What is Authority? Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: What is Authority?

This is a long, dense essay which is complicated and difficult to follow. It is definitely a challenge to thinking.

Arendt’s view is that authority no longer exists. The loss of authority is a consequence of the loss of tradition and religion in the modern world. Today we value tradition only when we like the tradition. A consequence of the loss of tradition, says Arendt, is a loss of depth in human existence, and a loss of permanence, durability and stability. (p.94)

I’m not sure in what order these essays were originally published, before they were collected together in this publication, but the first three chapters of this book, Between Past and Future, (the Preface, The Gap Between Past and Future; Tradition and the Modern Age; and The Concept of History) are helpful in understanding where she is coming from in this essay.

Since Arendt believes that authority no longer exists, her question is not so much What is authority? But instead, What was authority when it did exist?  This she traces back to the Greeks (Plato and Aristotle) and the Romans. There is quite a hefty section on the philosophy of history in this chapter.

Arendt describes authority as the authentic and undisputable experiences common to all (p.91) and says that authority implies an obedience in which men retain their freedom (p.105). For her authority does not mean being forced, persuaded or compelled to accept a situation as authentic and undisputable, but instead we obey and accept authority because we freely desire to do so. For Arendt, authority does not require coercion and does not involve violence. An authoritarian government allows for autonomy and freedom. This way of thinking about authority has largely been lost in the modern world, in political (education, religion and politics) and pre-political forms (parental authority).

So, if authority is necessary but lost, how do we live in a world without political authority?

As with tradition, Arendt can see a positive potential in the loss of authority, which when associated with more freedom allows for more spontaneity and the possibility of making the world anew. The loss of authority does not mean the loss of an ability to care for the world.

“but the loss of worldly permanence and reliability – which politically is identical with the loss of authority – does not entail, at least not necessarily, the loss of the human capacity for building, preserving, and caring for a world that can survive us and remain a place fit to live in for those who come after us.” (p.95)

How do we begin thinking about the need to build a world that is permanent and stable, but without authority?

To live in a political world, we have to talk a common language. We have to agree on the meaning of such words as tyranny, totalitarianism, and authority, otherwise we live in a meaningless, solipsistic world. Two theories have made the word ‘Authority’ confusing.

1. The Theory of Liberalism. Liberalism sees authority, tyranny and totalitarianism as the same, but Arendt points out that whilst in an authoritarian regime there is a restriction on freedom, a tyrannical regime abolishes public freedom, and a totalitarian regime eliminates freedom. If we think in terms of pyramids, in an authoritarian regime, authority is at the top and filters down through the pyramid, as, for example, in the Christian Church, or, in the case of the Romans, authority begins with ancestors at the bottom of the pyramid and works up to the people. In the case of tyrannical regimes, there are no intermediate layers to the pyramid, only the top and bottom (p.99). Totalitarian regimes are like onions, with the totalitarian leader at the centre facing outwards and the people in the outer layers facing both inwards and outwards to the world.

2. The rise of the social sciences. Arendt writes:

“…. many social scientists believe they can do without the study of what the historical sciences call the sources themselves. Their concern is only with functions, and whatever fills the same function can according to this view, be called the same.” p.102

At the end of the first section of this essay, Arendt poses four questions:

  1. What were the political experiences that corresponded to the concept of authority and from which it sprang?
  2. What is the nature of a public-political world constituted by authority?
  3. Is it true that the Platonic-Aristotelian statement that every well-ordered community is constituted of those who rule and those who are ruled was always valid prior to the modern age?
  4. Or, to put it differently, what kind of world came to an end after the modern age not only challenged one or another form of authority in different spheres of life but caused the whole concept of authority to lose its validity altogether? (p.104)

In the following sections of the chapter, Arendt goes on to discuss what she considers to be the mistaken ideas of authority of the ancient Greeks. Plato’s idea was to replace persuasion with the idea of philosophical truth. After the ‘murder’ of Socrates, he no longer trusted the people to make the right decisions through persuasion and argument.

“Very early in his search he [Plato] must have discovered that truth, namely, the truths we call self-evident, compels the mind, and that this coercion, though it needs no violence to be effective, is stronger than persuasion and argument. The trouble with coercion through reason, however, is that only the few are subject to it so that the problem arises of how to assure that the many, the people who in their very multitude compose the body politic, can be submitted to the same truth.” (p.107)

The problem is that truth itself is not a concept that necessarily has authority.

“Platonically speaking, the few cannot persuade the multitude of truth because truth cannot be the object of persuasion, and persuasion is the only way to deal with the multitude. But the multitude, carried away by the irresponsible tales of poets and storytellers, can be persuaded to believe almost anything; the appropriate tales which carry the truth of the few to the multitude are tales about rewards and punishments after death; persuading the citizens of the existence of hell will make them behave as tough they knew the truth.” (p.132)

Aristotle also considered the question of how to conceive of authority without coercion or persuasion. For him, the answer was education. Arendt points out that the “substitution of education for rule had the most far-reaching consequences” (p.118) and that confusing political authority and education leads to the process of brainwashing.  Both Plato and Aristotle end up putting violence back into authority; Plato the violence of experts, who imposed their self-evident truths on the people (e.g. philosophers), and Aristotle the violence of educators who brainwash those who disagree.

Education as a path to truth can only yield authority when education is bound with a strong sense of tradition. The nature of a public political world constituted by authority is one in which the traditional authority of ancestors is taken for granted, as was the case in Ancient Rome, where authority was buried deep in the past.

“At the heart of Roman politics, from the beginning of the republic until virtually the end of the imperial era, stands the conviction of the sacredness of foundation, in the sense that once something has been founded it remains binding for all future generations.” (p.120)

This essay is about how to do politics after a break with tradition, when authority is no longer available. Even the fear of hell which has been used through the ages to bring man into line “is no longer among the motives which would prevent or stimulate the actions of a majority.” (p. 135). Not only is authority dead, but so too is religion and the idea of hell.

Is there a way to re-imagine a kind of political authority after the loss of authority, religion and tradition in the modern world? No – writes Arendt, with one exception, and that is revolution. Arendt claimed that “revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning, ….  since they represent the attempt to found a new political space, a space where freedom can appear as a worldly reality.” (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/)

Arendt believed that politics is about talking and engaging with regular people such that they come up with their own ideas on how to govern themselves. The politics of revolution does not privilege the educated elites or the wise. It can’t be from the top down.

We live in a time in which politics is seen as corrupt ( Arendt is referring to Western liberal democracies). The only way to re-establish authority is through re-founding our fundamental freedoms through revolution, not violent revolution as in the French revolution, but non-violent, non-coercive revolution, as was the case in ancient Rome, which valued, tradition, religion and authority, and the American revolution where the founding fathers transferred the seat of authority to the judiciary (p.140) and ‘the act of foundation took the form of a constitution of liberty.’ (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/) . Arendt makes a distinction between the American liberation from England and the successful American Revolution, when freedom was founded in America in a meaningful way once the Constitution was established and became secure.

In this thinking exercise, Arendt calls on us to conduct an honest analysis of the present political situation. This was the real political challenge when she wrote this essay and remains a real political challenge for us today. We must honestly confront our own limited perspectives and honestly listen to those we disagree with, and make an effort to understand our present situation and to unite people across their differences. Arendt’s hope is for a new kind of authority without a revolution, in which we confront the loss of authority anew without religious or traditional authorities, and commit to the elementary problems of human living together. (p.141)


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: https://www.thenewleam.com/2019/03/the-foresight-of-hannah-arendts-theory/

The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern

In this second essay/thinking exercise, Hannah Arendt turns her attention to the concept of history, both ancient and modern, and the danger in modern times of conceiving of history as a process, and thus a technology, as opposed to singular events, deeds and words, as was the case in ancient history. In ancient history, “the subject of history matter is these interruptions – the extraordinary.” (p.42). The task of the historian was to remember the great deeds.

“The concern with greatness, so prominent in Greek poetry and historiography, is based on the most intimate connections between the concepts of nature and history. Their common denominator is immortality ……. History receives into its remembrance those mortals who through deed and word have proved themselves worthy of nature, and their everlasting fame means that they, despite their mortality, may remain in the company of things that last forever.” p. 48

Ancient history immortalised the actions of mortal human beings, by remembering their great deeds, but in the modern age, history changed with the loss of the idea of immortality. With the rise of science, uncertainty and doubt (see the previous chapter on Tradition and the Modern Age), modern history became a man-made process, in which there is no true, knowable, objective reality. Science makes us suspicious of our senses; we begin to distrust our world and lose a common objective. We lose confidence in great deeds and no longer think singular events important. We try and recreate a common world through history as a process, so history becomes based on action.

“The modern concept of process pervading history and nature alike separates the modern age from the past more profoundly than any other single idea”. p.63

In the modern era nature is no longer static, but can change. For history, this means a loss of objective and impartial reality. In an impartial standpoint of history we can credit infinite points of view.

“….. the Greeks discovered that the world we have in common is usually regarded from an infinite number of different standpoints, to which correspond the most diverse points of view.” p. 51

In the modern age, all we have is processes through which we act, and action becomes determinative of the human condition, the world and nature. We can remake the world and change nature. We increasingly see the world through our own eyes. History is no longer driven by the greatness of the events of history, but becomes determined by its usefulness to achieve our ends, a technology, a means to an end.

“The historian, by gazing backward into the historical process, has been so accustomed to discovering an “objective” meaning, independent of the aims and awareness of the actors, that he is liable to overlook what actually happened in his attempt to discern some objective trends.” p. 88

History and science merge together in the modern age to form a technology which we use to impact our world. Nothing is truly worthy of being remembered. The historian is someone who starts a process to create history, and similarly the scientist is someone who “makes” nature.

“We know today that though we cannot “make” nature in the sense of creation, we are quite capable of starting new natural processes, and that in a sense therefore we “make nature”, to the extent, that is, that we “make history”. p.58

We have thus devalued history and the humanities. Why study history, when it’s not there? It’s what we make. As such, an interest in history in the modern age is declining.

When the world has become subjectivized, internalised and doubted, judgements become judgements of taste and preference. History is no longer objective. Nature is no longer immortal. The way we know nature and history is increasingly determined by human framing and by the questions we ask. Both nature and history can be impacted by human action and anything is possible. We can remake reality on the basis of a lie.  “… we can take almost any hypothesis and act upon it, with a sequence of results in reality which not only make sense but work ….” (p.87). The hypothesis can be as mad as it pleases. We can make it real, even if it is not true.

“… for the first time in our history the human capacity for action has begun to dominate all others …” p.62

“It is beyond doubt that the capacity to act is the most dangerous of all human abilities and possibilities, and it is also beyond doubt that the self-created risks mankind faces today have never been faced before.” p.63

In this thinking exercise Arendt concludes that thinking of history as a process is dangerous, and means that we should be rigorously suspicious of historical arguments, and question all common sense narratives.


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=6GUNDQ2CyPw

Tradition and the Modern Age: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: Tradition and the Modern Age

In this thinking exercise (Chapter 1) in her book ‘Between Past and Future’, Hannah Arendt takes a closer look at the beginning and end of tradition, which she first mentioned in the Preface. This is an exercise in thinking about the break in tradition, which is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

What does she mean by tradition? Tradition is the transmission or passing on of customs, beliefs or facts, carried over from deep in our past, from generation to generation.

What does she mean by modern age? The modern age is the age of science. Arendt distinguishes the modern age (the rise of science and the political and Industrial Revolutions of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries) from the modern world (the two World Wars of the 20th century, the first atomic explosion, and the rise of totalitarianism). The modern world is defined by the break of tradition and the rise of totalitarian domination.

“Totalitarian domination as an established fact, which in its unprecedentedness cannot be comprehended through the usual categories of political thought, and whose ‘crimes’ cannot be judged by traditional moral standards or punished within the legal framework of our civilization, has broken the continuity of Occidental history. The break in our tradition is now an accomplished fact.” p.26

Arendt tells us that tradition in the West started with the teachings of Plato and Aristotle and ended with the teachings of Marx. Plato used the allegory of the cave to describe the sphere of human affairs, i.e. man lives in darkness and confusion, in the shadows, which we must turn away from to discover the clear sky of eternal ideas; for Plato truth was in ideas. Aristotle, Plato’s student, added to this saying that man is a rational animal, distinguished from other animals in that he thinks. For the rationalist, truth was in reason.

If Plato turned away from the world to ideas, Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche turned away from ideas to the world. Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche….

….“ were the first who dared to think without the guidance of any authority whatsoever; yet for better and worse, they were still held by the categorical framework of the great tradition.” p.28.  

In this second turning of Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the idea of truth, the trust in things as they appear, trust in the idea of God, and the idea that truth is a result of reason, is undone. Truth becomes a working hypothesis, or a mere value, something we decide upon socially. Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche all recognised this. They stood at the very end of tradition, just before the rise of totalitarian governments. They were not the cause of the break in tradition, but “they perceived their world as one invaded by new problems and perplexities which our tradition of thought was unable to cope with” (p. 27). Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were fighting against tradition and trying to free themselves from these truths that they saw as unsustainable, but they were still within the tradition.

Today we live without tradition (Arendt introduces this idea in her Preface). We are not fighting against tradition any more. That fight has been won. But, for Arendt what we hear is not the silence of tradition, but the silence of what we could argue for. What do we believe in? Is there a way, in the absence of tradition, to fight for something that is true in a public way, not just a subjective belief? The loss of tradition risks danger and confusion. Quoting Plato, Arendt writes:

“The beginning is like a god, which as long as it dwells among men saves all things “ 

– and she continues that this …

“is true of our tradition; as long as its beginning was alive, it could save all things and bring them into harmony. By the same token, it became destructive as it came to its end – to say nothing of the aftermath of confusion and helplessness which came after the tradition ended and in which we live today”. p.18

This end of tradition is both good and bad. Today tradition scarcely commands our interest, but whilst this has led to confusion and helplessness, Arendt believes…

… “it is the great chance to look upon the past with eyes undistracted by any tradition, with a directness which has disappeared from Occidental reading and hearing ever since Roman civilization submitted to the authority of Greek thought.” p.28

So Arendt is both optimistic and pessimistic.

In the modern age, science unsettled the idea of truth, despite the fact that it seeks to find truth beyond what we see. For Plato truth was in ideas, for Christianity truth was in God, for the rationalists, truth was in reason, i.e. for them all truth stands outside the messy modern world; they are non-physical truths. But in the modern age, science infused doubt and mistrust into tradition and challenged the entire foundation of the Western tradition. This has led to uncertainty which our tradition of thought is unable to deal with. This is the pessimistic view.

Thinking more optimistically, Arendt writes that tradition came to a conceptual/philosophical end with Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and to a factual end with the rise of totalitarian domination. In this thinking gap between past and future in which we now find ourselves, we now have to think for ourselves for the first time since the time of Plato and Aristotle. We no longer have truths; we have values, and we now put a value on everything. There are no highest values, all we have are the values we make and create. The result of this is the loss of wonder, but it is also an opportunity. Arendt’s optimistic view is that we can now potentially start a new tradition, to live freely in a way that we haven’t lived since the Roman empire. This is the opportunity in the gap between past and future – to think through the problems free from tradition.


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1977). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-why-does-germany-love-hannah-arendt-1.9018083

The Gap Between Past and Future: Hannah Arendt: Preface

I will always remember the start of 2021 as being, for the most part, ‘dark’. Short, dark, very cold days, with snow (which is unusual in my area) and frost on the ground, and stuck indoors because Covid-19 has mutated and we are yet again in lockdown, and yet again under threat of being completely overwhelmed by the number of cases of sick and dying people. ‘Dark’ also in the sense of the political mess my country (Brexit and the economy), and other countries (in particular the US) seem to be in. But what has really uplifted me in this dark month of January 2021, has been my discovery of Hannah Arendt, whose book ‘The Gap Between Past and Future’ has been selected by the Philosophy of Education virtual Reading Network (@PhilofEd) for discussion next week on Tuesday 19th January.

I have heard Hannah Arendt referred to many times in the past, but I have never got round to reading her books. Between Past and Future is a good introduction to her work and ideas, which I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging with, to the extent that I have decided to write a post on each chapter. This is to help me clarify my own understanding, and I should stress that her writing is so dense, so complicated, and so full of ideas, that it is impossible to do it justice in these short posts. For me writing these posts has helped me see her key points more clearly, or her key points as I understand them, but the content of these posts is no substitute for reading her book.


In this book Hannah Arendt pulls together eight essays, which she calls exercises in political thinking, and in which she examines the gap between past and future. Together these essays offer an extended metaphor. The extended metaphor is ‘the gap’, which comes to stand for the space for thinking. Arendt thought that most people don’t live in this gap; they don’t think. She tells us that since the time of the Romans the gap has been bridged over by what we call tradition. Tradition provides us with habits and institutions that largely prevent us from living in this gap, which I take to mean, largely prevent us from thinking. My understanding is that she means that we no longer have the ability, nor the capability to think. There have always been some greater thinkers (philosophers, poets, artists) who have lived in this gap, who have made thinking their primary business, but most of us haven’t.

However, Arendt also discusses the loss of tradition, saying that most of us can no longer orient our lives through tradition. The demise of the Church over past years comes to mind, and its fairly easy to think of other similar examples.  For Arendt this loss of tradition means that the gap between past and future, the space for thinking, has now become relevant to all, a fact of political relevance, but politics today no longer brings thought to reality; we live in a world in which there is no political truth. It’s amazing to think that Arendt published this book in 1977. Her thinking seems so current.

Arendt starts her book, in the Preface, with a quotation from Rene Char (French poet and writer): “our inheritance was left to us by no testament”. What does this mean? For Arendt our inheritance is the lost treasure of freedom, freedom as experienced, for example, by the freedom fighters of the French resistance and other revolutionaries and challengers, who recognised the uncertainty of what it is to be a challenger and learned what it means to start something new. Arendt asks how we re-find this lost treasure that has no testimony/tradition. Freedom isn’t bound in tradition that we can hold onto, so how can we bring freedom to be? Here, I think, she is talking about freedom of thought and freedom to act. Although freedom happens in moments, as experienced by freedom fighters, we don’t have the space to make it real. It is fleeting. How can we hold onto and think in a way that is meaningful in the world, when there is no testament or space for this free thinking?

Arendt uses Kafka’s parable of HE as a parable of the space of thought (the mind), a parable which describes the infinite past and the infinite future each as a force which both act on HE, who is pressed from behind and from in front. Arendt then references Hegel who wants to reconcile thought and reality:

The task of the mind is to understand what happened, and this understanding, according to Hegel, is man’s way of reconciling himself with reality; its actual end is to be at peace with the world. The trouble is that if the mind is unable to bring peace and to induce reconciliation, it finds itself immediately engaged in its own kind of warfare.” p. 7

Arendt thinks we have lost the ability to make sense of the world; the effort to think and make sense of the world/reality is a battle. She thinks that Kafka’s parable addresses this, in part, but what is missing is ‘a spatial dimension where thinking could exert itself without being forced to jump out of human time altogether. p.11.’

Thinking shouldn’t be a rational umpire. Is there a space where human thinking could reflect on the battle whilst still being in human time? For Arendt, this is ‘the gap’. The battle field of Kafka’s two forces should result in a third force ‘whose origin would be the point at which the forces clash and upon which they act.’ Arendt thinks this the perfect metaphor for the activity of thought. Man can start something new  in this space between past and future, a space of freedom and thinking.

All Arendt’s writing (at least in this book, I haven’t read any others) is like this: complicated! But I suppose that is the point. She is trying to move us into ‘the gap’; trying to show us what it means to think, because only there will the truth appear. At the end of the Preface, she writes:

“The following eight essays are such exercises, and their only aim is to gain experience in how to think: they do not contain prescriptions on what to think or which truths to hold. Least of all do they intend to retie the broken thread of tradition or to invent some newfangled surrogates with which to fill the gap between past and future. Throughout these exercises the problem of truth is kept in abeyance; the concern is solely with how to move in this gap – the only region perhaps where truth eventually will appear.” (p.13/14)


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. Arendt’s text, whilst sometimes poetic and lyrical, has been, for me, difficult to follow. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1977). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: https://www.kalw.org/post/philosophy-talk-hannah-arendt#stream/0

Notes on Richard Rorty’s ‘Philosophy and Social Hope’

The last book read by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network (@PhilofEd) this year was Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope, published in 1999. This book is a compilation of essays, articles and lectures written by Rorty, which summarise his central philosophical beliefs and how they relate to his political hopes. The group invited Paul Showler from the University of Oregon, who is writing his PhD dissertation on the ethical thought of Richard Rorty, to get the discussion going. Paul told us that Rorty is seen as a whistle-blower, who questioned many of philosophy’s basic assumptions. Rorty recognised that his ideas were controversial and writes that he was attacked equally by the political right and left, the right for irresponsibility, and the left for complacency. There have been a number of critical responses to Rorty’s work. An introduction to these can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rorty/

Rorty’s principal philosophical hero was John Dewey, who, he tells us, eschewed certainty and eternity, and early on in his career Rorty found himself moving away from Plato in the direction of Dewey. This ultimately led to his own version of pragmatism, a version which drew fire from a number of fellow philosophers. Apart from Dewey, major influences on Rorty’s thinking were Hegel, Darwin, Heidegger and Davidson.

I did not have time to read every essay in this book before the online reading network discussion this week, and because it was a collection of essays, and after getting half way through, when I knew I was running out of time, I started to select essays that I thought would be interesting. I think others did this too. I knew that I was never going to get a handle on Rorty from this one book, so instead I began to focus on what he had to say about pragmatism and collected a list of statements. Here is the list.

Rorty’s pragmatism

  • Pragmatism is a distinctively American philosophy. Dewey called pragmatism the philosophy of democracy. Dewey thought that the quest for certainty should be replaced with a demand for imagination. We should stop worrying about whether what one believes is well-grounded and start worrying about whether one has been imaginative enough to think up interesting alternatives to one’s present beliefs.
  • Pragmatism is an attempt to alter our self-image, to be consistent with the Darwinian claim that we differ from other animals simply in the complexity of our behaviour.
  • Pragmatism is a generalised form of anti-essentialism and an attempt to break down the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic features of things.
  • Pragmatists think of everything as relational, and attempt to get rid of the contrast between reality and appearance. They doubt that anything is unconditional or that anything can be non-relational.
  • If there’s anything distinctive about pragmatism it is that it substitutes the notion of a better human future for the notions of reality, reason and nature.
  • Pragmatists question whether our way of describing things is as good as possible or can we do better? Can our future be made better than our present?
  • Pragmatists do not believe that there is a way things really are. Pragmatists do not think truth is the aim of inquiry. The aim of inquiry is utility. There are as many different useful tools as there are purposes to be served.
  • Pragmatists treat inquiry in physics and ethics as a search for adjustment, the search for acceptable justification and eventual agreement.
  • Pragmatists see scientific progress as increasing the ability to respond to the concerns of ever larger groups of people. They see moral progress as being able to respond to the needs of ever more inclusive groups of people. They want to get rid of the notion of unconditional moral obligation and suggest that we give up the philosophical search for commonality.
  • Pragmatists see both intellectual and moral progress not as a matter of getting closer to the True, or the Good, or the Right, but as an increase in imaginative power.
  • Pragmatism is more than just a set of controversial philosophical arguments about truth, knowledge and theory. It is about open-ended disputes about the basic terms of social life.

In this book Rorty wanted to convince people that ‘relativism is a bugbear’ and that discarding dualisms will help bring us together. Trust, social cooperation and social hope, he says, are where our humanity begins and ends. The most praiseworthy human capacity is to trust and cooperate with other people; to work together to improve the future. He urges us to substitute hope for the sort of knowledge that philosophers try to attain, to substitute imagination for certainty, and to substitute curiosity for pride. Hope (rather than truth) is the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than the past. It is a condition of growth and the direction of growth is unpredictable.

I have not been able to do justice to Rorty’s philosophy in these notes. There was too much that was new for me in the book to be able to get a handle on it in the four weeks we had for reading the book. But I think I now have some understanding of Rorty’s version of pragmatism and appreciate the description on the back cover of the book which explains that what mattered to Rorty was not ‘whether our ideas correspond to some fundamental reality, but whether they help us carry out practical tasks and create a fairer and more democratic society’.


Rorty, R. (1999). Philosophy and Social Hope. Penguin

The Black and White Photography of Sebastião Salgado

At the beginning of this month I attended a How To Academy online event in which Alan Riding, author, playwright and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times interviewed Sebastião Salgado, Brazilian photographer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, about his work. This was a fascinating hour on many levels.

I have attended many How to Academy events this year, and all of them have been good. This one I came across by chance, and although I had never heard of Sebastião Salgado before (and now wonder how I missed him), I was immediately struck by the power of the photograph used to advertise the event, and so decided to attend. It was time well spent.

This is the image used to advertise the event. It was taken in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein set fire to Kuwait’s oil fields. Salgado describes how at that time he was working for the New York Times. 600 oil wells were burning at the same time. One of his camera lenses melted because it was so hot and very heavy oil was raining over him, such that he had to cover his camera with his body to protect it, and constantly use kitchen roll soaked in petrol to clean both his camera and his hands, so that he could take the photos.

Salgado did not start out his working life as a photographer. He qualified as an economist and it was only when he was sent to work in Africa, and borrowed his wife’s camera for the trip, did he realise that photography would be his life. He then knew that it was humanity in distress that concerned him. He himself was a migrant, leaving Minas Gerais in Brazil, the place of his birth, and taking refuge in France during the time of the military dictatorship.

In the following years he worked for many humanitarian organisations, was committed to projects that were concerned with social justice, photographed the migration and movement of populations and covered the genocidal civil wars in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Rwandan Refugee Camp

Ultimately this led to him becoming physically and psychologically sick, when he withdrew from his work as a ‘photojournalist’ and returned to the farm he inherited from his parents in Brazil.

Here he was dismayed to find that the land was as sick as he was …


…. so, with his wife Lélia Wanick Salgado, he set about replanting and restoring the natural forest, turning 17,000 acres into a nature reserve and creating the Instituto Terra. The institute is dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation and environmental education.


Salgado does not consider himself a social photographer, saying:

It’s limiting. Listen, I am not a social photographer. I am not an economic photographer. I’m not a photojournalist. Photography is much more than that. Photography is my life. It’s my way of life, and my language. I went to photograph the things that I had a great curiosity to see and to organize. I felt a certain revulsion, and a compulsion to show that others also have dignity, that dignity is not an exclusive property of the rich countries of the north but exists all over the planet. That’s what photography was for me, my language, my life and my way of going about and doing things. (https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/23/sebastio-salgados-journey-from-brazil-to-the-world/)

I found this talk fascinating. It included many of his amazing photographs and the stories behind them, but the reason for this post is the question that Alan Riding asked Sebastião Salgado right at the start of the interview: Why do you photograph in black and white?

Salgado explained that when he first borrowed his wife’s camera for his trip to Africa, he took photographs in colour, but then he began to find colour disturbing. He felt that a colour photograph both detracts and distracts from the subject, and from the information that he was trying to capture. I think I understand this, in the context of what he chooses to photograph. I find his photographs stunning and extremely powerful. But for me the world is full of colour. I am happy to look at black and white photographs as works of art, or as statements on our social condition, and to appreciate the contrast between black and white and the many subtle shades of grey, but I see the world in colour, and it is colour that draws my attention.

But is it art?

A number of philosophers have tried to define art. Having just completed a six week online course (run by a local philosophy tutor Darren Harper) trying to answer the question, ‘But is it art?’, this seems a thankless task. Some philosophers have argued that art cannot be defined. There is simply too much variety. Having now completed the course, I agree.

Darren introduced us to a few theories which have been offered to solve this problem, but, from my perspective, none of them were satisfactory. Have we reached the stage where almost anything can be called art? Where do we draw the line?

Right at the beginning of the course we were each asked to provide our own definition of art. This was mine, although I have since decided, as mentioned above, that art cannot be defined in any way that could be called inclusive.

My initial definition: Art is anything that is perceived to be art, and is valued as art, by the artist or audience. A definition of art will always be subjective, and incomplete. Art is the result of a unique creative process, which involves skills and self-expression. It brings a fresh perspective on what it seeks to portray and evokes an emotional response.

It was interesting though to look at some of the theories and weigh them up against work that has been claimed to be art.

We started with Clive Bell’s Significant Form Theory. Bell claimed that the one quality which is the essence of art, is significant form. Significant form provokes aesthetic emotions (i.e. emotions different from everyday emotions, e.g. aesthetic rapture), in sensitive critics, the spectator, listener or reader, through the relations between parts of the art’s structure, e.g. the combination of colours and texture. A criticism of his theory was of its circularity. Significant form gives rise to aesthetic emotion, but aesthetic emotion can only be felt in the presence of significant form.

Next we discussed R.G. Collingwood’s Idealist Theory. Collingwood distinguished art from craft and contrasted genuine works of art with mere entertainment. Genuine art has no particular purpose and is non-physical. It is an idea or emotion in the artist’s mind. Critics considered this strange and the theory too narrow.

Then we considered Wittgenstein’s ‘Family Resemblances’. In considering communication, Wittgenstein believed that words have a family resemblance in their usage, a series of criss-cross relationships. Take for example the word ‘game’. We all know that tiddlywinks and rugby are games, and also that going for a walk is not a game, but what do tiddlywinks and rugby have in common? Wittgenstein compared this to the way members of a family resemble each other. He believed that all attempts at digging beneath the surface of language lead to unwarranted theorising and generalisation. He was anti-essentialist. From this it follows that there are no common denominators in art, there is no singular thing that defines art, but a range of properties, which similarly exist in the complex web of relationships and family resemblances. It is a mistake to look for any general definition of art.

Nevertheless people/philosophers keep on trying with this seemingly fruitless task. The Institutional Theory of art is a recent attempt as explained by contemporary philosopher George Dickie. According to this theory a defining characteristic of art is that it is an artefact which has been intentionally created or worked on by a human, the artist. More importantly the work of art has been given this status by a member of the art world – gallery owner, publisher, producer, artist, etc. Members of the art world change the artefact into a work of art by conferring this status on it. But what criteria does the art world use to determine this status?

So, given these theories and arguments, which of the following ten images would you say are works of art? (I have put the references for these images at the end of the post, so that they don’t influence your decision as you look through them).

(All the images can be enlarged by clicking on them)

My experience from the course is that the theories we covered are not a lot of help in determining which of the images above depict genuine works of art.  More helpful to me were two comments made by one of the participants who is an artist and a retired art teacher. He said that when we talk about art we should remember that art can be good or bad. Also that there is a spectrum from fine art to craft. We have to be clear what we are talking about, and even then, it seems to me that one person’s good art will be another person’s bad art, and one person’s perception of art will be another’s of craft. But ultimately I think we probably improve in our judgements with experience , i.e. the more art we view the better we get at recognising Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, without having to define it.

Image References (The images above are numbered in columns, top to bottom, left to right)

Image 1: Gates of Paradise, by Ghiberti. Battistero di San Giovanni (Florence). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorenzo_Ghiberti#/media/File:Floren%C3%A7a_-_Port%C3%B5es_do_Para%C3%ADso_(146).jpg

Image 2: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/nov/29/sistine-chapel-of-the-ancients-rock-art-discovered-in-remote-amazon-forest – Photograph: Marie-Claire Thomas/Wild Blue Media

Image 3: Wheel within a wheel, Damien Hirst, 2002. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/damien-hirst-wheel-within-a-wheel

Image 4: Ash Dome, David Nash, 1977. https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2016/05/ash-dome-david-dash/

Image 5: Bridget Riley, Untitled [Fragment 6/9], 1965. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/riley-untitled-fragment-6-9-p07109

Image 6: What are your children’s drawings telling you? https://youaremom.com/children/childrens-drawings-reveal-personality/

Image 7: Poul Kjærholm‘s wicker and chromed-steel EKC22 chair, 1955–57. Photo by Pernille Klemp https://www.1stdibs.com/introspective-magazine/danish-furniture/

Image 8: Kazimir Malevich, Black Square (1929) Photo: © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/kizimir-malevich-black-square-36336

Image 9: Han van Meergeren (1889 -1947), Woman Reading Music, Rijksmuseum. http://albertis-window.blogspot.com/2009/08/hans-van-meegeren.html

Image 10: The driftwood gallery. https://alldriftwoodfurniture.com/driftwood_sculpture.html

Renaissance Art from 1400 -1500

For the past six weeks I have been attending the National Gallery’s course, Stories of Art Online – A Modular Introduction to Art History.  This was the second module of a six module course which will run until June 2021. Regrettably I missed the first module (1250 -1400), not being aware of it, but since the modules cover specific time periods, they can be enjoyed as stand-alone events.

This was my first experience of an art history course, and quite unlike any other online course I have attended, and I have attended many over the years. The delivery was didactic; a two hour lecture each week, with at least 50 slides being shown in each lecture. This might seem daunting, but the lectures were captivating. Not only was the lecturer, Jo Walton, impressively knowledgeable and easy to listen to, but she was also warm, friendly and infectiously passionate about the art history she was discussing. The slides she selected to show us were stunning.  I linked my laptop to a large monitor for these lectures, so that I could enlarge the slides and see them in all their glorious detail. I took this screenshot as an example of one of the slides shown in the final week.

Despite each week being essentially a lecture, it didn’t feel overly formal. Most weeks there were one or two polls which asked attendees to vote on questions posed by Jo Walton, who then showed us the results of the poll. Each week we were emailed slide lists and a handout with some homework for the following week. These handouts included resources for further exploration, which usually involved visiting galleries’ websites to explore and examine some of the paintings that would be shown in the following week. In Week 5 the homework included a task which required submitting our opinion to a Googledoc, where we could then see how others on the course had responded. There was always a 10 minute break in the middle of each week’s lecture which was preceded by a question and answer session. Attendees could post questions in written form during the lecture. These were either answered by Jo Walton in the break, or in the final 10 minutes, or by a lecturer who assisted in the background by responding to questions as the lecture was being delivered. I’m not sure exactly how many people were on the course, but I think probably hundreds. The National Gallery team certainly worked hard to ensure that all questions were answered.

Too much was covered in this wonderfully enjoyable course to record here, so instead I will select an art work from each week, and post it here. The images selected are not necessarily my favourite images of the week, but rather have been selected to illustrate a point. There were so many wonderful slides in this course that it was hard to make these selections. (Clicking on the images will enlarge them).

Week 1. The idea of the Renaissance

As we know, ‘Renaissance’ is a French word meaning ‘rebirth’. At the time, people started looking to the past and taking an interest in the learning of ancient times, in particular, the learning of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance was seen as a ‘rebirth’ of that learning. Painting, architecture, sculpture, music and philosophy all flourished during this time. Week 1 focussed on artists in Florence such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Masolino, Fra Angelico, Uccello and Piero della Francesca.

Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano, 1450, National Gallery, London, Room 59

During the 15th century developments in art were influenced by new materials and techniques, an interest in subjects such as portraits, tales of myth and history, a delight in landscape and the depiction of realistic details. One of the new techniques was single point perspective. Uccello’s painting is an example of this. You can see it particularly in the bottom of the painting, in the lines created by the swords and lances on the ground.

Week 2. Bruges and the artists of Flanders

I particularly enjoyed this week, probably because I have visited some of the galleries in Bruges which were mentioned, whereas I have never been to Florence. The course did make me want to visit Florence though – maybe when this pandemic is over!

Robert Campin, The Annunciation Triptych, 1425-1428, Metropolitan Museum of Art

At this time Bruges was an important and wealthy trading city, as was Florence. Although Paris was a large city, its focus was on civil unrest, plagues, famine and war. Thus Bruges, Ghent and Brussels became the creative centres of western Europe, and through strong trading links with Florence, ideas, techniques and skills were exchanged between the artists of Florence and Flanders. In the wonderful Triptych above, Robert Campin uses his own version of perspective (look at the table top in the central panel). He also includes a lot of symbolism, the lily, the snuffed candle, the tiny figure with the crucifix, the copper vessel and the lions. In Florence, artists used fresco and tempera techniques, but these techniques are not suitable for wet climates like Bruges. Artists in Flanders therefore used oil paints. Oil paint is translucent and allows light to penetrate. It also dries slowly so can be manipulated. This changed the quality of the paintings.

Some of the other artists discussed in Week 2 were Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling.

Week 3. Portrait, people and gods

The Renaissance was underpinned by humanist ideas, moving away from the idea that all was ordained by God, towards a greater sense of individuality. This in turn promoted the development of more realistic portraits and sculptures, as seen in the work of Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli, Albrecht Durer and Giovanni Bellini.

The study of ancient texts, which was a feature of this time in art history, also led to an interest by artists in the stories of gods and goddesses, lovers and nymphs, myths, legends and past heroes. See, for example, the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo and, of course, Sandro Botticelli’s painting ‘Venus and Mars’, which you can see in Room 58 of the National Gallery, and on the gallery’s website, which features a talk about it – https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/sandro-botticelli-venus-and-mars 

But, I have selected these amazing murals in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, as an illustration of the content of this week. These murals, depicting the journey of the Magi, were painted by Benozzo Gozzoli. The detail in these paintings is extraordinary.

Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi, 1456-61, The chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/benozzogozzoli/processionofthemagi.htm

Detail from The Journey of the Magi

There were also slides, this week, of many wonderful portraits, in paintings, sculpture and on cameos, medals and coins. The latter depicted portraits in profile, since these poses were easier for working in metal, leading to many artists painting portraits in profile. Throughout this period, painters, such as those I have mentioned above, explored many different faces and emotions which they expressed with some stunning results.

Week 4. Secular and domestic

At this time in art history painting landscape for it’s own sake didn’t really exist. So this painting by Albrecht Durer in 1496 was unusual.

House by a Pond, Albrecht Durer

Where landscapes were painted, they were secondary to the main subject of the painting, such as a historical, religious or mythological event. Paintings  of such events were considered the most important of the time, followed by portraits of prestigious people and then paintings of ordinary and everyday life. Landscape painting didn’t become a genre in its own right until the early 1500s. Urban landscapes were also included as backgrounds to portraits, and these, together with the interiors in which subjects for portraits were painted, provide a lot of information about life in the time. For example, wardrobes had not yet been invented, so households kept all their belongings in chests, which could be very ornate and exquisitely painted (see, for example, Cassone with a Tournament Scene in the National Gallery).

Week 5. Arts of court and state

This week focussed on the second half of the fifteenth century art in different cities. The lecture began with the story of Rome. At the beginning of the 1400s Rome was a very depressed place, with various families fighting for control of the city and the Pope was based in Avignon in France. But by the late 1440s, the Pope had returned to Rome and the Papacy began the work of creating a modern city, and commissioning and collecting modern and classical art. At this time the Sistine Chapel was built and the Vatican decorated with opulent interiors and wonderful frescoes. Artists in Venice, Florence, Nuremburg and Rome, continued to develop their understanding of linear and aerial perspective and their fascination with the human body. Drawings were rare at this time because paper was very expensive, but Jacopo Bellini began to make drawings for his own interest, and Pisanello began drawing horses and wildlife. By 1450 artists were making sketches from life, particularly of the human figure, and print making, and engravings became important, as demonstrated by the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo, Andrea Mantegna,, Martin Schongauer, Piero della Francesca and Albrecht Durer.

Battle of the Nudes, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, circa 1489

Week 6. The artist as ‘star’

Today we accept as the norm, artist as ‘star’, an isolated individual working on art of intense personal meaning. This was not the case in the 15th century, when art was a more collegiate experience. Artists worked alongside other craftsmen such as shoemakers, and worked in many different disciplines. For example, Botticelli started as a goldsmith.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, circa 1483

But, by the end of the 15th century some stars were rising, notably Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and later Raphael. All three raised the status of the artist in society, and still inspire us today. Jo Walton suggested that Leonardo was more interested in engineering than painting. He didn’t complete a great many paintings. In fact, he rarely finished anything. More important to him were his notebooks, which I was fortunate to see in an exhibition at the British Library in London in 2019.

I have not been able to do justice to the content of this course. For example, Jo Walton talked a lot about sculpture, which I haven’t included here. I also realise looking back through the portraits that I haven’t mentioned how artists began to work so effectively with light and the direction of light as depicted in this painting by Bellini. There were many illustrations of this during the course.

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Two Saints, circa 1490 

But hopefully there is enough here to spark an interest in the art of 1400-1500 Renaissance art.

Beauty in Science and Art

In this fascinating discussion on Forum for Philosophy, Adrian Holme, Milena Ivanova and Jonathan Birch discussed questions surrounding the nature of beauty, and the role of beauty in the relationship between science and art.

Jonathan Birch, the host, started the discussion by posing the following questions: We know that nature inspires art, but can abstract science inspire art? What counts as beautiful science? What’s the significance of beauty in science? Is beauty a guide to truth?

In response Adrian Holme showed us some examples of where science has inspired art. The first example was Joseph Wright of Derby’s, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, 1768, where the process of science, the experiment, was the inspiration for the painting.


In this painting we see the fearsome power of science to destroy the objects it investigates.  Air is being sucked from the glass chamber. The bird in the chamber is dying. The painting also shows that both art and science are public activities which require an audience.

Then, when Adrian showed us an image of The Shah Mosque in Isfahan, the discussion turned to the role of mathematics and in particular, geometry, in unpicking the relationship between art and science.


In the past, sculptors had to have a good understanding of mathematics and there was always a correlation between art history, science, mathematics and geometry. In the time of Leonardo da Vinci there was not a great conceptual divide between art and science. Both required knowledge and skill. In relation to this image, Adrian made the interesting comment that pattern runs deep into who we are.

The third image was of Olafur Eliasson’s 360o Room for All Colours 2002


This is an installation which consists of a circular space that surrounds visitors with slowly changing colours. It is a scientific experiment on our optical experience, but is also aesthetically pleasing. It plays with our perceptions of vision and is disorienting. Eliasson is interested in the ways in which people respond. Like Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting, this art works at the interplay between pleasure and discomfort. This installation raises the question of whether art can actually be science.

A member of the audience then raised the question of whether art would have the same appeal if it were created by machines, algorithmically. Adrian thought it might, although he thought that machines will create art better and quicker, but that the art would be banal. However, Milena Ivanova said that she had seen art created by artificial intelligence that she could not distinguish from art not created by machines. This raised the question of whether machines can be conscious and have their own subjective points of view or are they just mimicking humans? Milena pointed out that machines can create their own algorithms, but these questions related to artificial intelligence and consciousness were clearly straying away from the topic of the nature of beauty. Jonathan Birch, as host, then pulled the discussion back to the question of whether there is a definition of what art is and can a scientific experiment be an art work? Adrian Holme thought that some might be, if we think of scientific experiments as a performance.

The discussion up to this point was led mostly by Adrian, who drew on his experience as an artist to consider what science has done and can do for art. The second part of the discussion focussed on what art can do for science and whether science can be beautiful. These are ideas that Milena has recently been researching. At the beginning of this year she published a book with Steven French – The Aesthetics of Science. Beauty, Imagination and Understanding. She was very knowledgeable about this topic and had a number of interesting points to make, but she talked very fast and was sometimes difficult to follow. Hopefully there will be a recording of the discussion.

Here are some of the points I captured during this second part of the discussion.

Scientific phenomena can be beautiful, but what does it mean to know this? Scientists tell us to trust theories, without the evidence, because they are beautiful, and there is evidence that theories have been accepted on the basis of their beauty. Science can be motivated by the idea and search for beauty. There are aesthetic claims for theories of physics. How can we justify aesthetic judgements?

There seem to be some constant values which people use to make judgements about beauty and what is beautiful in science, e.g. simplicity, symmetry, elegance, naturalness, unity. These are some of the values that seem to be uniformly understood by different communities as related to beauty in science. But Milena noted that standards of beauty change over time, and sometimes there is resistance to this change, for example the beauty of the shape of an ellipse as opposed to a circle; this change occurred with changing understanding of the earth’s orbit round the sun. Here Milena referred to James McAllister’s work on Beauty and Revolution in Science. McAllister questioned how reasonable and rational can science be when its practitioners speak of ‘revolutions’ in their thinking and extol certain theories for their ‘beauty’.  He studied the interconnection between empirical performance, beauty, and revolution.

Milena also referred to Sabine Hossenfelder, author of Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, who has argued that an obsession with beauty has led physics astray. ‘Why should the laws of nature care what I find beautiful?’ Hossenfelder asks. ‘The more I try to understand my colleagues’ reliance on beauty, the less sense it makes to me.’ This suggests that science is not always about truth.

So is there a single concept of beauty for different realms? Do biologists have the same concept of beauty as physicists? Philosophers and scientists believe we should trust in beauty, but if science is not always about truth, what is the relationship of beauty to understanding and truth? Milena believes that beautiful ideas, simple and elegant, are easier to work with. Maybe it’s not necessary to obsess about truth.

The introductory material for this discussion included the following questions:

When presented with two equally good theories, scientists often prefer the more beautiful. Does this mean that more beautiful theories are also more likely to be true? That, as Keats wrote, beauty is truth, and truth beauty? Does this tell us anything about the nature of reality? And what does this mean for science and art and how they inform one another? We discuss the nature of beauty and reflect on the symbiotic relationship between art and science.

Whilst very enjoyable and interesting, it seemed to me that only the last two questions were discussed and even then it was impossible to come to a conclusion. A definition of beauty, art or truth remains open to question. But there seemed to be agreement that art and science influence each other. There does seem to be a symbiotic relationship between them and both aim for beauty whether or not we can articulate its nature.

Paulo Freire’s questions for educators.

Paulo Freire’ questions for educators.

In my last post in which I shared the notes I made on my reading of Freire’s book Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I mentioned that at the end of Chapter 4, on p.124, Freire listed the problems and questions that educators and education must always continue to seriously consider, discuss and address. Here is the quote in full.

Source of image: https://al.se.leg.br/iran-destaca-atividades-em-comemoracao-aos-99-anos-de-paulo-freire/

“What seems to me to be unconscionable, however, today as yesterday, would be to conceive—or even worse, to practice—a popular education in which a constant, serious approach were not maintained, antecedently and concomitantly, to problems like: what content to teach, in behalf of what this content is to be taught, in behalf of whom, against what, and against whom.

  • Who selects the content, and how is it taught?
  • What is teaching?
  • What is learning?
  • What manner of relationship obtains between teaching and learning?
  • What is popular knowledge, or knowledge gotten from living experience?
  • Can we discard it as imprecise and confused?
  • How may it be gotten beyond, transcended?
  • What is a teacher?
  • What is the role of a teacher?
  • And what is a student?
  • What is a student’s role?
  • If being a teacher means being superior to the student in some way, does this mean that the teacher must be authoritarian?
  • Is it possible to be democratic and dialogical without ceasing to be a teacher, which is different from being a student?
  • Does dialogue mean irrelevant chitchat whose ideal atmosphere would be to “leave it as it is to see if it’ll work”?
  • Can there be a serious attempt at the reading and writing of the word without a reading of the world?
  • Does the inescapable criticism of a “banking” education mean the educator has nothing to teach and ought not to teach?
  • Is a teacher who does not teach a self-contradiction?
  • What is codification, and what is its role in the framework of a theory of knowledge?
  • How is the “relation between practice and theory” to be understood—and especially, experienced—without the expression becoming trite, empty wordage?
  • How is the “basistic,” voluntaristic temptation to be resisted—and how is the intellectualistic, verbalistic temptation to engage in sheer empty chatter to be overcome?
  • How is one to “work on” the relationship between language and citizenship?”

It is almost 30 years since Freire wrote these words, and more than 50 years since Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published. Despite this, Freire’s questions remain relevant and still have the power to challenge the current Brazilian government – see Why is the Brazilian Right Afraid of Paulo Freire?