Prof Gert Biesta

University of Exeter, England





* * *


born 1859 (Burlington, Vermont)

secondary school teacher, with interest in philosophy

PhD in Philosophy (Johns Hopkins University)

position at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

1894: Professor of Education and Psychology at the (new) University of Chicago

established ‘Laboratory School’

1904: Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University New York, plus work at Teachers College

married, 5 children + 2 adopted

dies 1952

most famous as an educationalist

also influential as a philosopher

and psychologist

important figure in ‘progressive education tradition’ in USA and internationally

(but highly critical of idea of child-centeredness)

public figure in USA,

progressive third party movement,

& ‘the people’s lobby’


focus on participatory democracy

international travels (3 years in China) and consultancies (e.g., secularisation of educational system in Turkey)

many publications:

My Pedagogic Creed (1897)

The School and Society (1899)

The Child and the Curriculum

Studies in Logical Theory (1903)

How We Think (1909)

Democracy and Education (1916)

Human Nature and Conduct (1922)

Experience and Nature (1925)

The Quest for Certainty (1929)

A Common Faith (1934)

Art as Experience (1934)

Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938)

A Theory of Valuation (1939)

philosophy: influence in North American discussions until late 1950s

then: logical positivism & analytic philosophy

Richard Rorty:

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979)

Consequences of Pragmatism (1982)

revival of pragmatism

education: influence in USA at the level of ideas until late 1950s

then: ‘Sputnik’ and critique of progressivism (ongoing), but renewed interest for educational ideas, and focus on democratic education

* * *

purpose for this lecture: reconstruction of Dewey’s educational philosophy

& discussion of ‘limits’ of pragmatism


deconstruction – Derrida


modern philosophy (since Descartes) takes consciousness as its point of departure

(which results in the problems discussed yesterday)

Habermas: “the tradition of the philosophy of consciousness”

Dewey (1925): Experience and Nature


“Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful”

mind, consciousness, thinking, subjectivity, meaning, intelligence, language, rationality, logic, truth etc. only come into existence as a result of communication

for example:

“communication is a condition of consciousness”

“language is a function of human association”

“the import of logical and rational essences is the consequence of social interactions”


What ‘is’ communication?

[1] the sender-receiver model

· transmission of information from A to B

· encoding – transporting – decoding

· is adequate model to describe transportation of bits of information from A to B (e.g., television) but not for human communication


because someone needs to make sense of the information

[2] Dewey: communication as co-operation

communication is “the establishment of co-operation in an activity in which there are partners and in which the activity of each is modified by the partnership”

communication as

‘the making of something in common’


to successfully do something together (e.g., hunting) we need to adjust our idiosyncratic ‘views’ of the situation (our habits) to build up a shared understanding


practical (not theoretical) intersubjectivity

Where did this theory of communication originate?


Democracy and Education (1916)

reflection on the question ‘How is education possible?’ led Dewey to his philosophy of communication


Dewey’s formulation of ‘the problem of education’


not: individual development

not: adaptation to the existing social order

(not psychology, not sociology)


the problem of education lies in the co-ordination of the individual and social factors (1895)

how can ‘the child’ and ‘the curriculum’ be connected?



or: “the communication that ensures participation in a common understanding”

What is participation?

- not simply being together

- not simply working together

- but: the situation where people work together “and are all cognizant of the common end and are all interested in it”

difference between being in a social environment and having a social environment


where one cannot perform one’s own activities without taking the activities of others into account

difference between training and education


training: where one does not really share in the purpose of the activity

education: where one has an interest in (the accomplishment of) an activity

this is how meaning is communicated, how a common, joint, shared understanding is brought about


we do not need agreement or common understanding before we can act together; acting together brings about common understanding (but only a particular kind of acting together ® where all have an interest)


(1) the importance of social practices

How can a child learn the meaning of a traffic light?

through experimentation with the traffic light (trial and error)?


the meaning of the traffic light is not located in the thing but in the practices that are mediated/regulated by the thing


meaning can only be learned through participation in the practices which embody these meanings

implications for curriculum


not as an abstract representation of ‘the world’, but as a representation of practices (e.g., the practice of mathematising or the practice of historising)


see Dewey’s Laboratory School (Chicago)


organised around ‘occupations’


project method


- this explains why the hidden curriculum is so effective (because it is a practice)

- it also explains that the thing successful students learn best is the practice of ‘schooling’ itself

- and: all this is a critique of Montessori, who assumed that meaning exists in things

(2) teaching is not ‘direct input’

it is about the creation of social situations and opportunities for (real) participation

“We never educate directly but indirectly by means of the environment.”

this is not a child-centred but a

communication-centred philosophy of education

and teaching is about the stimulation of reflection: responding not to things/events ‘as they are’ but to their meaning


so that action can be transformed into intelligent action

(3) democracy and education

it is the quality of the social situation that makes it educative

we can judge the quality of social situations by asking:

-How many different interests and points of view are represented?

How many opportunities are there for full and free interplay and interaction?

To what extent are interests consciously shared?

This gives us an indication of the democratic quality of social situations (see Democracy and Education)


an educative definition of democracy


democracy as a situation of plurality, interaction, communication and learning

against isolation and disengagement


towards the creation of a shared world, which is not a common world

* * *


modern philosophy is philosophy of consciousness


pragmatism: communicative turn

(see also Jürgen Habermas)

from a ‘metaphysics of essence’


to a ‘metaphysics of existence’

but still a ‘metaphysics of presence’


Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Western philosophy as a continuous attempt “to find a fundamental ground, a fixed centre, an Archimedean point, which serves both as an absolute beginning and as a centre from which everything originating from it can be mastered and controlled.”


an origin that is self-sufficient and present to itself

the origin that is present is considered to be pure, simple, normal, self-sufficient, self-identical, so that everything that follows from it is a derivation, complication, accident, etc.

Why is the metaphysics of presence a problem?

because ‘presence’ always requires the ‘help’ of something that it is not, something that is absent

e.g., ‘good’ only has meaning because it is not evil, so the presence of good is only possible because of its relationship to what is not good

more generally: the ‘otherness’ that is excluded to maintain the impression of pure and uncontaminated original presence is constitutive of that which presents itself as such

what makes presence [e.g., good] possible [evil] is also what undermines it


condition of possibility is condition of impossibility



e.g., the deconstructive nature of teaching: in order for teaching to have an impact, students need to make sense of teaching, but they do this in their own ways: so what makes teaching possible (interpretation) also ‘undermines’ it

deconstruction is not a method or a technique


metaphysics, as the attempt to identify an origin or a ground, is always “in deconstruction”


the task is to ‘witness’ metaphysics-in-deconstruction


to do justice to what is made invisible by the metaphysics of presence but yet is necessary to make this presence possible


deconstruction is not negative or destructive, but affirmative: an affirmation of what is other (totally other)

deconstruction wants to open up systems in order to ‘make place’ for what cannot be thought of in terms of the system and yet makes the system possible


affirmation of ‘the incalculable’ or ‘the impossible’ = what cannot be foreseen (calculated) as a possibility

This is not an attempt to overcome metaphysics.

It is not an attempt to become post-metaphysical or anti-foundational


because in that case we would have no place to stand and would have no tools to do something

Derrida wants to ‘shake’ metaphysics by showing that it is itself always already ‘shaking’


This is a form of post-modernism, since it tries to expose some of the problems of modern philosophy by being attentive to what is ‘outside’, to what is excluded.

from a modern perspective this looks like relativism, anything goes, etc.

but from a deconstructive perspective this reads like a shift from questions about knowledge and reality (epistemology and ontology) to taking ethical and political questions seriously (without reducing them to questions of knowledge or reality)

* * *

back to Dewey and his philosophy of communication


Is this a problem for Dewey’s philosophy of communication?

The pragmatic answer might be: as long as Dewey’s philosophy results in better consequences than the philosophy of consciousness, we should go for it.

With Derrida we can now ask a different question


Does Dewey’s philosophy of communication ‘produce’ any exclusions?


It is based on a Western, secular, scientific worldview (evolution theory)


this is not universally shared


so we cannot ‘use’ this philosophy to convince others that they should become pragmatic or democratic


because we would then totalise communication before it can happen (which is the problem with Habermas who, in a sense, specifies what the outcome of our communication should be before it has happened)


but what does it mean to take the communicative ‘ethos’ of pragmatism seriously?


traditional theories of communication would say that identity of meaning from A to B is the norm, and transformation of meaning the exception


Dewey: transformation of meaning is the norm, identity of meaning the exception


communication is transformative and creative

We ‘offer’ our truths, etc. in communication, knowing that what will come out of communication will be different.


We should also do this at the level of our philosophies of communication, i.e., we can offer them in our communication with others, but without an attempt that this can ‘fix’ the outcome of communication in advance


deconstructive pragmatism

[to take pragmatism’s philosophy of communication seriously we have to give it up, so the condition of possibility is the condition of impossibility at the very same time]

responding to the ‘ethos’ of pragmatism, not using it as a foundational philosophy


also in education


an attempt to develop a theory of education that is not based upon a truth about the human being


but rather focuses on how human beings ‘come into the world’ through their engagement with otherness and difference

modern educational theory (since Kant):

aim of education is to ‘produce’ rational autonomous individuals, because this is what human nature is ultimately ‘about’

the question: what is excluded by such a view of what it means to be human

e.g., those who cannot become autonomous; those who are considered to be non-rational, those who are considered to be pre-rational

also: the uniqueness of each human being (because as rational autonomous individuals we are all instances of a general definition)

what makes us unique (when does it matter that I am I and you are you)?


in relationships of responsibility, when we are ‘asked’ to respond to the other


see The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common

versus the Rational Community

our social roles versus our uniqueness, to be found at the limits of language


implications for the organisation of education (How difficult should education be?) and for democratic education (Towards a political conception...)


OULU JANUARY 2007 – LECTURE 2 Ógert biesta 2007