken pieces, she says, ‘No, you have not broken it all. Look, this piece could have been broken into smaller pieces.’ I think this would most likely strike me as a joke. Because it is too bizarre that if what she really meant by ‘breaking all of the cup’ is, as it were, smashing it into dust. I find it very unlikely to accommodating myself to this, say, to stamping on yet too big fragments really to ‘break all of the cup’. But then she picks up the piece that is yet big enough and takes it to where various objects are collected, with them all displaying their faces of different monograms. Now I see what she means by the apparently awkward question, that is, I may accommodate to her way of ‘breaking all of the cup’. She is right, I may say, that I have broken all of the cup except for the monogram. This, of course, does not mean that the next time when I break a cup at a cafe I am entitled to say to a staff: ‘I am sorry, but I did not break all of it. I found a big enough fragment of it to preserve the promotional print on it!’ ‘We don’t have to talk to everyone about everything,’ but as Cavell adds further, ‘there seem to be some things we do have to talk to someone about if we are to talk to her or him about anything’ (2005, p. 137). But what those things are is, as the examples usefully reminds us, not set out in advance. What we say to one another may be ‘within bounds of mutuality, or not’, and ‘how far the bounds extend is not given’ but ‘in principle open to [our] judgement’ in each case of speaking (p. 138).

Now all this would make it almost ‘a miracle’ that we are at most of the times accommodated to one another in speaking (p. 139). The fact of language is, as Cavell describes, ‘as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is terrifying’ (1976a, p. 52). But the painstaking exposition of the double-sided fact of language directs at revealing not so much that it is a miracle as the extent to which it is.

[It] is not simply that since we may “always” be wrong in our (empirical) judgements, the moral to draw is . . . to be cautious in our claims, to measure how far we attach our wills to our words about the world. . . . The moral . . . is rather that since I am, as finite, threatened with consequences from unforeseeable quarters, I am at any time acting, and speaking, in the absence of what may seem sufficient reason. Since I cannot measure in each case how far to invest my will, I must trust myself to be up to calamities (the consequences of accidents, mistakes, inadvertence, clumsiness, thoughtlessness, foolishness, imprudence, hesitation, precipitousness, acts of God, and so on) (2005, p. 139).

There is no reason for us to say one thing rather than another, and we can always go wrong with what we say for no reason; but then we are answerable for everything that is said. But this line of thought is easily obliterated in the middle. As the passage reminds, a temptation gets in the way to make ourselves protected from calamities which we are subject to, and responsible for, as living the life form of talkers without rules.

The way in which this temptation plays out would be reminiscent of what we have so far referred to as our tendency to reduce human finitude into an intellectual lack—the frame of mind that allowed me to bring Kripke’s Wittgenstein and Siegel together. That there is nothing deeper than accommodation upon which to found language registers what we do through language: a constant test of how far to reason with one another through speaking. But we are tempted to take the depth of our accommodation to mean a piece of knowledge about how deep its bottom is from the top, and attribute the unwanted consequences to a lack of that piece of knowledge. We think what we need is to measure the depth of our mutuality upon which we then forge a solid language in speaking of which we will never fail to accommodate to what we say; and hence, we will be fully discharged from the requirement of responsibility for judging the limits of our accommodation.

Apart from whether this is empirically possible (to which I think the above examples have already offered a negative answer), the above passage makes us think what it would be like to be speakers of such language. We will now somehow say what we mean without remainder and be licensed to rest easy with our burden of responsibility for elaborating what we mean by what we say. But this is precisely because there will arise no occasion for sharing through language further ‘interests, judgements, impressions, needs, inclinations, desires, temptations, compulsions, surprises, moods, tastes, curiosities, qualms, antipathies, attractions, conflicts, perplexities, perceptions, satisfactions, games, proofs, jokes, news, fictions, gossip’ than what we were given to say—or to repeat (p. 139). Which is to say, what we will now have is poverty of language, and an impoverished life of talkers. To restore the nourishment we want to enjoy in speaking is to reconcile ourselves to the responsibility we have of our words—which has always been owed to us but would become pressing in particular when communication is threatened to break down and accommodation seems to reach at its limits.


Let us move these lines of thought on to how we might be prepared for a way of understanding the cultivation of reason as an educational ideal that goes beyond Siegel’s. To recall, Siegel took seriously the kind of fallibility that flows from McDowell’s wider conception of rationality. Rationality is a matter of becoming responsive to rational demands, which is described in terms of acquiring a second nature or coming into the space of reasons. Of course, this conception itself does not say that our ordinary decent upbringing shall always initiate us into the relevant ways of thinking; nor that once acquiring appropriate reasoning capacities, we shall always think with and in terms of concepts as understood by epistemologists. For what it refers to as rationality is not confined, if not irrelevant, to ‘a facility with inference and argument’ but rather ‘a matter of living in the world in a certain way or manifesting a certain form of life’ (Bakhurst, 2016, p. 80). And I think Siegel’s fallibilism is, although he claims himself in a different spirit, completely compatible with this extensive conception of rationality. His insistence on non-fallible rationality through education is itself a rich expression at once of the recognition that our reason is by nature fallible and of the very ‘reasonable’ desire to overcome that fallibility, where reasonableness points (not to the epistemological solution that he propounds but) to what it thereby manifests about what is required of us to become a thinking, rational being. We are liable to mistakes in reasoning in that our thinking is not always in keeping with the relevant ways of living in the space of reasons, but then we are at each moment responsible for the ways we think.

But Siegel’s fallibilism diverts in the middle of this line of thought in the direction of his epistemological solution that is education for critical thinking—which I just alluded to, perhaps provocatively, as reasonableness in disguise. To see why, let us go back to the reason Siegel gives for this epistemological conversion by the way of tracing the architecture of his account of critical thinking itself. Although Siegel builds his account upon a particular conception of knowledge, its arguable supremacy is far from the ground for Siegel’s claim that it is first and foremost important educational aim. Rather, it is because education is a moral matter, and so is critical thinking. The kind of activity Siegel takes as central to critical thinking is that of sifting out ‘realist, objective, and mind-independent’ knowledge from what we think something to be true or what may luckily turn out to be so (1998, p. 22). For what makes something true knowledge hinges on ‘its successfully capturing of some independent state of affairs which obtains independently of our thinking that it does’ (p. 23). Now this makes critical thinking ‘good thinking’ (2008, p. 81). And to the extent that this stands, it follows that education ought to foster in students the abilities and dispositions for critical thinking that will enable them to think for themselves, competently and well.

Let us note how far this is from acceptance and willingness to face up to responsibility we have of our thinking. By the remark, however, I do not intend to deny there being some shade of responsibility in Siegel. Indeed, Siegel acknowledges that we are liable to both good and bad thinking, we are not always bound to think well. That profession of liability compels him to turn to the teaching of his critical thinking for good, ‘epistemically high-quality’ thinking (2017, p. 28). But I would like to draw attention to the spirit in which responsibility is discharged in this way of progression, and to remind what it means that we are responsible for our thinking. For the responsibility we have of our thinking is a matter of living that runs much deeper and wider than acquiring abilities and habits of mind for critical thinking so that a critical thinker will become able to monitor her thinking and protect herself from culpability for bad thinking. To put differently, Siegel’s account of critical thinking does not bring our fallibility seriously and far enough into its way of progression, or else understands its seriousness to be a matter that is to be addressed on a purely intellectual level—a question of knowledge-claims. And the consequence of this is his fallibilism that accepts fallibility only to reject it; and his account of critical thinking that acknowledges responsibility only to deny it.


Let us revisit the earlier remark about Cavell’s interest in ‘refutation’ of scepticism. With the line of thought we have developed so far in mind, I can now elaborate that his interest here is in working through the complex knots of thoughts of a sceptic and relinquishing the empty temptation of overcoming scepticism intellectually. A crucial point to add again is that Cavell’s refutation of scepticism also resists a passive acceptance of scepticism as a fact of our intellectual life. For Cavell traverses refutation and affirmation of scepticism. He attends to failures of knowledge and therein restores us to a way of furthering our knowledge. Plainly put, we do not have the confidence of knowledge that the person in front of me is genuinely expressing her pain when crying out ‘Ouch!’, but then we do our best to understand what she might mean. We look around what has happened and imagine why she has had to say it (e.g., a sudden blast of wind raised grains of sand into her eyes). This re-orients knowledge towards what it means to us or what it requires of us to know. Knowledge is to face up to and willingly participate in how to go on—the call which is always present but becomes pressing particularly when we seem not to know our way around so we have to find out.

Let us phrase our points in some comparison with Siegel’s vision of education for critical thinking. What we have seen in the paper does enough to show the idea of human reasons that goes beyond Siegel’s of thinking well in order not to think badly—and hence, to my eyes, not to have to think about how anything could not have gone wrong, and further, how anything could ever go right. To put otherwise, Siegel aligns his account of education for critical thinking with McDowell’s view of initiation into the space of reasons in that both accentuate ‘a standing obligation to reflect about and criticise the standards by which, at any time, [our thinking] takes itself to be governed’ (2017, p. 25). The alignment, however, seems to be made upon restricting that obligation to the end of, and discharging it thereupon, coming able to tell and do what Siegel sets out to be epistemically good thinking. But that obligation of criticism has no end, but rather goes all the way down—including when and where (we think) we are critical enough in Siegel’s eye.

In drawing the paper to a close, this may baffle us as to what reason it is that is being suggested teaching at school. But I think Cavell’s claim of reason teaches us the price of our penchant for ‘the answer.’ If we are to take on our responsibility for thinking, then this is a question that is ever in progress and always in play. And it is this re-cognition of the depth of our responsibility in thinking that I argue would improve Siegel’s epistemological conception of critical thinking—into the kind of critical thinking that is of the increasing importance in the world we have today in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, from a time of an unknown to a ‘better’ known.


Bakhurst, D. (2016) Introduction: Exploring the Formation of Reason. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 50.1, pp. 76-83.

Cavell, S. (1976a) The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy. In S. Cavell. Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge MA, Cambridge University Press), pp. 44-72.

Cavell, S. (1976b) The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear. In S. Cavell. Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge MA, Cambridge University Press), pp. 267-356.

Cavell, S. (1979) The Claim of Reason (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Cavell, S. (1996) A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises. (Cambridge MA and London, Harvard University Press).

Cavell, S. (2005) Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow (Cambridge MA and London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press).

Hanks, C. (2008) Indoctrination and the Space of Reasons. Education Theory 58.2, pp. 193-212.

Siegel, H. (1998) Knowledge, Education and Truth. In D. Carr (ed.) Education, Knowledge and Truth: Beyond the Postmodern Impasse (London, Routledge), pp. 19-36.

Siegel, H. (2008) Why Teach Epistemology in Schools?. In M. Hand, and C. Winstanley (ed.) Philosophy in Schools (London, Continuum International Publishing Group), pp. 78-84.

Siegel, H. (2017) Education’s Epistemology: Rationality, Diversity, and Critical Thinking (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

Morten Korsgaard: Retrieving tact as pedagogical form. Arendt and the daimon.

Abstract In this article, I present an Arendtian perspective on tact and how it can be shaped in the educator. Pedagogical tact is generally understood as an ability to act appropriately in pedagogical situations with a sensitivity to the individual child or student, as well as the group and the demands of the particular situation. Building on Arendt’s work on action, exemplarity and judgement, I argue that tact is similar in structure to the daimon, in ancient Greek thought. A guiding spirit that is an inseparable part of who we are, yet beyond our immediate control and visible only to others. Accordingly, tact is not something we can define, nor can we systematize the acquisition or development of it. Rather we are left with the rather illusive proposition of studying examples of tact. Not because they can simply be imitated, but because they offer the only way of placing ourselves in the vicinity of the tactful.


This article attempts to tackle the question of what pedagogical tact consists of and how it forms itself in the individual through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s thinking about appearance and exemplarity. I raise the questions of what processes and from what sources can we draw when we wish to enable ourselves to act properly in pedagogical situations. What does it entail to embody tact in movements and words, and how do we become capable of such movements and words that would be deemed tactful? This is of course not a task that can be accomplished in any finished form or with fixed conclusions, nor can it be answered only conceptually or philosophically as will be the attempt here. Nor is Arendt the most likely theorist with whom to think about these matters. There are at least three reasons for this. First, Arendt never spoke explicitly about tact. Second, Arendt’s focus in her educational writings was never specifically on the work of the educator. Third, she has often been read as a thinker whose theory of action was overly cognitive and ignorant to affective and bodily aspects. Nonetheless, I will in this piece try to tease out some central aspects of Arendt’s thinking that I believe to be relevant for theorizing pedagogical tact. I will do this by first trying to outline how we can understand tact in relation to Arendt’s ideas about action and appearance, and secondly by turning to her ideas about exemplarity and judgement. Exemplarity will be presented as a possible source for understanding how tact is formed in and by the educator. Judgement will be explored as a way of understanding how exemplarity and tact are connected through an ability to open oneself to the contextual nature of pedagogy and the perspective of ‘the other’ of the pedagogical relation. I will connect these ideas to a perhaps unlikely literary example, drawn from the short story ‘The mysterious stranger’ by Mark Twain. I do this to show how tact is an embodied phenomenon which is exceedingly hard to grasp in any strict methodological way, or through establishment of criteria, principles or rules for action. It is something that is part and parcel not just of what a person says or does but is in fact a manifestation of ‘who’ one is. It is not a skill or a set competences and abilities that can simply be acquired through scholarly learning, practical exercises, or rote repetition. As such, tact is a fickle friend, or with an Arendtian analogy, a daimon, looking over our shoulder; visible to everyone but ourselves.


Etymologically, tact derives from two familiar sources. One is the Latin tāctus, which translates as ‘keen perception’, the other is the Greek Taxis (from the verb tassein; to order, to arrange), which means ‘an arrangement’. Tact began to emerge in scholarly literature around 1800 in diverse works in philosophy, musicology, the study of war and pedagogy. Kant spoke of ‘logical tact’ in his Anthropologie, Clausewitz about the ‘tact of judgement’ in Vom Kriege, and Herbart coined ‘pedagogical tact’ in his lectures on education. The term seems in all these works to function almost heuristically to connote that undefinable ability to do what is right in complex social situations, where there are no set rules or laws to guide us. The two different etymological origins of the term are clear in two distinct ways in which it has been used in musicology. With the introduction of the modern bar notation in the 16th century with the vertical bar-line [Taktstrich], tact became a fixed measure of time in music, and with the later invention of the metronome this was mechanized. As such, tact functions as an organizing principle in music, by providing an ordering of the different voices, an arrangement of the sequences and the different sounds that form a piece of music. However, the organizing principle or mechanism, tact, is independent of the voices and sequences that make up the piece of music, it is “an empty measure or abstract structure independent of the notes and voices it structures” (Engberg-Pedersen, 2018, p. 355). For music to be an aesthetic experience following the order is not enough. In his wonderful article on tact in the early 19th century, Anders Engberg-Pedersen uses an example drawn from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann, where Olimpia, an automaton, performs two pieces of music with absolute rhythmic precision. Her performance, however, leaves her audience unmoved.

In her unpleasant, soulless correctness, Olimpia appears at once as the epitome and the perversion of the musical notion of Takt. On the one hand, Olimpia is the acoustic and visible manifestation of a musical principle that was invented some two hundred years earlier, viz. the invention of the modern measure or Takt. On the other hand, it is just this ordering principle that appears in perverted form in Olimpia’s senseless performance (Engberg-Pedersen, 2018, p. 354).

What Olimpia is missing is not the technical skill to follow the arrangement, rather it is the much more elusive sense of tact present in the Latin tactus; a keen perception or ability to sense the world around us. An aesthetic sense or capacity based on our ability to use our senses to ‘touch’ the world around us.

According to Gadamer (2004), tact is a kind of elasticity of the mind, which permits us to maintain the appropriate distance to the objects and events of the world. This distance allows us to remain open to the world and the other, while not imposing our self-interest and preconceptions on the world or the other person.

By ‘tact’ we understand a special sensitivity and sensitiveness to situations and how to behave in them, for which knowledge from general principles does not suffice. Hence an essential part of tact is that it is tacit and unformulable. One can say something tactfully; but that will always mean that one passes over something tactfully and leaves it unsaid, and it is tactless to express what one can only pass over. But to pass over something does not mean to avert one’s gaze from it, but to keep an eye on it in such a way that rather than knock into it, one slips by it. Thus tact helps one to preserve distance. It avoids the offensive, the intrusive, the violation of the intimate sphere of the human person (2004, pp. 14-15).

Gadamer uses the word tact as an umbrella term for formation (Bildung), commons sense (sensus communis), Judgement (Urteilskraft), and taste (Geschmack), all of which are not only elements of a person’s character, but the very building blocks of hermeneutic science. In this way, our ability to interpret aspects of the world, is intertwined with the elements that make up our character. This might seem obvious, but it is crucial to Gadamer to make this explicit, and to show it as a fact that science cannot escape from, however objective it strives to be. Arendt had a different, yet related way of putting it; “the answers of science will always remain replies to questions asked by men; the confusion in the issue of “objectivity” was to assume that there could be answers without questions and results independent of a question-asking-being” (Arendt, 2006b, p. 49). This problem is made quite apparent when it comes to the notion of tact and made even more complex by the fact that the closest version of tact to us, i.e., our own, is not something we can put at a distance, and hence it is not amenable to study. It is, however, visible to those around us, and they will quickly see if we are merely ‘following the arrangement’, and not fully sensitive to the aesthetic and personal aspects of the situation we find ourselves in.


In her seminal work The Human Condition, Arendt wants to examine what it is we (as humans) do. What kinds of activities do we engage in and how are these changed over time? In a peculiar revival of Kant’s philosophical anthropology, Arendt charts the different spheres of human action, and engages with the question of what makes us human. One crucial aspect of this is that we appear before others. “With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance” (Arendt, 1998, pp. 176-177). Arendt calls this ‘naked fact’ of our appearance in the world natality. The fact that we are born into the world as a specific somebody, in a specific time and place, which no one else could occupy. It is this “miracle” of being born, that provides us with a “who”, as distinct from a what, and the potentiality to remanifest the miracle of our singular birth, by acting in the world.

In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world, while their physical identities appear without any activity of their own in the unique shape of the body and sound of the voice. This disclosure of "who" in contradistinction to "what" somebody is—his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide—is implicit in everything somebody says and does. It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity, but its disclosure can almost never be achieved as a wilful purpose, as though one possessed and could dispose of this "who" in the same manner he has and can dispose of his qualities (Arendt, 1998, p. 179).

This means that unlike my qualities and abilities, such as playing the violin, doing complex math, or reciting poetry by heart, which can be consciously put on display, “who” I am, is not something I can consciously hide away or put on display, and most importantly it is not visible to myself.

On the contrary, it is more than likely that the "who," which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daímōn in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters (1998, pp. 179-180).

A daimon in Greek mythology was a divine power or guiding spirit that followed each human throughout their life. And one who had a good daimon, would also be able to attain eudaimonia. Socrates, famously invoked his daimon, his inner voice, in his defense. Arendt seems to focus more on the aspect of the daimon which has to do with its elusiveness than on its role as guide. It is unmistakably ours, yet we cannot see it. It follows us wherever we go, yet we cannot make it do our bidding. How it is seen is always in the hands of others.

‘Who’ we are is a conglomerate of bodily and mental features. It is our Bildung, our physiognomy, our personal traits, our judgements, the way we move, our tastes, our sense of the world, our aesthetic sensibilities. In continuation of the way Gadamer used the term tact, I would say that it comes very close to being ‘who’ we are. The trouble with getting at ‘who’ we are is thus reminiscent of the trouble with defining and describing tact.

The manifestation of who the speaker and doer unexchangeably is, though it is plainly visible, retains a curious intangibility that confounds all efforts toward unequivocal verbal expression. The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a "character" in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us (1998, p. 181).

Even if it is probably not viable to claim that tact is the same as who one is, or that who we are is reducible to tact, there are enough overlaps to say that just as the question of who we are constantly eludes us, so does tact. Once we try to pin down what makes a person tactful, we resort to descriptions of features or abilities that can never give the full picture. We resort to words and descriptions like empathic, eloquent, quick on her feet, sensitive, accommodating, and so on. All of which are aspects of one’s personae, which can be identified and even worked on. But tact and who we are is never just that. “It excludes in principle our ever being able to handle these affairs as we handle things whose nature is at our disposal because we can name them” (1998, pp. 181-182). If we could name our daimon, we could perhaps bring it to heel, and finally give the cogito the role the enlightenment envisioned for it. Alas, our daimon constantly eludes us.


Yet as Zirfas reminds us, this might not be such a big issue, since “our concern here is not with such education or cultivation of the self by itself” (Zirfas, xxxx, p. xx). What we are talking about when we speak of tact is something inherently relational. Tact is the ability to maintain the proper distance to the other, allowing him or her to come into their own. To become. This entails, that “[p]edagogical tact, in other words, is above all a principle of mediation.” (Zirfas, xxxx, p. xx) in a double sense. It is on the one hand as Herbart argued a “link intermediate between theory and practice… a quick judgment and decision that is not habitual and eternally uniform” (p. xx). It is also on the other hand a mediation between the child as he or she is, and who they are to become.

Regarding the first sense of mediation, Zirfas is quick to add that this should not be seen in a rationalistic sense of mediation, as the cognitive and voluntary implementation of principles, the enlightenment dream of rational and principled control of emotion and behaviour. ”It should be considered to what extent emotional qualities have always been included in rational considerations or to what extent tact is characterized not only by cognitive elements but also by aspects of sense, emotion and will.” (xxxx, p, xx). Without wanting to get into a discussion of whether this is consistent with Herbart’s own thinking, it is important, because it points to the previous point about how tact is always a fickle friend, and never fully in our control.

Regarding the second sense, this leads us of course directly to the paradoxical aspects of pedagogical practice. How can we possibly lead children in a way that mediates between who they are in the moment and whom they will become. “Pedagogical tact remains embedded in this pedagogical paradox: of needing to encourage people to behave in a way that is self-determined, and of their simultaneous inability to achieve this on their own.” (Zirfas, xxxx, p. xx). What remains then is the tactfulness that places one at the appropriate distance between the two states, the present and the future, just enough to allow the child to become self-determining in their own becoming. Hence, there is no escaping the paradox, nor any solution or finality to it. All we can do is to stay with and attempt to balance the paradox.

This has to do with the relation between the individual and general in the form of the world to come. On the one hand we lead children towards who they will become, on the other the ‘who’ they will become remains open and undetermined. As Zirfas argues, quoting Schleiermacher; “[P]edagogy must react tactfully to individuality in order not to destroy it: ‘That which is directed towards the individual is what we call tact, a feeling for that which is unbecoming in each of us’ ”[i] (xxxx, p. xx). This is very close to Arendt’s formulation of education’s central concern; the fact of natality. This entails that; ”[o]ur hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look” (Arendt, 2006 p. 189). However, and paradoxically perhaps, Arendt never makes the relation and responsibility towards the individual the center of her argument in ‘The Crisis in Education’. Rather it is the relation to the world and the concept of plurality that she places at the center.[ii] The reason for this is, that much more is at stake in education than the individual and the individual teacher’s relation to the child. The world itself and human beings’ ability to establish a relation to it is at stake. One could argue of course that this makes Arendt blind to the fact that oftentimes this very problem is played out precisely in the teacher’s relation to individual children. However, it does seem to be at least implicitly present in her argument for the centrality of natality, which is precisely the appearance of the individual in plurality. The details of the relation however, Arendt wishes to leave in the hands of the educators (2006, p. 192).

Were she to have pursued this path, however, she would have had to confront the issue of the relation between judgement and action. And as we know she did not live to fully develop this central theme. Another issue she would have had to confront is the relation between who we are, and how tact forms itself in us. Because tact, like our ‘who’, is by necessity ours, even if it is manifested only in relation to another, yet it is never fully in our hands so to speak, because we can never cognitively fixate it, nor can we claim to always be fully in control of the actions that follow from our tact and who we are. 

Tact, as Gadamer reminds us, is a conglomerate of formation, commons sense, Judgement, and taste. Zirfas adds that we cannot exclude emotion and will. Nor can we exclude our body, and the central role it plays in how we appear in the world. Returning to Herbart’s definition of tact as a mediator, we could perhaps say that tact mediates between our ‘who’ and the way we act in the world. This does not however place us in control of tact, nor of who we are, nor of how these appear for others in the world.


Once again, we are left in the dark concerning how we can meaningfully speak about how we can develop tact and what it means for the relation between theory and practice. Whether we will get any closer by following Arendt remains to be seen, but she does in Men in Dark Times, state her own position on how to find guidance for troubling questions.

[E]ven in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth – this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter of secondary importance which can safely be left to posterity (Arendt, 1995, pp. ix-x).

Arendt explicitly questions the ability of theory and concepts alone to guide us, and posits instead the stories and examples of, in this case, historical and contemporary writers, who in some way portray a relation to the world and others that can help us to (re)think our condition. It is of course not given whom the exemplars we choose should be, and, as shall be elaborated later on, Arendt is not invoking an Aristotelian admiration-emulation model of exemplarism here.[iii] Whether we consider the example to be exemplary cannot be settled in any final way, and each example must be open to revalidation and reinterpretation. This is so not only for practical, fictional, or anecdotal examples, but also for pedagogical literature and theory. Whether an example has any pedagogical force and resonance will also be dependent on the encounters with novel readers and the discussions that arise in response to it. That Emile still has an exemplary pedagogical force is verified by the way it continues to challenge and provoke us to reflection about its pedagogical insights. ”Consequently, examples exist both in relation to communities of people who have repeatedly judged them to be exemplary, and in relation to the history of those judgments that have set certain objects and individuals above others as models” (DeCaroli, 2007, p. 378). What makes pedagogical examples relevant is thus not whether we can emulate them efficiently or successfully, but whether they force us to make use of our judgement.

Herbart spoke of the pedagogical force of the example in relation to the development of pedagogical tact, and the importance of being able to make use of the right company, the right examples.

To lead us back to the ideas of the previous lecture, take an illustration. Conceive of' a man of character - of moral character, if you please - only do not think merely of what is called a good, honest, law-abiding man, but hold present to your minds a man in whom the moral element has grown into that decision, steadiness, and organized swiftness of execution which with especial propriety deserves the name of character (Herbart, 2012, pp. 25-26).

Our pedagogical tact is thus very much formed by the examples we choose to engage with. This is not a matter of mere mimicking or appropriation of a vocabulary. It is a matter of letting it grow into one’s person. Tact has to grow into us and become embodied in our actions, not just our words. Tact must penetrate our whole person, and not just some professional personae or way of speaking, lest it become simple automation as was the case for Olimpia. “[A]s there are not only moral, but very many species of characters, so also there are very many species of tact, manners, and ways among educators” (Herbart, 2012, p. 27).

Before returning to the issue of what examples actually do, I want to turn now to an example that is the complete opposite of Olimpia. An example of someone not bound at all by the confines of order and automation. In The mysterious stranger by Mark Twain, three young boys meet an angel who introduces himself as Satan, a namesake of his infamous uncle.

Soon there came a youth strolling toward us through the trees, and he sat down and began to talk in a friendly way, just as if he knew us. But we did not answer him, for he was a stranger and we were not used to strangers and were shy of them. He had new and good clothes on, and was handsome and had a winning face and a pleasant voice, and was easy and graceful and unembarrassed, not slouchy and awkward and diffident, like other boys (Twain, 1916, p. 10).

The angel quickly beguiles the young boys with his demeanor and personality.

He was bent on putting us at ease, and he had the right art; one could not remain doubtful and timorous where a person was so earnest and simple and gentle, and talked so alluringly as he did; no, he won us over, and it was not long before we were content and comfortable and chatty, and glad we had found this new friend (p. 11, my italics).

Satan does not only use his looks and his manners to entice the boys, but he also uses his abilities to manipulate his surroundings and conjure things into existence. First, he conjures all manners of food and delicacies.

He ate nothing himself, but sat and chatted, and did one curious thing after another to amuse us. He made a tiny toy squirrel out of clay, and it ran up a tree and sat on a limb overhead and barked down at us. Then he made a dog that was not much larger than a mouse, and it treed the squirrel and danced about the tree, excited and barking, and was as alive as any dog could be. It frightened the squirrel from tree to tree and followed it up until both were out of sight in the forest. He made birds out of clay and set them free, and they flew away, singing (pp. 12-13).

The boys are enraptured by Satan’s person and his abilities and knowledge of the world. His art of using just the right words when they begin to become anxious or afraid and withdraw from him, and his ability to place in front of them magical objects that entice them back into attention, show his pedagogical tact. He does it all seemingly effortlessly, but at the same time with a presence and attentiveness to their every word (and thought).

I should not be able to make any one understand how exciting it all was. You know that kind of quiver that trembles around through you when you are seeing something so strange and enchanting and wonderful that it is just a fearful joy to be alive and look at it; and you know how you gaze, and your lips turn dry and your breath comes short, but you wouldn’t be anywhere but there, not for the world (p. 15).

Theodor here gives voice to a familiar experience of being captured by a phenomenon or a person that draws our attention fully and makes us forget both time and place. Sometimes even at the cost of other responsibilities or even our sense of right and wrong. While talking with the boys, Satan has conjured a small village of living creatures made of clay. He then, much to the horror of the boys, casually begins to kill some of them and finally to destroy the village. The boys are horrified and appalled, yet;

he went on talking right along, and worked his enchantments upon us again with that fatal music of his voice. He made us forget everything; we could only listen to him, and love him, and be his slaves, to do with us as he would. He made us drunk with the joy of being with him, and of looking into the heaven of his eyes, and of feeling the ecstasy that thrilled along our veins from the touch of his hand (p. 18). 

Even when revealing some of the darker aspects of his being to the boys, aspects that repulse and scare them, Satan is able to calm them, and explain to them the reasons for his haphazard dealings with things and people. Of course, Satan has the great advantage of being able to read the boys’ mind, something alas, mere mortal educators have not. A further hindrance in developing one’s tact. Being immortal and omnipotent, Satan is little interested in the goings on in human life, but nonetheless takes a special interest in Theodor and begins to educate him about the world and the follies of humankind. Satan is an attentive and caring teacher. Yet at times he portrays a distinct arrogance and in his omni-potence has little time and care for the feelings and moral sentiments of humans. Nevertheless, he introduces Theodor to a much wider world than the one his small village life would otherwise have acquainted him with. There is thus no doubt that Satan portrays many aspects of what we could call pedagogical tact, in his dealings with the boys. Sometimes he is less than caring when it comes to the ignorance of humans, and whether he is in fact educating or manipulating Theodor is of course open to discussion.[iv] The reason I want to highlight this particular example here is once again to emphasise the ambiguity and risks involved in invoking the idea of pedagogical tact. We will not get straightforward answers about what to do in specific pedagogical situations, nor evidence for effective learning activities, even when studying an immortal being. What we will get however is a way of proceeding that is sensitive to the discontinuity of pedagogical practice, and the particularity of both how tact forms itself in the individual and how it is always context dependent and relational. Where tact is not automated, as it was in Olimpia’s failed attempt to move her audience, but rather attuned to the particulars of the individuals involved and the particular situation, it is always hard to determine where the borders between right and wrong, manipulation and educating can be drawn. When are we leading the children where they should go, and when are we in fact, by drawing their attention in specific ways and directions, leading them astray?


According to Arendt, Judgement is the faculty by which we determine right and wrong. It is a backward-looking mental capacity that judges what has happened, and what has befallen us. Judging, Arendt informs us, “is a viewpoint from which to look upon, to watch, to form judgments, or, as Kant himself says, to reflect upon human affairs. It does not tell one how to act” (Arendt, 1992, p. 44). How then is it connected to tact? Following Arendt, it can be so only indirectly. Judging is “an unending activity by which, in constant change and variation, we come to terms with and reconcile ourselves to reality, that is, try to be at home in the world” (Arendt, 1994, pp. 307-308). So rather than being the ability to judge right from wrong in a particular moment of action, judging is a process of reconciliation to being in the world with others. It is a matter of making oneself at home in the events and the plurality of the world. This entails that when invoking the concept of judgement in relation to tact, I am not trying to turn it into a placeholder, but rather pointing to something that I believe to be prior to being able to enact tact in pedagogical relations. First comes the ability to reconcile oneself to and to make oneself at home in the ‘pedagogical world’. It is a matter of gaining understanding of where I come from and what circumstances I find myself in the midst of. “[O]nly an ‘understanding heart,’ and not mere reflection or mere feeling, makes it bearable for us to live with other people, strangers forever, in the same world, and makes it possible for them to bear with us” (Arendt, 1954/1994, p. 322). Coming to terms with the world through putting one’s judgement to work on the events and people that make up this world, is a first step towards becoming at home enough to enact pedagogical tact in pedagogical relations. Or as Herbart put it in the quote above; we need ‘a preparation of both the understanding and the heart before entering upon our duties, by virtue of which the experience which we can obtain only in the work itself will become instructive to us’.[1]

In the end, Arendt tells us, our ability for judging does not come down to our deductive or intuitive abilities to foresee or sit in final judgement of the events of the world. Rather; ”our decisions about right and wrong will depend upon our choice of company, of those with whom we wish to spend our lives. And again, this company is chosen by thinking in examples, in examples of persons dead or alive, real or fictitious, and in examples of incidents, past or present” (Arendt 2003,  145–146). It is the ability to go visiting the perspectives of others when assuming the position of judge, that will determine if we succeed or fail. What for Gadamer was a kind of elasticity of reflection, Arendt, borrowing from Kant, calls Erweiterte Denkungsart or enlarged thinking. However, where Kant seemed to think that the validity of one’s judgement rested on having tested it against all the possible viewpoints[2], Arendt urged us to find the right examples to consult. “To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting” (Arendt, 1992, p. 43). This brings us back to the role of the example, which is not to function as a manual for imitation, but to facilitate a visiting of another perspective, and a reconciliation to our being in the world with others. This process of enlarging one’s ability to visit the perspectives of others is central to becoming at home in pedagogical practice. It not only provides us with ways of reflecting on our own practice, by visiting that of others, it also, and crucially, provides us with a potential sense of being at home in our practice, and with how we appear to others.

What good does a ‘sense of being at home’ do educators who are faced with having to make quick judgements on what to do in particular situations and relations, you wonder? Well, perhaps not much, but does this not simply lead us back to the paradoxical nature of turning to the daimon we call tact as a starting point for talking about what it means to be a good educator? We can never lay it bare before us and dissect it to see what it consists of nor whence it came. This does not mean we cannot learn from others and from examples how we might become more at home in pedagogical thought and practice, it just means we have no privileged access to the process, nor any means of determining in advance what should done in each situation, nor how we become someone who will do what is right nonetheless.


Arendt, H. (1972) ‘On Violence’, in Crises of the Republic, New York, Harcourt Brace.

Arendt, H. (1992) Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Beiner, R. ed. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, H. (1994) ‘Understanding and politics (the difficulties of understanding)’ in Essays in Understanding 1930–1954: Formation, Exile and Totalitarianism. 307-328. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company.

Arendt, H. (1995) Men in Dark Times. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Arendt, H. (1998) The Human Condition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press

Arendt, H. 2003. Responsibility and judgment. New York: Random House.

Arendt, H. 2006. Between Past and Future. London: Penguin Books.

Croce, M. (2019) ‘Exemplarism in moral education: problems with applicability and indoctrination’. Journal of Moral Education, 48(3), pp. 291–302. doi:10.1080/03057240.2019.1579086.

Croce, M. & Vaccarezza, M. S. (2017) ‘Educating through exemplars: alternative paths to virtue’, Theory and Research in Education, 15(1), pp. 5–19. doi:10.1177/1477878517695903.

Dahlbeck, J. (2021) ‘The Pedagogical Importance of Ingenium: Exemplarism and Popular Narratives’ In: Spinoza: Fiction and Manipulation in Civic Education. pp. 43-60. Rotterdam: Springer.

Dahlbeck, Johan. (2021) ‘Satan as teacher: the view from nowhere vs. the moral sense’, Ethics and Education. 1-17. 10.1080/17449642.2021.2013635.

DeCaroli, S. 2007. ‘A Capacity for Agreement: Hannah Arendt and the "Critique of Judgment"’ Social Theory and Practice, 33(3), pp. 361-386. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23558481

Gadamer, H. G. (2004) Truth and Method (2nd ed, rev), (eds, trans and rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall). London and New York, Continuum.

Herbart, J. F. [1896] 2012. “Introductory Lectures to Student in Pedagogy.” I Herbart’s ABC of Sense-Perception and Minor Pedagogical Works, redigeret og oversat af W. J. Eckoff, ss. 13–28. New York: D. Appleton.

Kant, Immanuel (1803) ‘Über Pädagogik’ In: (Ders.): Werke in 10 Bänden. Hrsg. Von Wilhelm Wei- schedel. Band 10, Darmstadt 1983S. 691-764.

Twain, M. (1916) The Mysterious Stranger. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Zagzebski, L. 2017. Exemplarist Moral Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zirfas, J. (xxxx) Pedagogical Tact: Ten Theses.


[1] This is why I also believe that the study of theory should go hand in hand with not only practical experience, but also the study of examples of pedagogical relations in the form of fictional portrayals or anecdotal examples.

[2] The debate about whether he did in fact mean all possible positions is ongoing (See Hanna, 2018).


[i] Schleiermacher, F.D.E. (1981). Brouillon zur Ethik. Felix Meiner, p. 147.

[ii] For an elaboration of this reading of ‘The Crisis in education’ see chapter 3 in Bearing with Strangers.

[iii] See the recent discussions of Lynda Zagzebski’s interpretation of this in Croce, 2019, Croce & Vacarezza, 2017; Dahlbeck, 2021; Author, 2020).

[iv] See Dahlbeck 2021, for an insightful discussion of the character and its educational implications.

Amanda Fulford and David Locke: Being Universitas - The senses and the body in pedagogical practice


This paper considers what it is at stake in the idea of universitas – a community of masters and scholars – in the context of the shifting institutional and pedagogical landscape of higher education that the Covid-19 pandemic engendered.  It looks to the etymological roots of the term ‘university’, and turns to the philosophy of Gabriel Marcel, to consider what it means to be together in the community of the university.

We begin by considering the impact of the pandemic on academics, particularly how shifts to online learning have altered practice and the ways in which student and staff relationships are negotiated and navigated. These shifts have naturally moved us away from the physical world, with the impacts of such a change not yet fully known. The paper then draws a distinction between the idea of ‘functioning’ as universitas and ‘being’ universitas We argue that, that while universities have continued to o function effectively (in terms of , for example, delivering teaching, validating new courses, recruiting new students, maintaining administrative functions, and ensuring financial security), something of what it means to be universitas has been much harder to maintain when staff and students have not had a physical presence at the heart of the institution.

By drawing on the philosophical and dramatic works of French existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, we consider his explorations of interpersonal relationships in the context of physical presence. We show how the Marcellian concepts of disponibilité and indisponibilité (availability and unavailability), as well as presence and communion, reveal insights into the types of interactions that form the basis of meaningful interpersonal relationships, and by extension, the creation of a meaningful academic community. Given the ineffability of in-person encounters (over online interactions), Marcel’s understanding of the self, and the ways in which we relate to each other, helps give substance to the difference, and exposes important and implications for how different behaviours and practices can foster richer relationships and interactions.

We conclude by drawing attention to these differences, through comparisons between religious and academic communities, and suggest that this is account of hope for how we might conceive of contemporary Higher Education communities. By drawing on the distinction between functioning as universitas and being universitas, we conclude that our physical presence with each other affords the possibilities of a rich encounter with others through relationships of plenitude that we argue are fundamental to being universitas.  


Functioning as universitas

It was in the 14th century that universities, established for the study of the Arts, Medicine Law and Theology, were first referred to as universitas magistrorum et scholarium, denoting a community of masters and scholars (Heald, 1975).[1] Central to universitas was a community of teachers and scholars afforded recognition either by a civil or ecclesiastical authority (Rüegg, 1992). In highlighting the significance of community to the medieval understanding of universitas, Verger writes: ‘The medieval universities were therefore, first of all, organised communities of individuals…This notion of the community would seem to be fundamental to the definition of the medieval university’ (1992: 38). The universitas was, as Schwinges puts it, a ‘“societal community”’. ‘It was’, he claims, ‘the faithful reflection of its surrounding society, living like the latter’ (1992: 203).

The idea of the ‘university-as-community’ remains strong in contemporary higher education, seen especially in university marketing campaigns. Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University has a motto that translates as ‘The community of knowledge’, and the European University of St. Petersburg declares Addo optimus una – Bringing the best together. University strategic plans, vision and mission statements all repeatedly signal the importance of community: of studying and living together; of the university at the heart of its community; of the university as a diverse place of belonging and togetherness. University College London’s (UCL) vision is to ‘inspire the community of staff, students and partners’, and its mission is to be a ‘diverse intellectual community’.[2] By putting the notion of community front and centre, universities signal the values they espouse and the culture they seek to create.[3] Yet is it not only the community of the university that is celebrated in these ways; it is also the idea of the university community within the wider physical community that is at the heart of institutions’ civic engagement plans which celebrate the sharing of spaces and facilities with communities, and which promise positive social impact.[4]

With the advent of the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, university communities were forced to re-think what it meant to be universitas. Campuses closed; the community became a disapora as students moved from their accommodation on campus; academics re-located to their homes while teaching went online, and learning became an almost solitary activity. But the ways in which universitas was re-imagined were concerned, in the main, with keeping the functions of the institutions going. Universities invested in technology to ensure the continued delivery of high-quality teaching. Emergency regulations were approved to ensure student progression. Assessments were modified for professional and practice-based programmes (la Velle et al., 2020), and universities used virtual simulation technologies to teach and to assess clinical competence (Fung et al., 2021). All this ensured that the main functions of the university continued to operate: admissions departments ran virtual open days (Gavin et al., 2020); decision-making in finance, quality assurance and ethics continued uninterrupted, and even academic conferences continued in virtual formats (Donlon, 2021). Such measures kept universities functioning to realise their key missions.

This rapid shift elicited a broad range of responses from academic staff, ranging from eagerness to apply these new technologies, to concern and difficulties with using them. Naylor and Nyanjom (2020) considered the range of emotions and experiences that followed from the move to online platforms. There was significant variety of staff perceptions, many of which were dependent on the level of institutional support. One educator described the frustration that was experienced in the context of such changes: ‘Absolute frustration with not being able to see and contact students…whereas if I see them face-to- face class, I can sort of tell by their responses in class immediately how they’re going’ (Naylor and Nyanjom, 2020: 1244). Others expressed concern at the impacts of a lack of physical contact with students, and the pedagogical implications that ensued: ‘I am concerned about not seeing my students. I am a very hands on, active teacher, and I was wondering how I could be as effective as I am on-campus…and just the way I get people involved…students wouldn’t get as much out of the unit as on-campus’ (ibid.: 1246).

The more general return to campuses in September 2020[5] elicited some of the same kind of positive responses that the population generally felt when restrictions were lifted, and families, friends and communities were able to meet together again:

I want to be back in the classroom. I miss the serendipity of snatched conversations in the interstices of lectures and seminars. I miss people-watching – seeing new students literally and metaphorically navigate campus. I even miss the abysmal coffee in mandatory                        meetings. I want those rectangles to burst open into the messy, complicated, exciting physical spaces we used to inhabit. I want to be back in the classroom. But I also want to know that it’s safe to be there (Rees et al., 2021 no page).

Rees calls particular attention to the physical aspects of the working environment – the bodily and sensory experience of being together that informs and creates a sense of what constitutes an academic community. The loss of physical connection in online teaching has a clear effect in the ability of academics to ‘read the room’ and adapt their style in light of it. These very physical components of teaching allow academics to respond in dynamic ways not only to the content, but also to others who are physically present. Wickenden captures something of the essence of what was lost when the community that is universitas was profoundly disrupted: ‘Academia, despite its reputation, is a social beast. It thrives off solidarity, brief chats in the department kitchen, bouncing your research off a friend in another department. It is worth it for those moments you see students get the point you’re making, or when the conversation of a break-out group sparks connections they wouldn’t have made on their own’ (ibid.).

But such views stand in stark contrast with those of others, with some asserting that that they could function effectively, fulfilling their job roles, without being physically present on campus (UCL, 2021). Of course, the picture was a complex and nuanced one. The pandemic necessitated balancing childcare responsibilities and home-schooling with the demands of work. Conditions for home working required appropriate physical space, the ability to cover additional utility costs; access to wifi and to appropriate electronic devices. Those reluctant to return cited concerns for the health of themselves, their families, and colleagues, as well as a belief that they could fulfil their duties from home, thus achieving a better work-life balance, and protecting the environment by avoiding unnecessary commutes. Concerns about the safety of a return were found amongst staff in the United Kingdom through a poll by Times Higher Education, which found that a majority of university staff felt unsafe going back to campus for in-person teaching . Professor Elizabeth Stokoe, author of a SAGE report on the status of Covid-19 and universities, stated that ‘Staff and students alike should be supported to make choices that keep them physically and psychologically well, such as genuine flexibility and avoiding presenteeism’ (Stokoe, in McKie, 2021, no page). She further made the case that as educational institutions, universities should be leading the way in developing and implementing best practice for Covid-19 regulations and guidance. Despite policies on the return to campus, McKie found that that only 25 per cent of respondents in a study reported excited to return to in-person teaching or on-campus working (McKie, 2021). There were repeated fears about the performativity that might be playing a role in the decision to return to campuses, as evidenced in the claim that a return to physical presence on campuses was ‘driven by the optics…rather than by the lived experience and concerns of the staff’ (McKie, 2021, no page) and that ‘‘Back to normal’ has been embraced at all costs to justify the high student fees’ (McKie, 2021, no page).              

These concerns raise an important question: Is there a problem with this? Surely there are benefits both to the institution (in terms of the job still being done) and the academic (achieving a better work-life balance and job satisfaction) if universities embrace these new ways of working? This then raises a second question: Would such arrangements constitute universitas? We argue here that the dispersed community, where for the majority of the time academics and students are not physically together as a community of masters and scholars, shifts what it means to be univeritas. We suggest that while such arrangements may keep the main functions of the university operating effectively, that something significant is lost. It is as if, in Lesley Gourlay’s words, there has been a shift to ‘performing the university’ (2020: 791). As Gourlay writes: ‘The ontological nature of the university itself has been fundamentally altered by the closure of the campus and lockdown…the site of the university is now radically dispersed across sequestered bodies’ (2020: 991).

In turning to the work of the French existentialist philosopher and playwright, Gabriel Marcel, we explore what is lost in the idea of an institution functioning as universitas (contrasting this later with what is at stake in being universitas). Marcel’s work is significant given his concern in his (1948) work The Philosophy of Existentialism where he discusses the ‘misplacement of the idea of function’ (1948/1995: 11) in what he calls a ‘broken world’ (1950: 18). To illustrate this valorisation of function, Marcel uses the example of a subway token operator. In the busy subway environment, the public engage her in only the most superficial way, avoiding speaking or making eye contact, interacting only to ensure that they are given the correct change and ticket. The operator is simply the amalgamation of the function that she performs. Marcel summarises the problem when he writes: ‘Man is thought of on the model of a machine, on the model of a mere physical object – sine in fact he is being treated as if he were a mere physical object’ (1952/2008: 71). In The Mystery of Being (1950), Marcel elaborates further, claiming that what is going on here is ‘the reduction of [her] personality to an official identity’; what has been effected is a kind of ‘social nudity, a social stripping’ (pp. 29 - 30). He writes of such ‘interactions’ as characteristic of what he calls the ‘administrative machine’ (ibid.: 31). In those instances when an individual (or indeed, a university), is seen merely as an amalgamation of the functions that she performs, Marcel claims that: ‘The ties of fraternity are snapped – and there is nothing that can take their place except a Nietzschean ‘resentment’ or, at very best, some working social agreement strictly subordinated to definite materialistic purposes’ (Marcel, 1950: 32).

In the pandemic, the university has increasingly become an amalgamation of the functions it performs; it is functioning highly effectively as universitas, identified by the efficiency of its operations. For Marcel, the functionalism of the broken world is bound up with its obsession with ‘technics’, its deferral to the technological to resolve problems. Here again we see a connection with universities’ mode of operation during pandemic times, relying on the salvatory power of technology to facilitate operations. For Marcel, dependency on ‘gadgets’ and technology risks us becoming estranged from an awareness of our inner reality. In this sense, one’s ‘centre’ moves form the internal to the external as one aligns with technologies outside of the self. As Marcel writes:

I should be tempted to say that the centre of gravity of such a man and his balancing point tend to become external to himself: that he projects himself more and more into objects, into the various pieces of apparatus that he depends for his existence’ (1952/2008: 41).

 For Marcel, ‘technics’ cannot resolve the existential questions that are iteratively part of our human condition. Such questions open onto what it means to be universitas, to live together well as a community of masters and scholars. One effect of merely functioning as universitas is the deleterious effect on our relation to others. To illustrate this point, and drawing on his contemporary, Martin Buber’s famous I-It/I-Thou distinction (Buber 1923/2013), Marcel writes: ‘If I treat a ‘Thou’ as a ‘He’, I reduce the other to being only nature; an animated object which works in some ways and not in others’ (Marcel 1949, pp. 106–107). Our being in relation to another as a ‘He’ prioritises attention on the resolution of problems (as opposed to the exploration of mysteries); as Marcel notes: ‘A problem is something which I meet, which I find completely before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce’ (Marcel 1949, p. 117).

Being universitas

Marcel claims that despite our living in what he calls an increasingly ‘collectivized world’, paradoxically, ‘the idea of any real community becomes more and more inconceivable’ (1950: 27). Togetherness, he argues, is losing it meaning such that there is a deleterious effect on our human relationships. In Creative Fidelity (1964/2002), he writes of the relationship between of a lack togetherness (physical or metaphorical) and the way in which we perceive another: ‘When I consider another individual as him, I treat him as essentially absent; it is his absence which allows me to objectify him’ (p. 32). The ‘socialization’ of life in the broken world now consists for Marcel in an individual ‘being treated more and more as an agent, whose behaviour ought to contribute towards the progress of a certain social whole, a something rather distant, rather oppressive, let us say…rather tyrannical’ (1950: 28). Such effects are undoubtedly seen in our institutions, and in the context of higher education, this raises critical questions which go to the heart of what it is to be a university. Does being universitas necessitate our expressing what it means to be a community of masters and scholars in ways that privilege physical presence through forms of togetherness? And is it in our being with one another (in ways that go beyond being present in an online teaching session, meeting, or research seminar) that we articulate something of what it means to be universitas, accomplish more than keeping its functions going, and move beyond relating to others as agents to solve problems?

The importance of physical togetherness to our ideas of what it means to be, and flourish, as humans – and the loss of this during the pandemic because of legislated social and physical distancing – has been profound. There were moving, and deeply troubling accounts of elderly residents in care settings separated from family and caregivers with devastating consequences (Paananen et al., 2021), of the effects on babies’ social and communication skills of being born during the pandemic (Wise, 2022), and the achingly sad stories of COVID patients dying alone in hospital (Hernández-Fernández and Meneses-Falcón, 2021), all of which underscore our need for togetherness. But the specificity of such loss is ineffable; we struggle to articulate what it is exactly that is different when we are not together, often concluding resigning ourselves to merely stating that ‘it is just not the same’. It is at this point that Marcel, with his evocative and rich metaphors for our living together and being in relationship with one another, may help us to begin to express what it is that has been lost (and so, what certain forms of human relationship afford). Central to Marcel’s philosophy (as well as to his dramatic works) is an idea of the self as being receptive to others, and a commitment to participation that is rooted in ideas of encountering others, and of being encountered ourselves.

  1. Marcel: Availability, Communion, and Presence

As with his contemporary, Martin Buber, Marcel emphasies two general ways in which we conduct ourselves in relation to others: disponibilité and indisponibilité (generally translated as ‘availability’ and ’unavailability’).[6] To be available is not a temporal issue – of making time in one’s schedule to, say, to see students who call by the office. It is rather understood in a richer sense: as a general state of, and commitment, to making one’s material, spiritual, emotional and intellectual resources available to others that is marked by love, hope, and fidelity. The communion we experience with others through availability limits the objectification of beings. However, to be unavailable, claims Marcel, is to cut oneself off from the possibility of communion with others – to be alienated. It is to see others in purely functional terms (as with the subway token operator) rather than qua beings to be encountered. Such a lack of communion positions the other as ‘He’ rather than as ‘Thou’. Marcel uses the image of a circle around ourselves into which we place the other as ‘He’, in order to illustrate the problem of the ‘fragmented’ or ‘parceled out’ other (1964/2002: 72). This stands in opposition to his ideas of porosity or permeability, in which we are radically hospitable the other as ‘Thou’; he writes: ‘If we devote our attention to the act of hospitality, we will see at once that to receive is not to fill up a void with an alien presence, but to make the other person participate in a certain plenitude’ (ibid.: 28). Being available does not insist on its own rights, and our availability risks being rebuffed by the other who remains unavailable. Marcel anticipates reciprocity in the intersubjective relationship, without this being demanded. ‘What is relevant’ he writes, ‘is the act by which I expose myself to the other person instead of protecting myself from him, which makes him penetrable for me at the same time as I become penetrable for him’. It is such moments of porosity and of mutual encounter that Marcel claims we are avec – or with – another. This should not be understood merely in either temporal or prepositional terms; rather, avec denotes a relationship of genuine communion and co-esse. The Marcellian concepts of communion and availability coalesce in the idea of presence. Yet again, we do not understand the richness of this notion in everyday ideas of ‘here-ness’. Rather, availability and communion allow us to participate fully in the being of another, and so to be present to them as ‘Thou’. Conversely, when we comport ourselves towards another as a ‘Him’, we ourselves are closed off to the presence that the other offers to us. Maintaining presence to another over time requires a fidelity that is creative in order to meet the demands of such presence.

  1. Presence and Being Present

The concept of presence is ineluctably tied to Marcel’s understanding of the way in which we relate to others. However, this usage implies something richer than mere physical, bodily presence. Marcel writes: ‘Of course presence is not to be construed here as externally manifesting oneself to the other, but rather as involving a quality which cannot be so easily described in objective terms, of making me feel that he is with me’ (1962/2002: 154). Marcellian intersubjective relationships are marked an encounter which demands the understanding of the other at a level that goes beyond the acknowledgement of the physical presence of the other. The significant component of such relationships can be understood through the lens of the way that Marcel claims that we relate to music. As Murchland states:

If music is the most perfect medium to reveal man to himself in unique plenitude and liberty it is because, Marcel believes, it      touches that point of breakthrough where man communes with the "essence" of others, when he is interiorly united with all those who participate in the enigmatic human adventure (1959: 344).

In more practical terms, these moments of shared understanding can occur in a variety of ways. It is not that our intersubjective relationships need to be characterised by passionate speeches, showy displays of emotion, or even explicit discussion of our inward lives, but rather that they can be realised in many seemingly insignificant moments such as when we use a tone of voice, or issue a slight smile that might accompany a phrase we use; all these exemplify our co-esse (Marcel, 1950). However, Marcel recognises that our being together physically is not enough to experience this kind of encounter; we can, for example, be on a bus, or at a party, and experience intense isolation despite our physical proximity to others. He writes ‘However, there is a presence which is yet a mode of absence’ (1962/2002: 33).

Yet there is something profoundly foundational to human condition about togetherness that is bound up with the physical. It is of note that, despite Marcel emphasising that one can be both physically present - but absent, many of the examples he gives of ‘presence’ rely on some form of physical interaction, and this is especially tangible in his dramatic works.[7] The significance of this is seen in Marcel’s claim that ‘To encounter someone is not merely to cross his path, but to be, for the moment at least, near to or with him…it means a co-presence’ (authors’ emphasis).

Marcel’s ideas have profound implications not only for our personal intersubjective relationships, but also for those that we forge and sustain in our institutions. In the context of the university, a criticism could be levelled along the lines that our argument might suggest that those institutions which operate predominantly online, are only functioning as universitas, and that to be universitas, there need to be forms of physical presence that then open up the possibilities for presence, communion, and expressions of availability. Let us address this issue directly using the examples of the Open University and Arden University in Britain, and Athabasca University in Canada, all of which market themselves primarily as online or distance learning providers of higher education. We are not saying that these universities are incapable of forming meaningful academic communities, not that these institutions represent a deficit model of higher education. Indeed, Marcel is at pains to point out that a loved one who is many thousands of miles distant to us, may be ‘closer’ to us than somebody who is in our immediate vicinity. It is rather that there are specific and noteworthy difficulties – such as belonging, identity and community cohesion ­– that such institutions do encounter, and which has been brought into sharp focus with the shift to online learning during the pandemic (Banas and Warltalski, 2109, Shea et al., 2019). It is telling that these kind of universities will often emphasise the limited physical components of their courses whilst valorising the affordances of online and distance learning.[8]


From Functioning as a University to Being Universitas

At the outset of this paper we highlighted a certain resistance to return to campus following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, with common claims made that the work (of the administrator, the academic) could be undertaken effectively without the need for a physical campus presence.[9] We still maintain that there is something important about physical presence – as opposed to being ‘present’ in online spaces ­– which is given fuller expression in Marcel’s philosophical oeuvre. This is not to say, however, that there have not been important lessons learned from the pandemic in terms of the potential benefits of remote working and the use of online platforms for teaching, learning and the core functions of the university (Barrero et al, 2021; Chung, et al, 2020). In these concluding sections, we outline the ways in which Marcel’s understanding of the self and the Other might be brought to bear on thinking about interpersonal relationships and being present in the university.

Often thought of as a Christian existentialist (despite being a term from which he distanced himself) much of Marcel’s thought is grounded in a Christian worldview. As such, he draws upon religious institutions and imagery when presenting a number of his ideas. An interesting parallel might be drawn between Marcel’s perceptions of the Church, and a modern understanding of the institution of the university. Both are organisations that strive for ideals that transcend those of any individuals within them. There is something of the place of mystery, and the mystical for both.[10] There is another line of connection here: the university can be a place for individual study just as the church can be the location for personal devotion - of prayer or worship. However, when the academic community, or the community of believers, come together (physically), they in Marcel’s words, ‘do not swarm together mechanically, but do form a whole that transcends them’ (1949: 189-190). What this demonstrates is that it is not merely the fact of physically being together (of swarming mechanically) that is central, but rather it is a continuous observance in which ‘the subject finds himself in the presence of something entirely beyond his grasp’ (Marcel 1973: 193). Put another way, it allows us to participate in each other’s plenitude. By focussing attention on a goal that exists beyond oneself, one’s ‘centre’ is shifted. When working remotely, often alone, it is easy to become self-absorbed, and to lose track of the lived realities and complexities of one’s colleagues. It is in our being together that we often are exposed to a change of orientation away from ourselves, and towards another: ‘This change revolves upon the centre of an experiencing self; or, to speak more exactly, let us say that the progress of…[our] thought gradually substitutes one centre for another’ (Marcel 1950: 48). This form of de-centring is essentially collaborative, as, by shifting one’s perspectives to align with another, one can more readily engage the lived reality of the other in a way that includes, and goes beyond, the functional operations of the University. This is what makes tangible the reality of university mission statements that vaunt ideas of community and shared values. Such decentring is the obligation that we owe to the community if we think of ourselves as a community.[11]

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a significant growth in the publication of scholarship across all disciplines, given that its effects continue to have global reach and interdisciplinary implications. Higher education has not been exempt, and significant new discourses have emerged around the function of a university that consider the operational, managerial, pedagogical and social imperatives of such institutions for pandemic times and beyond. While these have had impact in enabling the continued function in a practical sense, there is a risk that within these discourses, we lose sight of more foundational questions pertaining to the very nature of the university, as well as the relationships that constitute it (in the sense of being universitas). We find that Marcel’s work, while not known for its explicit concern with education, is nevertheless profoundly educative. His analysis of how we might be available to each other, and encounter others in a relationship of presence and communion, speak to what is central to the idea of being in community as universitas. This rich articulation of the interpersonal goes far beyond the (often contractual or transactional) ways in which we tend increasingly to talk of how best to relate to colleagues and students in the university. We read Marcel’s work as having a bearing on what the university could be, how we live well together in it, and for providing a framework of language that gives expression to qualities and experiences of what it means to be universitas in ways that transcend the overriding contemporary concern with function.

This is an account of hope for the possibilities of universitas. Marcel’s work offers not only a language for critiquing the emphasis on function which has come to dominate the work of universities, and also the relationships within them, but also the most practical of examples for how we might re-imagine our being in relationship to colleagues, students and partners. Marcellian philosophy is, at its heart, a philosophy of participation. While physical presence to another is not something that Marcel insists upon in thinking about what it means to participate in the life of another, his dramatic works in particular show how it is in being bodily present – when we encounter another face to face – that we come to experience the other as fully human; that we experience the human full-blown. This is explored through the idea of plenitude. When we encounter the other in her bodily presence to us, we experience her in plenitude. This then opens up the possibilities for our giving of ourselves to another from our plenitude.

While it has been difficult to express in concrete terms what is lost when we are not physically together (and this has very much been the case during the pandemic), it is important to recognise, and begin to articulate, some of the specific ways in which the interactions differ, and what is at stake in our bodily presence to each other in the university. In doing this, we reveal something meaningful about what it is to be universitas. When we are bodily present to each other in the lecture hall, the meeting room, the seminar, corridor or cafeteria, the complexity of the personhood of the other is brought more sharply into focus. We see this illustrated clearly in dialogue from the opening scene of Marcel’s (1952) play, ‘The Funeral Pyre’ (La Chapelle Ardente). Here, two of the characters navigate the understanding of their own relationship. Aline is imploring her would have been daughter-in-law[12], Mireille, to call her ‘Mother’. It is from a place of being together physically that they have to then find a way to overcome the complexities of their situation, and to resolve what seems like a very basic problem of what to call each other. In the context of higher education, online spaces (for teaching, committees, meetings etc) tend to focus attention on the problem or the task at hand; Marcel might describe this as the foregrounding of the problem. But it is when we are physically in each other’s presence that we are sensitive to the complexities of the personhood of others. It is not that this is impossible when we are working from disparate locations, but rather that our bodily presence to each other opens us up to the mystery of (others’) being:

It can happen, however, that the bond of feeling is created between me and the other person if, for example, I discover an experience we have both shared (we have both been to a certain place, have run the same risks, have criticized certain individual, or read and loved the same book); hence a unity is established in which the other person and myself become we, and this means that he ceases to be him becomes thou… The path leading from dialectic to love has now been opened (1965/2002: 33).

In another example, if we imagine a group of friends meeting in the pub or going to a football match, there is clearly something different about the very fact of their bodily togetherness around a shared pursuit that elevates the experience. Of course, one can drink alone at home, or watch the match by oneself from one’s living room, but in doing so, one misses the opportunity to participate in the emotional experiences of others doing the same (of involvement with their joy, pain etc). This participation, by virtue of the fact of physical togetherness, opens possibilities for the kind of communion and presence of which Marcel writes. To see this in the context of higher education, we argue that, because of our shared embodiment, we are better able to embrace the shared vision that being universitas imagines. This is because we see the other – in Buberian terms – as a ‘Thou’ who exists in a relation of mystery to us, rather than as merely a functionary to solve whatever immediate problem lies before us. In moving beyond a narrow understanding of the other as a functional ‘It’, physical presence to each other makes us indubitably aware of the fullness of the other as ‘Thou’. The other exists, in this moment, beyond just the scenario in which we encounter them, and opens possibilities for us to experience them in plenitude. Our experience of the other’s plenitude, however, is dependent on a generosity that is seen in the idea of the porosity of the self (in terms of a giving to, and a receiving from, the other).

Our hospitality to the other, then (in terms of an openness in relation to all our extant physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual resources) is the practical outworking of Marcel’s ideas of availability, communion, presence and plenitude:

If we devote our attention to the act of hospitality, we will see at one that to receive is not to fill up a void with an alien presence, but to make the other person participate in a certain plenitude (1965/2002: 28).


Banas, J, and Wartalski, R., (2019), ‘Designing for Community in Online Learning Settings’, Library Technology Reports, 55(4), pp. 8 – 13.

Barrero, J.M., Bloom, N, and Davis, S.J., (2021), Why Working From Home Will Stick, Working Paper 2020-174, Chicago: University of Chicago.

Buber, M., (1923/2013), I and Thou, London: Bloomsbury.

Chung, H., Seo, H., Forbes, S., and Birkett, H., (2020), Working from Home During the Covid-19 Lockdown: Changing Preferences and the Future of Work, Canterbury: University of Kent.

Donlon, E., (2021), ‘Lost and Found: The Academic Conference in Pandemic and Post-pandemic Times’, Irish Educational Studies 40(2), pp. 367-373.

Esposito, R., (2010), Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community, translated by Timothy Campbell, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Fung, J.T.C., Zhang, W., Yeung, M.N., Pang, M.T.H., Lam, V.S.F., Chan, B.K.Y., & Wong, J.Y., (2021) ‘Evaluation of Students' Perceived Clinical Competence and Learning Needs following an Online Virtual Simulation Education Programme with Debriefing During the COVID-19 Pandemic’, Nursing Open 8(6), pp. 3045-3054.

Gavin, J.T., Nguyen, A.G., Plasek, E.E., Stathopoulos, S.M., Bühlmann, P., Tonks, I.A., & Roberts, C.C., (2020),’ Rethinking Graduate Recruitment Weekends in the Digital Age’, Journal of Chemical Education 97(9), pp. 2544-2555.

Gourlay, L., (2020), ‘Quarantined, Sequestered, Closed: Theorising Academic Bodies Under Covid-19 Lockdown’. Postdigital Science and Education 2, pp. 791-811.

Heald, J.E., (1975), ‘Universitas Magistrorum et Scholarium’, Phi Kappa Phi 55(2): 9.

Hernández-Fernández C., and Meneses-Falcón C., (2021), ‘Nobody Should Die Alone. Loneliness and a Dignified Death During the COVID-19 Pandemic. OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying (0)0: 1-20 doi:10.1177/00302228211048316.

la Velle, L., Newman, S., Montgomery, C., & Hyatt, D., (2020), ‘Initial Teacher Education in England and the Covid-19 Pandemic: Challenges and Opportunities’, Journal of Education for Teaching, 46:4, 596 - 608.

Marcel, G., (1948/1995), The Philosophy of Existentialism, translated by Manya Harari, New York: Citadel.

Marcel, G., (1949), Being and Having, translated by Katharine Farrer, Westminster, UK: Dacre Press.

Marcel, G., (1950), The Mystery of Being Volume 1: Reflection and Mystery, translated by G.S. Fraser, London: Harvill Press.

Marcel, G., (1952/2008), Man Against Mass Society, translated by G.S. Fraser, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press.

Marcel, G., (1965/2002), Creative Fidelity, translated by Robert Rosthal, New York: Fordham University Press.

Marcel, G., (1973), Tragic Wisdom and Beyond, translated by Stephen Jolin and Peter McCormick, edited by John Wild, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Mckie, A., (2021), Survey: Most university staff feel unsafe returning to campus, Times Higher Education, [online] available at: <https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/survey-most-university-staff-feel-unsafe-returning-campus>

Murchland, B., (1959), ‘The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel’, The Review of Politics , 21(2), pp. 339-356.

Naylor, D. and Nyanjom, J., (2021), ‘Educators’ Emotions Involved in the Transition to Online Teaching in Higher Education’, Higher Education Research & Development, 40(6), pp. 1236-1250. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1811645.

Paananen, J., Rannikko, J., Harju, M., and Pirhonen,J., (2021), ‘The impact of Covid-19-related Distancing on the Well-being of Nursing Home  Residents and their Family Members: A Qualitative Study’, International Journal of Nursing Studies Advances, Volume 3, 100031.

Rees, E. D., Irina, Soto L.G., Tregoning, J., Wickenden, A., and Peckham, R., (2021). ‘Are you ready for the return to in-person teaching?, Times Higher Education, [online], available at: <https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/are-you-ready-return-person-teaching>

Rüegg, W., (1992), ‘Foreword: The University as a European Institution’, in Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, Ed., A History of the University in Europe. Volume 1 Universities in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. xix-xxviii.

Schwinges, R.C., (1992), ‘Origins and Social Structure’, in Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, Ed., A History of the University in Europe. Volume 1 Universities in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-210.

Shea, P., Sau Li, C, and Swan, K, and Pickett, A, (2019), ‘Developing Learning Community in Online Asynchronous College Courses: The Role of Teaching Presence’, Online Learning, 9(4).

UCL – University College London, (2021), Future of Work Survey: What we Learnt From Your Responses. [online], available at:                <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/human-resources/news/2021/may/future-work-survey-what-we-learnt-your-responses>

Verger, J., (1992), ‘The University Community: Independence and Influence’, in Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, Ed., A History of the University in Europe. Volume 1 Universities in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, pp. 37-40.

Wise J., (2022), ‘Covid-19: Babies Born During the Pandemic Show Slight Development Delays’, BMJ 2022; 376 :o29 doi:10.1136/bmj.o29.


[1] Heald points to a much longer history to the idea of the University, suggesting origins with Aristotle's founding of the Athenian school in 335 BC, and in the establishment in Nalanda in north-eastern India during the 4th and fi5thfth century BC of eight colleges and three libraries attracting students from throughout the Asian world.


This is shown in an example from Leeds Trinity University, an institution linking its vision to its roots in a Catholic foundation: ‘Focused on the innate dignity and value of each person, we seek to provide our students with a distinctively supportive academic and professional community’. See www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/about/mission-vision-values/


The University of Edinburgh’s Community Plan captures this kind of community engagement when it states: ‘Our commitment to working in partnership with communities at home and abroad to build programmes of research and education underscores the co-creation ethos of community plan’. See efi.ed.ac.uk/universitys-new-community-plan-puts-efi-at-the-heart-of-civic-commitment/

[5] This has happened unevenly, and while some institutions have returned to full face-to-face teaching and meetings, others have adopted a hybrid approach, or are still restricting access to campus for other than the most essential of functions.

[6] These terms are also sometimes translated as ‘disposability’/’indisposability’ or even ‘handiness’/’unhandiness’).

[7] In Marcel’s plays, the physical presence of certain characters affects the ways that others behave. In his (1952) The Funeral Pyre (La Chapelle Ardente), the father of the family, Octave, is made so uncomfortable by the presence of his wife that he is unable to express himself authentically. Similarly, Octave’s wife, Aline, find his presence an overwhelming and unbearable reminder of the loss of their son. In Marcellian terms, they remain radically unavailable to each other, despite their physical proximity in the same room.


For example, Arden University provide 6 UK study centers where students meet face-to-face. Athabasca University have 4 pedagogical approaches, one of which is described as ‘delivery mode in which the course takes place in a physical classroom setting. Contact with the instructor is face to face’ (see: www.athabascau.ca/calendar/undergraduate/general-information/glossary.html, and the Open University offer face-to-face tutorials, field trip and even residential schools depending on the programme of study.

[9] See also the Future of Work Survey conducted by University College, London. [online], available at:

< www.ucl.ac.uk/human-resources/news/2021/may/future-work-survey-what-we-learnt-your-responses&gt;

[10] This speaks to Marcel’s distinction between a problem and a mystery, where the former is merely to be solved, and the latter, to be experienced. In the case of both the Church and our idealised form of the university, the ultimate goal is a mystery in the sense that is cannot be concretely achieved, but rather constitutes an ongoing perfectionist struggle. In the case of the Church, this is to move closer to the divine; for the university, this is to be educated, and to push the bounds of human understanding.

[11] Robert Esposito highlights the etymological roots of ‘community’ not primarily in terms of a togetherness, but in terms of obligation or debt (cf. the roots of ‘community’ in the Latin ‘munus – debt or obligation, See Esposito, 2010).

[12] Mireille would have been Aline and Octave’s daughter-in-law had her fiancé, Raymond, survived the war. However, he was killed in action. See Act 1, scene 1.

Amy Shuffelton: Clocked by the Pandemic! On Gender and Time in Rousseau’s Émile


Pandemic disruptions to schooling threw into sharper relief the entanglements of economy, gender norms, and education that had been there, and throughout the modern world, all along.  The particular entanglement this paper aims to unravel is the reliance of education on a certain kind of attentiveness, historically provided by a feminized teaching force and mothers, that itself rests on the cultivation of particular sensibilities regarding time.

                     By “all along,” I mean roughly since the establishment of modern economies and school-systems, which go hand-in-hand.  Much adult labor moved out of the home with industrialization, while children and much of their educations moved out with compulsory schooling.  Pandemic lockdowns threw some workers and students back into an earlier arrangement of time and space, in which home was the fulltime site of labor and education, while requiring others to spend their days in the semi-functional, newly dangerous, and erratically open communal spaces of “essential” workplaces and schools.  The breakdown of modernity’s spatial and temporal organization of education and schooling -- familiar I suspect to all attending INPE 2022 -- makes this an opportune moment to consider how the modern organization of teaching and learning looked from its other side, i.e. from the 18th century, an era when it was being invented and put into place. 

This paper returns to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, specifically to its depiction of Sophie’s time.  Sophie’s time merits our attention for two major reasons.  First, Rousseau is an exceptionally perceptive commentator on the experiential qualities of human lives, including our experiences of time. As such, his account of what children require from adult’s time is unusually sensitive and still relevant to educators.  Rousseau’s insights into what Sophie’s experiences of time and space need to be like during her girlhood in order for her to attend to her future children as their first educator remain pertinent to any post-pandemic reorganization of children’s, and therefore teachers’ and parents’, time and workplaces. Second, in providing an account of Sophie’s time that is in many ways the opposite of Émile’s, Rousseau’s text calls for a critical feminist reading that shines light on how the gendered prescriptions he provided for girls’ and women’s time cannot but prove harmful to women – in ways the pandemic makes freshly visible. Analysis of Sophie’s time in Émile, that is, points to what post-pandemic education needs to recognize and value and what demands change.

Introduction: Education, Economics, and Women’s Time

“Other countries have social safety nets.  The U.S. has women.”[1]  Economist Betsey Stevenson quoted these words from sociologist Jessica Calarco in her September, 2021 analysis “Women, Work and Families: Recovering from the Pandemic Induced Recession,” and they capture Stevenson’s conclusions.[2]  Women in the United States, Stevenson shows, were hit hard by the pandemic recession in large part because of their longstanding association with care-giving – including, crucially, as teachers and as the caretakers of young children.  By December 2019, women had, for the first time in US history, become the majority of the paid labor force.[3]  Spurring this shift was women’s predominance in the economy’s fast growing service sector, especially those jobs in the service sector that require face-to-face interaction with others, the sector hardest hit by pandemic shut-downs.  Although many of those jobs, and the women who filled them, returned later in 2020 and in 2021, many women remained burdened with extra responsibilities due to the ongoing unreliability of childcare, in-person schooling, and eldercare.  Their time, already a resource allocated for maximum efficiency, had to stretch even further.  Women responded in different ways: some left the workforce entirely to provide some version of schooling at home, while others juggled children’s care with part-time or full-time jobs.  The economic impact on these women is likely to linger, with women’s time out of the workforce and/or inability to offer the kind of 24/7 commitment that workplaces demand taking them out of the pool for promotions and ultimately diminishing their retirement benefits.  In short, women who had to cut back on work to care for children at home during the pandemic are likely to be left worse-off economically by the pandemic for the rest of their lives.  There was (and still is) no safety net for them, in part because they were, via their via their (frequently underpaid) jobs in childcare, education and health care, as well as their unpaid labor at home, the safety net for one another and everyone else.  

                     By “for them,” I mean “for us,” as I count myself among US women with a career in education and children who spent months at home, experiencing nearly every possible variation of pandemic-era schooling.  Having previously written about public schools’ reliance on mothers’ unpaid time and labor, I felt a mix of smug “told you so” vindication and deep frustration as news media trumpeted that the economy couldn’t function without reliable in-person schooling.  But any hopes I had that what wasn’t actually news at all might, finally, be an impetus for political progress were dampened by polarized public discourse that pitted women against each other by race, by job-status, and by region.  Reopening US schools was politicized early in the pandemic, when then-President Trump insisted schools could safely reopen well before that was the case.  In response, the American left quickly swung to the position that it was insensitive to the welfare of children, teachers, and society at large to make any argument that children were better off in-school than learning at home -- or, more accurately, learning in whatever places they could get an internet connection, which famously included Taco Bell parking lots.[4] The disparate needs of various groups of Americans, groups that overlap to produce a myriad of conflicting vulnerabilities vis a vis reopening schools – the poor, the unemployed, children, working mothers, the elderly, Black and Brown Americans, small-business owners, and teachers – were run together into simplified narratives, as if in a desperate hope that one answer could meet all of their incommensurable needs at once.  While these narratives battled it out in the media, social and otherwise, children themselves trudged to joyless days of masked separation in schools or dangerous days of unmasked feigned normalcy.  Or they stayed home for frantic days of trying to get someone’s attention for help with online schooling or lonely days of sheer drudgery in their bedrooms.  There was no social safety net for them, either.  Only women.[5] 

                     The US is something of an outlier among peer nations in its commitment to privatized caretaking, electing to rely on the exploitation of (mostly) women who either forego employment opportunities or in turn rely on exploitatively underpaid care-workers (often Black, Latina, and/or immigrant women) in lieu of putting into place publicly subsidized parental leave, childcare, early childhood education, and eldercare.  During the pandemic, it was occasionally remarked that mothers were the US’s Plan B.  In fact they were, and always had been, Plan A.  But although the US marks an extreme, and includes within its domestic economy mutually distant antipodes of wealth and poverty, its dependence on women’s time as an exploitable resource is hardly unique.  Pandemic disruptions to schooling threw into sharper relief the entanglements of economy, gender norms, and education that had been there, and throughout the modern world, all along.  The particular entanglement this paper aims to unravel is the reliance of education on a certain kind of attentiveness, historically provided by a feminized teaching force and mothers, that itself rests on the cultivation of particular sensibilities regarding time.

                     By “all along,” I mean roughly since the establishment of modern economies and school-systems, which go hand-in-hand.  Much adult labor moved out of the home with industrialization, while children and much of their educations moved out with compulsory schooling.  Pandemic lockdowns threw some workers and students back into an earlier arrangement of time and space, in which home was the fulltime site of labor and education, while requiring others to spend their days in the semi-functional, newly dangerous, and erratically open communal spaces of “essential” workplaces and schools.  The breakdown of modernity’s spatial and temporal organization of education and schooling -- familiar I suspect to all attending INPE 2022 -- makes this an opportune moment to consider how the modern organization of teaching and learning looked from its other side, i.e. from the 18th century, an era when it was being invented and put into place.[6] 

This paper returns to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, specifically to its depiction of Sophie’s time.  Sophie’s time merits our attention for two major reasons.  First, Rousseau is an exceptionally perceptive commentator on the experiential qualities of human lives, including our experiences of time. As such, his account of what children require from adult’s time is unusually sensitive and still relevant to educators.  Rousseau’s insights into what Sophie’s experiences of time and space need to be like during her girlhood in order for her to attend to her future children as their first educator remain pertinent to any post-pandemic reorganization of children’s, and therefore teachers’ and parents’, time and workplaces. Second, in providing an account of Sophie’s time that is in many ways the opposite of Émile’s, Rousseau’s text calls for a critical feminist reading that shines light on how the gendered prescriptions he provided for girls’ and women’s time cannot but prove harmful to women – in ways the pandemic makes freshly visible. Analysis of Sophie’s time in Émile, that is, points to what post-pandemic education needs to recognize and value and what demands change.

Sophie’s Girlhood Time

In a century that glorified work, that exalted the labors of Hercules, and that scolded laziness and loafing, Rousseau was sometimes a perpetuator of the enthusiasm for productivity and other times, especially in his later writing, a contrarian defender of idleness.  “Idleness is one of the contradictory figures that weave through Rousseau’s works,” writes Pierre Saint-Amand in The Pursuit of Laziness, his exploration of eighteenth-century discourses of indolence that counter the prevailing celebration of productive activity.  Saint-Amand’s chapter on Rousseau mentions Émile once, noting a passage that ties labor to citizenship, before turning to Reveries of a Solitary Walker, which offers a rich picture of the kind of counter-normative time-use that Rousseau’s “most useful rule” and its exposition suggests in Books II and III, as does his account of Émile’s meandering progress toward Sophie in Book V.[7]  Émile, however, presents two depictions of idleness, contradictory and starkly gendered, with one prescription for Émile’s pre-adolescent childhood, another for Sophie’s.  In his Book V depiction of appropriately feminized idleness and action, Rousseau portrays the ideal woman as engaged constantly in what later scholars would call “invisible” and “emotional” labor, even as her physical movements are limited and her access to physical space constrained.  To produce a woman capable of such labor, Sophie’s childhood is the converse of Émile’s.  Her soul is exercised in preparation for a lifetime of self-imposed physical confinement, while his “soul” is kept “idle for as long as possible” even as his body is allowed to wander, at leisure, farther and farther afield.  This section explores the directive to prevent idleness in girls, the better to prepare them for constant “vigilance” as adult wives and mothers.

                     “Idleness,” says Rousseau, is one of the two “most dangerous defects” for young girls.  “Always justify the cares you impose on young girls,” he recommends, “but always impose cares on them.”

Girls ought to be vigilant and industrious.  That is not all.  They ought to be constrained very early.  This misfortune, if it is one for them, is inseparable from their sex, and they are never delivered from it without suffering far more cruel misfortunes.  All their lives they will be enslaved to the most continual and most severe of constraints – that of the proprieties.  They must first be exercised in constraint, so that it never costs them anything to tame their caprices in order to submit them to the wills of others.  If they always wanted to work, one would sometimes have to force them to do nothing.[8]

This justification of imposing constant cares links female idleness to the second of the “most dangerous defects”: disobedience, or in French indocilité, which better than the English denotes Sophie’s requisite passivity and softness.  Yet Sophie’s industry is an “exercise” in constraint, which gives her a paradoxical kind of strength, a strength that she turns upon herself in order to render herself constantly docile.  Her exercise keeps her soft; her incessant labor preserves her passivity.  In contrast to Émile’s, her soul must never be kept – or even allowed to fall -- idle. The chores Sophie performs are not themselves the point – if she wanted to work, she would be required not to – as her labors are primarily internal.  Sophie’s work builds her strength to enslave herself.

                     “Emotional labor” is a term that has recently gained popular currency, but sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who originally coined it in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, gives the phrase a slightly different meaning than its common use.  Used frequently to denote the labor of tending to others’ emotions, the term was initially defined by Hochschild as the labor one needs to perform on oneself in order to attend to others’ emotions.  Work that requires emotional labor, in Hochschild’s account, “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.”[9] That induction and suppression of feeling is, itself, labor.  The Managed Heart is based on a study of flight attendants, for whom a condition of paid employment is that they suppress their own feelings of fatigue, annoyance, and frustration in order to present the airline’s customers with smiles that can pass as genuine.  The easiest way to produce a genuine smile, Hochschild learns through interviews with flight attendants and their managers, is to induce the emotions that cause one to smile.  Thus, positive feelings in the other person are the ultimate – and marketable -- product, but the labor involved is exercised upon the self.  Hochschild’s original definition is worth returning to, even as the term’s denotation has shifted through common use, because it points to the hazards of such labor.  Emotional labor, Hochschild argues, comes with a possible cost comparable to the costs of physical labor: “the worker can become estranged or alienated from an aspect of self -- either the body or the margins of the soul -- that is used to do the work.”[10] 

                     Sophie’s alienation from body and soul begins in girlhood, although at a very early age Sophie is not to be denied “a moment of freedom to play, jump, run, shout, or indulge in the petulance natural to her age.”[11]  Like the girls Rousseau imagines to have lived in Sparta, she is to develop a “good constitution in youth by means of agreeable, moderate, and salutary exercises.”[12]  This is necessary, Rousseau adds, not for her sake but for the sake of her male children.  “Women ought not to be robust like men, but they should be robust for men, so that the men born from them will be robust too.”[13]  Over time, she is to confine herself increasingly to the home. In contrast to the conventional French confinement of girls in convents during their girlhood followed by physical liberty in the social realm as adult women, girls are to follow “the way of life that nature and reason prescribe for the fair sex” and enjoy public games and dances as girls, but, as soon as they are married, be “[s]hut up in their houses.”[14]  Concerned to present this radical confinement as promoting Sophie’s happiness, Rousseau bases the two contrasting aims of the “cultivation” of boys’ and girls’ bodies in their natural inclinations.  “For man this aim is the development of strength; for woman it is the development of attractiveness.”[15] 

Time is enlisted into Sophie’s self-objectification, as it flows most quickly for her when she engages in the work that prepares her to be a plaything.  Her cultivation of her body as an object that appeals to others – a body she must willingly shut up -- will cost Sophie little, Rousseau predicts, because “[l]ittle girls love adornment almost from birth.”[16]  In the years that correlate to Émile’s pre-adolescent childhood (though Sophie’s childhood years are not divided into stages as distinct as Émile’s), her supposedly natural taste for “adornment” expresses itself as an interest in the “special entertainment of this sex”: dolls.[17]   “Spending the day around her doll, constantly changing its clothes, dressing and undressing it hundreds and hundreds of times, continuously seeking new combinations of ornaments,” Sophie’s time is allowed to meander according to her fancy. When a girl plays with dolls, says Rousseau, “time flows without her thinking of it; the hours pass and she knows nothing of it.”[18]  Sophie’s liberation from the clock, however, comes with the unsettling aspect of involving her self-enslavement to social convention.  She plays with her doll the better to learn to make herself attractive, the better to make herself an object of desire, the better to win a husband who will provide her with the home in which she can confine herself.  Her play involves the suppression of her most basic physical needs.  Playing with her doll, Sophie forgets meals. “She is hungrier for adornment than for food.”[19]  Her limited appetite will, in the long run, accord with her physical idleness: “Her sex, which is less laborious than ours, has less need of restoratives.”[20] A quintessential example of, as Saint-Amand’s puts it, the discursive production of Foucauldian “bodies chained by techno-production, controlled by the institutions of confinement,” Rousseau’s description of Sophie presents her as laboring with little more need of nourishment than a machine.  Even in her play she is at work producing a docile female self.  Perhaps the most chilling line in the entire account of Sophie is the line that wraps up her doll-play: “She awaits the moment when she will be her own doll.”[21]  Her girlhood is a waiting room in which the process of self-alienation plays itself out.  Sophie, never idle yet always waiting, is like an “idling” machine. 

The time Sophie spends playing with dolls in childhood prepares her well for the “labors of her own sex,” listed in one of the only paragraphs that, rather than depicting her development of erotic charms or delineating her nascent virtues and vices, actually describes what Sophie does all day. [22]  Sophie’s labors include “cutting and sewing her dresses,” “lacework,” and learning “all the details of the household,” such as preparing herself to price and assess the quality of food and to keep accounts.[23]  Servant rather than slave in this domain, she “serves her mother as butler.”  As with other aspects of her subjugation, this servitude entails its reversal; “she learns to govern her own household by governing her parents.”  Her mother has this reason for “keeping her busy”: “One can never command well except when one knows how to do the job oneself.”[24]  In the household as in her erotic relations, Sophie learns how to be a servant so that she can rule.  

Sophie’s prescribed girlhood combination of emotional labor and industrious housework, in its contradistinction from Émile’s childhood idleness of soul and outdoor meanders, shows the mandated uses of childhood time to be one of those crucial “differences” between woman and man that are “connected with sex.”  The opening of Book V promised to show the reader willing to accept Rousseau’s creation of illusions how to know Sophie in order to find her.  Attention to the differences in girlhood time brings the reader a step closer.  For readers eager to assess the appeal of this game, Hochschild’s questions linger.  What are the effects on Sophie of her ceaseless emotional labor?  Rousseau’s argument is that through her subjugation, Sophie/woman attains power.  She is vanquisher and vanquished, slaver and enslaved.  In keeping with the notion inherited from antiquity that slavery was a status imposed by victors on the vanquished, Rousseau’s portrayal of Sophie’s time and labor entails Sophie’s development of a self that is not integrated but radically split.

Sophie’s role as vanquisher/vanquished doubles again as she enslaves both herself and Émile, attaining power over him through the force of her charms.  In Rousseau’s dialectical account of seduction, women yield to men’s superior power – to their physical force and their moral aspect of activity – yet wield power as well, inexorably drawing men to them through their attractive passivity.[25]  The significance of child-bearing and child-raising to this dialectic of seduction is crucial.  In Rousseau’s account “Women possess their empire not because men wanted it that way but because nature wants it that way.”[26] Because she will bear children, Rousseau explains, unlike the male who is “male only at certain moments . . . [t]he female is female her whole life or at least during her whole youth.”[27]  She needs a “constitution which corresponds to” her sex because she will need care when pregnant, a “soft and sedentary life” while nursing her children, and patience while raising them.  Her moral, even more than her physical, “constitution” will tie a father to his children, creating the emotional bonds that are the only means of ensuring the survival of the human race.[28]  (Les Solitaires, the unfinished sequel in which Émile leaves Sophie because she becomes pregnant with another man’s child, is the reversal that proves the case.)  The tug of her future as a mother renders Sophie’s childhood time unlike Émile’s in this respect: Émile’s self-possession is in part a matter of his complete orientation within the present, whereas her potential children make Sophie’s present always a matter of their co-presence and her future.  For Émile, Rousseau foreswore “foresight” as “the true source of all our miseries.” It “takes us ceaselessly beyond ourselves” and is therefore a kind of “madness.” In contrast, Sophie’s self “during her whole youth” is always a matter of her future motherhood – mad though it may (and, in Les Solitaires, does) drive her.

Sophie’s Maternal Vigil

                     Is this internal split a detrimental state foisted on Sophie by patriarchal domination, or an aspect of Sophie that indicates Rousseau’s recognition of important tensions in his ideals?  Arguably, both.  In “Reconsidering the Role of Sophie,” Denise Schaeffer argues that Sophie’s internal divisions, and the divisions within the family that her relationship with Émile represents, indicate Rousseau’s recognition of a “precarious instability – and the mobilization of that instability – that Rousseau sees as essential to our interdependence.”  Among passages cited in support of her argument, Schaeffer notes Rousseau’s textual generation of Sophie, where he acknowledges that she is not an ideal. Émile was generated as an “imaginary pupil”; Sophie’s existence is more ambiguous. Just after Sophie’s parents deliver a speech telling her it is time to marry, Rousseau inserts a question about her real or fictional status, for the sake of convincing

people to whom everything great appears chimerical, and who in their base and vile reasoning will never know what effect even a mania for virtue can have upon the human passions.  To these people one must speak only with examples, so much the worse for them if they persist in denying these examples.  If I said to them that Sophie is not an imaginary being, that her name alone is of my invention . . . they undoubtedly would believe nothing of it.  Nonetheless, what would I risk in straightforwardly completing the history of a girl so similar to Sophie that her story could be Sophie’s without occasioning any surprise?[29]

Shaeffer makes a plausible case that Sophie’s doubling and splitting throughout Book V, of which this passage is one of several textual examples, presents her as “more self-conscious, sophisticated and complex than Émile” and indicates Rousseau’s pessimism about achieving perfect happiness on earth (a pessimism more fully expressed in Les Solitaires). 

Shaeffer is content to divide two ways of reading Émile: as a practical guide to education or as a philosophical text.[30]  By dismissing Émile as any kind of practical guide, Schaeffer is able to dismiss the problematic conclusion that Sophie’s role is meant to apply to women or that women are restricted to it.  This dismissal of the practical, however, divorces ideals from a critical appraisal of their relationship to actual social practices and thereby further cements injustice.  Sophie is more than a warning about the imperfectability of human happiness; she is part and parcel of political and educational ideals that require incessant maternal labor, with mothers suppressing their own needs and interests for the sake of others. 

If instead Émile is treated as a philosophical text whose ideals can be put into conversation with practical recommendations, what should readers make of the character Schaeffer aptly renames the “girl like Sophie” when she reaches adulthood and becomes a mother and educator to the next generation?  The woman like Sophie remains, as she learned to be in girlhood, “vigilant.”[31]  A vigil, with its connotations of watchfulness and wakefulness, is typically associated with a military or religious state of waiting, but the word also captures exactly the kind of attention children require from adults, the kind of adult attention that makes a “negative education” possible and that enables the educator to seize the moment – the kairos, as Lovlie calls it – when it comes along.[32]  Real mothers are literally vigilant – awake in the night, attending to what the moment demands – when they are nursing infants, and throughout Books I – IV Rousseau depicts the tutor as continuing that practice of attunement to the child’s moment. The stratégie dilatoire that Rousseau recommends is still a strategy, and as such requires constant vigilance.

In an easily overlooked passage in Book V about behavior at dinner parties, Rousseau suggests that the woman like Sophie will in fact be a far better practitioner of this strategy than Émile.  The passage can read as a non-sequitur, but it is in fact placed exactly where it belongs.  Rousseau has just provided a course correction to his argument that women are enslaved by public opinion and argued that they must, in fact, develop reason.  “A rule prior to opinion exists for the whole human species. . . .This rule is the inner sentiment.”  If the “two rules” of public opinion and inner sentiment “do not cooperate in the education of women, that education will always be defective.”[33] To bring the two rules together, women’s faculty of reason must be cultivated.  It seems a jump, then, a few paragraphs later, for Rousseau abruptly to shift from women’s reason to a description of their hospitality.  Host and hostess, Rousseau says, “have had the same education,” and “are equally polite, equally endowed with taste and wit, and animated by the same desire to receive their guests well.”[34]  But while the host attends to each guest equally, moving around the room because “he would like to be all attentiveness,” the hostess “stays put” and lets a circle gather around her that might seem to “hide the rest of the gathering from her.” [35]  Nothing, however, escapes her notice.  And while the host may be “knowledgeable about who gets along with whom,” the hostess, “without knowing anything will make no mistakes.” Her vigilance outdoes his knowledge. If the guests leave feeling attended to, it is more thanks to her attention, her ability to see what is hidden, than to his.  This description of host and hostess describes beautifully what the emotional labor (in Hochschild’s sense) of a woman like Sophie is able to accomplish.  Inserted into the text just after the acknowledgement that Sophie’s education will be like Émile’s in certain essential features, the description of the party portrays her vigilance as of a piece with her complete humanity. 

                     In contrast, Émile’s time is a flight of fancy, in multiple senses.  Émile is an imaginary pupil.  Although his imagination is forestalled until adolescence, he has no need of it in childhood because he is free to fly after his (natural) fancies.  From a critical perspective, Émile is an imaginary pupil because the realities of mainstream schooling do not permit most real children’s time to follow such flights of fancy.  Yet, in spite of determination to script every instructional minute, real students’ minds wander, exercising a capacity for imagination that cannot be constrained by walls and clocks, or computer screens and online modules.  Émile calls on the reader to imagine a child, and in so doing to let ourselves be educated as he is – to let our imaginations meander through space and time, envisioning a world in which our desires align with our abilities.[36]  In contrast, the time of a woman like Sophie is, like Sophie, closer to the reality of women’s lives.  For critical readers who value Rousseau’s acknowledgment that the work of education demands a difficult to achieve kind of vigilance, but who are vexed by much else about Sophie, perhaps the text’s depictions of gendered time are best treated as reason to keep imagining what it would take to achieve human happiness in a world of entanglements, which is to say of conflicting obligations, of relationships, of economic and educational – using educational in its broadest sense, as a process of constant growth -- needs that are often at odds.  Across recent decades in which women have entered the labor force in increasing numbers, the idealization of mothers like Sophie has thwarted revisions to domestic economies, public and private.  Meanwhile, a globalized economy and resultant job-insecurity have demanded long hours that are difficult to calibrate with family life from many workers.  Émile reminds readers that though (mis)managed time functions as a tool of our oppression, time understood properly is a means to both liberation and community.  As such, perhaps it is best read as an invitation, at this moment when so much about schools stands to be reimagined, to rethink what a different kind of alignment with time might achieve – for men and women, parents and children, alike.   


[2] Stevenson, Betsey.  Women, Work and Families: Recovering from the Pandemic Induced Recession.  Brookings Institute, The Hamilton Project, September 2021.  Accessed 2/11/2022

[3] In technical terms, women held the majority of “non-farm payroll jobs” Ibid.

[4] A photo of two elementary school students sitting on the pavement of a Salinas CA Taco Bell parking lot went viral after it was posted on Instagram in April, 2020.  It became the iconic image of the digital divide in the US.  https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/60/ending-the-homework-gap/ accessed 2/14/22.

[5] Although men are of course also teachers and caretakers, sociologists and economists who study workplaces and the family have repeatedly found that caretaking remains profoundly gendered in its demands.  “Women,” as Calarco sums up this research, “serve as the social safety net because norms (norms that serve capitalistic, patriarchal, and white interests) in the U.S. tell them that’s their role. And because breaking those norms leaves them open to judgments (or worse) from others and judgments from themselves.” (https://annehelen.substack.com/p/other-countries-have-social-safety  accessed 2/11/2022). Women who fail to adhere to gendered expectations that they will attend to others’ needs are penalized at work – even as women who do adhere to those norms are also, differently, penalized at work. (Williams, Joan What Works for Women at Work. New York: New York University Press, 2018; Williams, Joan Unbending Gender. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; Williams, Joan, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.)   The centrality, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, of a particular ideology of motherhood that Sharon Hays named “intensive mothering” raised the bar for American mothers just as their numbers in the paid workforce were rising.  Contemporary mothers are judged by others and judge themselves by their (in)ability to meet demands that are, as Hays and others have shown, excessive and unrealistic. (Hays, Sharon. The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1998.) Women continue to put in more hours of the “second shift” that Arlie Hochschild first wrote about in 1989, and they spend, on average, more time with children.  (Hochschild, Arlie. The Second Shift. New York: Penguin, 2012/1989.) Intensive mothering intersects, predictably, with education, where it has profound effects on children’s school success.  In Unequal Childhoods (2005), Annette Lareau identified an approach she calls “concerted cultivation,” in which elite mothers – effectively, the middle and upper middle classes – take a particular, and massively time-consuming, approach to child-raising, attending to children’s extracurricular activities, helping with schoolwork, cultivating children’s linguistic abilities, and disciplining children by means of time-consuming negotiations.  Because this approach correlates with the expectations of schools, children raised this way tend to succeed in schools, maintaining their social class status.  With the middle class facing declining prospects as income gains have been concentrated among the top-earners for the past half-century, a semi-conscious awareness of this correlation between the ideology of intensive mothering and school success places intense pressure on mothers.  Some fathers, of course, are equal or primary caretakers, but, in the context of intensely gendered expectations around childcare, their choices affect them differently. 

[6] In substituting “teaching and learning” for “education” here, I mean to highlight the necessary involvement of both adults (teachers) and children (learners) in the educational project – not to reduce education to what Gert Biesta has aptly called “learnification.”

[7] On Émile’s time, see Lovlie, Lars, “Rousseau’s Insight [on time].” Studies in Philosophy and Education 21, 2002 335-341; Shuffelton, Amy “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Mechanized Clock, and Children’s Time,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 51:4, 2017 pp 837-849.

[8] Émile 369

[9] Hochschild, Arlie, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling.  Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1983/2012 p7. “Work that requires labor” may sound redundant; inasmuch as “work” can require multiple kinds of labor, it is not.  Flight attendants, for instance, engage in physical labor when they push carts of drinks, and they simultaneously engage in emotional labor when they smile at surly passengers.  The work of serving drinks includes different forms of labor.

[10] Hochschild, p7

[11] Émile 366

[12] Émile 366

[13] Émile 366

[14] Émile 366

[15] Émile 365

[16] Émile 365

[17] Émile 367

[18] Émile 367, emphasis added.

[19] Émile 367

[20] Émile 395

[21] Émile 367

[22] Émile 394

[23] Émile 394

[24] Émile 394

[25] For more on seduction, see Habib, Le Consentement Amoureux

[26] Émile 360

[27] Émile 361

[28] Émile 361

[29] Émile 402

[30] Schaeffer, Denise, “Reconsidering the Role of Sophie in Rousseau’s Émile.” Polity vol.30, nº4 (1998) p.624.

[31] Émile 369

[32] Lovlie, Lars, “Rousseau’s Insight [on time].”

[33] Émile 382

[34] Émile 383

[35] Émile 383 emphasis added.  The host’s attentiveness is expressed as a wish, not an ability.

[36] On Rousseau as an educator of his readers, see Scott, John Rousseau’s Reader. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020

Jeff Stickney: Pedagogies of Place: Conserving forms of place-based environmental education during a pandemic


As the pandemic moved teaching off campus and on-line in March of 2020, practitioners of place-based learning faced serious challenges: unable to replicate but unwilling to abandon this pedagogical form.  Nobody is fooled into thinking that a slide show on Share-screen is equivalent to an actual walk-about, a realization of some relief to both the travel industry and conference organizers.  In adapting to the new Zoom-environment it was possible, however, to make this form of synchronous on-line teaching more than an empty ritual or even worse, collapse into a dystopic, Matrix-like simulation.  Reflecting on the shift helps us to better appreciate what was lost, what we value and wish to sustain by once again conducting in-person this form of teaching and learning – cherished by many and especially vital to environmental educators like myself. 

Investigating the meaning of ‘place-based learning’ I first entertain Aristotle’s seminal thought on place as a container or vessel, using this metaphor (after Casey, 1974) to venture into contemporary phenomenological inquiries.  The shared realization is that places and things are not only conceptually implicated by each other, but are immanent and potentially powerful elements in more directly affecting our learning experiences. Turning to Michal Bonnett’s philosophy of environmental education, I endorse his phenomenological argument that authentic forms of this pedagogy must be both embodied and emplaced in order to open learners to more in situ, deeply contextualized and yet ‘transcendental’ and ‘ecstatic’ reception of the more-than-human realm of nature: what ‘comes forth’ to us (phusis) if only we heed its call and properly care for things in their environs.  But this powerful exposition, with which I resonate as a reader of Heidegger, poses steep challenges for my students and sets the bar very high for place-based educators in any mode of delivery. 

Conducting place-based environmental education on-line serves many of the same aims of environmental education, and continuing the practice this way during a pandemic made sense, but it often reduces the pedagogical form to an animated and interactive lecture: a danger contained also within in-person forms.  In diminishing bodily senses, this ‘other’ (heterotopic) form can never replace the vibrant experience of being there: seeing, smelling, touching, and even drawing things like trees, feeling their gathering power to give ground and edify us.  Nonetheless, just as when the lights go out we learn again to build bonfires, when the pandemic hit we learned new ways of using electronic devices to stay connected: sometimes powerfully, moving us along new avenues of pedagogical practice.

The weighty subtext carries in its hold an underlying leitmotif: Wittgenstein’s philosophical approach, itself modelled on place-based investigation of language as our ‘home city’.  The recurring refrain draws me back from metaphysical inclinations to dwell on more ordinary discourse rooted in educational practices.

In an appendix I draft virtual plans (pseudo-artifacts) for conducting place-based learning at Arhus University Park. Thorough absence of familiarity pares down content, focusing attention on formal elements of this pedagogy (cf. Wittgenstein on simplified cases, PI §5). 

  1. Introduction to the problem space

Teaching within the novel conditions of the pandemic it is easy to romanticize pedagogical forms that in the not-too-distant past sustained our teaching practice: forms integral to our identity and teaching philosophy.  The pedagogical form with which my students in environmental sustainability education associate me (favourably in their salutations and course evaluation comments) is place-based learning, infused with cross-disciplinary inquiry and arts-based learning.  Seeing the INPE 2022 call for papers I was reminded of a passage I read in Michael Bonnett’s 2015 paper, “The powers that be: Environmental education and the transcendent”, in which the distinguished philosopher of environmental education pondered whether such practices could be moved onto technological platforms without sacrificing essential aspects of embodied, sensory contact with places and things.  His speculative remarks were cut short (concision in publishing), and of course nobody was then foreseeing mass migration onto digital platforms with the arrival of COVID-19 five years later. 

Considering the necessarily multi-sensory experiencing of nature, ultimately, there can be no substitute for immediate firsthand experience. Engagement with virtual places made available through ever advancing technology will of course involve mutual anticipation, claims and prompts, and it can be interesting to speculate to what degree – necessarily being engineered and selective compared with natural places – they could approach the experience possible in places in which physical nature is authentically present. Lack of space forbids a proper examination of this issue here, but I suggest that the transcendent qualities of nature previously outlined pose serious problems for any such endeavour.  (Bonnett, 2015, p.52)

I take up this problem in section 3, heeding Bonnett’s (2021) more developed answer on ‘Digitalized experience,’ in “Listening to nature” (Chapter 6, pp.112-114).  I strongly resonate with Bonnett’s work (see Stickney and Bonnett, 2020), as a fellow ‘naturalist’ and reader of Heidegger who appreciates Bonnett’s finesse in making this ‘Black Forest’ (Greco-Catholic, neo-Druidic) ontology more accessible and applicable for many (see Stickney, 2020a)[1], but as a classroom/outdoor education practitioner I am painfully aware of how high a bar this sets for instructors like me who (donning their own version of a Henry Thoreau/Arne Naess/Rachel Carson/Diana Beresford-Kroeger …persona), take classes out for relatively brief, intentionally orchestrated and minimally risky (relatively inauthentic) encounters with ‘nature’ in park settings within a busy metropolis. 

Easy to end this paper now by simply acknowledging that Bonnett is right, on so many grounds, in advocating direct and heightened experience of nature.   But the call for papers asks for more than confirmation of loss and recognition of what we wish to retrieve.  What has the experience of moving on-line taught us about this cherished practice of place-based learning? Has its continued performance these past two years been reduced to an empty ritual, or is it something else altogether when we are not walking together ‘in the field’?  Although reasonable to assume that place-based learning was severely compromised during the pandemic, perhaps even ‘placeless’ (see Relph, 1976), I was a panelist in an on-line seminar for North American environmental sustainability educators in the April of 2020, addressing how I was trying to move place-based learning on-line.  I showed how I recorded my own excursions on the 600-hectare conservation area behind my home, introducing my environmental education course for teacher candidates by modelling one of the options for their final assignment: making their own video, conducting place-based education and sharing it with their classmates in Zoom breakout rooms.  For many students this was an exhilarating and fulfilling project, bringing in arts-based learning (soundscapes and ephemeral art, after Andy Goldsworthy[2]), biology and history infused with local Indigenous knowledge and heritage, continuing our work to decolonize place-based learning (see Greenwood, 2019).  One of our Masters students filmed an Indigenous knowledge-keeper at an eco-school discussing the ‘three sisters” horticultural practice of growing corn, beans, and squash on wood-filled mounds, constructing an ‘authentic’ Haudenosaunee garden with high school students).[3]  Some exemplary videos from our classes were shared with the local district school board’s Outdoor Education department, including lessons plans for use with students.  I also participated in a national Climate Action conference in 2021 hosted by my university (of necessity offered on-line, like the INPE 2020 conference on the environment, which might be something to continue as it greatly reduced our carbon footprint) practicing a variant of place-based learning on Zoom with about 25 grateful participants (see the companion paper, Stickney, 2020a).[4] 

Instead of abandoning the practice, I adapted to the new digital environment in which synchronous instruction was being delivered.  I inadvertently share some of these pedagogical moves, of potential use to fellow practitioners, but my aim is to reflect more deeply on some philosophical aspects that surface through this discussion of modified forms of place-based learning.  I am not arguing through some linguistic and philosophical sleight of hand that doing place-based education on-line is the same as doing it in-person, but rather attending to commonalities and significant differences.  Of course, when the “all clear” sounds I will return to doing in-person teaching, using the campus and its surrounding envrions once again, but I will also retain some of the digital avenues we have created.

In the first two sections I briefly explore Aristotle’s metaphysical discussion of place and then Michael Bonnett’s phenomenological presentation of emplaced environmental learning, meditating on what is lost in terms of our material engagement with things and places (see also Bearn, 2020). For philosophers of education I focus on meanings of ‘place’ as the concept is altered or extended by circumstances of on-line learning: averring (after Wittgenstein, as leitmotif in the subtext) temptations to entertain fascinating but somewhat metaphysical accounts of place,[5] or play the criteria-games of analytic philosophy of education, seeking necessary and sufficient conditions for a practice to be considered ‘place-based education’ or ‘educational’ at all. Where is the locus of this ostensibly in situ pedagogical form when linking disparate students onto Zoom platforms, and how does this ‘other space’[6] impact student/participant experiences of gathering and learning?  Can we still capture some of the poetry of places, or does sensing an ethos, genius loci or spirit of place require embodied and physically present modes of learning (see Heidegger 1977a&b)?  Only able to unpack some of these questions here, instead of a tightly argued, narrowly focused paper I provide dispersal into radial avenues for thinking teaching, invited by the complex topic/locus of place.[7]  I also provide in an appendix a sketchbook or album for conducting place-based learning at Aarhus University Park – a distant place (even from the conference location in Copenhagen) I have hitherto only visited on-line: like a curious octopus extending its tentacles to the monitor. 

  1. Aristotle on the immanence place

“Place is thought to be some surface and like a vessel and surrounder.”  Aristotle, Physics, 212a28-29 (in Casey, p.53)

I open by acknowledging Aristotle’s contribution to our philosophical thought about place, but when we talk about ‘place-based learning’ educators are not ordinarily referring back to this ancient thinker and his magnificent work even while carrying on with his peripatetic tradition.  Does anyone now talk in quotidian speech or educational discourse about place being like a container or vessel?[8]  Entertaining the metaphor of place being like a boat does shed some light on what is lost in moving on-line, where the Zoom screen must suffice as our ‘containing vessel’. Zoom offers a two-dimensional geometric configuration of small boxes with student names and sometimes photos and the occasional face of an animate person, gathered symbolically into a cluster that fills one page after another, extending into space like a spreadsheet. The appearance of being bounded on pages conceals the actual distance separating each person, which although not infinite has the feeling of being more like talking from one space ship to many others than a real classroom conversation. Calling it a ‘lesson in place-based learning’, is teaching on such an on-line learning environment potentially in the hold of some real place – the actual topic of the lesson -- and can one possibly feel its surrounding presence? 

The primary task at hand is to come back to contemporary place-based discourse and practice: as limited as such a survey can be within this paper.  But further consideration of Aristotle may prove useful. 

As Casey notes, in describing place as a vessel Aristotle was distinguishing things from their immediate surroundings.  Consequently, place is neither the form or matter of a thing it contains, but that which immediately surrounds it, as its location.[9]  The form is the limit of the thing, but place is a different limit that immediately surrounds or circumscribes it (211b3010-14, in Casey, p.54).  Aristotle acknowledged how difficult it is to conceive of place.  To Aristotle’s credit, Casey likens his initial approach to phenomenological description of things we perceive within the lifeworld.  “Start from the things which are more knowable and obvious to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature” (Physics, 184a17-18, in Casey, p.53).  But what does it mean to consider the place more metaphysically, in its nature?

In Aristotle’s more metaphysical sense, the place considered ‘in nature’ (en de te phusis) has a ‘holding power’ (dynamis, 208b11) as container, which makes it ‘what it is’ (in estin, 211a8, Casey p.53) and different from the things it contains, making ‘place in its primary sense the first thing surrounding each body’ (Casey, p.54). 

The double immanence, the reciprocal belongingness, of things and place is summed in an axiomatic formula that quite appropriately incorporates two uses of ‘in’: “Just as every body is in a place, so in every place there is a body” (209a25-26).  This is not a merely empty or redundant statement.  (Casey, p.56)[10]…It remains that, according to Aristotle, to be in motion or at rest is to be in place, however momentary or transitional; that place might be.  (Casey, p.56)

This place can move, much as a vessel can be carried, for instance in the case of a boat floating in a river (Casey, p.55).  But it is hard to point to this limiting power, conceived as the essence or inherent property of the place qua ‘place’.  We can locate it with respect to the six directions, as being in all points around the thing, but difficult to determine its full extent in space. How far around the thing does the place extend?  When does one pass from one distinct place into another, when for the perceiving subject their locomotion in space implies that at each moment they are contained within some place?[11] 

Aristotle was more concerned with place as the immediate limit, or inner boundary that surrounds a formed and material thing (and so denying that a geometric point can have a place), thinking more metaphysically than we normally do when asking questions about the boundaries of places we are familiar with as somehow distinct but loosely bounded neighbourhoods or districts.  Following Nietzsche’s call to return to earth and the body, phenomenologists and pragmatists have directed us to remain focused on the first approach: to how things appear to us and how we find them useful in everyday life.[12]  After Wittgenstein (cf. Rorty, 1979), we are also less inclined to expect our words, such as ‘place’ and ‘ethos’, to refer to or mirror some real ‘thing’ when discussing the haecceity, being or is-ness of places.[13]

That is to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of 'object and designation' the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant. (Wittgenstein’s beetle-in-the box case, PI §293)

  1. Immanence as a theme in Bonnett’s writing about emplaced and embodied environmental learning

Michael Bonnett (e.g., 2013, 2021) writes about ‘embodied and emplaced transcendence’ as potential ekstasis within outdoor education, potentially opening students to more authentic and aesthetic encounters with their environment.  Following Heidegger’s reading of pre-Socratic philosophy, ‘nature’ (phusis) is conceived as what ‘comes forward’ to us from outside, only perceptible in rare moments of heightened experience (transcendence) or releasement.  In beautifully crafted prose he offers two phenomenological vignettes (read aloud in his 2019 keynote at PESGB) describing ‘embodied participation in the being of places’ through intimate excursions into natural settings (see 2021, p.29). 

By our embodied participation in the being of places exemplified in [Chapter 2] by the upland stream and woodland dell – by entering into their otherness – our being is enriched and quickened. Our ecstatic consciousness, as inherently environmental, is fulfilled and we are able to appraise the world and discern appropriate action from a perspective that in a significant sense lies within nature, one that is enlightened by her internal norms. Here is an important sense in which we retrieve our place in nature – as it were, become part of it as its conscious expression.

Bonnett amplifies this view in stating that:

…within a phenomenological approach, the existence and character of any moral standing and intrinsic value that nature might possess are disclosed in our direct experiences of nature. Because these are ineluctably human experiences, attention to them can reveal how a proper respect for nature involves recognizing both its alterity and its relationship to humanity.  (2021, p.94)[14]

One of the best articulations of this position comes in a 2015 paper, cited earlier as immediately after this passage (below) Bonnett speculated on the relative poverty of doing environmental education through technology.

Third, returning now to the idea that we inhere in places through ongoing mutual anticipation, there is a significant sense in which places claim us. It is not only that the ongoing play of reciprocal anticipation results in us experiencing – again often, but certainly not always, implicitly – prompts and claims that constitute us being in, inhering in, a place, rather these can be such as to determine incisively how and who we are when we are present there (Bonnett, 2009a). Our workplace, the place of some seminal personal encounter or tragic occurrence can claim us in this way. This means that the normativity, values, that it has been argued are inherent in places, likewise claim us and can shape our being.  (Bonnett, 2015, p.52)

Five years later, Bonnett (2021, pp.112-14) included in his book a section on “Digitalized experience” – written ahead of, but published during the pandemic that drove us onto digital platforms.  Referring to how the “logic of interaction and the character of our immersion in our environment is very different from when we are in direct contact with nature,” Bonnett (2021, p.112) distinguishes digital from in-person contact and its more direct reciprocity with nature:

In the former case, we are relatively disembodied, physically disengaged by means of the very limited finger movements structured by qwerty[15], touchpad, or screen and a very limited visual field.  In the latter case, we are fully embodied: all the senses coming into play and stimulated in varying and unpredictable directions and ranges, and bodily movement is responsive, accommodating and potentially negotiating a far greater range of conditions.  (Bonnett, 2021, p.112)

One could argue, however, that many students taken by their instructor for a walk into a local environment are not fully present in the moment or attuned to the place, perhaps being enraptured in conversation with friends or on their cell phones, straggling behind and not listening to either the instruction on offer of harkening carefully to nature.  Bonnett would concede this, being fully aware that our ordinary condition is one of being somewhat tranquilized rather than authentic, lost to the idle chatter instead of the call of things (see Bonnett 2001, 25-26; cf. Bonnett 2002; see Bonnett, 2021, p.31, addressing accusations of romanticism).  Being inauthentic and alienated from nature (falling prey to our public they-self) is our ordinary state of existence and heightened moments of awareness the rare exception (see Heidegger, 1996, pp.166-167), whether on-line watching slide decks or in-person at actual places. 

Heidegger gives us a quaint picture of the teacher-pupil relationship, modelled upon the craftsperson and apprentice.  Much as the expert woodworker acquires a relatedness to the wood, responding carefully to its kind (walnut or oak) and the ‘shapes slumbering within the wood’, so too the master teacher attends to the needs and interests of individual pupils -- not imposing instruction upon the pupil but rather creating space needed to explore by him/herself.  The teacher is “learning to let them learn” (Heidegger, 1977c, pp.355-356).

Teaching is even more difficult than learning.  …The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentice.  The teacher is far less sure of his material than those who learn are of theirs.  If the relation between the teacher and the learner is genuine, therefore, there is never a place in it for the authority of the know-it-all or the authoritative sway of the official.  (Heidegger, 1977c, p.357)

One of the dangers in conducting place-based learning (of which I too have been guilty) is that through repeated visits and research over many years the teacher acquires vast knowledge of the place (in all its minutia, the detritus of history that fills plaques and local chronicles). This pertains to both in-person and on-line teaching.  Being the designated tour guide it is easy to play docent, annotating every monument and place-name in an endless stream of words: trivia that risk occluding the place and its vibrant things in a storyscape imposed relentlessly on a captive albeit mobile audience.  But it is also rather idealistic to think that on a walk with thirty participants the teacher will, in the space of one or two hours, uncover and attend to every pupil’s slumbering needs and interests.  They have to be encouraged to make their own inquiries, bring questions back to the classroom to conduct follow-up project-based learning, making their own reports or exhibits (some of which would be digital, such as the illustrated place-blogs and podcasts some of my students created). 

In sharing Bonnett’s work with my graduate students -- teacher candidates drawn from all subjects instead of philosophy specialists -- I find that most cannot understand him as they lack prior education in the philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among the other thinkers he draws upon (Franz Brentano, etc.).[16]  It took me a decade to feel I had some understanding of Heidegger, which gives me all the more appreciation of the way in which Bonnett translates Heidegger’s obtuse terminology into everyday speech. The few who have this preparation resonate strongly, and also some with a science background who are intrigued to read further Bonnett’s arguments against reductive scientism (not science per se) and its technological enframement and ‘metaphysics of mastery’ (Heidegger, 1977d).  In our correspondence I share with Michael some of the appreciative journal responses, but relatively few students ‘spark’ the way I do in reading his refined and philosophical articulations.[17] 

Such realizations take us back to the aims of place-based learning, one of which in environmental studies (onto-ethics) is to increase appreciation of the intrinsic value of the more-than-human.  Reflecting on the poem “Binsey Poplars” by Gerald Manley Hopkins, depicting ‘after-comers’ being unable to ‘guess the beauty been’ nor appreciate fully how ‘only ten or twelve / Strokes of havoc unselve / The sweet especial scene’ in chopping down and removing trees from their location, Bonnett (2009, pp.29-30) muses on how we as educators cannot now adequately convey the presence of this tree and its power of place-making:

It upholds this neighbourhood—contributes to the unique and ever-changing qualities of its space—and is upheld by it. In other words it participates in a place-making, and is constituted as the thing that it is through this participation. Thus—to take one example—removed from its neighbours the posture of the tree might make little sense and we would have to ‘read them in’ to understand, say, both the precise shape and distribution of its foliage and the significance of this for the ambience of its neighbourhood.

A favourite place I take my class is to a small urban park two blocks from our building where a concrete ring acts as an amphitheater, surrounding a noble Copper Beech tree older than our city.  In an attempt to simulate gathering around what was now a photo in my slide show instead of the real thing, I went off Share-screen and asked (able) participants to come onto video and enter into a face-to-face conversation in which I and they ask questions, exchanging our thoughts and feelings. Attempting to animate celebrated rituals from my teaching repertoire, on this virtual walk we also pause to draw the tree (or its parts) and talk about the myriad ways in which we can conceivably be regarded as residing inside or outside the tree (see nt.4 above for video link). 

   Copper Beech Tree at lost creek, Taddle Creek Park (Toronto)

Somewhere around seven people appeared and unmuted themselves to speak.  What is different is not so much the number, as few people speak up when there in-person.  It is the increased awareness of the attention (or lack thereof) of the circled audience: the subtleties of glance and expression when having eye-contact within a visible group.  Although we do eco-art in breakout rooms, using a variety of digital tools, it is almost impossible to conceive of my on-line students composing and performing (as in the past) slam poetry under this canopy.  Once a classically trained music student came forth to touch the tree and then burst into song, her aria drawing spectators from around the park. Such rare beauty!  But I also marvel at the drawings and poetry my students create, after giving them paper and pencil in-person or asking them to use their own at home/on-line while I deliver some carefully chosen ‘teachings’ about the wood-wide web running beneath our feet. As in Hopkin’s poem, in the on-line form I feel deeply the absence of this tree, so I took photos of me standing by a cluster of beech trees in the forest near my home, showing its exposed root structure.  In this way I was more fully present in delivering my scripts, and the Chat lit-up with appreciation.

A precondition for doing ‘placed-based learning’ as it is ordinarily understood and practiced is that there is a common place being visited by teacher and students, taking some risk in leaving the familiar abode of the classroom to share in an experience together.  Teachers might assign the task (sojourn/ordeal/trial) that each of their students individually visit a place and make certain inquiries while there, but this would break with the norm, becoming something else: more like doing homework than relocating the class to an outdoor setting.  David Sobel (2005), a renowned author in this field, also talks about place-based learning as an engagement with and service to one’s community.  Among other anticipated conditions for being considered ‘place-based’, the learning occurs on a journey in which the students move through or in-and-about the place: this mobility making it vital that teachers consider equity issues around ableism to walk the route, meet creature comforts like access to water and washrooms, and weigh safety issues pertaining to each environment.  Instead of actual locomotion, in doing place-based learning on-line the participants are being guided risk-free through my slides, if even actually there on the other end of the fibre-optic network, pausing at predetermined landmarks to go off share-screen and try to engage as many students as possible in dialogue with extremely limited face-to-face and verbal interaction. 

Stage-setting a cephalopod-friendly atmosphere for conversation

Conducting on-line variants of place-based learning can still be directed toward the same ends in environmental education, but as we have seen through Bonnett there is good reason to believe this exercise will collapse into something more recognizable as an interactive lecture and discussion, using tools like Share-screen and Chat on Zoom.  Among the aims Bonnet articulates convincingly is moving us off-centre from an anthropocentric and humanist stance into one of belonging in-and-with nature, serving normative ends of moral education by increasing our regard and care for non-human animals (see Bonnett, 2012; 2021, p.92).  In terms of social justice positions, students are exposed to (not indoctrinated into) considerations as to whether non-human animals and even environments have a right to existence and therefore protection from harms caused by our development and despoiling of the earth.  I can lecture with these same aims on-line, but the intellectual appeal or exhortation is not the same as the dynamic experience Bonnett is seeking in modes of emplaced learning.  In the following vignette I try to encapsulate affordances and limitations in such digital place-based learning.

This year’s graduating class in our two-year Master of Teaching program never entered the building of our educational institute (OISE); the campus I now ‘walk’ them across is a digital simulacrum, threading photos of University of Toronto’s grounds into the carefully woven tapestries of a lecture. In being dislodged from our campus we also became chair-stayed in front of our monitors: no longer the evolutionary champions of bipedalism but rather primates turned into rather mushy but clever invertebrates.  Amazingly, we were however connecting across the expanses of space, with many students joining remotely from across the country - some oceans away.  The meaning of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ was gradually changing along with very small but significant modifications in our form of life.

Digital connections (even phone calls) can be very meaningful and even ‘touching’, but undeniably they are different from being present, fully there and gathering in-person.  One of the most moving films I saw during the pandemic was “My Octopus Teacher,”[18] about a human and octopus forming mutual bonds in the kelp forest off the coast of South Africa – a remote and exotic seascape made more familiar to me from vitally charged experiences of kayaking off the California coast, bobbing up and down in the kelp tangled swells among the otters.  My past bodily experience of snorkeling and scuba diving also helps me to more deeply appreciate the film, but it nevertheless offers a vista into an underwater world I am seeing in vivid colour on my two-dimensional television screen.  If I had never been underwater, I could not adequately comprehend the octopus and its world.  Recall Hilary Putnam’s (1982) famous thought-experiment: “How do I know I am not a brain-in-a-vat?”, where in answer our direct experience of trees makes us different from limbless aliens from Mars who could not handily grasp such things, and so compared to arboreal creatures like us are practically afloat in a jar.  The pragmatic argument from externalism[19] suggests that we are caught up in a causal nexus with things outside us, like trees, with which we have dwelled intimately from our prehistory (see Stickney, 2020a).[20]


The hermeneutic challenge works the other way too: How can an octopus understand our terrestrial firmament and atmosphere?   We get some sense of this learning experience in the documentary “Octopus: Making Contact” (PBS, NOVA series, 2019) about a family taking an octopus into their living room to not only study it but to become familiar with each other as co-habitants.  The convivial relationship in both films is stunning. Tentacles reaching out to human hands, even when separated by glass, reminded me of the equally moving science fiction film “Arrival” (2016) by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve.[21] Max Richter’s music in “Arrival” is spellbinding, creating the mysterious feeling of long- distance space flight.[22]  That is how many of us have felt teaching on-line these past two years: adrift in space, often floating in silent darkness, fearing the ravages of micro-biology (aka “Alien”) while awaiting deliverance from the pandemic.[23] Of course this domestic octopus-in-a-vat knows nothing of the wider neighbourhood or city in which it is being housed.


What this vignette reminds us of is the need in teaching to see and hear our students, using peripheral vision and auditory senses to pick up subtle gestures like nods and sounds that signal agreement, confusion, rejection, etc.[24]  There are thumbs up and applause reactions on the Zoom tool bar, but with most students viewing off-video and muted, the virtual classroom is a dark and rather silent space, less animate or vital than a lecture hall.  The instructor can use a pointer to show something on the screen, like a particular tree or bolder under discussion, but there is less certainty than with in-person teaching that the ‘learning triangle’ between instructor, audience and thing, is being secured at this moment.[25]  We take for granted the human capacity for ostension, of being able to heed the pointing finger to focus our attention on a common object of interest, and its contribution to human evolution in being able to grasp things around us and to discuss them in common. Eye-contact facilitates these arrangements in learning, as do facial expressions more generally. This was the topic of Wittgenstein’s opening remarks in the Philosophical Investigations (1968), preceded by his Blue & Brown Notebooks (1969a, BB) that considered our ability to train our young into this practice of pointing and observing, something cats and chimpanzees lack but at which dogs excel, which gradually develops into second-nature ways of seeing and regarding things in common (PI, pp.198-205). Of equal significance is the hermeneutic triangle that powerfully connects performers (musicians, dancers and teachers alike), improvising not only with their original scripts or scores, but in subtle communication with their audiences (Benson, 2003).  Whether or not we could understand a ‘lion who talks’ (see PI, p.223), we have felt most deeply this loss in our communication with students, despite sharing a common form of life, when we moved place-based learning on-line. Visiting places on Zoom we feel rather like the domestic octopus with its tentacles on the glass, trying to apprehend things seen only on our screens. 

Can our conventional criteria or stipulated requirements for emplacement, sensory contact, risk and journey be achieved in such on-line forms of learning, or does it lack the implicit condition of being embodied in place?  Of course, computer games can be highly exhilarating adventures and augmented or virtual reality simulations can capture the sublime: aspects once restricted to the grandeurs of nature (vast oceans or skies, and majestic mountains).  I can become lost in a painting I just ‘Googled’, feeling something of the intimate connection between painter and landscape (see Merleau-Ponty, 1964); a child can become enraptured within his/her own animations of a doll house – dwelling within a miniaturized world outside quotidian space (Bachelard, 1958).  Marshalling these defences for the positive use of technologies in education[26], I am left feeling that students/participants would be reasonably disappointed if on the day of ‘the trip’ the teacher wheeled into the classroom a cart of laptops or Chromebooks instead of leading the class out the school doors to an awaiting bus, subway, or sidewalk.  


Appendix:  Sketchbook for a Virtual Place-based walk & talk on Aarhus University campus – Digital reconnaissance of green spaces, selected for teaching philosophical & environmental place-based education in Denmark.

The appendix is offered as auxiliary illustration: an artefact inviting by example comparisons between the meaning of place-based education when delivered on-line as opposed to in-person.

After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination.—And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.—The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of these long and involved journeyings.

The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different

directions, and new sketches made. Very many of these were badly drawn or uncharacteristic, marked by all the defects of a weak draughtsman. And when they were rejected a number of tolerable ones were left, which now had to be arranged and sometimes cut down, so that if you looked at them you could get a picture of the landscape. Thus this book is really only an album. (PI, p. vii)

In teaching you philosophy I’m like a guide showing you how to find your way round

London. I have to take you through the city from north to south, from east to west, from

Euston to the embankment and from Piccadilly to the Marble Arch. After I have taken you many journeys through the city, in all sorts of directions, we shall have passed through any given street a number of times – each time traversing the street as part of a different journey. At the end of this you will know London; you will be able to find your way about like a Londoner. Of course, a good guide will take you through the more important streets more often than he takes you down side streets; a bad guide will do the opposite. In philosophy I’m a rather bad guide ….(Wittgenstein, remarks on teaching recalled by Gasking and Jackson, 1967, p.51)

Student: “Where is our outdoor lesson taking place?” 

Teacher: “On the Aarhus University campus, in Denmark.  The Arhus University Park (AUP) we are visiting (on-line below) is between Ole Worms Alleé on the west and Bartholins Allé on the east, south of the Aarhus Museum of Ancient Art on Victor Albes Vel and north of Wilhelm Meyers Alleé.”  The specific place (AUP) is bounded by these streets, which circumscribe the parklands.  Presently, it is above sea level. Perhaps Viking ships once docked here, or were buried here in the middle ages.  An on-line archaeology of the site must be available!


The campus itself disperses across the city, and so is not clearly bounded or easily mapped; rather, much of it lies along a trail one can walk or bicycle, visiting many of the scattered buildings belonging to the University of Aarhus.  How would one differentiate the campus from the city?  I can see many photos on-line, and am drawn to the boulder as a good site to gather for meditation on geologic time and the impermanence of things (process philosophy).  “Everything is in flux,” as Heraclitus said.  Where is it?  How far from the classroom where we meet?



If I now begin talking about this place and some in the audience who know it well recognize that I am not offering apt descriptions, they may object that the information given is incorrect, or that the wrong place is being presented.  The description is absurd (atopos, as Aristotle would say) as a depiction of Aarhus University Park.  We expect to learn something new and insightful, not the fabrications of a charlatan.  (What to wear? The Khaki pants and plaid shirts of the naturalist? An Edward O. Wilson look for today?)

Those who know the park well are united in their ‘agreement in judgements’, reacting negatively in common within their shared form of life (PI §§241-2422).  Not just any picture will suffice, but in realizing this sensible limitation on the talk having to pertain to the place known as AUP it is easy to slide into a view of description and thing mirroring each other, a social imaginary (Taylor, 2004) arising from the Lockean correspondence theory of truth.  You can fact check the street names and place names I used to bound the space, and their orientation in space with respect to cardinal directions, but can you also fact check my account of its ‘spirt of place’ or ethos?  And when you come back tomorrow, or a decade from now, although some names may have been changed the physical place will still be there albeit changed by time.  And yet it can be somewhat different to each of us right now, even though we can come together in closer solidarity (Rorty) if we are seeking to be ‘answerable to the world’ (McDowell). 

If I take the class to the wrong greenspace, to the Norde Kierkegárd (Norse Cemetery) to the east, the class/audience will sense that an awkward mistake has been made by the teacher despite its scenic memorial gardens.  [Best to pass over this mishap in silence.]


Welcome to Aarhus University (2018)


Arhus is the second largest city in Denmark.  The campus is a relatively young one, with building commencing in the 1930s. 

“The main hall which towers over the University Park was designed by Danish architect C.F. Møller.  The buildings and park are included in Denmark’s Cultural Canon – they are one of the top 12 architectural masterpieces in Denmark.” (@ 2:13-14 minutes)