Schopenhauer on Education


Inspired by Warwick Philosophy’s David Bather Woods, i’ve been reading some essays by 19th Century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. A fascinating but troubling philosopher, some of Schopenhauer’s opinions are quite unacceptable by modern standards. But some of his ideas are also intriguing. He has always had a powerful but almost invisible influence across the political spectrum, and so is important to understand.

I began with his essay On Education, and tweeted as I read. Here’s my thread of tweets expanded with some additions.

In his essay On Education, Schopenhauer begins by looking at the root of error. The idea that bad concepts get lodged in the mind and are then difficult to remove is well recognised. See Meyer & Land’s work on threshold knowledge.

Schopenhauer argues, right from the start of the essay, that concepts should arise naturally from experience (a very raw empiricism). But this has to happen in the right way, at the right time, in sequence. So is he going to elucidate a structured pedagogy that enables this?

“Such perception is rich & varied and, therefore, cannot compete in brevity and rapidity with the abstract concept which is soon finished and done with everything; and so it will be a long time in correcting such preconceived notions, or perhaps it may never bring this to an end”

Speed of judgement is the enemy. Earlier in the argument, Schopenhauer says that this leads to “bias”. So do we have an early incarnation of cognitive bias theory?

As with Kant, there’s the cognitivist model of a mind synthesising experience at speed. For Kant the structures of thinking emerge naturally out of that synthesis, constrained by time, but accord with necessary forms. Will Schooenhauer follow Kant? Or opt for a radical diversity?

“He would then learn to measure things by his own standard instead of with someone else’s.” As with Kant, good judgement is grounded in relation to the subject and its ability to measure accurately. It’s about proportion, relative to the self in the field of perception.

That’s beauty covered then (following Kant’s Critique of Judgement). When does the sublime, the immeasurable, come into Schopenhauer’s theory of education?

In the Critique of Judgement, Kant’s rhetoric uses the sublime, the always incomprehensible, to draw attention away from the magical thinking behind his cosy little concept of beauty.

I don’t think he could adequately deal with the question of how comprehension grows through encounters with a world that can only be understood through counterintuitive concepts (what today we call threshold concepts).

Does Schopenhauer inherit this from Kant? His arguments against the teaching of conceptual understanding suggest so. In his eagerness to counter vacuous academic discourse, he goes too far in the opposite direction, arguing that only knowledge gained from sense experience counts.

Schopenhauer seems so conservative in his views on education, so Michael Gove. But maybe this was radical when he wrote it?⁦

Schopenhauer’s ultra-patriarchal, misogynistic essay On Women expresses views formed by observing the world-as-is without the benefit of critical concepts & sociological imagination: an example that refutes his radically empiricist philosophy of education. Children need concepts!

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Academic Technologist, IT Services, University of Warwick Fellow of the Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence

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