Self-education and seeking the truth through conversation

I had a great chat with David on Friday about my literature review, through which I want to build a strong bridge between my methodology (conversation) and the subject matter (aims/purpose of higher education). He suggested a few things to read, including a chapter about Heidegger and higher education, some more Gadamer, and a couple of writers on character education. He also encouraged me to take Ron Barnett up on his offer of a chat, and – in light of my recent interest in Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory – put me in touch with another doctoral student – Oliver Bridge – who is doing his thesis on philosophy and moral psychology.

I fully intended to dig out my SCONUL card and pick up Michael Peters’ Heidegger, Education and Modernity from the IoE library, but then I got paid and caved in to the call of amazon. I now have two of Peters’ books arriving next week, along with a voice recorder (plus windjammer!) for my conversations. The Gadamer translation and its accompanying paper was easy to find online, and it was straightforward to set up meetings with Ron and Oliver – I’ll write about those later.

So – more Gadamer…

Gadamer, H-G, 2001. Education is Self-Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 35 (4) p.529-538, and:

Cleary, J., and Hogan, P. 2001. The Reciprocal Character of Self-Education: Introductory Comments on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Address, Education is Self-Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 35 (4) p.520-527

The first item is a translation (by Hogan and Cleary) of an address Gadamer made in 1999 in the lead-up to his 100th birthday. The essence of the address is that conversation is essential for human flourishing.

One very important point he makes – relevant for my thesis and life in general I guess – is how language pre-forms our thoughts. The norms and presuppositions of our native language, and the options we select within that, affect how we think and feel. I first encountered this idea many years ago when studying REBT to combat depression, and I’ve become very conscious of it recently because of what I’ve been reading (on conversation, conflict talk, moral psychology etc), and other events and influences in my life. For example, I recently started encouraging my partner to try not to swear quite so much, because I think that finding gentler, more positive ways of talking to yourself and others can transform a situation. That’s slightly different to what Gadamer meant, I think, but relevant.

I found the following sentence of Gadamer’s particularly intriguing: ‘only through conversation does language fulfill itself’ (p535). I guess some might argue there are many great works (the songs of Bob Dylan, for example) that stand alone as one-way messages that fulfill language, and in that sense I’m not certain what ‘counts’ as conversation. But it’s a beautifully poetic sentence, and it draws together a lot of strands. Philosophy *is* a conversation. Teaching *is* a conversation. Higher education *is* a conversation…etc.

When Gadamer made this address in 1999, he saw the telephone as a threat, and television as of no benefit whatsoever. He made no direct reference to the internet, which was still in its infancy, only saying ‘many new things now confront us’ (p536), and emphasising that we must learn to deal with these new methods of communication and the threat they pose. Fewer than than twenty years later and we consider a good old-fashioned chat on the telephone to be a relatively high quality interaction. I wonder what Gadamer would think of this if he were alive today. I’m almost glad for him that he isn’t, but if he was, no doubt he’d be pushing this idea harder than ever – that ‘the humane capabilities are the ones to stress if one is to educate and to cultivate oneself… [and to] survive without damage from the progress of technology and technicity’ (p537). This self-education and cultivation is what the Germans call Bildung – and it’s illustrative that the Germans have a word for it and we don’t, like the British don’t like to acknowledge its existence as a thing (as with Kummerspeck – the German word for the weight gained from emotional overeating).

Reflecting on the essence of Gadamer’s address, I realised that this is what motivated me to start attending the Wednesday evening Philosophy of Education seminars at the IoE. I wanted to talk with other people who wanted to talk – to really talk with the primary intention of educating and cultivating ourselves. I’m not saying it’s impossible to educate yourself on Twitter, but face-to-face conversation has certain rules and traditions that yield very different results; these have to do with exchange, response, equality of contribution, how interactions begin and how they end, etc. What I really like about the relationships I’m building at the IoE is that they are almost entirely conducted face-to-face. 

Gadamer describes his experience of going to university during the first war – with a ‘circle of cultivated and nice girls’ who – it appears – got him into reading Theodor Lessing and the great Russian, Scandinavian and Dutch novels. Similarly, through the IoE group I’ve been lent books and given film recommendations, and I’m starting to appreciate things that I didn’t think I liked before. 

My partner often suggests books (fiction) he wants me to read; partly because he thinks I’d enjoy them and also because he wants us to talks about them together. Some of them I’ve loved (Pullman, Asimov), others not so much, and he’s found it hard seeing me avidly reading things that other people have recommended. It’s caused a fair amount of tension between us, especially when the relevance to my thesis seems tangential, and I understand why; reading something that resonates with someone else is a great way of getting inside their heads (an imperative that tends to loses its urgency with someone who you already know inside out). Reading between the lines I guess that’s what was going on with the young Gadamer and his female fellow students, and I certainly think that this is the kind of thing Gadamer means by being-with-one-another as learners; the self-education of seeking-out and getting-to-know the people with the interesting experiences and the interesting questions who are going to challenge my ideas and introduce me to new perspectives. 

I’ll finish with one of the key points Hogan and Cleary took from Gadamer’s address, because it really does capture the essence of what I’m aiming to do with my thesis, and explains the approach I’m taking:

‘The self-critical venturing of different perspectives provides a more promising path in the search for truth than does any traditional epistemological quest for certainty.’

I have a stack of books on my shelf at home bemoaning the marketisation of higher education and its transformation from public good to private investment. They are well-argued and persuasive, and new ones seem to be published every month. I want to try something different; I want to find out what happens when people who think differently come to a dialogue seeking the truth. I’m bored of the polemic already; I’m surprised it’s not bored of itself.

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2 Responses to Self-education and seeking the truth through conversation

  1. Thanks for the reading. Two really useful articles. I need to start blogging back again!

  2. Parm says:

    Provoked some interesting thoughts, especially for a Sunday. Enjoyed your Gadamer reference that ‘the humane capabilities are the ones to stress’, made me think where else my intentions are diverted to, social media rewarding, the gogglebox, phantasy, something else.

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