Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Heidegger's Existentialism and Education

In education, we are torn on the one hand between thinking about human-human relations and on the other, human-world relations. The relations between teachers and students, between students and their peers, the ways and means of communicating, of designing learning activities, of understanding the inner worlds of one another, of engendering empathy, and so on, all belong to the concern for human-human relations. The relations between humans and the world is the concern for knowledge, science, technical skill, enculturation and professional competence. The two are inter-twined, but their co-existence exposes a fundamental split in thinking about consciousness. It is a split which is revealed at a philosophical level in the critical responses to Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. In the rigour of Husserl’s analysis of the transcendental structure of consciousness, fundamental questions about what it is to be a conscious person living and learning in the world emerge. For the educationalist, the principal advantage of wading into the philosopher’s territory is to begin to sketch the outlines of educational positions like social constructivism, critical pedagogy, behaviourism, and so forth, and place them against the underpinning assumptions about the way human beings are and the way consciousness works. Two responses to Husserl’s approach stand out, each of which making important contributions to Husserl’s work, but both of which present new challenges.
The first approach is to say that however much we might speculate and meditate on the structure of consciousness, ordinary life goes on around us. Is it not na├»ve to suppose that ordinary everyday life can be abstracted away in the process of phenomenological reduction, and transcendental essences be revealed? Even Husserl who believed this to be the case could not escape the ordinariness of his own life. Indeed, there is something ironic in the fact that it was the realities of ordinary political life which would hurt Husserl very much – not just in the fact that as a Jew he found himself unable to teach under Nazism, but that this imposition was placed upon him by his own student, Martin Heidegger who rose to the position of Rector at the University of Freiberg. To add a further twist, of course it is Heidegger who upholds the primacy of everyday life over Husserl’s transcendental consciousness. It is Heidegger who argues that the whole person is the person living in time, whose concernful existence is irreducible to the structuring of an idealised consciousness. It is Heidegger, who in contrast to Husserl’s somewhat cold analysis and mathematically-grounded study of consciousness, upholds the human spirit with a living, breathing, beating heart that most of us can recognise. Heidegger’s romantic theologically-inspired rhetoric is intoxicating and attractive: in much the same way that many in the 1930s and 40s were attracted to extreme forms of political expression in the heartfelt belief that they were able to build a better world. Heidegger’s thought is deeply entwined with his political views and personal actions.
The alternative to the Husserl-Heidegger tension is the view that Husserl didn’t go far enough in his analysis of the transcendental subject, and that in particular, his key concepts of the ‘lifeworld’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ needed further elaboration which makes the connection between phenomenology and sociology. This was the approach taken by Alfred Schutz, which I will deal with in the next section. Although Schutz rarely mentions Heidegger, he shares the concerns about the everyday world and the nature of time. Schutz identifies the problem in Husserl’s lack of definition of the different kinds of inter-human relationship which exist in everyday life. Whereas Heidegger’s response to Husserl is to reject the transcendental subject in favour of the ‘existential subject’, Schutz seeks to refine the transcendental subject in a way which provides a deeper insight into everyday life. Put most simply, Schutz’s concern is for a deeper understanding of human-human relations, in contrast to Heidegger’s concern for characterising human-world relations.
There are many reasons to dislike Heidegger’s work, yet it remains one of the most influential contributions to philosophy in the 20th century. After Husserl, phenomenology took Heidegger’s ‘existential’ path – finding powerful voices particularly within French philosophy (Marcuse, Foucault, Derrida, Badiou) and within certain schools of analytical philosophy and cognitive science in the US (Dreydfus, Idhe, Winograd, Blattner). It has provided academics with critical approaches to the modern world and modern technology and a romantic orthodoxy about the dehumanisation of society by technology. Yet critics argue that for all Heidegger’s poetic-descriptive language about the different aspects of “Dasein”, one can very easily argue “what’s the point?” Doesn’t Heidegger’s phenomenology appear as simply a poetic language for a “hermeneutics of being”? Whose hermeneutics? It doesn’t help that in Heidegger’s own opinion, the point seems to be that analysis of the modern world entails a retreat from it into a more ‘authentic’ way of being. Do not Heidegger and his successors really want to preach, where Husserl sought to scientifically investigate? Were this accusation to be wholly true, it is unlikely Heidegger’s work would have had the impact that it had. In reality, there is much analytical power in his arguments some of which have found resonances in other scientific work. A good example is his consideration of ‘care’ (Sorge).
Heidegger sees ‘care’ at the very heart of the being-in-the-world that he calls ‘Dasein’. Being-in-the-world is to be in a world of things that matter. Heidegger seeks to identify the fundamental nature of “matteringness”. In doing this, he sees ‘time’ and ‘care’ entwined. ‘Care’ is the “Structural totality of Dasein’s being” arguing that “in order of the ways in which things are connected to their ontological foundations… reality is referred back to the phenomenon of care” (Being and Time, p211). Care is simultaneously past, present and future. The past is represented by the irreversibility of human existence in time. Humans are ‘thrown’ through time: nothing can be un-done. In the present, human being is largely habitual, unthinking, automatic or instinctive: this is what Heidegger calls “falling”. In the future, human beings project in wishes and dreams, reconfiguring the meaning of present circumstances or past events. In his model of care, Heidegger approaches the same anticipatory problems in consciousness that Husserl tried to grapple with. In Husserl, consciousness is continually restructuring its ‘horizon of meanings’ in the light of engagement with the lifeworld and intersubjectivity. However, Husserl’s lifeworld is a construct emerging from the interactions of intersubjective consciousnesses, where time itself is part of the construct. Heidegger’s model is of a real world of time through which human beings are thrown. Heidegger produces a transcendental ontology of the world: there is a “ticking clock”.
Heidegger’s consideration of care as past, present and future, bears strong resemblance to models of biological systems as ‘viable entities’ (Stafford Beer), anticipatory systems (Rosen), and cybernetic models of consciousness (Varela). In each case, we can talk of a ‘succession of events in time’ as the basis of ‘thrown-ness’, upon which a level of adaptation to past events takes place, and over which radical new reconfiguration of events then form. Indeed the mechanism that Heidegger appears to articulate occurs in a number of places. This can be represented diagrammatically as:
Why is this important in education? At heart, all educational theories make assumptions about consciousness. The social constructivism of Vygotsky was an educational theory borne from an approach to consciousness which concerned the interactions between human beings (Vygotsky’s theory bears comparison with the intersubjectivity of Schutz, to which I will return in the next section). Like Vygotsky, Freire articulates a praxeological consciousness, within which his radical pedagogy exploits Marxist ideas of consciousness and the social situation of individuals. Like Heidegger, Freire is concerned with authenticity, but unlike Heidegger, Freire is most interested in the role that each of us plays in engendering the authenticity of one another. He says:
“Men, however, because they are aware of themselves and thus of the world – because they are conscious beings – exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom. As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, as they separate themselves from their own activity, as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, men overcome the situations which limit them: the ‘limit situations’. Once perceived by men as fetters, as obstacles to their liberation, these situations stand out in relief from the background, revealing their true nature as concrete historical dimensions of a given reality. Men respond to the challenge with actions which Viera Pinto calls ‘limit-acts’: thse directed at negating and overcoming, rather than passively accepting, the ‘given’.
Thus it is not the limit-situations in and of themselves which create a climate of hopelessness, but rather how they are perceived by men at a given historical moment.” (Freire, pxx)

In stark contrast to this politically-oriented approach to education and consciousness, behaviourist approaches to learning highlight a model of consciousness inferred by the efficacy of the rigour of drill and practice, the habitual reinforcement of skills, social conditioning and the persistence and determination to succeed presents a less social, mentalist account of consciousness to which modern neuroscience lays so much claim. Whilst not doubting the efficacy of drill and practice, neuroscience’s explanation (based on adaptation of neural pathways in accordance with “Hebbian learning”) makes a radical split between the conscious mind and the external world: a split which would not be sanctioned within Husserl and Schutz’s understanding of ‘intersubjectivity’, particularly regarding their focus on the role that each of us plays in engendering the consciousness of each other through empathy, mutual understanding and so on. Heidegger’s position with regard to the empathic inter-human business of teaching is less clear. Whilst he wants to tear down the separation between transcendental consciousness and being-in-the-world, his phenomenology focuses on adaptation of individual consciousness to temporal events, with the burden for individual authenticity and the determination of entities in the world falling on the individual’s interpretation in the light of events: Heidegger’s influence on cognitive science, particularly in the US, is perhaps an indication of his own brand of ‘soft cognitivism’ which number of US technology academics have found attractive. The difficulty with interpretivism is that inevitably it leads to the description of those things in the world which engender a more authentic way of being: putting it crudely, Heidegger finds forests, cathedrals and artworks more suitable for engendering authenticity than aeroplanes, football stadiums and shopping centres.

What is missing from Heidegger’s assessment of being-in-the-world is the intersubjective sense of a world populated with other people and other consciousnesses as we find in Husserl's work. This may have had some political resonance for Heidegger. It is hard, for example, to avoid an implicit criticism of socialist solidarity movements when Heidegger writes:

In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services such as the newspaper, every Other is like the next. This Being-with-one-another dissolves one's own Dasein completely into a kind of Being of ‘the Others’, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness. (Being and Time 27: 164)

It should be noted that such criticism of the world of ‘others’ is shared by thinkers on the left too. Horkheimer makes similar comments about the ‘crowd’ and the loss of individual responsibility and identity within it. Yet at the same time, there is a sense that Heidegger, having taken so much care to delineate the different aspects of Dasein with regard to events in the world, takes rather less care to delineate the different kinds of human relations, the different ways in which human beings can be cruel or kind to one another, and the fundamental role that each person plays in developing the authentic consciousness of the other.

Heidegger’s lack of definition of inter-human relations is worth bearing in mind when we consider how his conclusions about authenticity, inauthenticity and the modern world become increasingly plaintive. His concept of authenticity is related to the “mine-ness” of experience: the extent to which I become disposed towards events which are in keeping with my … Giddens refers to this as ‘ontological security’. Fundamentally, mine-ness and authenticity are a particular orientation towards “truth”. Heidegger imagines a dialectical process of the different modes of Dasein leading to an authentic way of being as a harmonious balance between the concealing of truth (through fallen-ness) and its revealing. Within educational institutions too, we fall into patterns of practice which conceal truth. Only at moments where there is an interruption in practice is there some kind of glimpse as the world behind. Heidegger draws attention to moments of ‘breakdown’ which reveal something more powerful. This has been of value to technologists. Winograd and Flores, provide an example of Heidegger’s notion of breakdown:

“If we turn to computer systems, we see that for different people, engaged in different activities, the existence of objects and properties emerge in different kinds of breaking down. As I sit here typing a draft on a word processor, I am in the same situation as the hammerer. I think of words and they appear on my screen. There is a network of equipment that includes my arms and hands, a keyboard, and many complex devices that mediate between it and a screen. None of this equipment is present for me except when there is a breaking down. If a letter fails to appear on the screen, the keyboard may emerge with properties such as ‘stuck keys’. Or I may discover that the program was constructed from separate components such as a ‘screen manager’ and a ‘keyboard handler’ and that certain kinds of ‘bugs’ can be attributed to the keyboard handler. If the problem is serious, I may be called upon to bring forth a complex network of properties reflecting the design of the system and the details of computer software and hardware. […] In sum, Heidegger insists that it is meaningless to talk about the existence of objects and their properties in the absence of concernful activity, with its potential for breaking down. What really is is not defined by an objective omniscient observer, nor is it defined by an individual – the writer or computer designer – but rather by a space of potential for human concern and action.” (Winograd and Flores, p37)

In the world of technology (which he characterises as the principal mode of being in the modern world, or ‘enframing’) fallen-ness is encountered when everything works; when something breaks down, there is a moment of revealing of truth (alethia). Through the development of Heidegger's thought, there is an emerging pessimism about technology (which he saw as inevitably leading to enslavement). Gradually, Heidegger's romanticism lead him towards an increasingly mystical position which sought refuge in art and poetry: in contrast to 'enframing', Heidegger draws attention to poets who "dwell" in the world, rather than are enframed by it. Heidegger isn't wrong to draw attention to the difference in the way of being with technology and the way of being with art: these do appear to be distinct. And yet his desire to "dwell" entails a motivation to change his environment which ultimately has a political dimension, to which he appears blind. Like all gurus who extol the virtues of one way of living over another, the realisation of dreams entails stamping on the dreams of others.

Heidegger’s work and its influence has been powerful and profound. Heidegger-the-Nazi provides us with one of the great intellectual challenges in 20th century philosophy: his work brings us face-to-face with the ugliness and pathology latent behind a passionate and romantic approach to human being. Its value lies in contemplating its depth of insight and intellectual oversights. Where Husserl’s mathematical ascetism caused him to overlook the everyday world in which all of us are caught up in, Heidegger’s romanticism causes him to overlook the social ecological diversity wherein the many lived consciousnesses striving for truth and meaning have a bearing on each other. One might speculate that the didactic practices of the early 20th century German university may have contributed to this oversight, and one couldn’t imagine Heidegger having much time for today’s champions of mixed ability teaching, differentiated learning activities, and so forth. Yet in the practical approaches that teachers use within the organisational constraints of education systems, the role of inter-human intersubjectivity within a shared context forms the central pillar of educational practice. Having said this, within Heidegger’s concept of care, the moment of transformation is conscious awareness – which Heidegger identifies with a change in ‘projection’ – provides us with an understanding of what happens when we extend our capabilities beyond former constraints, the moving ‘beyond limits’ that Freire identifies. The question concerns the causes for this transformation. Thinking, which is Heidegger’s primary concern, is certainly an essential part of the process. But the richness of interactions with others, from parents to friends and enemies, past and present provides the dialectical force behind a process which can lead equally to pathology or enlightenment.


Scott said...

One thing I take from Heidegger and the idea of breakdown is in "digital skills"; while many people are proficient in the use of technology in everyday life, when they haven't experienced the earlier, less polished iterations of these technologies surfaces at moments of breakdown - the "why doesn't this work?" is more perplexing and frustrating never having experienced times where getting it to work at all was a process of care (and frustration!)

The concept in technology of "leaky abstraction" is another way of looking at these areas of breakdown - the facade of services in technology tries to obscure the way in which the technology really works. When this facade fails - the reality leaks through the abstraction - is the moment of breakdown that throws the user. Things that were presented as a continuum turn out to be discrete; concepts that were presented as aspects of hardware turn out to be software, etc.

Mark Johnson said...

The interesting thing is Heidegger's weakness concerning interpersonal relations. Yet breakdowns usually result in us asking someone for help.

Of course, there's the situation where nobody can help... but I wonder if that's a problem in the power structures which are tied up with digital technology. In the breakdown of services, or indeed in the unforeseen and unpleasant side-effects of complex technologies (e.g. Wikileaks) we see the human domain of politics re-appear. Actually, that's basically what's happening with Greece at the moment - the breakdown of a technocracy. Again, Heidegger doesn't see this. He just wants to live in the countryside!!