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Education, Dialogue and Hermeneutics

reviewed by Jon Nixon - November 01, 2013

coverTitle: Education, Dialogue and Hermeneutics
Author(s): Paul Fairfield
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1441100709, Pages: 176, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

Much research and scholarship undertaken in the field of education studies is not about education at all, but about its management and organisation and its policy implications. So, it is refreshing to come across a work that focuses unequivocally and unapologetically on the nature and purposes of education and is written in the main with such intellectual passion and clarity. It shifts the terms of contestation—the site of struggle for transformative education—towards the philosophical terrain of the ends and purposes of educational practice.

Education, Dialogue and Hermeneutics comprises eight chapters and an editorial introduction, all of which draw insight and inspiration from the tradition of philosophical hermeneutics and some of which themselves constitute an original contribution to that tradition. The contributors are all academic philosophers working within different fields but sharing an interest in the philosophy of education. The presiding presence throughout is Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose magnum opus was first published in 1960 (see Gadamer, 2004). A number of chapters focus specifically and explicitly on Gadamer’s work, highlighting major themes within it and developing those themes with reference to what constitutes the educational process – and what it means, as teachers and learners, to enter into that process. Other chapters allude to Gadamer or draw on his work indirectly. Nevertheless, Gadamer is central to the intellectual project undertaken in this collection of essays.

Jean Grondin provides a helpful and authoritative biographical and contextual introduction to Gadamer and his work. He portrays Gadamer as the exemplar of the self-educating teacher—the thinking teacher—for whom teaching is an exercise in learning. The theme of education as self-education is developed across the volume, but achieves particular resonance in this opening chapter in which Gadamer, still lecturing at the age of ninety nine, is presented as someone who is intent upon learning from his interlocuters: “he kept stressing that education is always self-education” (p.18). Gadamer was a great teacher because he continued to be “the pupil that we never cease to be” (p.18). What Grondin takes from Gadamer is the conviction that “[t]he way of reason is not to think one is right and to try to defend one’s views with unbending arguments; it is to acknowledge that the other might be right” (p.18).

In a later chapter Graeme Nicholson develops this idea with reference to “the teacher’s quality of mind” (p. 69). The teacher, he argues, offers a model of the thinking mind: “[t]he student is invited to think because the teacher does not merely think but fosters thinking through acting out thinking in the course of a class” (p. 70-71). The teacher as thinker is someone who asks questions not only of students but of herself and whose self-questioning is central to her pedagogical practice: “[t]hinking is the activity in which we can discourse both about what we know and about what we do not know, that is, the activity of questioning.” (p. 71). In a nicely understated but beautifully apt reference to “the greatest of all geometry lessons” (Plato, Meno 82 b-85 b), Nicholson illustrates how Socrates—through a process of inductive reasoning—“leads a slave boy to recognise the idea of the diagonal of a square as a step to the construction of a double-sized square” (p. 74).

But why, asks ‘the hard-nosed instrumentalist’ (p. 54) evoked by Nicholas Davey, go to all that trouble when one can simply require pupils to learn by rote the rule that the square of the diagonal is equal to the sum of the square of the two adjacent sides? Why all this emphasis on process? Why not focus on the outcomes of learning?

Davey takes these questions seriously, arguing that the instrumentalist case for transformative learning should and can be made: “Instrumentalism,” he argues, “must be fought with instrumentalist arguments” (p.34). What is required is ‘a maturity and intensity of response to the demands of a precarious form of existence’ (p.49). The instrumentalism that really matters according to Davey is an instrumentalism that aims at ‘the development of a wide but highly focusable response capacity to cultural challenges of a social or economic order’ (p.56). The old ends/means instrumentalism no longer works. What is required is an instrumentalism that is instrumental in respect to our unpredictable and precarious futures. Turning the instrumentalist argument neatly on its head, Davey argues against the transience of short-term outcomes and for the long-term educational gains of what the ‘hard-nosed instrumentalist’ dismisses as ‘useless’ (p. 54).

Ramsay Eric Ramsay draws on the cave allegory (beginning at line 514a of Plato’s The Republic) to explore what he calls ‘the dire necessity of the useless’ (p. 91). He reminds us that the prisoners in the cave are no different from us. It is we who are in the cave: “Here we are in the middle of things” (p. 97). Although imprisoned in this world of shadows, we are able to talk with one another and to perceive the shadows on the wall. Ramsay sees this image of imprisonment as one of ‘undischarged utopian potential’: “Utopian because talking about what shows itself is also what will act as the condition for the possibility of our becoming freer” (p. 97) The prisoner who is released then experiences two ‘turns.’ The first turning is towards the firelight that dazzles and bewilders the prisoner. The point here, suggests Ramsay, is not that the prisoner now sees the reality beyond the shadows, but that she is overwhelmed by the enormity of the educative task ahead: “It is here one learns what education has left to accomplish because suffering the light is both as necessary for one as one is unprepared for it” (p. 99).

The second turning is a return to the cave. The new understanding achieved in the clear light of day does not deny but embraces its shadowy origins: ‘Remembering whence we came and those who were there with us in the world we shared before belongs to this new understanding’ (p. 100). To those who remain imprisoned the escapee’s educative journey is judged useless—and she along with it. She cannot prove that what they see are shadows. She can only bear witness through her self-understanding to what she has glimpsed: “Having been reoriented she seems to the prisoners “all turned around” as the colloquial phrase would have it” (p. 101). Her enlightenment cannot speak to their need for objective proof.

The cave allegory, as Ramsay shows in his close re-reading of this “inexhaustible and tireless text” (p. 102), is open to endless interpretation and re-interpretation.  It is never finished. That endless interpretive process is emblematic of what Ramsay sees as the prime task of education in the humanities: the task, that is, of “find[ing] speech that can be persuasive about the most pressing of matters that cannot be proven, while acknowledging we must do so under less than ideal conditions” (p. 102). One might add that this task also has relevance within the applied and even natural sciences, where uncertainty can never be eradicated and is increasingly acknowledged to be a constitutive element of scientific knowledge. Objectivity requires recognition of its own partiality, provisionality and subjectivity.

In what to my mind is the finest contribution to this fine volume, Andrzev Wiercinski explores the confusions and muddles regarding the task of education. “Academia today,” claims Wiercinski, ‘is utterly confused about the task of education.” (p. 109) He, too, evokes the “thinking teacher [as] a model of the educator” (p. 109): “education is a call to transform our life by exercising openness toward the other and the unknown. It is an ethics of embracing the strange, the negative, without silencing the differences. In this respect education is about living diversity” (p. 109). Wiercinski gets to the epistemological heart of the matter: “By encountering the strange and the unfamiliar, the familiar is changed. The transformation of what it is to be understood is the event of understanding” (p.110). Education is not so much a ‘goal-oriented action’ as a ‘good-oriented action’ (p.111)—an action by means of which self-understanding becomes the subject-matter. Following Gadamer, Wiercinski insists that “all understanding is self-understanding” (p.113).

One attractive and unusual feature of the book is that it addresses a wide readership of all those with an interest in education regardless of institutional setting. Those working in higher education might be seen as the primary readership, but Nicholson’s chapter (discussed above) focuses specifically on the concerns of the high school teacher, while Shaun Gallagher draws on insights from early childhood psychology in his discussion of the importance of ‘narrative competence’ in the development of inter-subjective understanding (or, more simply, the understanding of others). Paul Fairfield’s chapter on the conditions necessary for the use of dialogue in the classroom—and the conditions that militate against its use—is also highly relevant to school as well as higher education contexts. Both the editor and the publisher are to be applauded for refusing to narrow the scope of the book in the interests of niche marketing.

Not all the chapters succeed in modelling the hermeneutic approach that the book as a whole advocates. I found the tone of Fairfield’s chapter (though not his brief editorial introduction) somewhat opinionated and at times rather grumpy—hardly an exercise in “acknowledg[ing] that the other might be right” (p.18). Gallagher, while more tentative in tone, develops his argument within a tightly framed set of imported categories that again seem at odds with the conversational and dialogical spirit of the book as a whole. The final chapter by Babette Babich, focusing on the work of Illich and Neitzsche, is at times virtually unreadable with its constant name-dropping and a reliance on levels of syntactical complexity by comparison with which James Joyce seems a linguistic simpleton. (Were there space I would here quote—and attempt the impossible task of parsing—the 103 word long sentence on page 137: beginning with a subordinate clause—embedded within which is a phrase within a phrase and an additional parenthesis—it then proceeds to a main clause which spins off into an ‘in order to,’ an ‘in spite of’ and a grand finale of two instances of ‘either/or’ each hard on the heels of the other.)

While learning a great deal from this book about the relevance of philosophical hermeneutics to the task of education, I missed any critical discussion Gadamer’s work. Given the significance of Jurgen Habermas’s 1970 review of Gadamer’s Truth and Method, it seems odd that Habermas’s critique is not even cited, let alone discussed (see Habermas, 1977). Moreover other perspectives that inform the tradition of philosophical hermeneutics are conspicuous by their absence. There is, for example, no discussion of Hannah Arendt’s hugely important reflections on the nature of thinking (although she gets a brief mention on page 103)—or of Edward W. Said’s late thoughts on the significance of philological hermeneutics as developed by Erich Auerbach for what Said termed ‘democratic criticism’ (see Arendt, 1978; Auerbach, 2003; Said, 2004). To have opened itself to these wider influences—from cultural, literary, social and political theory—would have broadened the scope of the book and highlighted the interdisciplinary potential of philosophical hermeneutics.


Arendt, H. (1978) The Life of the Mind, Volume 1: Thinking. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Auerbach, E. (2003) Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. (Trans. W.R. Trask) Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press (First published in Berne, Switzerland, 1946)

Gadamer, G-H (2004) Truth and Method. Second Revised Edition. (Trans revised by J. Weinsheimer and D.G. Marshall) London and New York: Continuum.

Habermas, J. (1977) A Review of Gadamer’s Truth and Method. In F.R. Dallmayr and T.A. McCarthy, Understanding and Social Enquiry (335-361). Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press.

Said, E.W. (2004) Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 01, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17305, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 9:54:01 AM

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About the Author
  • Jon Nixon
    Hong Kong Institute of Education
    E-mail Author
    JON NIXON is a writer and independent scholar living in the north of England. He is affiliated to the Hong Kong Institute of Education as a senior research fellow and the University of Sheffield, UK, as an honorary professor. He is the author of Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education (Bloomsbury, 2012), Higher Education and the Public Good (Bloomsbury, 2011) and Towards the Virtuous University (Routledge, 2008). He is currently working on a book entitled Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2014. His full list of publications can be viewed via www.jonnixon.com
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