There are various perspectives through which we could understand human learning. Aeschylus, through the tragicomedy famously known as “Prometheus Bound”, offered a perspective of learning as the acquirement of practical skills to gain domination over nature (Aeschylus, 1961, pp. 34-35). In the same play, however, he hinted the importance of wisdom (or ‘cunning’) over brute dominating power, as he demonstrated by Prometheus’ control over Zeus, arguably the most powerful figure among the gods, in order to teach him a lesson of wisdom (Aeschylus, 1961, p. 27). Plato offered another perspective that learning as the act of recollection to gain knowledge, which he understood as justified true belief (Plato, 2002). His perspective, however, requires a metaphysical assumption about the eternity of the soul. Augustine offered another perspective that learning is the process of one’s internal dialogue of inquiry with the Teacher who dwells in the inner man (Augustine, 1995, p. 139). Although his perspective uses a Christian language (e.g.: God, Christ, etc.), his view is fundamentally Platonic, in the sense that it sees learning as an internal process in human soul. This paper will now consider another perspective that could enrich our understanding of human learning from Kierkegaard’s “Philosophical Fragments” written under the name of Johannes Climacus.
Climacus started with the question, “Can the truth be learned?” (Kierkegaard, 1985, p. 9). He addressed the question by posing the Meno’s paradox, “a person cannot possibly seek what he knows, and, just as impossibly, he cannot seek what he does not know, for what he knows he cannot seek, since he knows it, and what he does not know he cannot seek, because, after all, he does not even know what he is supposed to seek” (Kierkegaard, 1985, p. 9). He contrasted the Socratic way of solving the paradox and then proposed his own way of solving it. Socrates solved the problem by saying that the learner has always been in the state of knowledge; he only forgets the truth and needs to be reminded of it. Socratically, a teacher does not have a place of importance in the learner’s coming to knowledge, because the learner has always been in possession of the knowledge. Climacus, on the other hand, believed that there was time when the learner was not in possession of the truth (or in the untruth condition) and there is a moment in which he was brought into the truth. Climacus agreed with Meno that, in the state of untruth, the learner did not have the ability to inquire because he does not even know what to seek. Therefore, the moment requires a teacher, who is external to the learner and can provide the learner both the condition for seeking the truth and the truth itself.
It is important to remember, however, that although Climacus started with a question about learning, his whole project is to show the decisive significance of “the moment” (Kierkegaard, 1985, p. 21) and he took the learning question only as a starting point to bring the reader to the need of “the god”, apparently referring to the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who brings people from the state of untruth to the state of truth. This treatise is not mainly on learning, but on the decisive significance of the paradoxical existence of “the god” who is, at the same time, eternal and historical. Therefore, we cannot expect to get a full learning theory from it. Yet, we can explore some implications of this treatise on our understanding about learning.
The first implication is the importance of a teacher as a person. Since the learner is in the state of untruth, there has to be an external agent who can provide him a condition for truth seeking. For Climacus, the all-conditioner must be “the god”. Mere human beings could only relate to others Socratically at best, meaning that we can only remind the learner about certain truths but we cannot provide the learner the condition for truth. The condition for truth, for Climacus, is the consciousness of being in untruth, or the consciousness of sin. This is what lacking in Socrates. Climacus wrote, “What did he lack then? The consciousness of sin, which he could no more teach to any other person than any other person could teach it to him. Only the god could teach it” (Kierkegaard, 1985, p. 47). “The god” is the absolute paradox of thought, by whom a person’s rational inquiry breaks down and the person is brought into “the moment” when he has to decide whether to take the leap of faith to “the god” or to reject him and be offended by him. If the learner has the consciousness of sin and honestly confess it, he would take the leap of faith into the condition for truth.
Understood in this way, there can be no case that a mere human person be a conditioner in the way that “the god” is. However, I believe that a human person can provide certain conditions to make a learner understand his state of ignorance. The Socratic method of inquiry indeed gives an opportunity for transformative condition. The Socratic method is not as “Socratic” as Climacus thought of. We can see an evident example from the case of Alcibiades (Plato, 1997). In the beginning of the dialogue, Alcibiades is portrayed as a naïvely arrogant man. However, Socrates brought him to humility through his wisely crafted dialogue. Alcibiades experienced his moment of conversion, becoming conscious of his ignorance, through the aporia conditioned by Socrates. It was only after this conditioning that he gladly opened his soul for Socrates. From the case of Alcibiades, we can see how wise words are powerful to change the internal condition of a human heart.
This kind of dialogue requires a human teacher who knows his student personally. He should know the student close enough to understand the attitudes of the student’s soul and the habits of the student’s mind. “I’ve been observing you all this time,” said Socrates (Plato, 1997, p. 558). By knowing the student personally, the teacher can aptly speak words that are able to condition the internal state of the student, so that he may truly become a humble learner. This kind of internal conditioning cannot be achieved by technology, or even by a recording of a human teacher. Only the real presence of human teachers can provide the moment for the student to move from untruth to truth.
Not unrelated with the first implication, the second implication of Climacus’ view on learning is the significance of love and incarnation in teaching. Love means the persevering commitment to the unconditional care for the self of the beloved. Climacus portrayed this as the king who loved a maiden of a lowly station in life. The king wanted to marry the maiden, but he wanted the maiden to purely love him out of her own soul, not due to the king’s authority. This brings the king to the conclusion that he should be “incarnated” in the form of a servant. In the context of teaching, incarnation means the lowering act of the self to the consciousness of the student. The teacher, as a person, has to love the student enough that he would be willing to descend to the level of the learner, for the sake of his learning. Furthermore, incarnation points out the importance of embodied presence, just like the king making himself live in the reality of the maiden. The teacher must be present in the reality of the student’s experience, where he can be seen, heard, touched, and even embraced by the students.
This view of teaching is often accused as condescending and undemocratic. However, those accusers do not want to admit the general fact of human inertia in the state of ignorance. They assume that, in the language of Climacus, all people are in the state of truth, being ready, humble, and open for learning. Teachers who daily work in the schools know that this is not the case. Democracy works only in the assumption that the people are self-cultivated. If we falsely assume the people to be so, the case of Socrates’ death will surely recur. Moreover, the goal of love and incarnation is equality. The teacher “incarnates” so that he could be equal to the learner, and the learner could ascend together with him. This is what John Dewey essentially said about the psychologizing of subject matter so that students can experience knowledge in its pre-abstracted forms (Dewey, 1990, p. 200). Or in other words, teachers should be the paradox, the incarnation of the curriculum that brings the curriculum to the level of student’s consciousness and provides the moment for the students.
Kierkegaard’s “Philosophical Fragments” has given us with significant implications on the subject of teaching and learning. His attempt to create an alternative to the Socratic assumption of soul’s eternal state of knowledge and make the moment of learning significant has enlightened us with the importance of the personal relationship between the teacher and the learner, which involves love and incarnation. This theory thus provides a more dynamic view of human learning than Plato’s theory of recollection.
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Dewey, J. (1990). The School and Society & The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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Plato. (2002). Plato Five Dialogues (Trans.: G. M. A. Grube and J. M. Cooper). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.