Nixon #2: the four thinkers

Nixon, J. 2013. Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education: Arendt, Berger, Said, Nussbaum and their Legacies. London, Bloomsbury.

Nixon uses the middle section of his book to develop his ideas around higher education as interpretation through four thinkers; Hannah Arendt, John Berger, Edward Said and Martha Nussbaum.

I’d come across all of them before, and bought Berger’s famous book ‘Ways of Seeing’ shortly after his death earlier this year, but it was satisfying to have their viewpoints brought together in this way and to see explicit links made with higher education.

I first heard of Arendt through reading about Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a long-term on and off relationship – despite being a Jew and him a one-time Nazi. A lot of people would probably wonder what on earth was going on there, but I get it. I too am intrigued and attracted to people with different viewpoints to myself, because I know I’ll be able to learn something from them. It doesn’t make life easy, but I don’t like things to be easy. Arendt was also clearly someone who liked to challenge herself and engage with as many different viewpoints as possible.

Nixon focuses on Arendt’s ideas about thinking, and her own approach to thought itself. Arendt saw thoughtfulness as constant, endless questioning. Thinking is difficult, and the relationship between thinking and acting is complex and indeterminate. Thoughtfulness alone can’t enable us to achieve collective agency.

I’ve been simultaneously reading up on free will, and this of course relates, but I’m not entirely sure what side Arendt would have placed herself (in fact, as I read, the more I wonder whether there are in fact two sides), as she argued that there is no clear path between the realm of thought and the sphere of action.

Arendt was in favour of thinking without method (‘without pillars and props’) – and as something that can only be done alone. That’s a really interesting distinction, and it doesn’t sit comfortably with me; I feel like I’ve had some of my most memorable insights in discussion with others, which has forced me to sharpen my focus and think a bit deeper than I would have by myself. But Arendt also stressed that thoughtfulness is plural in that it demands thinking from the standpoint of others; what she called representative thinking. I’ve been talking about this recently with Richard – the ability to simultaneously appreciate different standpoints – but I feel like we haven’t reached a point of mutual understanding on that yet.

Plurality is a key theme that runs through a lot of Arendt’s thinking about thought. She describes as ‘plural’ the relationship between thought and action, and also describes thinking as herself being with herself; an activity where she is ‘both the one who asks and the one who answers’. (1978, p185). I think that’s a really lovely way of putting it, and her assurance that she is alone but not lonely when thinking in solitude is really helpful for me personally, given that, right now, I’m adjusting to being alone a lot more than I’ve been in the last few year or so. Arendt argues that thinking is an activity – not an action, even an inner one. We are only with our self while thinking, whereas when we act we are in the company of others (2003, p105-106).

A couple of other points, which I’ll probably return to (maybe in my thoughts about free will and responsibility), include Arendt noting the easy ordinariness of evil and the tremendous difficulty of being good. Also that – without recourse to specified methods and procedures – thinking is unpredictable and has unspecifiable consequences.

In comparison to the chapter on Arendt, I’m not sure the chapter on John Berger spoke to me that much. Maybe working at UAL for seven years hasn’t influenced me as much as I thought it had – or maybe it has, and that’s the point! The general message – that becoming attentive is a way of positioning oneself politically and personally – is insightful. I didn’t feel it was particularly contentious.

In the next chapter, Nixon relates the work of Edward Said to his theme of worldliness in higher education; an openness to new possibilities and horizons and a constant questioning of what is known. Nixon makes explicit connections between Said’s thinking and Gadamer’s, on building on fragile friendships (through argument, understanding and deliberation) to extend the bounds of solidarity (see From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap – 2004, p170), and the idea of ‘background’ (I guess what Gadamer refers to as ‘tradition’?) and how it ‘asserts itself into the foreground’ (p82). It might be worthwhile to check out the BBC Reith lectures Said did in 1993 on speaking the truth to power, where he speaks of weighing up the alternative interpretations, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change.

Said – again like Gadamer – highlighted the importance of the historical context when interpreting texts. Worldliness requires a recognition of the interconnectivity of texts, and the complex web of social relations that bind and distinguish them. We need global and transnational perspectives in our reading of social reality (I was reminded here that I still haven’t returned to Blessinger’s recent book Democratising Higher Education, which outlines international variation in HE policy, funding models, etc – and this is the advice Ron Barnett gave me as well. Oops).

An important assumption underlies Said’s approach, which is the mutual dependence of written texts, and their status as deliberate interventions. Texts have designs on their readers and a vested interest in how related texts are read and interpreted. Now, this is a very interesting point. It made me consider – what are the designs I have on my readers (not necessarily through my thesis, but the other texts that spring from its loins). What is my vested interest in how texts related to my own are interpreted? Another assumption Nixon picks up on is that the world is ‘escapably wordy’. We understand and represent the world and render it knowable through words; this is part of what the world is and what it becomes. Texts have authority; this is how they resonate with each other and their readers. They ‘invite their readers into their conversations’ (p88).

Said was against politics being taught in classrooms, but maintained that knowledge is always better than ignorance, without exception – and this was, in a sense, his politics. Nixon describes him as a powerful, rather than a forceful, figure, and Said also used this distinction, likening it to the difference between volume and intensity (or resonance) in music. Said also wrote about the later work of artists – rather than expressing reconciliation and serenity – as tending towards the troubled and complex, highlighting the ‘intransigence, difficulty and contradiction’ that artists communicate through their work toward the end of their lives. I found this really interesting.

Reading about Edward Said got me thinking about how texts change our interpretation of the world, particularly in light of Galen Strawson’s chapter in the anthology I’ve been reading on free will. I wondered whether Strawson would class such texts as ‘S’ procedures or ‘C’ factors. I suspect probably the former. I guess the more surprising or unexpected a text is, the more its potential for change – but too far and the reader will not engage, or react in a way that ultimately serves to reinforces their existing view (this balance was very much in my mind when writing a feature for the Mail on Sunday a few weeks ago).

The chapter on Nussbaum also connected strongly with the free will debate. Nixon describes her work as ‘deeply Aristotlean’ in terms of her assertion that we are vulnerable to factors outside our control (‘much that I did not make goes towards making me whatever I shall be praised or blamed for being’ – 2001a p5), and how this affects our moral appraisals of one another. Nussbaum argues that we have a moral responsibility to be responsive to one another’s needs, and this, I assume, is what Nixon is relating to higher education – an aim to develop this capability in students.

Are we good/bad because of luck? Or because of our goodness/badness?

I’ve not read Nicomachean Ethics (yet), but I really like the sound of Aristotle’s approach as described by Nussbaum (2001a, p319-320); to carefully examine the extreme positions of luck-supremacy and agency-supremacy through exploring the motivating concerns in each case; i.e. what might prompt someone to adopt either view, and in doing so to preserve both ideas. I also like what Nussbaum says about emotions being a form of judgement (similar to the Greek Stoic view) on certain things beyond our own control. She suggests these affective judgements have their origins in our helpless, purely responsive infancy and are connected to the development of practical reason and a sense of self.

But… I think this idea of education as developing learners’ capabilities to affiliate oneself with others raises more questions than it answers. I think we all affiliate ourselves with others; what divides us is who or what we include in those circles of affiliation. Some – like my friend Libby – a vegan who founded the refugee aid charity Calais Action – have a seemingly very wide circle of affiliation that includes all humans and animals. Some – like myself, for whom empathy and social imagination doesn’t come naturally, and human connection is exhausting, might appear to have a smaller circle. Most of our mutual friends would say that Libby is the better person. I’ve had a lot more formal education than she has, but she has love and imagination in spades (except perhaps for political conservatives, people who neglect or harm animals, and anyone who voted for Brexit). While I spend my evenings and weekends immersed in philosophy, moral psychology and policy in a quest to understand the Other (especially political conservatives), she is out collecting and distributing emergency supplies for the distressed and displaced of the world. I guess we are both cultivating our humanity – and our global citizenship, and our respect of difference – in different ways. Are both our ways valid? What were the educational influences on our approaches? Are we working towards the same ends? These are all interesting questions that I’ve found myself pondering in reading about moral psychology, and I’ll come back to them.

In his conclusion, Nixon describes the human condition as dealing with having no control and needing to have total control; the ‘complementary neuroses of late modernity’ (p109). We are aware that our actions interconnect and interrelate to a vast extent and in myriad ways; so much that we can never get a handle on the details. That bit was great – it blew my mind a little – but the rest of his final section descends into polemic, and I’ll chew over that in my next post.

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