John Dewey. Experience and Education (Notes)

This short book by John Dewey (91 pages), written two decades after ‘Democracy and Education’ (Dewey’s most comprehensive statement of his position on educational philosophy), is described on the cover as:

‘The great educational theorist’s most concise statement of his ideas about the needs, the problems, and the possibilities of education – written after his experience with progressive schools and in the light of the criticisms his theories received.’

This book describes in some measure the education system I was working in pre-National Curriculum (in the UK), when education was based more on personal experience (i.e. progressive education) than the transmission of knowledge. Dewey describes the latter as traditional education, which sought to prepare the young for future responsibilities and success in life through the transmission of information and skills that had worked in the past and was static in books or the heads of teachers. Pupils were expected to be docile, receptive and obedient.

For Dewey progressive education opposes traditional education as follows:

‘To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation of a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.’ (p.19/20, my bold)

A Wikipedia article has interpreted progressive education as having the following qualities:

  • Emphasis on learning by doing – hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning
  • Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units
  • Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking
  • Group work and development of social skills
  • Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge
  • Collaborative and cooperative learning projects
  • Education for social responsibility and democracy
  • Integration of community service and service learning projects into the daily curriculum
  • Selection of subject content by looking forward to ask what skills will be needed in future society
  • De-emphasis on textbooks in favor of varied learning resources
  • Emphasis on lifelong learning and social skills
  • Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions

Would Dewey have approved of this list? He points out that introducing progressive education is not necessarily straightforward and comes with its own problems. Neither traditional, nor progressive education is completely satisfactory. For example, in relation to progressive education, all experiences are not equally educative; some experiences are mis-educative.  Everything depends on the quality of experience. Dewey believed that what was needed was a new philosophy of experience, which references what is to be done and how it is to be done. Dewey thought this a harder task for progressive education than for traditional education.

In Chapter 3, Dewey discusses the criteria of experience that need to be considered to determine whether an experience is educationally worthwhile. He points to two key principles, continuity and interaction. ‘The principle of continuity of experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after’ (p.35). Experience must lead to growth, and the direction of growth must be specified. It is the educator’s role to draw on past experiences of experts as well as her own,  to determine the conditions that will lead to worthwhile growth, without engaging in imposition, and to bring about a particular kind of interaction. By interaction, Dewey means the interplay between the objective and internal conditions in an experience, which ‘taken together, or in their interaction, … form what we call a situation’. (p.42)

The principles of continuity and interaction intercept and unite. They are the longitudinal and lateral aspects of experience. ‘An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment…’ (p.43). The educator must therefore take account of the learner’s past and possible future experiences, his personal needs, desires and capacities, to select the conditions necessary for growth, such that the learner wants to go on learning.

Central to Dewey’s educational philosophy is that education is essentially a social process (p.58). As such educators must consider community activity, social organisation and social control, i.e. ‘the conduct of the interactions and intercommunications which are the very life of the group as a community’. Social control is normal in group activities, such as games, where rules are understood and applied. Social control in these circumstances is not experienced as restriction of personal freedom. Social organization within progressive education allows for all individuals to make a contribution, but progressive education is not a ‘free-for-all’. One of the most important lessons of life, says Dewey, is that of mutual accommodation and adaptation.

In Chapter 5, Dewey considers the nature of freedom. The only freedom of importance for Dewey is the freedom of intelligence, i.e. freedom of observation and judgement, and intellectual and moral freedom. Dewey writes: (p.62)

‘Let me speak first of the advantages which reside in increase of outward freedom. In the first place, without its existence it is practically impossible for a teacher to gain knowledge of the individuals with whom he is concerned. Enforced quiet and acquiescence prevent pupils from disclosing their real natures. They enforce artificial uniformity. They put seeming before being. They place a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum, and obedience. And everyone who is acquainted with schools in which this system prevailed knows that thoughts, imaginations, desires and sly activities ran their own unchecked course behind this façade.’ (p.62)

Increased freedom does not mean that there is no time for quiet reflection. Nor does it mean that there is no self-control. ‘The ideal aim of education is creation of power of self-control.’ But freedom of movement is important for physical and mental health, and intellectual growth. The educator must consider how much freedom and what quality of freedom is needed for growth.

Dewey believed that the learner should be actively involved in determining the purpose of his education in cooperation with the educator. A genuine purpose always starts with an impulse, which if obstructed converts into a desire, and it is up to the educator to see that this is taken advantage of, but also that immediate action is postponed until observation and judgment have intervened, and consequences have been considered. Forming a purpose is therefore a complex intellectual operation, a co-operative enterprise between teacher and learner, which involves 1). Observation of surrounding conditions; 2). Knowledge of what has happened in similar situations in the past; 3). Judgment which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify (p.69). Purposeful action requires intelligent activity, as opposed to overemphasis on activity as an end.

In  the penultimate chapter of his book (Chapter 7), Dewey considers progressive organization of subject matter, which, he believed, should all fall within the scope of ordinary life-experience. Not only does the educator have to find the material for learning within experience, but more importantly has to develop this into a fuller, richer and more organized form. As such the educator must first discover learners’ existing experiences and start from there. ‘It thus becomes the office of the educator to select those things within the range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems which by stimulating new ways of observation and judgment will expand the area of further experience.’(p.75). Dewey believed that this was harder to do in progressive education than in traditional education, because this ruled out a single course of study, and also because the organized subject-matter of the adult and the specialist cannot provide the starting point. (p.83). A key concern for the educator is connectedness in growth, looking to the past, but even more to the future. ‘…. experiences in order to be educative must lead out into an expanding world of subject-matter…..’ (p.87). To do this educators must be familiar with scientific method. The scientific method, says Dewey, is the only authentic means at our command for getting at the significance of our everyday experiences of the world in which we live.

Dewey finishes his book by reiterating his view that education must be based on experience and that we need a sound philosophy of experience to understand what education is. If progressive education has failed it is because educators have failed to fully understand its standards, aims and methods, and have failed to put the basic principles of progressive education, as described by Dewey in this book, into practice.

‘The educational system must move one way or another, either backward to the intellectual and moral standards of a pre-scientific age or forward to ever greater utilization of scientific method in the development of the possibilities of growing, expanding experience.’(p.89)

But for Dewey the key issue is not of old versus new, or of traditional versus progressive. The key issue is the question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education.

John Dewey’s Experience & Education, is the book that has been selected to be discussed at the next meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network On Tuesday 21st September on Zoom.  The discussion will be opened by Professor Deron Boyles. Distinguished professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University. In preparation for this discussion, Professor Boyles has posed the following questions:

  • Dewey is addressing two audiences in the book—which ones and why?
  • Dewey’s idea that “means and ends” are conjoint often confuses readers. Why does this confusion exist? Why is it so important to Dewey that means and ends be understood together and not separate?
  • Even educators who express their interest or desire to “be Deweyan” in their teaching often run into problems. Dewey gives a clue at the top of p. 19 when he talks about “devices of art.” What does he mean?


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. Simon and Schuster

International Center for Educators’ Styles. Dewey’s Philosophy on Experience and Education. (This provides a more comprehensive summary of the book, than I have in this post)

Internet Archive. Full Text of Experience and Education – John Dewey. (This is very useful for word searching, such as for the words ‘means and ends’ which Professor Doyle wants us to discuss on Tuesday).

Art History 1900 – 2021

Module 7 of the National Gallery’s Introduction to Art History online course bring us up to the present day. The 20th century has seen a dramatic change in the visual arts, from representational works on canvas to conceptual art, so much so that the question ‘But is it art?’ has become a trope to describe the puzzlement felt by many towards ‘modern art’. An explosion of media has resulted in conceptual art, installations, interventions, performance and video art. In commenting on this period, Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘On or about December 1910, the human character changed.’

This module is being led by Lucrezia Walker, who got us off to a cracking, fast-paced start in Week 1, focussing on the theme of modernity.

Week 1. The shock of the new

In this first two hour session we were introduced to the isms of the early 20th century: Fauvism, Cubism,  Orphism, Vorticism, Expressionism, Futurism, Constructivism and Suprematism, and some of the iconic images of this period produced by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Kazimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharova. Also mentioned were George Braque, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Sonia Delaunay, Robert Delaunay, Gino Severini, Umberto Boccioni and Liubov Popova.

(Interestingly, and as an aside, I am currently reading John Dewey’s book, Experience and Education. In his Preface he writes:

‘… any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them.’

I think this statement by Dewey, although written in the context of education, is pertinent to a discussion of modern and contemporary art. )

I really enjoyed this week. Lucrezia Walker managed to convey the dynamic, bursting energy of the era, as she whisked us through many, many slides, vibrant with colour and movement. She started with Fauvism and the use of bright, prismatic, strong, naturalistic, unmixed colour applied directly from the tube, particularly in the work of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck.

This experimentation with colour and style was heavily criticised, but fortunately for Matisse his work was bought by Gertrude Stein, an important patron, as was the work of Picasso, who took seriously Cezanne’s comment that ‘Everything in nature is formed upon the sphere, the cone and the cylinder. One must learn to paint these simple figures and then one can do all that he may wish’. This influence is very recognisable in Cubism. Picasso was described as an artist who could paint like a genius but was looking for more authentic ways of painting than the traditional.

In the second half of the session Lucrezia Walker spent some time on the Futurists, who were influenced by Henri-Louis Bergson’s work on time, past, present and future, and their extraordinary manifesto. It’s not surprising that they had to draw back from their fighting talk (see point 9 in the manifesto), when one of their influential members, Boccioni, died in World War 1.

The Futurists, were fascinated by movement and shapes in flux, produced some wonderful work, too much to cover here, but Gino Severini was a leading artist in this movement.

Futurism ultimately led to increasing abstraction and artists such as Malevich (Suprematism) and the influential work of the constructivist movement in Russia. See, for example, the work of Liubov Popova.

Week 2. The road to abstraction

This was another fascinating week in which, through looking at the work of Wassily Kandinsky (in the first hour of the two-hour lecture), and Piet Mondrian (in the second), we saw a move away from the figurative and recognisable, to increasing abstraction, with a focus on colour and shape.

Kandinsky was the son of prosperous parents. He trained at art school in Odessa, but also qualified in law and economics at the University of Moscow. He began painting at the age of 30.

Lucrezia Walker took us through Kandinsky’s four steps to abstraction. (Much of the text below is taken from her slides).

  1. In 1889 Kandinsky was part of an ethnographic research group which travelled to the Vologda region north of Moscow. In Looks on the Past, he relates that the houses and churches were decorated with such shimmering colours that upon entering them, he felt that he was moving into a painting. His painting became inspired by the Bavarian countryside and folk imagery from Russian fairy tales.
  2. In 1896 Kandinsky saw a Monet exhibition and wrote: “That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me. I could not recognise it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I dully felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour.” At this point, for Kandinsky, the subject of a painting decreased in importance.
  3. Kandinsky’s work was influenced by Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, when he became interested in how music makes us feel. He likened painting to composing music, writing, “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” Also, at this time he was spiritually influenced by Madame Blavatsky’s work on theosophical theory, the esoteric and mystical.
  4. Kandinsky’s work became increasingly abstract under these influences, and he began to think that shapes have certain colours, for example, a circle is blue, a triangle is yellow, and a square is red. All these influences came together in his work Composition No. 4

From this time on, Kandinsky’s work became increasingly abstract. By 1923 abstraction completely eclipses the figurative in Kandinsky’s work.

There was a lot more said about Kandinsky in this session that I do not have space to cover here, but Wikipedia provides a good overview of his life and work.

Kandinsky is thought to be the first abstract painter, but Lucrezia Walker showed us the work of Hilma af Klint, Georgiana Houghton and Emma Kunz, all of whom were producing abstract work earlier than Kandinsky. However, perhaps because they were inspired by theosophy, interested in healing and mysticism, experimenting with symbolic investigation, and claimed to be guided by the spirits, they were not taken seriously, and their work was not included in later exhibitions alongside Kandinsky and Mondrian.

In the second half of this session, we had an equally in depth look at the work of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), who took abstraction even further. What I didn’t know about Mondrian was that originally his name was spelt Mondriaan.  He changed it in 1912 after seeing cubist art in Paris. Mondrian started work as a post-impressionist, but by 1908 his work was becoming more abstract, and by 1914 it was completely abstract. Like Kandinsky he was very interested in theosophy and tried to take what he saw from the outside world and distil it down for spiritual resonance. He was looking for harmony and rhythm, and trying to get as close as possible to the truth. Lucrezia Walker’s text on this slide below explains Mondrian’s approach to the use of primary contradictory colours.

We were shown many more slides of Mondrian’s work, which has been very influential on the work of other artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein, fashion design and commercial design, e.g., the Rubik cube.

Week 3. Dada and Surrealism

This was another intense week which covered far more than I could possibly recount here. The session was in two parts, with input on the radical anti-art movement, Dada, covered in the first half and Surrealism covered in the second half.

Dada was quite a short lived movement (1915 – mid 1920s) born out of negative reaction to the horrors of WW1. It was begun by a group of artists and poets associated with the Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub started by Hugo Ball in Zurich. The Cabaret Voltaire was only open for a few months, but the group of poets, performers and artists who presented their work there, created an entirely new sensibility which was to have a century of ramifications.

‘Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. It was an anti-art art, and a state of mind and being. The origin of the name Dada is unclear; some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara’s and Marcel Janco’s frequent use of the words “da, da,” meaning “yes, yes” in the Romanian language. Another theory says that the name “Dada” came during a meeting of the group when a paper knife stuck into a French–German dictionary happened to point to ‘dada’, a French word for ‘hobbyhorse’.’ (text from Lucrezia Walker’s handout)

What is Dada?

This video covers much of what we were introduced to in the first half of this session, but Marcel Janco’s and Kurt Schwitters’ work was used to illustrate the Dadaists’ use of low art materials, such as cardboard, and Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp were both referenced in relation to work that used ‘found objects’ and work that raised the questions ‘What counts as art? What is art? Is anything in an art gallery art? New to me in this session, was Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau (Merz building). This extraordinary work no longer exists as it was destroyed in the war.

Ultimately Dada morphed into Surrealism. This movement was founded in Paris in 1924 by a group of poets, painters, and filmmakers. Instrumental in this was the writer and poet André Breton. Breton studied medicine and psychiatry, and was very interested in the disturbed mind and a proponent of automatic writing, which led to him authoring the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.

The Surrealists were inspired by the power of the unconscious mind – a concept Sigmund Freud had made famous. They saw the unconscious (revealed most clearly in dreams) as the source of all imagination and believed that art should try to express its contents. The word surreal has entered the lexicon to describe situations that strike us as dreamlike. Key elements in Surrealist practice are the random and the unexpected, chance and coincidence, sex and desire.

What is surrealism? This video attempts to answer this question.

Salvador Dalí was the most prominent and probably best known Surrealist, and we were shown many slides of his work in the second half of this week’s session.

We were also shown work by Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte (the second most famous Surrealist), Max Ernst, Joan Miro, and Dora Maar, amongst others.

‘Surrealist painting generally fell into two distinct categories. Artists including Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Yves Tanguy, made hyper-real paintings with dream-like subjects depicted in minute precision, adding to their otherworldly quality. Other painters such as André Masson explored automatism, tapping into their unconscious mind to create expressive images. Breton defined automatism as, ‘pure psychic automatism … the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns’.  Other artists such as Joan Miro moved between the two styles, and frequently used both techniques within the same work of art.’(text from Lucrezia Walker’s handout)

For the Surrealists beauty was to be ‘convulsive’ and came about by chance. Objects which bore no reference to each other derived new beauty or significance through random juxtaposition.

Week 4. Abstract Expressionism to Pop

The first half of this week was presented by Guest speaker Chloe Julius, University College, London. I found this session difficult to follow as she showed 93 slides in less than an hour,  and the work of so many different artists that it’s difficult to know where to start in trying to summarise this. Among the artists she mentioned were: Mel Bochner, Frank Bowling, Yayoi Kusama, Anne Truitt, Andy Warhol, Lee Krasner, Willem De Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler and Barnett Newman. Maybe I found this session difficult to follow because, for the most part, this art doesn’t resonate with me. Or perhaps the problem with this session was that there was just too much to take in and I didn’t get a sense of what the key points were. The Tate Gallery explains Abstract Expressionism on their website and The Royal Academy has published a beginner’s guide, both of which I find helpful. The Tate Gallery also explains Pop Art on their website. I have chosen one of the slides of Barnett Newman’s work to share here, since Newman was considered a leading figure in Abstract Expressionism.

I found the second half of this week much more interesting. Lucrezia Walker is a very good storyteller, and she also appreciates that less can be more. There were only 38 slides in this session, which focussed mainly on the action painter Jackson Pollock, and the colour field painter Mark Rothko.

‘Pollock famously placed his canvas on the ground and danced around it, pouring paint from the can or trailing it from the brush or stick. In this way, the action painters directly placed their inner impulses onto the canvas.’ (Text from Lucrezia Walker’s handout).

In this photo we see Pollock working, with his wife Lee Krasner in the background. Krasner was also an artist but only became successful after Pollock’s death. At this time there were other artist couples, where the wives tended to be marginalised, e.g. Willem de Kooning’s wife, Elaine de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell’s wife, Helen Frankenthaler.

Mark Rothko was a colour field painter. He painted large canvases of more or less a single flat colour, intended to produce a contemplative or meditational response in the viewer, a transcendental moment, a religious experience. Rothko wanted his paintings to be about tragedy, ecstasy and doom, and to be the visual equivalent of music. When exhibited, he insisted that his canvases were not glazed or framed and were placed low down on the wall near the floor. Both Pollock and Rothko epitomised the artist as tortured genius. Rothko committed suicide, and Pollock died in a car crash as a result of driving under the influence of alcohol.

This session ended with a brief reference to Pop artist Andy Warhol, who evidently hated Abstract Expressionism, thinking that his work was more democratic. Warhol worked in his studio, which he called The Factory, with a team of people. Rothko worked on his own. Andy Warhol’s popular art was about popular things such as Campbell’s Soup CansRoy Lichtenstein was also a Pop artist, who took non high art images and made them big, i.e., he made big art out of things that are not important.

Week 5. YBAs (young British artists) and who writes the canon

At the start of this week Lucrezia Walker had to point out, following questions about this, that she is not able to cover every significant artist of the period in her lectures. In the first half of this session, she showed us the work of some of the better known young British artists and discussed some artists who never made it into the canon (the agreed list of artworks that is valued and considered worthy of study).

The YBAs (noted for ‘shock tactics’) caused a sensation when a collection of their work, owned by Charles Saatchi, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1997. The exhibition was aptly called Sensation and generated controversy, particularly in relation to Marcus Harvey’s’ huge depiction of Myra Hindley, made of hundreds of copies of a child’s handprint (ink and eggs were thrown at this picture), and in relation to Chris Ofili’s controversial painting, The Holy Virgin Mary. The painting depicted a Black Madonna surrounded by images from blaxploitation movies and close-ups of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines, and elephant dung.

Many of the works in the exhibition were considered offensive, or even ‘rubbish’. See Late Review – Sensation Exhibition – for an entertaining short video on this. Exhibiting artists included Damien Hirst (Lucrezia Walker showed us many examples of his work), Tracey Emin (her unmade bed and tent naming all the people she’d ever slept with), Marc Quinn (who used his own blood to make self-portraits), Rachel Whiteread (who fills empty spaces), Cornelia Parker, who blew up a shed (blown up by the British Army) then hung the pieces to look like an explosion, and Mark Wallinger (best known for his sculpture for the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, Ecce Homo (1999). See this video, Threshold to the Kingdom, for another example of his work.

Lucrezia Walker described Damien Hirst as a genius, who has gone from strength to strength. He not only knows how to create the impossible and extraordinary, and the value of a gimmick (dead animals in formaldehyde), but having worked in an art gallery, he understands how to get people like Saatchi on board. Lucrezia pointed out that some other artists today have also realised that they can exploit a gimmick, e.g., Grayson Perry and his alter-ego Clare.

But there are some artists who have not been collected despite the quality of their work. Although Jenny Saville’s work was included in the Sensation exhibition, her work has not been as sought after as Hirst’s or Emin’s. For example, the Tate has work by Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst, Mat Collishaw, Cornelia Parker, and Tacita Dean, but not by Jenny Saville.

This has also happened to other artists. Michael Andrews’ work was valued alongside Frances Bacon’s and Lucien Freud’s until he moved out of London to Norfolk for a quieter life with his family, when he lost his place at the centre of things. And Jack Vettriano, a self-taught artist, who began painting at the age of 19, and who sells more in reproductions than anyone else in Britain, doesn’t have a gallery that represents him.

Jack Vettriano. The Singing Butler. 1992

In the second half of this week’s session, artist Raksha Patel discussed aspects of her practice and how seeing the Sensation exhibition influenced her practice.

You can read about Raksha’s work at and see some of her works and hear her talk at

Week 6. Where are we now: women, diversity and collectives

This final session of this module started with a look at how difficult it has been for female artists to be considered seriously. This attitude started to change in 1961 with the art of Nicky de St Phalle who created paintings by shooting at bags of paint on a canvas and allowing the dripping paint to create the image. This image of a woman yielding a fire-arm was in direct opposition to the usual image of women seen as nude models for art, as seen in Yves Klein’s Anthropometries series (Performance art), where he used nude female modes as  ‘living brushes’.

This kind of male dominated art ultimately led to the Guerrilla Girls pushing for feminist art (and change), with their text-based, funny images, which incorporated clear messages of gender politics. Below is one of their best known images, but there are many more.

The Guerrilla Girls are also an example of an activist collective.

We then went on to look at the wonderful work of Frida Kahlo, who was well known by her death and portrays herself as psychologically raw in a mixture of realist and surrealist styles.

And we also saw, amongst others, the work of Paula Rego. I specifically mention her, because I will see her work at the Tate, when I visit London next month.

Diversity was discussed in this session by looking at the work of Zanele Muholi (a South African visual activist and photographer) and Yayoi Husama, whose work I was lucky enough to see at an exhibition in Denmark in 2017.

The session ended with a fascinating look at the work of street artists and a discussion of how this impacts on the art market. How do street artists make their money?  In particular we looked at the work of Banksy. Lucrezia Walker suggested that Banksy makes his money because his work is well executed, often politically engaged and funny. What I found interesting was that Lucrezia told us that she knew the name of Banksy, but she didn’t divulge it. It seems important that we don’t know the true identity of Banksy, who for the general public, like me, remains anonymous, creating his graffiti art works beyond the public eye.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was also a promising graffiti artist, who unfortunately died young, at the age of 27. We had a brief look at his work.

As ever, there was far too much in this session and module to cover in one blog post, but let’s end with two challenging statements. Do you agree with them?

Every Man is an Artist – Joseph Beuys

Without the viewer there is nothing – Olafur Eliasson (i.e., the artist is nothing, the viewer is everything)

Martin Buber – I and Thou (Notes)

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s book for August 2021 is Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’. My copy is the translation by Ronald Gregor Smith, who translates the original title ‘Ich Und Du’ as ‘I and Thou’, rather than I and You. Between the ages of three and fourteen, Buber lived in Lvov, Galicia with his grandfather, Solomon Buber, who clearly influenced his thinking and direction. Solomon Buber was a scholar of Jewish Law and a deeply religious man. From 1924 to 1933, Martin Buber lectured in Jewish religion and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. In 1938 he left Germany to join the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Between 1897 and 1923 Buber’s interest lay in mysticism; between 1923 and 1938 in dialogue and the dialogical relationship with nature; and between 1938 and 1965 in attentive silence and a deepening recognition of ‘the eternal’.

It is easy to recognise ‘I and Thou’ as a profound and beautiful book, but it is not easy to read. Ronald Smith acknowledges this in his Preface, where he writes:

‘To the reader who finds the meaning obscure at first reading we may only say that I and Thou is indeed a poem. Hence it must be read more than once, and its total effect allowed to work on the mind: the obscurities of the one part (so far as they are real obscurities, and not the effect, as they must often be, of poor translation) will then be illumined by the brightness of another part. For the argument is not as it were horizontal, but spiral; it mounts, and gathers within itself the aphoristic and pregnant utterances of the earlier part.’ (p.xiii)

I and Thou (published in 1923) is a short book, only 95 pages long including the Postscript which was written by Buber in 1957 to answer questions raised about the ideas he expresses in the book, but it reads like a long book, as it includes so many aphorisms which need careful thought and attention. This is not a book that can be skim read. I had to go to secondary sources, which I have listed under References at the end of this post, to help me make sense of the text.

The book is written in three parts which, put simply, cover how we address or speak to each other, how we address or speak to Nature/the world/society, and how we address or speak to God.

Buber starts the book by explaining that there are two modes of engaging with the world, which he describes through the use of two word pairs, I-It and I-Thou. Buber calls these primary words, which do not signify things but intimate relations. It is not possible to be an I outside of these relations.

‘There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and I of the primary world I-It ‘ (p.3)

‘When a primary word is spoken the speaker enters the word and takes his stand in it.’ (p.4)

Buber’s overarching concern is that we are trapped in a world of ever increasing I-It communication and dialogue, where we hold ourselves apart from the Other, and treat each other like objects to be manipulated. (I think Iain McGilchrist would describe this as treating each other as ‘things’. There are so many parallels between Buber’s and McGilchrist’s work that I am really surprised that I can find no reference to Buber anywhere in McGilchrist’s first book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.)

In the first part of his book, Buber explains that  I-It is the language of objectification, where the primary temporary modality is the past.

‘The I of the primary word I-It, that is the I faced by no Thou, but surrounded by a multitude of content, has no present, only the past. Put in another way, in so far as man rests satisfied with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content. He has nothing but objects. But objects subsist in time that has been.’ (p.10)

Buber calls the I-It mode of engaging with the world, the mode of ‘experience’ (which covers both inner emotions and sensory experience), where the I is an objective observer, cataloguing, calculating, analyzing, and describing, rather than being in active relation Buber tells us that I-It does not make for a ‘whole’ human being. For this we also need I-Thou.

For Martin Buber ‘… he who lives with It alone is not a man’ (p.24). Man needs ‘I-Thou’ relationships, where we communicate with our being rather than with words. I-Thou is about mutuality, seeing someone in his or her depth, speaking to the Other with your entire being, saying Thou with all that you are, standing in present relation, in the here and now – not completely separate, but not completely fused, maintaining just enough balance between close and distant to retain a sense of who you are.

In this beautiful passage from p.6 of his book, Buber sums up the difference between I-It and I-Thou relationships, by considering a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air – and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognize it only as an expression of law…

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.…….

Martin Buber (1958) I and Thou, p.6)

I-Thou experiences cannot be willed. They are given to us by grace (God’s grace), but we have to be open to I-Thou experiences and choose to enter these moments.

In Part 1 of his book, Martin Buber considers how, at an individual level, we tend to objectify each other (I-It) rather than enter into mutual relation (I-Thou). In Part 2 Buber extends this to thinking about society as a whole. His thoughts about how advances in society since the time of the Industrial Revolution have led us to being trapped in an I-It world, are as relevant today as when he wrote the book. All our institutions (school, work, marriage etc.) can reinforce the I-It mode of attending to the world, which Buber says is stagnating as a result.

‘… in times of sickness it comes about that the world of It, no longer penetrated and fructified by the inflowing world of Thou as by living streams but separated and stagnant, a gigantic ghost of fens, over-powers man. In coming to terms with a world of objects that no longer assume present being for him he succumbs to this world.’ (p.38)

Buber talks about knowledge, art and teaching as all needing more I-Thou relation. Knowledge has become about accumulating concepts, art about analysis and making money, and teaching about imparting knowledge. All focus on the I-It, rather than being open to relation. We should recognise that I-Thou is the locus of all genuine creative activity, all spirituality and all becoming in transcendence.

Interestingly Buber says that there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to make money or obtain power. There is nothing inherently I-It in economics and politics, it’s the way we live them out. Man’s will to profit and power are fine so long as they are not dominated by It. He explains this as follows. ‘Man’s will to profit and to be powerful have their natural and proper effect so long as they are linked with, and upheld by, his will to enter into relation.’ (p.35) Buber envisions a society (community) in which human beings have a loving responsibility to all other human beings, including those they have not met. This is a new sort of community built on absolute encounter with the eternal Thou, that is, with God.

In Part 3, Buber focusses on the eternal Thou, that is, on our relation with God. I found this part of the book the most difficult to follow, maybe because it is impossible to describe God. God cannot become an It. God must always be a Thou.

The eternal Thou can by its nature not become It: for by its nature it cannot be established in measure and bounds, not even in the measure of the immeasurable, or the bounds of the boundless being; for by its nature it cannot be understood as a sum of qualities, not even as an infinite sum of qualities raised to a transcendental level; for it can be found neither in nor out of the world; for it cannot be experienced, or thought; for we miss Him, Him who is, if we say ‘I believe that He is’ – ‘He” is also a metaphor, but ‘Thou’ is not’. (p.77)

As Buber explains, all attempts to find God in the It world have reduced the idea of God to something which could not possibly be the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient creator of the universe.

He explains that the active solution to a world dominated by I-It, where man feels oppressed by causality, powerless, and as though he is living a meaningless life lacking in freedom, is to enter into relation with God. Why? Because whilst each human experience inevitably peters out into experience, the eternal Thou can never degenerate into an It.

But to encounter the eternal Thou (God) we must be ready for it in both active and passive terms. Actively, we must truly want this encounter, we must let go of thinking we are in control and we must hold I-It and I-Thou in harmony; passively we must wait for God to meet us.

When we enter into relation with God, we enter into relation with everything else in the world. Our encounter with God is both exclusive and inclusive, exclusive because we fully enter into the relation, inclusive because we are relating not only to God but also to the whole Universe.

Buber is not able to describe an encounter with God, but he does say what it is not. It is not a feeling of dependency. God needs us as much as we need God. It is a mutual relationship. It is not an immersion of union between ourselves and God. It is important that we retain our individual selves (whilst losing the drive for self-affirmation) and keep the encounter in a dialogical relation between two separate beings. It is not logically coherent but involves logical conflicts and paradoxes. Paradox is an essential component of the religious moment. We should not substitute the idols of knowledge, power, artistic beauty and erotic love with God. Religious relation is not idol worship of the right idol, and religion is not a crutch, but requires strength and willpower. We cannot predict, control or understand the world. Saying Thou to God transforms us. We lose all duty and obligation. We are filled with loving responsibility for the whole world.

Buber believed that the way forward, away from a domination by I-It relation, is to build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God. He pointed out that these communities have existed in the past but gradually their need for continuity in space and time resulted in relating to God as It. But if we can build community based on members’ relation to each other and to God, the everyday life becomes holy and divine encounter is involved in every act of daily life. We need to bring the holy into everyday life through building of community and relation with God.

‘The world of It is set in the context of space and time.

The world of Thou is not set in the context of with either of these.

Its context is in the Centre [God], where the extended lines of relations meet – in the eternal Thou.’ (p.69)

18-08-21 Update

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network discussion on Martin Buber’s I and Thou was introduced by Amanda Fulford is Professor of Philosophy of Education, and Head of the Department of Professional Learning at Edge Hill University, who posed the following provocations for discussion:

  • Criticisms have been levelled at Buber’s I and Thou that his language is overly obscure and romantic. Walter Kaufmann makes this claim in his translator’s introduction to the work. Given this, is there a risk that the reader is seduced into thinking the text is more profound than it actually is? Does this undermine the central distinction in I and Thou?
  • Is there a hierarchy in Buber’s work that elevates the I-Thou (and thus denigrates) the I-It? What would this mean for certain ways of knowing?
  • Can I-Thou relations be extended beyond human others, and what would this mean for our relationships with, say, animals, or the environment?

And our discussion ended with Jessica Lussier (@miss_lussier) raising the following questions for us to reflect on and discuss on Twitter (@PhilofEd):

  • What role does language play in Buber’s I-Thou relation?
  • What role does feeling/affect play in this relation?
  • How might this allow us to extend I-Thou relations beyond the human?


Buber, M. Ich Und Du (1923 Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith and published as I and Thou by Bloomsbury Revelations Edition (2013)

Smith, M. K. (2000, 2009) ‘Martin Buber on education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ . Retrieved: 05-0821]

Spark Notes Study Guide. I and Thou. Martin Buber.

Dodson, E. (2014) Buber in Ten Minutes.

Source of Image:

Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter with Things – further information

In my last post, I wrote that I have pre-ordered Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World, which will be published in two volumes. The writing of this book has been a 10 year long process, which means that no sooner had McGilchrist finished writing The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, which is also a long book (over 500 pages), he started on this new book. He says the new book took over him and his life and demanded to be written.

Each volume of the new book is 750 pages long. (I have wondered how much juggling about was needed to make each volume of equal length!) Maybe, and hopefully, the text in the new volumes will not be so dense. A very short video on Channel McGilchrist, which turns the pages of the new book for us, indicates that this is the case. Below is a screenshot from that video. As you can see, this time the notes are included in the margin of the page. In The Master and His Emissary, the notes were included at the end of the book – 250 pages of very small typeface. I think this new format will make it easier to follow the notes.

I have now heard Iain McGilchrist talk about The Matter with Things a few times and it is interesting to hear how the book has evolved. The first time I heard him talk about it was in 2018. At that stage, the working title of the book was There are No Things. In 2019, I heard him talk about it again, in a series of one hour lectures given at the Field and Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK. I made notes and shared them on this blog. See the posts under the heading ‘2019 The Matter with Things’, on The Divided Brain page on this blog.

More recently I heard Iain talk about his new book in this video (published in October 2020). But some things have changed since this video was recorded, not least the publisher. Originally the book was due to be published by Penguin Random House, but we now know that the book will be published by Perspectiva Press. In this 2020 video Iain talks about the book being in three parts, but we now know that it has been published in two volumes. I can’t imagine how much work it must have been to make that change.

However, all has been resolved as we now have a short video on Channel McGilchrist where Iain explains what the new book is all about. You need to be a member of Channel McGilchrist to see this video, filmed in Iain’s beautiful garden on the Isle of Skye, but I will share some details here.

Although the book is in two volumes there is one overarching argument and that is that the horrendous natural challenges that we now face are a result of our way of looking at or being in the world, which has become increasingly left hemisphere dominated. Our brain has evolved to manipulate the world rather than understand it, such that we are blinded to a profound and beautiful reality. We think of the world as inert and mechanical, just a collection of things for us to use. The aim of the book is to open our eyes to this and to consider the questions of how this philosophically affects how we live in the world and how it might delude us of the world’s true nature. If our civilisation is going to survive, we need a radically different view of the world.

In this new book Iain is trying to expose the weakness, the ignorance and the simplicity of the current reductionist view of the world, which seems more or less unchallenged in the public intellectual arena.

Volume 1of The Matter with Things bears the title ‘The Ways to Truth’, not that there is a single truth, but rather that some things are truer than others. In the first part of this volume, Iain explores how we get an idea of what reality is and says that there are six or seven faculties that we bring to bear on reality – attention, perception, judgements formed on the basis of attention and perception, judgements formed on the basis of emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence and the capacity for creativity. These are the ways in which we can encounter ‘the Other’.

In the second part of Volume 1, Iain consider the four paths to an understanding of the world, four paths by which we can arrive at the truth – science, reason, intuition, and imagination. He explores what these are good at and their limitations, saying that we need each and must honour all four of them. Now, at any one time we honour one, or possibly two. Our view of science and reason has become narrow, and imagination and intuition are not sufficiently valued. In all four the right hemisphere’s view is more important than the left. I first heard Iain talk about these four paths at the Field and Field conference in 2019 and shared my notes on this blog. See The Divided Brain page on this blog, for more details.

In Volume 2 of The Matter with Things, Iain considers what we can do once we know (and have seen through what is covered in Volume 1) how in touch, or out of touch, the left and right hemisphere’s ways of looking at the world are. We can now recognise that there are paradoxical findings and very often these paradoxical findings can be traced to the characteristic ways of thinking of the left and right hemispheres. These paradoxes relate to fundamentally important things like time, space, consciousness, matter, value, purpose and a sense of the sacred. All these are very important for understanding our relation to the cosmos at large. In this volume Iain looks at the structure of the cosmos and shows that opposites must and do co-exist. We need both like the two poles of a magnet and there is no barrier between them. This is an important insight. Another important insight is the relationship between the one and the many. How does the uniqueness of everything we experience relate to the capacity we have to see it as a certain kind of general thing? What are the values and problems that emerge if we don’t understand this?

So, the new book is an attempt to provide an overall philosophy of life and consider where we stand in the cosmos, and to bring us back to a vision of and chance of living a better life within it.

The Matter with Things – Iain McGilchrist

I have just pre-ordered Iain McGilchrist’s new book, due to be published by Perspectiva Press on November 9th.

I have ordered my copy through Channel McGilchrist and have received the following email:

As you have pre-ordered the book, you will receive your copy at the discounted price of £79.95 (just over 11% discount of the RRP £89.95). You will be notified when the book is shipped to your address, which will be between mid-October 2021 and the official publication date of 9th November 2021.

Note: We are currently only accepting pre-orders from the UK. To be notified of when the book is available worldwide, please subscribe to our free newsletter here.

Iain McGilchrist has already started to read the Introduction to this massively long book (750 pages in each volume) on Channel McGilchrist, and has uploaded a video giving us more information about the book, how it is set out, what it covers, and what he hopes will be learned from the book. He tells us he will not be writing another long book in his lifetime. It has taken him the last 10 years to write this book.

If you are interested in this book, the best way to find out more about it is to join Channel McGilchrist. There is also a wealth of other resources on the Channel, and the opportunity to put questions to Iain, and to discuss his work with others.

If you have never heard of Iain McGilchrist and would like to know more, I have shared my perspective on this blog. For links to posts see the page The Divided Brain, and a post with the title Introducing the Work of Iain McGilchrist.

Maxine Greene. Releasing the Imagination. (Notes)

This is the book that has been chosen for discussion by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network on July 20th, which will also be the first anniversary for the group.

The subtitle of the book is Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change, which means that the book could be dipped into, and the chapters read selectively, but I have read it sequentially, starting at the beginning and working through to the end.

In the reading that I have been doing for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network, I have realised that I find it very helpful if I know something about the authors as people, when reading their work. I found this video about the life of Maxine Greene helpful in making the words in her book come alive.

Part 1. Creating Possibilities

The book is written in three parts. The six chapters in the first part, explore how to create possibilities for releasing the imagination. Maxine Greene’s thoughts are addressed to teachers and teacher educators, particularly the latter. In her introduction she writes:

‘…. Imagination is what, above all, makes empathy possible. It is what enables us to cross empty spaces between ourselves and those we teachers have called “other” over the years. If those others are willing to give us clues, we can look in some manner through strangers’ eyes and hear through their ears. That is because, of all our cognitive capacities, imagination is the one that permits us to give credence to alternative realities.’ (p.3)

Greene believes that we must ‘move beyond schooling to the wider domains of education, where there are and must be all kinds of openings to possibility.’ She tells us that the current education system in the US (she was writing in 1995, but her ideas have not dated) has a very narrow focus and fails to see the big picture. It is preoccupied with measurement and accountability. To move beyond this to think about alternative possibilities and of things being otherwise, which takes imagination and empathy. We must ‘cultivate multiple ways of seeing and multiple dialogues in a world where nothing stays the same.’ We want young people to become critical, self-reflective, active learners. We want children to be more than raw materials to be shaped to market demand. We want them to have something to say about the way things might be if they were otherwise. Greene believes that the arts are central in this endeavour; stories, poems, dance performances, concerts, paintings, films, plays.  Also critical to this is the breaking of habit. ‘The difficult task for the teacher is to devise situations in which the young will move from the habitual and the ordinary and consciously undertake a search.’And important too is community, democratic community, characterised by interconnectedness and communion, where people are ‘offered the space in which to discover what they recognize together and appreciate in common; they have to find ways to make inter-subjective sense’.

What is striking about Maxine Greene, is the extent to which she draws on literature to illustrate what she means by releasing the imagination. This is very evident in Chapter 4. Discovering a Pedagogy, where she references the literature of Don DeLillo, Umberto Eco, Joseph Conrad, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Virginia Woolf and Albert Camus and the writing of Habermas, Freire, Arendt, Sartre, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Rorty, Gadamer and Bakhtin. Literature can invoke alternative worlds, experiences and perceptions never noted before, and release the imagination, but not just literature. We must enable our children

‘… to have a number of languages to hand and not verbal or mathematical languages alone. Some children may find articulation through imagery; others, through body movement; still others, through musical sound. Mastery of a range of languages is necessary if communication is to take place beyond small enclosures within the culture; without multiple languages, it is extremely difficult to chart the lived landscape, thematizing experience over time.’ P.57

Students and teachers must be empowered to speak in their own voices and develop their own ways of seeing.

Greene rejects the idea of a static view of reality. No-one’s picture is complete. Neither is anyone free from the shaping influence of contexts. For this reason she believes it important that we learn to be reflective enough to become aware of how we construct our realities and see multiple perspectives. We must learn to think about our own thinking, and become conscious of our own consciousness. We must ‘notice’ and acknowledge the primacy of perception (Merleau-Ponty).

Part 2. Illuminations and Epiphanies

In this part Greene argues for a view of teaching as for finding openings and a view of curriculum as a search for meaning, saying that ‘the arts in particular can bring to curriculum inquiry visions of perspectives and untapped possibilities’. Again she stresses the importance of literature and metaphor for defamiliarizing experience and seeing alternate perspectives and new possibilities. Literature, she says, has the potential ‘to subvert dualism and reductionism, to make abstract generalizations questionable’. It has the potential to release the imagination.

Not only reading, but writing too is important in releasing the imagination. Through writing and the telling of stories, learners can make connections, create patterns and find meaning. Writing enables us to name alternatives, open ourselves to possibilities and overcome silences. ‘Learning to write is a matter of learning to shatter the silences, of making meaning, of learning to learn.’ We must work together, reading, writing and in dialogue, ‘to unconceal what is hidden, to contextualize what happens to us, to mediate the dialectic that keeps us on edge, that may be keeping us alive’… so that we can read our worlds differently.

Greene reminds us that Virginia Woolf wrote about the shock-receiving capacity that made her a writer, how shocks made her want to explain it. Literature can be a source of these shocks of awareness. For Greene, the shocks, for example, of the inhibiting, demeaning forces, that constricted her freedom, could be explored in writing. But Greene was also very aware of how deeply literacy is involved in relations of power and how ‘many of the alienated or marginalized are made to feel distrustful of their own voices, [and] their own ways of making sense.’ She urges teachers to think of literacy as a social undertaking to be sought in pluralist classrooms.

Art too can be a source of shocks of awareness. ‘…. many forms of art can enable us to see more in our experience, to hear more on normally unheard frequencies, to become conscious of what daily routines have obscured, what habit and convention have suppressed.’ Art is a way of understanding, a way of knowing. As for literature, encounters with art can release the imagination. Indeed, Greene believed that ‘informed encounters with the several arts is the most likely mode of releasing our students’ (or any person’s) imaginative capacity and giving it play.

In the final chapter of Part 2, Greene makes the distinction between art education and aesthetic education saying both are needed. Art education covers the spectrum that includes dance education, music education, the teaching of painting, the other graphic arts and some kinds of writing. By aesthetic education she means ‘the deliberate efforts to foster increasingly informed and involved encounters with art’. Art education and aesthetic education should inform each other. Art should be education for a more informed and imaginative awareness. It should be an education in ‘the kinds of critical transactions that empower students to both resist elitism and objectivism, that allow them to read and to name, to write and to rewrite their own lived world.’

Part 3. Community in the Making

In the final part of her book Greene turns to the question of how teaching can be a social undertaking, how teachers can see and hear all students in all their plurality, multiplicity and diversity, how they can help students to articulate their stories, and how through this teaching for openings, communities attentive to difference and open to the idea of plurality can be developed.  ‘Learning to look through multiple perspectives, young people may be helped to build bridges among themselves; attending to a range of human stories, they may be provoked to heal and to transform’. The arts are central to this. Community development and democratic community is essential for change.

‘The democratic community, always a community in the making, depends not so much on what has been achieved and funded in the past. It is kept alive: it is energized and radiated by an awareness of future possibility.’ p.166  

The world is neither equitable nor fair. Hence the importance of attending to the principles of equity, equality and freedom. Greene asks, ‘How can we reconcile the multiple realities of human lives with shared commitment to communities infused once again with principles?’ She believes that the arts can help students reflect on these principles, question the taken-for-granted, become critical thinkers.

‘Imagination may be our primary means of forming an understanding of what goes on under the heading of “reality”; imagination may be responsible for the very texture of our experience. Once we do away with habitual separations of the subjective from the objective, the inside from the outside, appearances from reality, we might be able to give imagination its proper importance and grasp what it means to place imagination at the core of understanding’. (p.140)


Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination. Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. Jossey-Bass.


I don’t feel as though I’ve done Maxine Greene justice in this post, so here are two more references.

A helpful book review was published in 1997 by N. Carlotta Parr in Philosophy of Music Education Review, Fall, 1997, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 108-110; Indiana University Press –

And Eddie Playfair, who is a member of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network, wrote a short introduction to Maxine Greene on his blog in 2014 –

Art History 1800-1900

Module 6, the penultimate module of the National Gallery’s course, Stories of Art. A Modular Introduction to Art History, covered 19th century art. The module was presented by Dr Amy Mechowski, and during the six week course, three of the sessions featured an in-depth contribution from guest speakers, who presented the second hour of the two hour weekly session. In this first week, the guest speaker was Dr Susanna Avery-Quash

The 19th century was an age of unprecedented cultural, political, and social change. This module explored how this period of change was manifested in works of art. It also paid particular attention to paintings in the National Gallery and the work of the National Gallery, since it was in the 19th century that the National Gallery was established.

This has been a difficult module to reflect on in one blog post. It was so packed with information and images that it has been hard to know what to include. It was also quite hard to follow, simply because of the sheer weight of content. I sometimes think less might be more.

Week1: A New Age and a New Gallery

In this first week Amy Mechowski didn’t focus on particular artists, rather she gave us an overview of the influences of the long 19th century on art and artists.  The long 19th century is a term coined by Russian literary critic and author Ilya Ehrenburg, and British Marxist historian and author Eric Hobsbawm, for the 125-year period comprising the years from 1789 to 1914.  This period included the avant-garde in the first half of the 19th century and the start of modernism in the late 19th century/early 20th century. The avant-garde was a pathfinding force, characterised by unaccepted change, when artists were leaders alongside scientists and other change makers.

There remains debate about when modernism started – was it 1900 with fauvism, or 1800 with Romanticism, or 1850 with realism?  The 19th century was an era of ‘isms’!

The great events that influenced art of the 19th century were the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and those leading up to the First World War. The spirit of revolution marked this century. This was the century of The Great Exhibition, and the development of photography, a century characterised by contradiction between modernity and tradition, urban and rural life, and popular and high class. There were also issues around gender and social class, and these boundaries between the social classes were explored by artists such as Degas. What was appropriate for the working classes? Should they too visit museums, as the middle class were beginning to do? There were also issues around freedoms, equality and representations.

These issues were all reflected in the collections of the National Gallery which was finally established in 1824 through the efforts of Lord Liverpool, Charles Long and Sir George Beaumont. Prior to this art was only seen in private collections or occasionally in museums. The presentation in the second half of this week by Susanna Avery-Quash, focussed on the first director of the National Gallery, Charles Eastlake, and how through his work, and extensive travel abroad to see and collect art, he managed to change the direction of the National Gallery’s art collection and introduce a new acquisition policy that would extend and diversify the collection.

Week 2: Academies and Rivalries

In this week Amy Mechowski gave two lectures. For the first hour she focussed on The Academy: Neoclassicism and Romanticism. In the early 19th century academic art looked to classical art for inspiration. History painting (classical history and mythology) was at the top of the hierarchy of importance, followed by portraiture, genre painting, landscape and cityscapes, animal painting and finally still life. Neoclassicism was driven by The Enlightenment and the practice of going on Grand Tours as artists became familiar with the work of the Greeks and Romans. Neoclassical art is characterised by simplicity and sedate grandeur, austere clarity, moral truth and political purpose. Amy Mechowski put forward Jacques-Louis David’s work as the best example of Neoclassicism, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, a student of David’s, as the high priest of Neoclassicism. Ingres was a superb draughtsman and master of drapery and texture as we can see from this painting of Madame Moitessier, which took 12 years to complete and underwent several revisions.

Notable in Ingre’s work is how he played with composition, making many preparatory drawings, how he often painted women in front of mirrors, and the rubbery quality to his painting of flesh as can be seen in Madame Moitessier’s right hand. There is quite a story behind this painting which you can listen to on the video on the National Gallery’s website. See

This first hour ended with a short discussion about the work of women artists (Annie Louisa Swynnerton, Laura Herford, Angelica Kauffman, Adelaide Labille-Guiard) and sculptors at this time (Anne Seymour Damer, Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis), and their struggle to be recognised as professionals capable of engaging with methods and materials that were regarded as otherwise too dangerous, messy and generally prohibitive for women.

In the second hour, Amy Mechowski focussed on Romanticism and Rivalries, referring back to the rivalry between Ingres (Neoclassicism) and Delacroix (Romanticism), mentioned in the first hour ….

…. and then focussing on the rivalry between Turner and Constable in the period of Romanticism.

Delacroix was considered the greatest French Romantic painter. In comparison to Ingres, his work was loose, non-conformist, sketchy and expressive. These two artists showed the conflict between head and heart, the Neoclassicist Ingres’ paintings being dignified, restrained and balanced, and the Romanticist Delacroix’s paintings being passionate, rich and fiery in comparison. Romanticism was a response to disillusionment with the Age of Reason. It centred on imagination and emotion, the nature of man, and nature itself as unpredictable and violent, rather than ordered.

Landscape was a favoured subject for Romantic artists, as we see in the work of Turner and Constable, two very different artists, from very different backgrounds, who produced very different work. There was great rivalry between Turner and Constable which was depicted in Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner (2014) which dramatized the moment that Turner and Constable clashed over two of the paintings they submitted to the Exhibition in 1832.

Both artists had radically new approaches to painting and the use of paint, which are discussed in some of the National Gallery’s videos. Watch Colin Wiggins give an entertaining, informative and in-depth talk on The Hay Wain (1821) in this video –  and Christina Bradstreet talk about Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’ (1844) in this video –

Week 3: Realism, Naturalism and Representation

As mentioned before, this module is proving difficult to capture in brief weekly notes. Dr Amy Mechowski has chosen to take a themed approach to each week, rather than focus on a particular artist. This seems to work against my purposes of making a record of each week in a brief paragraph, so these notes are shared on the understanding that they only present a fraction of what was presented, but even so this post is going to be very long!

In the first half of this week’s session, Amy Mechowski discussed realism and naturalism in 19th century art with particular attention to the work of Gustave Courbet and Jean-Francois Millet, in France, as well as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England. These artists moved away from the traditional, classical and romanticist approaches of the past, to representing things closer to the ways we see them, often painting landscapes and other scenes from life out-of-doors (naturalism) and painting everyday life in a realistic, almost photographic way. Naturalism and realism took many forms, but often had a political edge, commenting on, for example, people working the land, through direct observation of the modern world.

Courbet’s paintings were rejected by the Palace of Fine Arts, but this didn’t deter him. He instead set up his own one-man independent exhibition, establishing himself as a Realist.

Similarly Millet’s honest depiction of rural poverty, made the upper classes uncomfortable and caused a scandal. Millet’s subjects were considered subversive.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (but later joined by a number of other artists) were also keen observers of the natural world, who were championed by the art critic John Ruskin. They studied nature attentively and recorded what they observed in minute detail. Some of the Pre-Raphaelites were fascinated by medieval culture and ultimately the group divided to follow two different directions. The Realists were led by Hunt and Millais, while the medievalists were led by Rossetti and his followers, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

In the second half of this week’s session, Dr Jenny Graham explored the concept of representation through the ‘Realism’ of the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt, with a particular focus on his Holy Land pictures, which were explored in relation to empire, religion, travel and colonialism. Holman Hunt had a life-long interest in the Middle East. Jenny Graham told us that he tried to civilise other lands with his paintbrush in one hand and his bible in the other. The Scapegoat is an example of this.

Through quotes from his personal diaries and by close examination of his paintings we see that Holman Hunt was a product of his times, i.e. inherently racist, deeply influenced by the norms of the British Empire and colonialism.

Week 4: The Painters of Modern Life

The Painter of Modern Life is the title of an essay by Charles Baudelaire, who urged painters to break from historical narratives of the past and paint contemporary Paris and modern urban life. Baudelaire used the term ‘flaneur’ (meaning ‘stroller’ or ‘loafer’) to describe these observers of modern urban life. As such Baudelaire approved of Edouard Manet’s paintings which were considered shocking at the time.

Music in the Tuileries Gardens 1862, by Édouard Manet – National Gallery, London, Public Domain,

Manet blurred the lines between genders and social classes and broke a lot of the accepted rules of perspective and application of paint. Consider the tree trunk which almost splits his painting, Music in the Tuileries Gardens, in two, and the blue triangle of sky at the top of the painting. His handling of paint was loose and sketchy, finished yet unfinished, and his technique had a flattening effect, flattening space and figures. Manet’s paintings were refused by The Salon in Paris, but Napoleon III instituted the Salon des Refusés, where Manet exhibited instead. Even there his paintings, which were blatantly defiant, caused a scandal, particularly his nudes, which were of real people, not idealised; naked, not nude.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, by Édouard Manet – twELHYoc3ID_VA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

At the time, there was a large tradition of painting nudes in the standard drawn from classical art, in which the line and form were smooth and soft, with no distortions. Colours were muted with the figures painted in pale white, depicting virtue, and often painted as part of a narrative, a character in a story.

Historically the female nude had been painted by men for men, as exoticised ‘others’, but with the influence of the changing times, the re-organisation of neighbourhoods in Paris, the rise in employment and of the lower middle class, and the increasing development and influence of photography on painting, rules were being broken in many aspects of life, and the nude was toppled from its lofty pedestal. Developments in painting in the 19th century were shaped by shifting socio-cultural and political structures, which were manifested in challenges to a hierarchy of genres in painting as well as themes of identity, representation and performance. The iconic, sensual nude became a vehicle for provocation, experimentation and radical departures in painting.

Week 5: The Advent and Advance of Impressionism

With their first independent exhibition in 1874 (not at The Salon, where they refused to exhibit) , Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Morisot and Pissarro became household names. There is something inspiring about their refusal to exhibit at The Salon. What courage of their convictions they must have had in the face of severe criticism of their work, which rejected the traditions of the time.

This group did not call themselves impressionists at the outset. The movement started with Monet’s painting bearing the title Impression.

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872. Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris

A great variety of work was produced by the Impressionists. Manet was linked to this group, and a good friend of Monet’s, but wasn’t an impressionist and didn’t refuse to exhibit at The Salon. The Impressionists painted modern life and structures, for example, trains, railways, cities; strong and vulnerable women; and images of rural leisure. Bathing was also a popular subject at this time. See for example the work of Degas, Caillebotte and Eakins. The impressionists adopted a radical technique of short, broken, loose and sketchy brushstrokes, such that their works looked unfinished. The development of oil paints in screw top tubes and folding easels and stools, meant that they could, and did, work outdoors. They painted straight from the tubes, using unblended, bright colours, paying close attention to the effects of light. This was a time of opportunity and new freedoms for women, as we see in the work of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. Also, at this time, trade was re-established with Japan for the first time in 250 years, and the influence of Japanese design and pattern can be seen in the work of many artists in Europe, and in the work of James Abbott Whistler, who was considered the quintessential American impressionist.

In the second half of this week’s session Dr Jenny Graham focussed on Whistler’s paintings and the theme of ‘whiteness’, with reference to race, gender and the public display of art in London and Paris. For Whistler white is a philosophical, artistic and theoretical problem. He explores how white is not a single tone, but many tones with lots of intricate shadows, in his beautiful series of three Symphony in White paintings Unlike other Victorian artists of the time, Whistler was more interested in what paint can do, rather than the politics of the time, an approach that is known as ‘Art for art’s sake’.  He wanted painting to be a sensory as well as a contextualised experience. His three Symphony in White paintings were considered shocking, not because they were experimental, but because the subject (Whistler’s mistress) looks like a fallen woman, a girl who has lost her virginity.

But it was Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold. The Falling Rocket, which caused the most scandal, inviting severe criticism from John Ruskin, who thought Whistler had asked too much money for a painting in which there was no evidence of any work. Ruskin thought labour should go into a work of art. Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, and won, but ultimately the trial bankrupted him. Dr. Caroline Ikin talks about their argument on YouTube

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, c. 1875

Week 6: The Crisis of Impressionism and Beginning of a New Century

The Impressionists held eight independent exhibitions and with every passing year the artists became more divergent from the characteristics which initially bound them together. The eighth exhibition in 1886 included artists who would later be called the Post-Impressionists. Once again many, many slides were shown this week, but the focus paintings were:

This is painted in Pointillist style, a Post-Impressionist technique developed by Seurat. Paul Signac also helped to develop this style, which explored the use of complementary colours and gave the paintings a shimmering effect. Pissarro also experimented with Pointillism, but after a few years returned to Impressionism. See, for example, his painting Late Afternoon in our Meadow.

Gauguin was influenced by the work of Seurat and Signac. He too moved away from Impressionism. Gauguin is best known for his primitive, non-Western art; its simplicity, sincerity and expressive power, and also for his relationship with Van Gogh for whom he painted this self-portrait.

Gauguin’s style of Post-Impressionism has been termed Cloisonnism, a technique in which areas of bold, flat colour are separated by strong, dark contours. Gauguin also used the term Synthetism to describe his work.

The second half of this week’s session was devoted to Van Gogh and Cézanne. Some things I didn’t previously know about Vincent (as he liked to be called) are that he was largely self-taught, a prolific painter, producing 900 paintings and 1000 works on paper between 1880 and 1890. He loved the work of Millais and copied his paintings. He was deeply religious, and his famous sunflower paintings are evocative for Christians, for just as the sunflowers turn to follow the sun, so do Christians turn to follow Christ. I knew that his mental health was fragile and that he cut off his ear, but I didn’t know that he took his own life in 1890, shooting himself in the chest. This was his final, but unfinished painting, before he died. Farms near Auvers, 1890.

Farms near Auvers 1890 Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890 Bequeathed by C. Frank Stoop 1933

This module ended with a focus on Cézanne, who is considered the founder of 20th century modernism. Cézanne was a Neo-impressionist. He used subtle gradations in colour to build form and create three-dimensional space, and anticipated cubism with geometric shapes. Cézanne was interested in how the human eye sees and how our minds process different perspectives.

Paul Cézanne, Hillside in Provence, about 1890-92

The final Module 7 in this online course, Stories of Art. A Modular Introduction to Art History starts on Wednesday 14th July, and will cover 1900-2021. I expect it to be just as packed with content.

Simone Weil – some brief notes

The most recent book to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network was Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles. The session was introduced by Dr Susan Notess of Durham University, who introduced us to the life and work of Simone Weil, a French philosopher, mystic and political activist, in 15 short minutes.

As she said, Simone Weil was an ‘interesting’ character, who had a different way of approaching the world. Elsewhere I have seen Weil described as eccentric, which, from what I have read, is putting it mildly, although Albert Camus described her as ‘The only great spirit of our time’. From a very early age it was clear that Simone Weil was gifted, although she lived in the shadow of her gifted, older brother, André, who was considered a mathematical genius. Weil could speak several languages and was reading Plato in Ancient Greek at the age of 12. Later she also taught herself Sanskrit, so that she could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. Her teacher, Émile Chartier, more commonly known as Alain, nicknamed her ‘The Martian’ to draw attention to her intellect and ‘very large brain’. Weil was an intellectual being, but also a woman struggling to compete in a man’s world. She managed this by adopting an asexual identity, wearing masculine-style clothes, and shunning intimate relationships and all forms of physical intimacy (although physical intimacy had appalled her from a very early age, and even as a child, she didn’t like to be touched or kissed for fear of germs). Another nickname for her was The Red Virgin, red referring to her left-wing political activism.

From a very young age, Weil empathised acutely with the suffering of others, to the detriment of her own health and well-being. At the age of six, she stopped eating sugar, because soldiers at the front in the first world war couldn’t have sugar. Later in life she tried to stay true to her belief in empathising with the suffering of others, and practise what she preached, by living very simply with minimum comforts and eating very little. She wanted to match the living conditions of people around her. She died young at the age of 34 in 1943 from tuberculosis, aggravated by malnutrition. Some believe that she may have been anorexic, but there is no evidence for this.

Weil came from an affluent non-practising Jewish family. Her father was a doctor, so she came from a privileged background and went to a fine school. She did brilliantly at University, being one of the first 5 women ever to attend the École Normale Supérieure, in Paris, outshining Simone de Beauvoir by finishing first in the exam for the certificate of ‘General Philosophy and Logic’. de Beauvoir finished second.

On leaving University Weil became a teacher of philosophy and political activist, and ultimately became influential in religious and spiritual matters, but given that this book was chosen for discussion by a philosophy of education reading network, it is on education that I would like to focus. This film (1 hour 24 mins) gives a more complete introduction to Simone Weil than I have done here.

I must admit to only having dipped into the anthology being discussed in this session. I found several introductions to Weil’s life and work online, which were interesting – she definitely is an interesting character, but her political and social activism, mysticism and leaning towards religious and spiritual matters did not draw me in. Perhaps it was, for me, the wrong time to be trying to read this book. I do find a book a month, by these difficult authors, quite a challenge, and I was still thinking about Nel Noddings (see previous posts) when I came to Weil’s book. Despite only having dipped into Weil’s work, I can see the connections between her and Noddings, and to some extent between her and Hannah Arendt. Iris Murdoch was also influenced by Weil.

From the little I know of Weil’s approach to education and pedagogy, she was unorthodox. She tried to teach people wherever she went, sharing her philosophical and political ideas with workers in factories and publishing in workers’ journals. But she soon realised that labouring workers (in the car factories that she herself worked in to try and align herself with workers’ suffering) were too oppressed by their impoverished lives to have the energy or will to discuss philosophy. As a teacher she wanted to humanise education. In teaching sixth form philosophy, she realised that her students had no knowledge of the connections between philosophy and science, so she created a special curriculum. In doing this, she didn’t follow the curriculum or the rules of the school in which she worked, to the extent that her students didn’t pass the exams, and ultimately, she lost her job as a teacher. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the students benefited from her teaching, claiming that she gave them ‘something else’. It’s interesting to think about this in the relation to the purpose of education.

For Weil the central purpose of education is to cultivate and develop the capacity for attention. She doesn’t mean by this that we should furrow our brows and strain to attend. Attention does not depend on the will. She writes (1986, p.233) ‘Attention is bound up with desire. Not with will, but with desire – or more exactly, consent’. For Weil attention is being receptive, open, patient and selfless. ‘I’ has to disappear. ‘Attention alone – that attention, which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears – is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it on to that which cannot be conceived.’ The mind is ‘detached, empty and ready’ to receive truth from the world (Weill, 2009, p.111).

She goes on to write (1986, p.234) ‘The authentic and pure values – truth, beauty and goodness – in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object. Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.’ This is where we see the influence of Weil on Noddings, who wrote about the need for the one-caring to be engrossed in and fully committed to the cared-for, in the act of caring for the other. For Weil and Noddings alike, teachers must be attentive to their students and students must be attentive to their studies.

But for Weil, the ultimate aim of education is the orientation of all attention to the love of God, although she acknowledges in her essay ‘Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God’ (Weil, 2009) that this is the highest form of attention, whereas schools only develop a lower form of attention. ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.’ (1986, p.232). She expands on this in her essay on the right use of school studies as follows:

Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable in any true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer; as, when we write, we draw the shape of the letter on paper, not with a view to the shape, but with a view to the idea we want to express. To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use. (2009, p.108)

Weil stresses the importance of failure in learning (learning from failure) and humility, but also joy. ‘The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running’. (2009, p.110). Whilst Weil believed that cultivating attention would help students to reach God through prayer, she also thought that a capacity for attention would help students generally in their academic studies and particularly in their ability to attend to others.

A full discussion of Weil’s work, as it relates to education, is beyond the scope of this post. In addition, I think it is probably not possible to fully appreciate and understand Weil’s ideas on education, without having some knowledge and understanding of her wider work relating to politics, mysticism and religion. At this point, from my own limited reading and understanding of her work, I think her ideas are possibly too radical and too imbued with religious overtones, to be widely adopted in education. Having said that, most teachers would probably agree on the importance of cultivating attention, but they may have a different understanding of attention to Weil, i.e., thinking of attention as being muscle straining hard work, rather than the open receptivity advocated by Weil.

Finally, Susan Notess, who introduced this Philosophy of Education Reading Network session, posed some really thought-provoking questions for us to consider. I will finish this post by sharing them here. Three great questions to get you (and me) thinking.

Question 1:

What do you make of Weil’s zealous belief that ideology was not enough; that she had to live the experience of the causes she cared about? Does genuine activism require that we commit to abstract objectivity and remove, or to participation ‘in the trenches’, or both? Consider this: suppose you are a passionate proponent of revolution in some sphere, desiring to see an oppressed class revolt and find freedom, although you yourself tend towards pacifism and would prefer a nonviolent revolution. A genie who reads Simone Weil appears, and tells you they will ensure the revolution and its success, on the condition that you agree to participate and carry arms. How would you respond to the genie? Is it a mistake to think that our theoretical commitments require us to be committed to involvement also? Was Weil going too far by joining the Spanish Civil War, or was she setting a daunting precedent that we ought to follow?

Question 2:

To what extent can, or should, Weil’s notion of attention function to disrupt our philosophical praxis? In pedagogy broadly construed, what role can this ungrabbing, unboxed attention play? In philosophical pedagogy, how do we strike a balance between the need to equip students for technical knowledge/skill, and the need to teach people to find the open attunement of apophatic attention?

Question 3:

Take for granted Weil’s notion of roots and the human need for rootedness. How do the possibilities for rootedness change or modulate in the context of the following: immigration in a globalised age (uprooting and replanting); the internet, as a field in which communities of belonging can be established, an alternative or queered space of rootedness, a source of affordances for the displaced, the dispossessed, the divergent, and the estranged; cross-cultural living, and those who live with a dual identity, rooted in two places.

Evidently Simone Weil was ‘intensely displeased’ by the attention paid to her life rather than her works, so I expect she wouldn’t have liked this post very much!


Weil, S. Attention and Will in Simone Weil: An Anthology compiled by Siân Miles, 2005, Penguin Books. First published by Virago Press in 1986.  

Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 2009, Harper Collins

Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Moral Education (Notes)

The title of Nel Noddings’ book (published in 1984) is in fact: Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. The book has eight chapters. Broadly speaking chapters 1-3 and 7 focus on caring, chapters 4-6 focus on the ethics of caring and the ethical ideal, and chapter 8 focusses on moral education, although all the chapters make reference to all these topics.

This is the second time I have read Noddings’ book, and this time I made extensive notes, which I am sharing in two blog posts. In this post, I will share my notes on the final chapter on moral education. For my notes on chapters 1-7, see my previous post Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Notes). If you are not familiar with Noddings’ work and ideas, it may be necessary to read the first post in order to fully understand this post – and, of course, reading notes is no substitute for reading the original text.

What is Moral Education?

Noddings tells us that moral education is an education which strives to meet all morally, and enhances the ethical ideal of those being educated. The ethical ideal is to be one-caring and to meet the other morally. She believes that the primary aim of every educational institution and of every educational effort must be the maintenance and enhancement of caring; parents, the police, social workers, teachers, preachers, neighbours, coaches and older siblings must all accept responsibility. To receive and to be received, to care and be cared-for are the basic realities of human being and its basic aims. When we behave ethically as one-caring, we are not obeying moral principles, although they may guide our thinking, but we are meeting the other in genuine encounters of caring and being cared for. Moral education does not dismiss thinking and reasoning. Training for intelligence and morality should not be separated, but moral education recognises the affective ‘I must’, and intellectual tasks and aesthetic appreciation should be deliberately set aside, temporarily, if their pursuit endangers the ethical ideal. The student is always more valuable, and infinitely more important, than the subject matter.

The One-Caring as Teacher

Noddings believes that teaching is not a role, but a specialised caring relation. ‘As teacher I am first one-caring’. The cared-for is encountered as ‘Thou’ rather than ‘It’ and the teacher seeks the involvement of the cared-for. Whilst the teacher considers the student as more important than the subject matter, the teacher is not necessarily permissive. First and foremost she must nurture the student’s ethical ideal. She leads and influences the student, but ultimately he learns what he pleases. As one-caring, the teacher meets the student directly, but not equally. The special gift of the teacher is to receive the student and to look at the subject matter with him. Her commitment is to him, the cared-for, and he is, through that commitment, set free to pursue his legitimate projects. She lives the one-caring ethic by establishing a relation with the student. Through dialogue, modelling, the provision of practise, and the attribution of best motive, the one-caring as teacher nurtures the ethical ideal. The teacher must be totally and non-selectively present to the student as he addresses her. The time interval may be brief, but the encounter is total.

The student’s contribution to caring is to reward his teacher with responsiveness, questions, effort, comment and cooperation. Whilst the cared-for (student) is free to accept or reject caring, the cared-for is essential to the relation. Responsiveness by the student completes the caring.

Nurturing the Ethical Ideal through dialogue, practise and confirmation

Noddings suggests that the three great means of nurturing the ethical ideal are dialogue, practise and confirmation.

For dialogue to occur, anything can be discussed, e.g. religion, values, beliefs, opinions and feelings. Talking, listening, sharing and responding are vital in every aspect of education. The purpose of dialogue is to come into contact with ideas and to understand, to meet the other and to care.

Students need practise in caring. They can do this through real voluntary work, such as in hospitals and gardens, or with the elderly or animals, not to learn skills as a vocational end, but to see how the skills developed contribute to competence in caring. This reminds me that when I was in the final years of my secondary schooling in the early 60s, it was a requirement to do this kind of voluntary work. Noddings believes that these tasks, in which students are involved in caring apprenticeships, should have equal status to other tasks in education. We should establish opportunities for students to care.

When we attribute the best possible motive consonant with reality to the cared-for, we confirm him, i.e. we reveal to him an attainable image of himself that is lovelier than that manifested in his present acts, but evaluation is difficult for teachers and students. Grading is an intrusion upon the relationship between the one-caring and the cared-for. In grading, teachers are asked to look at the student as object, a thing to which some measuring stick can be applied. Grading violates the relationship between student and teacher. To relieve this conflict, Noddings believes it is important to focus on what is to be attained/learned and not on when it is attained. Grading and evaluation, where teachers regard students as objects, should not be done by teachers. The caring teacher does evaluate, but does not need to sum it up for the world, or to inform others about the student’s progress. The caring teacher cannot confirm a child unless she talks with him and engages in cooperative practise with him. She must see and receive the student, see what he has actually done and receive the feelings with which it was done. The response of the student remains at the heart of the confirmation for the teacher.

Organising Schools for Caring

Noddings has some definite ideas for how schools should be organised, which she focusses on in the final pages of her book. She believes that schools can be designed to support caring, and that the traditional curriculum is masculine and needs to be feminine. These are some of the suggestions that she makes.

In order to nurture caring, schools should be smaller so that they can establish chains and circles of caring (see previous post for reference to chains and circles of caring). My own experience is that establishing a caring relation between teacher and student is easier in smaller schools.

To develop meaningful dialogue between teachers and students, there should be extended contact between them, which could be supported by students staying with the same teacher for a few years. Again, my experience is that this is often the case in smaller schools, with fewer teachers and classrooms.

Classrooms should be cooperative, and students should learn from each other. Noddings is wary of sharp age separations. Again, smaller schools will often have classrooms of mixed ages. Where I live (Cumbria, UK), there are still very small primary schools where all the children from age 4 to 11, or 4 to 7 and 7 to 11, may be taught in the same classroom.

Students should be continually involved in service activities.

The scope of subject matter should be broad. This does not mean that there should be a lot of subjects, but rather that subjects should be laid out along the entire range of human experience, and consider cultural, personal and psychological dimensions of the subject. We should dismantle structures that separate us into narrow specialisations.

Direct teaching for instruction in well-defined skills and the learning of such skills are only part of the process. They serve to set learners free to explore, such that they have opportunities to meet the subject without pre-stated objectives.

Teachers must be one-caring and knowledgeable in their subject if they are to practise inclusion. They must know their subject in depth if they are to follow students for three to four years. Apprentice teachers could work with master teachers, and parents and other adults should be frequent visitors to classrooms.

There should be no penalties for infraction of rules. Punitive moves work against subjective development, and obedience to law is simply not a reliable guide to moral behaviour. There should be invitation to dialogue.

There should be no hierarchy in schools. Instead there should be circles and chains of relations, with the opportunity to move from circles to chains. For example, career teachers could have a fourth year in a different role, enabling them to move from circles to chains, so giving them a break from the intensity and demands of the one-caring relation.

Most of these suggestions, of course, make for an expensive education system, which is perhaps why Noddings’ ideas have never been taken up successfully on a wide scale.

Noddings ends her book with these words.

‘One must meet the other in caring. From this requirement there is no escape for one who would be moral’.


Noddings, N. (1984) Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press.

Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. (Notes)

I first read this book by Nel Noddings 25 years ago, in a Gender Studies module for my Masters in Education. Her book has been sitting on my bookshelf all this time, rarely looked at, or even thought much about since then, although I have noted how her name is often mentioned in relation to the ‘Caring is Sharing’ meme, which is very popular in open education circles! I’m not sure what Noddings herself would have thought of this.

Recently I have read her book again in preparation for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s May meeting.

Although I was 50 when I first read Nodding’s book and had three children in their upper teens at that time, I don’t think I fully recognised the significance of her work. Noddings herself was 55 when she wrote this book. She is now 92. I didn’t know at the time of my first reading that she has 10 children. If you know this, then it’s much clearer how much personal experience she brings to her work on caring. I don’t know how old her 10 children were when she wrote this book. I am just amazed that she managed to bring up 10 children and pursue an academic career, whilst maintaining a focus on caring! She is clearly a rather unique and special woman.

It would be a mistake to think this a book solely for educators of young people, or solely for women, and although I can understand why it was a required text for my MA Gender Studies module all those years ago, I now think it an important text for all educators and carers, as well as for parents, based as it is in an understanding of relation and how to pay meaningful attention to the other.

In this post I will share the notes I made on Chapters 1-7. For notes on Chapter 8 see my next post Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Moral Education (Notes)


In the introduction to her book Nel Noddings tells us that the primary aim of all education must be nurturance of the ethical ideal. The ethical ideal is to be one-caring and to meet the other morally. This resonates even more now than the first time I read her book. Twenty-five years ago I was working as an educator and caring for the children I was teaching, as well as my own three teenage children, so I was reading her book with that focus in mind. This time I am reading it as carer for my disabled husband, and so these notes do not focus as much on caring in teaching (which Noddings discusses throughout the book) as on what is means to care more generally.

According to Nel Noddings, if a relation is to be described as caring, my caring must somehow be completed in the other. This is a very important point which she repeats many times. Noddings believes that the ethical ideal (to be one-caring and to meet the other morally) is difficult to achieve, because ethics is discussed in the language of the father, the masculine voice, which fails to capture the receptive rationality of caring. The mother’s feminine voice has been silent, feminine being understood in the deep classical sense as rooted in receptivity, relatedness and responsiveness. (Masculine and feminine here is not being equated to men and women. Both men and women can be one-caring).

 Chapter 1: ‘Why Care about Caring?’ and ‘What Does it Mean to Care?’

Noddings says that the essential elements of caring are located in the relation between the one-caring and the cared-for. Apprehending the other’s reality, feeling what he feels as nearly as possible, is the essential part of caring from the view of the one-caring.

Caring is always characterised by a move away from self. It involves stepping out of one’s personal frame of reference into the other’s. The time-span may vary, and the intensity may vary, but caring always involves engrossment in the other and a desire for their well-being. In these terms, we can be one-caring for an instant. Warmth, body language, interest and concern are all recognised in the one-caring. To care is to act not by fixed rule, but by affection and regard. The actions of the one-caring are not rule-bound, but varied, and not always what the cared-for wants.

Universal caring is impossible. Conflict and guilt are inescapable risks of caring. There exists in all caring situations the risk that the one-caring will be overwhelmed by the responsibilities and duties of the task and that, as a result of being burdened, he or she will cease to care for the other and become instead the object of ‘caring’.

Something from the one-caring must be received and completed in the cared-for. When the attitude of the one-caring bespeaks caring, the cared-for glows, grows stronger and feels not so much that he has been given something as that something intangible has been added to him.

The danger is that caring, which is essentially non-rational in that it requires a constitutive engrossment and displacement of motivation, may gradually and abruptly be transformed into abstract problem-solving. If rational-objective thinking is to be put in the service of caring, we must, at the right moments, turn it away from the abstract towards what it tends and back to the concrete. At times we must suspend it in favour of subjective thinking and reflection, allowing time and space for seeing and feeling. Caring for is different to caring about (for example, about things and ideas).

Noddings believes that there is a form of caring that is natural and accessible to all human beings, and that human love and human caring are quite enough on which to found an ethic.

Chapter 2: The One-Caring

The one-caring receives the other into herself, sees and feels with the other, becomes a duality. This is not empathy, this is not putting myself in the other’s shoes; this is engrossment. Feeling is essentially involved in caring, but there is also motivation, a motivational shift towards the other. Vulnerability is increased when I care. I can be hurt through the other as well as through myself. All this is particularly easy to recognise in parenting, but the receptive or relational mode seems to be essential to living fully as a person. We move back and forth between this mode (feeling and engrossment) to abstract, analytic-objective problem solving mode.

In caring, we must make plans, respond and express ourselves, but we cannot remain perpetually in receptive mode. We need to move away from the cared-for to think about the problem, but we have to be careful to turn back and avoid caring only for the problem rather than the person. Guilt is a constant threat in caring, from accidents or a lapse of caring, but we must have courage to accept what cannot be changed and to go on caring.

How many people can we care for? Noddings responds to this question by writing about the concentric circles and chains that reflect and sustain caring. In our inner circle are those who we love and so care for. As we move out from the centre we care for those we hold in personal regard, and beyond this to strangers for whom there is the potential to care. Chains of caring are established to those who I may come in contact with through those in my inner circles. There is asymmetry and reciprocity in caring. The cared-for depends on the one-caring and the one-caring is dependent on the cared-for. Both are free and bound.

A natural imperative that arises as I receive the other is ‘I must’. I am closest to goodness when I accept and affirm the internal ‘I must’. The ethical self is an active relation between my actual self and a vision of my ideal self as one-caring and cared-for. As I care for others and am cared for by them, I become able to care for myself.

How can I meet the endless demands of caring? There are no rules or right or wrong. Rules and penalties should be kept to a minimum. There will always be conflicts between the perceived need of one and desire of the other and between what the cared-for wants and his best interest, but rules cannot guide us.

Chapter 3: The Cared-For

In this chapter, Noddings considers the one-caring’s attitudes and its effects, apprehension of caring necessary to the caring relationship; unequal meetings, reciprocity and the ethics of being cared-for.

Noddings writes that the one-caring’s attitude of receptivity maintains and enhances the relatedness that is fundamental to human reality. The basic relationship in caring is not reasoned or rational. The one-caring sees the best self in the cared-for and works with him to actualise that self.

Warm acceptance and trust are important in all caring relationships, but the meeting between one-caring and cared-for is unequal. One-caring involves inclusion (engrossment) and confirmation. It is an attitude that both accepts and confirms. The one-caring must see the cared-for as he is and as he might be, as he envisions his best self – in order to confirm him. The cared-for ‘grows’ and ‘glows’ under the perceived attitude of the one-caring. Caring is completed in reception. It involves two parties: the one-caring and the cared-for. It is complete when it is fulfilled in both. For the cared-for, reciprocity is to freely reveal himself. To behave ethically the cared-for must be free to pursue his own projects. A caring relationship requires the engrossment and motivational displacement of the one-caring, and it requires the recognition and spontaneous response of the cared-for. When caring is not felt in the cared-for, but its absence is felt, the cared-for may still, by an act of ethical heroism, respond and thus contribute to the caring relationship. Thus we can hope that we can learn to care and learn to be cared for.

Chapter 4: An Ethic of Caring

Noddings distinguishes between natural caring and ethical caring. Wanting to care is natural caring. In natural caring no ethical effort is required. ‘I must care but I don’t want to’ is ethical caring. Ethical caring is done out of duty, not love, but it is dependent on natural caring. When we act on ‘I must’ we are under the guidance of the ethical. If we do not care naturally, we must call on our capacity for ethical caring, commitment and obligation. The source of my obligation is the value I place on the relatedness of caring. I am obligated to maintain an attitude to meet the other as one-caring, and at the same time, to increase my own virtue as one-caring. An ethic of caring implies a limit on our obligation. We cannot care for everyone, but the caring attitude that lies at the heart of all ethical behaviour is universal.

Ethical caring depends not on rule or principle, but on the development of an ideal self. Ethical caring is about how to meet the other morally. It is not the study of justified action. As one-caring I am not seeking justification for my action. What I seek is completion in the other. Far from being romantic, an ethic of caring is practical. Caring is both self-serving and other serving. An ethic of caring is a tough ethic. It does not separate self and other in caring. It advocates deep and steady caring for self. If caring is to be maintained, the one-caring must be maintained. She must be strong, courageous and capable of joy.

Chapter 5: Construction of the Ideal

The ethical ideal springs from the natural sympathy that human beings feel for each other and our longing to maintain, recapture or enhance our most caring moments. A commitment to receptivity leads to natural caring occurring more frequently. For some, ethical caring springs from God, reason or self-interest. An ethic of caring strives to maintain a caring attitude, although the one-caring must be maintained and may have to withdraw for repairs. An ethic of caring is not dour, dutiful, cowardly or contemptuous. It finds joy, as well as obligation in its relation to the other.

There may be some constraints on attaining an ethic of care. Self-deception has the potential to destroy the ethical ideal. The ideal can also be constrained by jealousy, greed and small-mindedness. The one-caring never places principle above person. We must accept the constrained ideal, but attainment must be actually possible.

Feeling, thinking and behaving as one-caring mark ethical behaviour, but when caring must retreat to an inner circle, confine itself, and consciously exclude particular persons or groups, the ideal is qualitatively reduced. Ridicule, scorn and sarcasm etc. all undermine the ethical ideal. We (and institutions, such as the military, organizations and the church) may unwittingly contribute to the diminution of another’s ethical ideal. The words and acts of those caring must confirm that they do care. Listening, a supremely important form of receiving, is essential. Dialogue is also of central importance in nurturing the ethical ideal, and practise is required to develop competence in caring skills.

The ideal can be maintained thought activity in the non-human world and appreciation, affirmation and celebration of daily routines and repetition. The one-caring is not bored with ordinary life. Celebration of ordinary life leads to wonder and appreciation of the source of our ethicality. It requires and is likely to enhance receptivity. It provides practise in caretaking skills and induces deep, serene and receptive joy. Nevertheless, the one-caring who is not bored with ordinary life (usually women) need the public recognition that is granted by participation in the larger world of work in order to sustain themselves as persons and as ones-caring. Without this they may turn in on themselves, and whilst may continue caretaking, actual caring may all but disappear.

Noddings believes that women care more easily than men; there are strong biological factors which help women to become one-caring (e.g. motherhood). Men need to learn to care, and women need to learn to maintain themselves as one-caring.

Chapter 6: Enhancing the Ideal: Joy

In this chapter, Noddings discusses how joy often accompanies a realization of our relatedness and is a major reward for the one-caring, so encouraging growth in the ethical ideal. She suggests that joy might be considered an ‘affect’ or ‘feeling’ rather than an emotion, a reflective mode of consciousness, rather than the non-reflective mode associated with emotion, and triggered by something beyond the immediate object. She terms this receptive joy, joy that arises out of awareness of a caring relationship and comes to us unbidden when we are caught up in relation and are listening. Receptive joy sustains one-caring, and is very difficult to express in language. Joy thus seems out of place when considered with other emotions, although Noddings recognises that joy is sometimes an emotion. We do not offer joy as a reason for particular acts, although we may, of course, renew our commitment to caring as we are sustained by joy. Noddings writes that ‘the occurrence of joy reveals the part of our fundamental reality that may be identified with the feminine as it is experienced by both men and women’.

Chapter 7: Caring for Animals, Plants, Things and Ideas

In reading and making notes on this book, I became increasingly aware of how often Noddings repeats herself. This is useful as her key points become clearer with further reading. In this penultimate chapter (p.150) she reiterates what she has written before as follows:

‘The caring relation requires engrossment and motivational displacement on the part of the one-caring and a form of responsiveness or reciprocity on the part of the cared-for. It is important to re-emphasize that this reciprocity is not contractual, i.e. it is not characterized by mutuality. The cared-for contributes to the caring relation by receiving the efforts of the one-caring, and this receiving may be accomplished by a disclosure of his own subjective experience in direct response to the one-caring or by a happy and vigorous pursuit of his own projects.’

She then goes on to discuss the extent to which this is possible in relation to animals, plants, things and ideas.

Our obligation to summon the caring attitude is limited by the possibility of reciprocity. We are not obliged to act as one-caring if there is no possibility of completion in the other, but the desire to prevent or relieve pain is a natural element of caring, and we betray our ethical selves when we ignore it. Noddings writes that whilst animals can be cared-for, they cannot be one-caring in relation to humans. Thinking of dogs, in particular, I wonder if this is true.

Noddings has written that caring, natural or ethical, must be completed in the other and that an ethic of caring limits our obligation to those so far removed from us that completion is impossible, which presumably would apply to animals, plants, things and ideas. Our relation to plants is one-sided. I feel ‘I must’ in connection with my plants. Plants serve me, but they cannot care for me. They are responsive cared-fors.

Our relation to ideas is not ethical. There is no affective reciprocity with things and ideas, but there can be receptivity. In the intellectual domain, this receptivity is sometimes labelled as intuition. In this chapter Noddings spends some time exploring intuition as a receptive faculty, and notes the common features of engrossment and displacement of motivation. She concludes in the summary to the chapter that intellectual caring is not ethical in itself, but may contribute to ethicality by giving rise to receptive joy, which may help to sustain us in our quest for ethicality.

The final chapter in this book focusses on moral education. Since this post is already long, I will share my notes on the final chapter in a separate post.

In this post, I hope that these notes help the reader to understand what Noddings means by an ethic of caring, what it means to be one-caring, and what we can expect from the ‘cared-for’, be they humans, animals, plants, things or ideas. I think these first seven chapters of the book can be read independently of an interest in education.


Noddings, N. (1984) Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press.