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Bijdragen, International Journal in Philosophy and Theology 73(2), 212-227.
doi: 10.2143/BIJ.73.2.2172319 © 2012 by Bijdragen, International Journal in Philosophy and Theology.
All rights reserved.
If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must
first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there.
This is the secret in the entire art of helping.
(Kierkegaard, The Point of View)
No philosophy, no analysis, no aphorism, be it ever so profound, can
compare in intensity and richness of meaning with a properly narrated story.
(Arendt, Men in Dark Times)
The School of Athens
Since antiquity up to the present, several great thinkers have put into perspective
the absolute truth claims of an unreal and ‘un-worldly’ science – to save the
phenomena (sozein ta phainomena).1 The late classical Neo-Platonist Simplicius
ascribes the expression to Plato, who asks the astronomers which hypotheses do
justice to the celestial phenomena (Heiberg, 1894, 492-493). Parmenides of Elea,
a precursor of Socrates and Plato, is traditionally taken to be the father of western metaphysics, which aims at what is ‘al-ways’, necessarily and invariably
true. In the philosophical and scientific mode of thought as inaugurated by Parmenides, the concept of a flexible, relative and relational – human – truth seems
to be in principle excluded. “I don’t imagine”, Socrates argues unanimously,
“there’s time for the person who truly has his mind fixed on what is to glance
down at the affairs of men, or compete with them, and be filled with envy and
ill-will. (…) The entire soul has to turn with it [the instrument with which a
Cf. Yourcenar, 2000, 22: “The philosophers, in order to study reality pure, subject it to about
the same transformations as fire or pestle make substance undergo: nothing that we have known of
a person or of a fact seems to subsist in those ashes or those crystals to which they are reduced”.
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person learns], away from what is coming to be, until it is able to bear the sight
of what is, and in particular the brightest part of it”.2
The metaphysical focus on the immutable Being tends to neglect what actually
exists and to contempt earthly life with its real possibilities and difficulties.
Careful reading, however, also allows for a different and probably more plausible interpretation of Parmenides’ ostensibly doctrinal either/or way of thinking. Moreover, his theoretical perspective is not opposed to practical everyday
experience; rather, it respects the reality of the phenomena. Reportedly,
Parmenides – as a physician and legislator – did not submit the sublunary
world to rigid principles. On the contrary, by close scrutiny of its nature and
structure, reality was gently manipulated and directed to a better situation
(Schomakers, 2003, 32).
Theory is good, but doesn’t prevent things from existing. This witticism of the
Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, several times quoted by Sigmund
Freud,3 indirectly evokes the image of the intriguing relationship between
Plato and Aristotle in the masterpiece The School of Athens by the Italian
Renaissance artist Raphael. In the fresco in the Stanza Della Segnatura of the
Vatican, both philosophical geniuses are sauntering and conversing side by
side. The old master Plato, who is holding the cosmological dialogue Timaeus
under his left arm, points his right index finger heavenwards to the realm of
eternal Ideas. His disciple Aristotle, with a copy of his Ethics symmetrically
in the left hand, confidently turns the palm of his other hand to the earth in a
very significant way. As a matter of fact, wisdom (sophia) to Plato was already
inextricably both theoretical and practical. Aristotle’s originality exists then in
his radically different vision of the connection between theory and practice –
“the discovery of a dichotomy within reason, and the acknowledgement of this
Plato, The Republic, VI, 500 b 8 - c 2; 518 c 8-10 (ed. G.R.F. Ferrari, trans. T. Griffith). – In
this respect, the Spanish historical drama Agora (2009) by Alejandro Amenábar about Hypatia, mathematician, philosopher and astronomer in the Platonic school of Alexandria in the Late Roman Empire
(late 4th century A.D.) is really instructive. “[Hypatia] More things unite us than divide us. Now,
whatever may be going on in the streets, we are brothers. We are brothers. I want you to remember
that rows are for slaves and for riff-raff. (…) I always wonder why does the circle coexist with such
impure shapes?” [0:14:32; 1:16:40] Cf. “[Orestes] Death, horror, destruction. If the stars move in
a circle…, why would they share their perfection with us? So we don’t move… [Hypatia] In a circle.
We don’t live in a circle”. [1:24:06-1:24:12]
Freud, 2001, 13: “On one occasion there was a small group of us, all students from abroad,
who, brought up on German academic physiology, were trying his [Charcot’s] patience with our
doubts about his clinical innovations. ‘But that can’t be true’, one of us objected, ‘it contradicts the
Young-Helmholtz theory’. He did not reply ‘So much the worse for the theory, clinical facts come
first’ or words to that effect; but he did say something which made a great impression on us: ‘La
théorie, c’est bon, mais ça n’empêche pas d’exister’”.
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scission as a condition for a new practical intellectualism” (Aubenque, 1986,
144).4 Practical wisdom (phronesis) means to Aristotle the virtue or excellence
(arete) of one of both parts of the rational soul, particularly of the deliberating
or calculating part, the practical intellect that engages in the changeable, contingent world.
Late classical and early medieval sources mention the strict motto of Plato’s
Academy in Athens: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here (ageometretos medeis eisito)!” Michel Serres, philosopher of science and member of
the Académie française, completes the maxim, which in his opinion is censored. “Nobody enters here, if he is not a geometrician, and if he is disfigured
or has limbs out of proportion” (Serres and Chancholle, 1998, 241). To measure is to know and … to exclude. Youth who wanted to become apprentices
of Pythagoras, were judged according to their physiognomy – “to inquire into
the character and dispositions of men by an inference drawn from their facial
appearance and expression, and from the form and bearing of their whole
Anthropometry – the measuring of man (object and subject genitive) – provided in the last century the biological legitimation of the systematic extinction
of millions of fellow men. Nowadays we keep measuring and weighing, figuring out and classifying frenetically. More than ever before, the ‘calculative
thinking’ (M. Heidegger) tries to grasp life as it is in statistics and tables, in
charts, graphs and diagrams, while “the problems of life remain completely
untouched” (Wittgenstein, 2002, 88 (6.52)). The anthropometric reason which
cuts up and pigeonholes human beings in presupposed patterns and ostensibly
sharply delineated categories, is at the same time also categorical: ‘unconditional; made without any doubt in the mind’, and in the etymological sense:
‘accusatory’ (kategorikos in Greek) – expressing the typical human need of a
scapegoat (Van Coillie, 2008, 81-82).
Characteristic of such cutting logic and categorical, stigmatizing way of thinking is the American DSM-IV-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The derived empty and proliferating jargon (dyscalculia, dyslexia, dysorthography, dyspraxis, etc) has in no time quietly found its way into
the media, official discourse on education (into staff meetings and teachers’
rooms) and into everyday speech. By arbitrarily labelling learning disabilities
or problem behaviour, which are apparently hard to interpret and taboo-laden,
Unless otherwise indicated, we have translated the quotations from Dutch, French and German
into English.
Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, I, 9, 2-3 (trans. J. C. Rolfe).
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in psycho-medical terms,6 we immunize ourselves against an uncontrollable
and much feared contagion (Girard, 1996, 1). Widespread and alarming sociocultural symptoms are decontextualized and psychiatrized, so that they appear
to be frequent ‘individual’ disorders and abnormalities. Children are now given
Ritalin (methylphenidate hydrochloride) on a large scale, not because they are
ill, but because they cannot sit still in the classroom. Rather than make young
people do interesting things and challenge them, they are stuffed with drugs.
“If Prozac appears to be some type of happiness pill, Ritalin has come to play
the role of an overt instrument of social control. (…) And the fact that Ritalin
helps with so many problems may be encouraging the ADD diagnosis to
expand its boundaries” (Fukuyama, 2002, 44, 46). No wonder that the pressing
pseudomedical discourse puts a heavy burden on traditional wisdom, the
pedagogical common sense, the practical competence and even the right to
speak for teachers, educators and parents.
The time-honoured, geometrical and divine ideal of so-called pure thinking,
perfect theory and ‘un-worldly’ objectivism is literally and figuratively ‘ex-clusive’ (i.e. locking out) from both an epistemological and social point of view.
The human and interhuman lifeworld appears to be the blind spot of the panoptic and all-embracing scientific and ‘meta-physical’ view which abstracts from
and objectifies reality. “‘Pure nature’ is not the only reality. To consider it as
the only reality undermines man’s singularity (in fact even of the phenomena of
life). There are indeed different levels of reality, and corresponding to them different valid kinds of knowledge, and there is not only the objective scientific
knowledge (which is of course completely valid on its own level). Specific
approaches correspond with those levels. In this respect, the lifeworld asks to be
approached on the level of the meaning, the sense” (Coolsaet, 2009, 22).
According to Cicero in Tusculan Disputations (V, 10), Socrates was the first
who “brought down philosophy from the heavens, placed it in the cities and
introduced it into families”. In the fresco by Raphael Socrates’ disciple Plato,
with a simple gesture of the hand, draws the attention again to the brightest
region of being beyond the arch of heaven. “True being (ousia ontos ousa) has
Cf. Elliott and Gibbs, 2008, 491: “Thus, in summary, we view dyslexia as an arbitrarily and
largely socially defined construct. There appears to be no clear-cut scientific basis for differential
diagnosis of dyslexia versus poor reader versus reader. At various times and for various reasons it
has been a social convenience to label some people as dyslexic but consequences of the labelling
include stigma, disenfranchisement and inequitable use of resources (perhaps this is most disadvantageous for poor readers not diagnosed as dyslexic). The social, cognitive and behavioural phenomena
associated with the construct remain important and fascinating issues. Proper treatment is, however,
hindered by the false dichotomy between dyslexia and non-dyslexia. Let’s not ask, ‘Does dyslexia
exist?’ Let’s instead concentrate upon ensuring that all children with literacy difficulties are served”.
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no colour or form; it is intangible, and visible only to intelligence, the soul’s
guide. True being is the province of everything that counts as true knowledge”
(Phaedrus 247 c 6 - d 1). Geometry – as “knowledge of what always is, not
knowledge of what at some particular time comes to be, or perishes” – is the
basis of Plato’s educational programme (The Republic, VII, 527 b 6-7). In their
twenties philosophers, who represent reason and true knowledge in the ideal
state, are prepared for their intellectual, moral and political task in life by an
intense musical, mathematical and scientific education (among which arithmetic, geometry and astronomy), so as to reach harmony of the soul and to recognize the intelligible structure of everything. The indisputable persuasiveness
and cogency, the self-evident truth and the absolute reliability of mathematics
are to Plato “the ideal introduction to the universal validity of absolute standards and criterions”, with the objective “to develop logos as moral responsibility” (Held, 1992, 153).
The untrained mind’s eye is easily clouded by what we unthinkingly perceive
and experience by the senses.7 Therefore, Plato wants to secure the radical
distinction between the perfect idea of justice and the everyday ethical life.
Hence the distrust of the antidemocrat Plato of the common sense and the
doxa: ‘public opinion’ and popular belief – imposed or adopted, usually illconsidered and unfounded opinions, assumptions, prejudices, views and convictions – which all belong to the precarious domain of probability and likelihood. ‘Public opinion’ does, of course, not yet coincide here with the results
of quantitative opinion polls or market research, or with the media issues of
the day. “[Socrates] Has it never struck you that without knowledge all opinions (tas aneu epistemes doxas) are hideous? Or at best blind?” (The Republic, VI, 506 c 6-7). Strictly speaking, mathematics and science do not need the
language and the story of the human experience and the sensus communis. In
fact not the particular, but the general and universal, is the actual object and
aim of theoretical reasoning. Thanks to pure concepts thinking turns into absolutely certain knowledge of an ideal reality.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what
is (Lao Tzu). Remarkably, both fundamental doctrines of epistemology –
rationalism and empiricism – share the same inclination of western rationality
to contempt and denial of the meaning and fullness of experience, language
and praxis. The Flemish pedagogue Valeer Van Achter cannot help but equate
Cf. Plato, The Symposium, 219 a 2-4 (ed. and trans. M. C. Howatson): “[Socrates] I tell you,
mental perception becomes keener when the eyesight starts to fail, and you are still a long way from
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the procedure of abstract thought models which induce measurable ‘facts’ to
clear and distinct ideas and self-evident truths with a technocratic view of man
and the world. “If the educationalist does decide to conceive the content of the
intuitions of the praxis as unscientific, then he will ban this ‘practical knowledge’ from his scientific thinking. We then speak about an empiricist reduction. In that case the educationalist ‘sticks’ his methodical idea (…), as it were,
on the praxis, and he will demand that the results of his research are realized
as so-called scientific prescriptions, as being better than what the practician
does intuitively. In this respect the practician actually becomes a technician,
no longer a human being or a pedagogue. He has to loyally execute the recommended techniques of this ‘science’, converted into new artificial models of
instruction, and to force them upon his disciples who are equally reduced to
objects” (Braeckmans and Van Achter, 2008, 97-98).8
Narrative and dialogue: between reality and (educational) science
The vertical and dogmatic objectivity of truth obviously leaves little room for
the meaning and importance of the horizontal and dialogical intersubjectivity.
In the philosophical tradition the doxa remained for a long time enclosed in a
dualistic frame of reference, while remaining at the same time epistemological
(truth versus appearance) and metaphysical (being versus becoming). The etymon of the substantive doxa – a deverbative noun from dekhomai: ‘to receive,
to accept’ – nevertheless reveals its underlying anthropological and social
dimension. The ‘acceptable’ which is offered through others and passed on to
others, refers in the first place to the intersubjective sphere of exchange and
relation, communication and interaction, flattery and manipulation, persuasion
and misunderstanding, credibility and deception, consent and dissent. The doxa
or the ‘cave-chatter’ of the chained people in Plato’s cave, according to
Heidegger (2002, 76), is the binding and dividing element of human ‘interaction’ or drama in Greek. “Doxa is the genuine discoveredness of being-withone-another-in-the-world. (…) Living in a doxa means having it with others.
That others also have it belongs to opinion” (Heidegger, 2009, 101).
Braeckmans and Van Achter, 2008, 146: “Once it was a dream to create one universal science,
which would subsequently solve all human problems. Hard work has been done: from the Greek logos
to the theory of education. All educational problems would be solved in the spirit of an applied theory
of education. The teacher is then transformed into a technician. All this assumes that a universal
science is possible, linked to a uniform vision of reality. Mathematics is the paradigm, and Descartes
is the great source of inspiration. Anything that does not belong to this universal exact science, and
that is quite a lot, among others the pedagogy, is considered irrational”.
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As opposed to the unity of the platonic concept, there is the difference of
opinion and divergence of views in the with-and-against-one-another9 in the
plural world. In Plato’s utopia there is obviously no room for the uncontrollable linguistic and narrative violence of the sophist and the dramatist who
pre-eminently embody the rhetoric and the tragedy, as communicative and
literary genres of the – confrontation with the – unpredictable and threatening
Other on the political scene and in the theatre. In the universe of order, regularity, number and harmony the monological human being does not speak anymore; henceforth, he makes music and ‘reasons/resonates’ (Dufour, 1990,
361-363). Among Pythagoras’ disciples a forced silence reigned.10 Thinking
is indeed the inner dialogue of the soul with itself without voice.11 The atrophy
of the you-related ‘dia-logue’ characterizes the classical thought pattern, which
in the West inclines more and more to I-centred, ‘mono-logical’ reflection.
Theoretical harmony soon supplants the polyphony of the doxa and the drama.
In its obsession with reason and facts, philosophical and scientific thinking
shows time and again the tendency to dehumanize itself by ignoring the interrelational ethos. The human situation – the experience of involvement in a
complicated interplay of relationships with others – does not allow for articulating or understanding from a purely rational and disinterested, external point
of view. “There is no doubt about the attempt of the science of education as
pseudophilosophy to aim at this ‘ideal’ of Aufklärung. Therefore, the science
of education wants to join a long tradition of a metaphysical dream to be able
to formulate the Truth which is above all interpretation. (…) One keeps on
dreaming to empirically acquire definite ideas, in order to be able to force them
onto praxis through a variety of instruction models. Does one realize that this
is no less than instrumentalism and manipulation of man, and that the science
of education becomes an element of one large social system?” (Van Achter,
2010, 119).
An educational ideology which by means of management jargon such as input/
output, competence and assessment reduces and neutralizes the praxis of teaching to a virtual production process, desubstantializes the real ‘drama’ of being9
Heidegger, 1996, 163 (§37): “The other is initially “there” in terms of what they have heard
about him, what they say and know about him. Idle talk initially intrudes itself into the midst of
primordial being-with-one-another. Everyone keeps track of the other, initially and first of all, watching how he will behave, what he will say to something. Being-with-one-another (Miteinandersein)
in the they is not at all a self-contained, indifferent side-by-sideness, but a tense, ambiguous keeping
track of each other, a secretive, reciprocal listening-in. Under the mask of the for-one-another (Füreinander), the against-one-another (Gegeneinander) is at play”.
Porphyry, The Life of Pythagoras, 19, 8.
Plato, The Sophist, 263 e 3-5.
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with-and-against-one-other – “the chronically problematic relationship to the
other that lies at the root of Western culture” (Wimmer, 2002, 161). Implicitly
and without any further elaboration, the question rises at the same time if even
a humanist, person-oriented and dialogical pedagogy, from its high aspirations,
does sufficient justice to the ancient and modern story of man, which is both
wonderful and dreadful. “Those capacities of his [of man] which are terrible
and are viewed as inhuman are perhaps, indeed, the fertile soil from which
alone all humanity, in feelings, deeds and works, can grow forth” (Nietzsche,
2000, 187).
In the centre of the grand classic interior of Raphael’s fresco, the master Plato
(as Leonardo Da Vinci’s look-alike) and his eminent disciple Aristotle are
standing together as kindred spirits. To Aristotle who – unlike Plato – wants
to give a new boost to the ancient verbal and rhetorical-argumentative art of
the sophists and orators, the questioning ‘dialogue of the debate’ is the counterpart of the postulating ‘monologue of science’. Dialectic probability is at
work whenever irrefutable argumentation based on true and necessary premises seems impossible – in other words, when the discourse is becoming so
general and abstract that one lacks any anchoring in reality (Aubenque, 1962,
259). In Ethics, the book in Aristotle’s left hand in the fresco, one can read:
“The same exactness (akribes) must not be expected in all departments of
philosophy alike, any more than in all the products of the arts and crafts”. To
look in every domain for the amount of accuracy which the nature of the subject admits is the mark of an educated mind.12
In the famous opening chapter concerning the methodology in biology,
Aristotle consistently defines two kinds of competence: scientifically based
knowledge (episteme) and general education (paideia). Science is exact and
limited (to one specific research field); general education, by contrast, is verbal and universal. The cultivated human being – no one else but man as a
linguistic and rational animal (zoion logon ekhon)13 – has the competence to
allocate every expert or specialist the kind of discourse according to the subject
of study. An educated person is indeed able “to judge correctly which parts of
an exposition are satisfactory and which not”.14 The foundation, the place and
meaning of every science escapes science itself. General education grants the
privilege to critically confront the form and the method of the specialist’s
discourse with the conditions of the universal human logos. “Science is at the
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, I, 3, 1094 b 12-14; 1094 b 23-25 (trans. H. Rackham).
Aristotle, Politics, I, 2, 1253 a 9-10.
Aristotle, Parts of Animals, I, 639 a 4-6 (trans. A. L. Peck).
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service of man, not man at the service of science. (…) Science itself remains,
as a human activity, subordinate to the jurisdiction of man as man” (Aubenque,
1960, 148). This Aristotelian core motive recurs in an unadulterated way in
the philosophical and pedagogical criticism of Valeer Van Achter. “The confirmation or rejection of a hypothesis cannot be a neutral or ‘objective’ fact.
There are indeed no observations which are completely independent of any
tradition. Every science is then the result of a social praxis. Of course, this also
applies to the educational theory. The science of education depends on some
community. If an open community is involved, then some fundamental selfcriticism and dialogue is welcome” (Braeckmans and Van Achter, 2008, 147).
The modern ideal of methodical, ‘unitary’ thinking is based on the equalization
of science (scientia) and theory (theoria). Aristotle, on the other hand, distinguishes between different levels of accuracy or precision (akribeia) against the
arrogance of an unified and absolute science. Thus room was made for action
(praxis) and production (poiesis) as essential and inherent aspects of human
existence. At the same time, the Stagirite has invalidated the total opposition
between scientific knowledge (episteme) and common opinion (doxa). Practical wisdom (phronesis) which “deals with that which can vary”, is the excellence (arete) of the rational part of the soul “that forms opinions”.15 Aristotle
stretches the platonic doxa (opinion) to the endoxa: generally admitted conceptions and common convictions – without apodictic or irrefutable certainty, but
put to the test and filtered through argumentative debate in the city-state.
“Those are acceptable (endoxa), on the other hand, which seem so to everyone, or to the most people, or to the wise – to all of them, or to the most, or
to the most famous and esteemed.”16 Anyone who undermines this foundation
of acceptability will hardly find more plausible arguments and truths.17 Current
opinions and popular conceptions imply a personal knowledge that is both
experiential and existential. “Consequently the unproved assertions and opinions of experienced and elderly people, or of prudent men, are as much deserving of attention as those which they support by proof; for experience has given
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 6, 1140 b 25-28. – Cf. Freire, 2005, 85: “The point of
departure of the movement lies in the people themselves. But since people do not exist apart from
the world, apart from reality, the movement must begin with the human-world relationship. Accordingly, the point of departure must always be with men and women in the “here and now”, which
constitutes the situation within which they are submerged, from which they emerge, and in which
they intervene. Only by starting from this situation – which determines their perception of it – can
they begin to move. To do this authentically they must perceive their state not as fated and unalterable, but merely as limiting – and therefore challenging”.
Aristotle, Topics, I, 1, 100 b 21-23 (trans. R. Smith).
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, X, 2, 1172 b 36-1173 a 2.
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them an eye for things, and so they see correctly.”18 To save the phenomena
(phainomena) – which brings us back to our starting-point – automatically
means as much as to keep and retain ‘what is said’ (legomena) by people.
Plato’s ‘lover of wisdom’ (philosophos) evolves into Aristotle’s ‘lover of opinion’ (philodoxos) and ‘lover of myth’ (philomythos) – “since myths are composed of wonders”.19
The ratio, hostile to language and story, abstracts the lived and shared experience; the living narratio provides a view on a ‘concrete universality’ (Ricœur,
1967, 170, 241) – the full actuality of our existence here and now. To tell and
to communicate experiences – to save the story of human beings (subject and
object genitive) – as an antidote against technoscientific loss of soul. “My first
recommendation is then: trust your own experience and ideas as a teacher. (…)
Not in any kind of legitimizing language in which one has to justify one’s
conduct, but indeed in an attempt to formulate one’s own professional experiences, to (better) understand them and give a meaning to them. This requires
openness to a different language from the means-ends discourse which dominates educational talk. A language which opens other registers and is metaphorical, anecdotal, narrative. (…) A strong image: the language which gives
shelter to experiences, which therefore do not disappear just like that”
(Kelchtermans, 2004, 17). If men have always lived in the house of language,
then the question arises if today we do not risk being made homeless and
uprooted without being aware of the fact. The ‘non-story’ and the self-evident
discourse of science, technology and economics which ignores the mediation
of language and narrative as the common dwelling of man, generates a mental
and spiritual homelessness.
According to the French poststructuralist Gilles Deleuze (2004, 146), “we
must reach a secret point where the anecdote of life and the aphorism of
thought amount to one and the same thing”. The felicitous formula can, mutatis mutandis, also be applied to the meaning and functionality of the ‘case’ in
medicine, and of the ‘example’ in teaching and education. The singularity of
the example in the medical and therapeutic or pedagogical and didactic domain
subverts and transcends the hierarchical dichotomy between the intelligible
and the sensitive. The example does not indeed come under the ‘facts’ that
lead inductively to a general law; nor does it belong to the ‘concrete instances’
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 1, 1143 b 11-14.
Plato, The Republic, V, 480 a 6-12. – Aristotle, The Metaphysics, I, 2, 982 b 18-19 (trans.
H. Tredennick). – Cf. Heidegger, 1996, 5: “The first philosophical step in understanding the problem
of being consists in avoiding the mython tina diegeisthai, in not “telling a story” (…)”.
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that are derived from a universal rule (Agamben, 2009, 19). The case or the
example is a singular fact – a ‘special case’ – which functions in its domain
as a model of understanding.20 Teachers and educators are well aware of the
illustrative and ‘appealing’ persuasive power of the example which stimulates
the imagination, provides profound insight and motivates to practical and personal commitment. “Every example refers to something outside itself, it draws
the attention to a generality above all examples and shows something new to
the one it is presented to. The example appeals, it provokes, it requires a point
of view and a decision, and it calls to action” (Böhm, 1995, 172).
The entire oeuvre of the eminent American neuropsychiatrist, hypnotherapist
and theoryless narrator Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980) is in fact a collection
of unique therapeutic examples – experiences, conversations and experiments
– without any a priori and comprehensive system of thinking, which is blind
to the most individual and personal character of patients, their difficulties and
possible solutions (Rosen, 1982). “Therefore, in his eyes every individual is
singular and it is impossible, if one wants to achieve a change, to apply to
somebody whatever is applicable to others. There is only therapy when the
therapist succeeds in discovering what is appropriate for this singular person
at this particular moment. It follows that every generalization is out of the
question. Generalization might even be pernicious, as it would prevent to think
up a way for everyone, which leads to a new perspective” (Roustang, 1990,
38).21 Moreover, Erickson’s ‘exemplary’, practice-focused particularism
against generalization and depersonalization fits very well with the idea of a
‘noble casuistry’ (Levinas, 1982, 121). “The value of casuistry, if well understood, consists in constantly taking into account the unique character of the
person in question, together with the concrete situation of every case. Or
rather, it does not approach people and situations as specified, exemplary
Cf. IJsseling, 1976, 9: “It may be meaningful, in Plato’s view, to teach ordinary people within
a short space of time by means of figurative speech, through giving examples either for clarification
of imitation. For this purpose also one might invoke witnesses and arguments-from-authority; one
might appeal to tradition and finally even narrate stories and myths. All this however does not provide
any real knowledge or insight but only a set of more or less firm convictions”.
A similar voice can be heard in ‘the other camp’ of psychotherapy. Verhaeghe, 1995, 92:
“Lacan has summarised this tension [between clinical reality and conceptualisation] in one of his
paradoxical statements: “Psychanalyse, c’est la science du particulier”, that is: Psychoanalysis is the
science of the particular. One of the reasons why Freud was so innovative lies in his solution to this
problem. Instead of making his own categorial system in which every patient had to find his proper
place and trying to convince the world that his system, and his alone, was the only useful one, he
chose a completely different line of approach. Every patient is listened to, and every case-study results
in a category into which one and only one patient fits”.
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applications of general principles, but in their irreducible and irreproducible
unique character, as a ‘special case’” (Burggraeve, 2006, 171).
Not only a fable22
To conclude, let us return once more to The School of Athens. The initial,
complex and irreducible relation of tension between the universal and the particular in Plato and Aristotle will intensify and harden in Descartes’ philosophy, to the modern dichotomy and hierarchical opposition between theory and
praxis – the practice which is henceforth considered as the technical application of abstract scientific principles. It is fascinating, however, to notice that
the binary and exclusive either/or logic – theory versus practice – has always
already been contaminated, together with the ontological priority of the pure
reason, and continues to be contaminated by the ‘originary supplement’ of the
so-called secondary practice, which at the same time – in the deconstructive
sense – ‘supplements and replaces’ the speculative theory.23 Apparently, in
reality and in thought, there are always and everywhere deconstructions and
‘undecidable differences’ at work (as for instance in the pair of concepts theory-and-practice) – “this open and non self-identical totality of the world is
deconstruction” (Derrida, 1993, 226). In this respect, according to Rudolf
Boehm (1974), the flight from death is the ethico-practical ‘origin’ of the ideal
of theoretical knowledge to the ancient Greeks. ‘Pure’ science (theoria) as a
purpose in itself has been to man the – hopeless – via regia to free himself
from need and death, to render himself immortal and equal to the gods (theos).
The Cartesian ideal of the unconditional self-evidence of thinking is likewise
fundamentally determined “by the implication of “trouver une pratique” (…)
in the broad sense of ‘practice’, including action and labour, morality and
technique. Therefore ‘technique’ can only be applied science, since this
science already originates from a ‘technical’ comprehension of being and
truth” (Blumenberg, 1953, 115-116).24
Cf. Descartes, 2006, 6: “But as I am putting this essay forward only as a historical record, or
if you prefer, a fable, in which among a number of examples worthy of imitation one may also find
several which one would be right to follow, I hope that it may prove useful to some people without
being harmful to any, and that my candour will be appreciated by everyone”. [our italics]
E.g. Cicero, De oratore, I, 146 (trans. E. W. Sutton): “thus eloquence is not the offspring of
the art, but the art of eloquence [artificium ex eloquentia]: even so, as I said before, I do not reject
art, for though perhaps hardly essential to right speaking, still it is no ignoble help towards right
knowledge [ad cognoscendum]”.
Descartes, 2006, 51: “[I]t is possible to attain knowledge which is very useful in life, and that
unlike the speculative philosophy that is taught in the schools, it can be turned into a practice [trouver
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There is nothing more practical than a good theory (K. Lewin). This wellknown witticism may just as well and even preferably be read the other way
around. For a full-fledged theory nothing is better and more interesting than a
good and sound – narrative and dialogical – practice. To Descartes who, on
principle, rejects all stories and opinions and anything he was ever told and
taught, the self-declared autonomous Cogito is no longer related to language
and tradition.25 The birth of reason (ratio) implies the ostracism of the intersubjective linguistic praxis (narratio and oratio in Latin). “[W]e ought never
to let ourselves be convinced except on the evidence of our reason“(Descartes,
2006, 34). In fact, the present-day dominance of the instrumental reason and
the digital communication embroiders on the same ‘mono-logical’ pattern. The
ideology of the immediate obviousness of technoscience and economics which
cancels the mediation of dialogue and narrative as a common habitat (ethos)
of and for man, is in the literal and figurative sense ‘patho-logical’. Ubiquitous
rational and statistical analysis and (pseudo)-specialist or mediatized Newspeak generate as a defensive reaction a powerless, narcissistic pathos, which
symptomatically, in a variety of ‘patho-logical’ forms, withdraws from the
depersonalizing systematism of a universalistic logos. “We can look forward
to knowing more and more. And yet we are still disquieted. In all this expanse
of knowing, we are missing something, and we know it, even when we deny
it” (Desmond, 1995, IX).
Can we again commit ourselves to the narrative and the dialogue which give
shape and substance to fragmentized but shared individual perceptions, experiences and ideas – in outspokenness and open-heartedness (parrhesia in Greek)
while still being willing to listen and ready to speak? The fading of the common horizon of meaning – the crumbling of the symbolic order – is undoubtedly closely related to the unbridled liberalization on the one hand and the
globalization and formalization/formatization of nearly all domains of (social)
life on the other hand. In this context of ‘degeneration of the general’ (Wimmer, 2002, 154) we do not face a clear, transcendent and timeless idea of the
Good in the Platonic sense anymore. The idealistic question of the olden days,
une pratique] by which, knowing the power and action of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all
the other bodies that are around us as distinctly as we know the different trades of our craftsmen, we
could put them to all the uses for which they are suited and thus make ourselves as it were the masters and possessors of nature”.
Descartes, 2006, 10: “That is why, as soon as I reached an age that allowed me to escape from
the control of my teachers, I abandoned altogether the study of letters. And having decided to pursue
only that knowledge which I might find in myself or in the great book of the world, I spent the rest
of my youth travelling, (…) and at all times giving due reflection to things as they presented themselves to me so as to derive some benefit from them”.
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which – true and right – story must be told, has shifted in the direction of a
much more pragmatic task in Aristotelian perspective. How can we as teachers
and educators tell ‘the story of man’ (subject and object genitive) – in which
we are all involved – in an ‘exemplary’ way and pass it on in dialogue to the
new generations? Hence our plea not in favour of less, but a different and
alternative social and educational science – in which man no longer cuts himself off more geometrico from his existential and personal truth.
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Geert Van Coillie (1960) is a classicist and doctor of philosophy. He teaches Greek, Latin and
philosophy at the Klein Seminarie (Minor Seminary) in Roeselare (Belgium), and is a lecturer
at the Teacher Training Department of the Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven (Catholic University of Leuven). His research is focused on René Girard’s mimetic theory, the anthropology
and ethics of ancient Greece, and the philosophy of education.
Address: Hoger Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte, Kardinaal Mercierplein 2, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium.
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