Tag Archives: Bildung

Ingerid S. Straume (ed.), Danningens filosofihistorie (Oslo: Gyldendal Akademisk, 2013)

Bildung is not easily defined; it may even be among our most evasive and complex philosophical terms, both because of its inescapable historicity and cultural contingency, but also due to the scope of its conceptual relevance. We could say that it designates the process of ‘civilization’ or ‘humanization,’ of becoming a human being, and therefore encompasses pedagogy, education and maturation without being reducible to any of these. Hans-Georg Gadamer, for instance, understands Bildung as an ‘aesthetic’ process in which the individual acquires a profound ‘sense’ (Sinn) for one’s social and ethical environment by nurturing such qualities as taste, judgment, and tact that tend to be all but ignored in Western discourse on the grounds of their ostensible lack of ‘objectivity.’ Others take different approaches and have different foci while they may still be dealing with Bildung.

As Straume explains in her informative and accessible introduction, the philosophy of Bildung has had considerable and lasting impact on the education systems and ideals in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In contrast to Germany, where it gradually came to be associated with a certain elite, and later may even have degenerated into a superficial and uncritical ‘snobbery’ that was eventually incapable of resisting the takeover of political extremes, the Scandinavian version revolved around universal ‘folkedanning’ or ‘public education’ and was closely associated with the ideals of a democratic society. It is well worth asking whether the emergence of these peaceful, prosperous welfare societies may owe more to the specific development of the Bildung philosophy than usually held, and, alas, whether we may currently be witnessing the erosion of its ideals by narrower and more self-centered values and considerations in the political, social and not least economic arenas. At least it can be stated with certainty that if Bildung ever had any impact in Iceland, arguably a part of cultural Scandinavia, that impact seems all but lost in the present.

Straume explains that there is no English word for Bildung (danning). While this is for the most part correct, the word ‘edification,’ used for instance by Richard Rorty, may by now have become an adequate designator. But the historical lack of a clearly equivalent term in English – or French, or in most other languages for that matter, including Icelandic – has the consequence that a selection of topics and thinkers that are to constitute the ‘history of the philosophy of Bildung’ is subject to debate. From one point of view, Bildung refers to the particular tradition of thought that began with Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt and was further developed in German idealism by Hegel and the hermeneutical and phenomenological disciplines. From another, however, many of the implications involved in the concept of Bildung are present in most if not all streams of thought dealing with pedagogy and the philosophy of education. The volume under review is undeniably, and perhaps inescapably, strained by this ambivalence. For those leaning to the former understanding of Bildung, the selection of thinkers and periods may appear too broad and some sections somewhat out of place. And those leaning to the second may find that other topics should have been covered. Be that as it may, putting together a volume on this important and fascinating topic will always be a complex and formidable task which is certain not to satisfy all readers. In the opinion of this reviewer, however, the selection has been largely successful. By introducing various ways of thinking in history that could be subsumed under a philosophy of Bildung, the volume is intended first and foremost as a textbook for teaching, but should also be of value to the general reader who seeks to gain an overview. The editor further deserves credit for including sections on non-Western approaches such as Confucianism and Islam, thus introducing to Western readers divergent approaches that ought to be able to stimulate fresh views on what it means to be an educated, civilized or ‘gebildet’ human being.

Most sections are well composed, organized and lucid. They are written in altogether three different languages, Norwegian Bokmål, Norwegian Nynorsk and Danish, which, however, should present no obstacles to readers of the Scandinavian languages. The editor has made a surprisingly successful effort to ensure that the length of each section is more or less the same, around 10-12 pages, which makes the book ideal for teaching. Due to the brevity of the sections, however, they are necessarily condensed, and will lend themselves to being picked at for their omissions. The following are some brief suggestions that could serve to improve later editions of the book.

The section on Confucianism is clear, informative and surprisingly comprehensive, but seems to rely excessively on an Aristotelian ‘virtue ethics’ reading of Confucianism in its rather artificially (or Occidentally) systematic presentation of the Confucian ‘virtues’ (de). It is regrettable that it leaves out the demands on the individual practitioner of self-cultivation to come up with creative responses to new social circumstances, especially in the practice of li. For it is precisely these that most prominently constitute the self-reflective aspect of the Bildung-process in the Confucian view of education. Furthermore, considering the inclusion of Confucianism in the volume, one may wonder whether other Asian approaches, say, for instance, the Buddhist self-cultivational quest for eliminating ignorance (avidya), should not deserve to be included as well.

While Kant’s epistemology and ethics are certainly important for an understanding of his overall project, it would have been useful to consider as well his attempts to systematize his entire philosophy in a comprehensive whole from a Bildung-perspective. These are evident in the latter half of his Critique of Pure Reason as well as in his discussions of pedagogy, history and Enlightenment. The author certainly makes reference to some of these, but perhaps they should have been pulled more to the forefront. As a point of comparison, the author of the section on John Rawls does well to explicate the all-too often ignored second part of his A Theory of Justice, which is revelatory for the ultimate purpose of his well-known but not always well-appreciated concepts of ‘original position’ and ‘veil of ignorance’. In a similar fashion, the elements of Kant’s elaborate philosophy can similarly be made more meaningful by contextualizing them within his philosophical framework – or architechtonic – from the perspective of Bildung. It is readily admitted, however, that composing such a synthesizing account in 10-12 pages is easier said than done.

The section on Hegel would have profited from a somewhat more elaborate discussion of his specific understanding of ‘experience’ (Erfahrung). It had considerable influence on Bildung-thinkers such as Dilthey, Dewey, Gadamer and Habermas, and is, as a matter of fact, treated in some detail in the section on Habermas. Experience for Hegel is really a formative kind of experience. The subject’s transformation to self-reflection, its ‘reversal of consciousness,’ when exposed to objects of the world and other subjects is a vital factor in enabling and initiating the Bildung-process. A more striking omission, however, is the notion of ‘growth’ in the section on John Dewey, while it receives some discussion in the one on Rorty. In Dewey’s terms, growth could be said to be the outcome of the civilizing process. But the aim of growth is simply more growth. It enables the individual in question to continuously expand on his or her experience and apprehension of the world and make it more sophisticated and open to other and novel experiences. Dewey’s notion of growth makes it all the more easy to appreciate his visions of a civilizing process towards the necessarily non-specified aim of a flourishing humanity.

But all this is nitpicking for the sake of academic discourse and primarily intended to be enriching. The editor and contributors should be commended for a bold but successful project that should serve to keep alive a certain family of ideas belonging to humanity’s most ambitious and lofty, yet realizable, ideals. Their survival can only depend on accessible publications such as this one, and, of course, on those of us who make use of them.

The Wider Impacts of Universities: Habermas on Learning Processes and Universities


It should seem obvious from a European point of view that higher education and research fits tightly together institutionalized in the age old university institutions. It has, however, been observed that research on higher education and research on the research functions of universities are strangely unrelated in the literature.[1] Apart from this separation there can be distinguished between two mayor outcome debates on higher education and universities. [2] The debates on outcomes are firstly the debates on the ends of higher education for the individual and secondly the wider societal benefits of both research and higher education.


Considering the outcomes for the individual the discourse of reform in higher education tends to focus narrowly on employability and the relationship between higher education and the labor market. Considering the wider outcomes of research the dominant discourse is that the end of all knowledge production is that of innovation that privileges technology and applicative fixes of social kinds. Both aspects of the benefits of universities are thus viewed in strictly economic terms – often related to a functionalist interpretation of both the demands of the knowledge economy (not the knowledge society) and of the “outcomes” of higher education and university research. According to many scholars, including Habermas, the functionalist interpretation has proved hard to overcome especially in the field of research in higher education. Since Talcot Parsons and Charles C. Platt wrote their seminal work on the American university functionalist views of higher education has prevailed both in the literature but also in the self-understanding of many university leaders.[3]


The concern of this paper is therefore threefold. Firstly the critique by Habermas of the prevailing functionalism in the view of higher education and research will be outlined. Secondly a brief discussion on the outcomes of research will, thirdly, lead to a discussion of the contributions on both the individual level of higher education as well as the wider societal outcomes. It is the argument here that the two last discussions cannot be taken separately but that they meet in concepts like the public sphere, civil society, citizenship, empowerment, emancipation and wellbeing. It is also the aim here to overarch the current dichotomies of either/or in the discussions on university reform. It is obvious that higher education and research also contribute to the knowledge economy but the argument in this paper is that this role is only one out of multiple social and cultural roles. Instead – this is a discussion on balances.


Habermas – the critique of functionalism


Habermas fights on two fronts in his critique of university reform and reformers.[4] One front consists of the “mandarins” of a conservative outlook that defend the classical idea of a unifying “idea of a university.” As enemies of modernity these reformers seem to cling to outdated views of both society and institutions. This leads Habermas to adhere to some of the functionalist views – in a word he agrees to differentiation as against unity. But he certainly does not agree with the full-blown functionalism that considers both higher education and research as governed by norm free symbolic media in the vein of Niklas Luhmann.


Firstly on the front against conservative reformers like Karl Jaspers and Helmut Schelsky Habermas raises a critique of the idea of a university as a unifying force, which he considers to be based on an idealistic sociology. The university is NOT exemplary of a life form that shall permeate society as a whole. “Organizations no longer embody ideas. Those who would bind organizations to ideas must restrict their operative range to the comparatively narrow horizon of the life world intersubjectively shared by its members.” Adhering to the ideals of Humboldt thus “belongs to those purely defensive minds whose cultural criticism is rooted in hostility to all forms of modernization.”[5] He equates this stand with that of a “mandarin ideology” of the learned classes, a concept coined by the sociologist of education Fritz Ringer.[6]


As to counter this out-dated view the university is initially called a “functionally specific subsystem of a highly differentiated society” and Habermas states “The functional capability of such institutions depends precisely on a detachment of their members motivations from the goals and functions of the organization.” He even states that a functionalist interpretation presents itself as promising:

“A more distanced perspective derived from international comparisons thus yields a picture which practically compels one to adopt a functionalist interpretation.”[7]


Habermas critique of systems theory is well known. The problem he sees in connection to higher education is that systems theory presupposes that all modernized parts of society must take the form of a norm free subsystem of communication and that it a priori supposes that this covers all areas of societal action. This Habermas calls the “system-theoretical overgeneralization.” “The universities (have) by no means out grown the horizon of the life world in the style of, for example capitalist corporations or international agencies.”[8]


In Habermas’ terms a functionalist view entails a perspective where “the universities present themselves as part of a system requiring less and less normative integration in the heads of professors and students the more it becomes regulated by systemic mechanisms with disciplinary production of technically useful information and job qualifications directed at the environments of the economy and the planning administrative bureaucracy”[9]


It is not difficult to see the current discourses on higher education in this quote, in spite of a distance of a quarter of a century. Habermas’ general critique of functionalist sociology is therefore all the more relevant to apply to the present day discussions. Habermas’ insistence on a differentiation between instrumental and communicative action in his interpretation of society as a whole does also find its way into his views of the university. The distinction between life world and system that is basic to his view of society at large is also found within this institution: “Processes of differentiation which have accelerated over the last two decades need not be brought under a single system theoretical description leading to the conclusion that the universities have now completely outgrown the horizon of the life world.”[10]


Hereby Habermas, in my view, delivers a more ecological view of a balance to be found also in university and higher education reform. The view is dismantling the idea of an unproblematic unity of all activities in the university, but is holding on to a view of a multiplicity of interplay between different aspects of the institutional life forms of a modern university.


Before we consider these differentiated aspects of first research and then higher education this part of the paper should state the interesting affinity between traditionalists and functionalists that make Habermas’ two frontal attack feasible. In Habermas critique the functionalism is equated with a neoconservative viewpoint that “only uses traditions as a compensation for the easier flow of information streams between research and the economic-military-administrative complex.”[11] The compensation thesis is thereby seen as a neoconservative strategy to accept modernity as long as this modernity stays in the realm of productive and administrative life, and does not interfere with a compensatory traditionalism of life forms outside this realm.[12]


Habermas on wider outcomes of the research function of universities


Habermas sees the university as the home of research. He does consider the challenges towards this from what now often is termed Mode II knowledge production,[13] but asks polemically if these forms of research will not always be “parasitical.”[14] So research is depending on the specific life forms of the university: “Scientific productivity might well depend upon the university’s form, in particular upon that differentiated complex interplay of research with the training of future students’ preparation for academic careers, the participation in general education, cultural self-understanding and public opinion formation.”[15] He even acknowledges the idea of the university as a norm to govern this life world: “The universities are still rooted in the life world, through this interpenetration of functions. So long as this connection is not completely torn asunder, the idea of the university is still not wholly dead. But the complexity and internal differentiation of this connection shouldn’t be underestimated.”[16]


Before we consider the implications of this complex interplay between research and wider impacts on society let us look to his discussion on research and science (Wissenschaft).


Fistly the idealism of the Humboltian model suggests the “unity of the sciences.” And secondly the Humboldtian model suggests “an oversimplified connection between scientific learning processes and the life forms of modern societies.”[17]


Habermas sees in both these statements a need for differentiation. The unity of sciences needs differentiation because of the internal differentiation between philosophy and the empirical sciences that has proceeded since the middle of the nineteenth century. The connection between science and the life forms of modern society must be differentiated. Because of a “plurality of powers of faith (Glaubensmächten) philosophy lost its monopoly on the interpretation of the cultural whole.”[18] Secondly this unity must be differentiated because science grew into a productive force of industrial society. Especially the natural sciences have been ascribed a technical function as against a world view producer.


But science is still an activity of the life world as it is organized as a communicative activity, which was already the view of Schleiermacher. With direct address against Luhmann, Habermas states: “because the activity of cooperative truth-seeking points to a public argumentation, truth – or let alone the reputation among the community of investigators – can never become a control medium for a self-regulating subsystem.”


These very brief points on research points to the fact that Habermas defends the normative aspirations of a life world of scholars. Faced with developments of neoliberal new public management these considerations become highly relevant. These reforms are exactly directed towards “control media” of a “self-regulating” subsystem of research such as bibliometrics and citation counting.[19] But let us leave the discussion on research seen in its own right to a view of the wider societal impacts of research and higher education.


The crucial argument is the interconnectedness of research and educational processes – that in spite of the differentiation processes of modern society are still valid.



Habermas on the wider impacts of universities


To sum up Habermas sees institutionalized in universities an interplay of research with:


  1. 1)Training of future students preparation for academic careers (Nachwuchs)
  2. 2)Participation in general education (Allgemeinbildung)
  3. 3)Cultural self-understanding
  4. 4)Public opinion formation


What are then the appropriate understandings of these connections?


The Humboldtian idea of a university pointed to three wider impacts of research, in idealist terms coined as “unities”: The unity of science and teaching, the unity of science and general education and the unity of science with enlightenment and emancipation. As stated above Habermas sees a need for differentiation of these unities in view of the modern development.


Firstly the unity of science and teaching needs differentiation because of a differentiated labour market that demands highly skilled employees.


Secondly the unity of science with general education needs differentiation because the institutional structure was built on specialized bureaucratic functions rather than on general education.


Thirdly the unity of science with enlightenment and emancipation needs differentiation because of the social differentiation between academically trained elites and popular education. This means that the general enlightenment and emancipatory claims of the classical idea of the university in Germany were not met.


However, Habermas can now positively list the functions of the university thus: “The university learning processes do not simply stand in an inner connection to the reproductive functions of the life world. Going beyond mere academic career preparation, they contribute to general socialization processes by introducing students to the mode of scientific thinking, i.e. to the adoption of a hypothetical attitude vi-á-vis facts and norms. Going beyond the acquisition of expert knowledge, they contribute to intellectual enlightenment by offering informed interpretations and diagnoses of contemporary events, and by taking concrete political stands. Going beyond mere reflection on methodology and basic theory, they contribute to the self-understanding of the sciences within the whole of culture by supplying theories of science, morality, art and literature.”[20]


As a broad impact on culture Habermas sees the university to have contributed to the development of the freedom and differentiation of research disciplines, and benefitted society with a certain “utopian” ideal of universalistic and individualistic values that has upheld a critical potential. This is seen as a specific trait of the occidental development, but also writers on higher education like Björn Wittrock states universalism and cosmopolitan viewpoints to be typical in the development of universities.[21] This leads to the following conclusion:

“The egalitarian and universalistic content of their forms of argumentation expresses only the norms of scientific discourse, not those of society as a whole. But they share in a pronounced way that communicative rationality, the forms of which modern societies (which are without Leitbilds from the past) must employ to understand themselves.”[22]


A brief turn to Habermas’ theory of communicative action will maybe enlighten these conclusions.[23] In this book Habermas differentiates between three processes of reproduction in the life world: cultural reproduction, social integration and socialization. He states these in relation to culture, society and personality.


Habermas mentions (at least) two concepts concerning the reproduction of the life world highly relevant to this discussion which are 1) the reproduction of valid knowledge (which not least takes place in the universities) 2) the reproduction of personal socialization patterns and educational goals for the individual (which are parts of education as a whole). These can be disturbed which results in 1) loss of meaning and 2) crisis in orientation and education.


Below this discussion will focus mainly on the second point. How can Habermas theory be applied to the discussion on the outcomes of higher education for the individual to counter a crisis in orientation and education?


Habermas related to current issues in the debate on higher education


Looking at the part of the debate on wider outcomes of higher education for the individual the knowledge economy discourse tends to focus on employability, a term that stands central in the Bologna process of the integration of higher education markets in Europe. However, this discourse is by no means specifically European but is global.


The employability discourse is highly market oriented and suggests a one to one fit of transferable skills from the learning situation to the job situation. The discourse is connected to a view of the individual that is reduced to the concept of the effective or competent person – or a highly instrumental view.[24] The construction of the effective person stands in contrast to the reproduction of personality as a life world construction now (maybe) to be found in the literature on empowerment, citizenship and capabilities – and in Habermas. The concepts of skills or competencies are understood as performative and system related whereas early modern German concepts of Bildung and Mündigkeit are what I call personality and life world related with a parallel to ideas of liberal education in the Anglo-Saxon world.


The competing concepts are indicative of views of the self. Gerard Delanty in his book on citizenship addresses the question of the person, or the self, in this way:


“Modernity was a discourse of the emancipation of the self, but the question of the other is being asked only now. The problem with self-determination in postmodern times is that there is no single self but a plurality of selves. In this move beyond the contours of the modern age we have to ask the question of the responsibility of the self for the other. The rethinking of democracy – which is a discourse of self-determination – that this entails will force us to re-establish a link with citizenship – where self and other find a point of reconciliation.”[25]


I share with Delanty the view that a concern for the self as responsible should still, or again, be relevant in present discussions on citizenship and education. Not only postmodern writers but also the now dominant concepts of learning and transferable skills exclude personhood. This implies an amoral idea of the effective and performative individual. Can competencies and skills be other that means? Can skills be ends? Who decides the ends in a world of only means? My reading of this discourse tends to point to the direction of a crudely functionalist notion of usefulness of the individual. When all education is regarded only as learning towards transfer of skills into workplace competencies the reduction is full blown. A maybe too optimistic reading of this dilemma would be that the self (situated in higher education) takes care of itself – sometimes in spite of pressures of economic or systemic performance. But this does not, in my view, exclude the responsibility of educators and leaders of educational institutions to choose a balance between instrumentality and life world concerns.


In the continental debate on the university an oppositional concept to employability is the mentioned concept of Bildung. The concept implies in its neo humanistic version the coming into being of a whole person through activities of scholarly and creative pursuits. It has highly normative connotations as both the goal of and the process of education or life-experience. Habermas critique indicates that Bildung builds on an exaggerated subject philosophical inheritance. But what is Habermas view of the learning subject? And how can we relate his thoughts on higher learning to civil society? Habermas himself in The structural transformation of the public sphere cites numerous connections between Bildung and the creation of a public sphere in early modern Europe. These historical examples both suggest what in the German debate is called the traditional marriage between education and money (Bildung und Besitz), but also points to the creation of a politically respected public sphere being a result of literacy, journal writing and thus education. The book is certainly split in viewing bourgeois culture and education as progressive and emancipatory forces or as simply reproducing class distinctions.[26]


Concluding words


I would suggest that we are now facing a crisis both in the reproduction of meaning, in educational goals and the reproduction of personality as Habermas theory suggests possible. Performative expectations to all knowledge production inhibit the reproduction of valid cultural knowledge. Goals of employability dominate any educational pursuit and the construction of the effective person stands in contrast to the balanced view of the personality as a construction now to be found in the literature on empowerment and citizenship. The concepts of skills or competencies are understood as performative and system related whereas concepts of Bildung and Mündigkeit capture a more balanced view of the relations between the individual and society. These questions need further clarification, but Habermas’ diagnosis can be a path to this investigation.


Concepts of learning and transferable skills distort reproductive processes of the life world. They imply an amoral idea of the effective and performative individual. Social skills are present in the debate on competencies – are these ethical skills? Can skills be other than means? Can skills be ends? Who decides the ends in a world of only means? This seems highly implicative of Habermas’ idea of colonization. Economic man has overpowered all other views of the human kind. The balance between life world reproduction and system reproduction is to be found anew in the discussion on higher education and universities in society.


Especially as concerns the scientification of political life – the bureaucratization and technological approaches to top down social engineering calls for a research near general education that serves critical thinking to prevail in a civil society that must be just as “armed” with research based argumentations as governments and IO’s are. Habermas’ concept is that of a “radical democracy” – and in such a democracy the creative destruction of social capital through higher education is all the more necessary.[27] Higher education thus primarily should arm new generations, and older ones, with antidotes to the prevailing top down tendencies of governments and non-democratic international agencies.




[1] Wittrock, Björn. (1985). Before the Dawn. Humanism and Technocracy in University research Policy. In Björn Wittrock & Aant Elzinga (red.), The University Research System. The Public Policies of the Home of Scientists (s. 1-10). Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

[2] Brennan, John and Rajani Naidoo (2008) ”Higher Education and the Achievement (And/or Prevention) of Equity and Social Justice” in Higher Education Vol 56. No. 3., pp.287-302.

[3] Wittrock, Björn. (1996 (1993)). The modern university: the three transformations. In Björn Wittrock & Sheldon Rothblatt (red.), The European and American University since 1800.Historical and sociological essays (2 ed., s. 303-362). Chippenham, Wiltshire: CambridgeUniversity Press. P.337

[4] Habermas, J. (1986). Die Idee der Universität–Lernprozesse. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 32(5), 703-718. (References below are to this version, referred to as “IU”). For an English version see Habermas, J. “The Idea of the University: Learning Processes” in New German Critique No.41 (1987). Habermas’ earlier writings on university reform (from the 1950ties and 1960ties) will not be considered here.

[5] IU p.704

[6] Ringer, F. (1969) ”The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community 1890-1933,” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[7] IU p.705

[8] IU p.714

[9] IU p.706

[10] IU p.707

[11] IU p.706

[12] For discussions on the compensation thesis see Ritter, Joachim (2003 (1961)). Die Aufgabe der Geisteswissenschaften in der modernen Gesellschaft. In Metaphysik und Politik: Studien zu Aristoteles und Hegel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp and Herbert Schnädelbach, (1988). Kritik der Kompensation. In Kursbuch 91. Wozu Geisteswissenschaften? (Vol. 91, s. 35-45). Berlin: Kursbuch Verlag.

[13] Gibbons, Michael, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, & Martin

Trow (1995). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research

in Contemporary Societies. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

[14] IU p. 714

[15] IU p.707

[16] IU p.707

[17] IU p. 707

[18] IU p. 710

[19] For a discussion of the negative consequences of this development see Aant Elzinga “Evidence-based science policy and the systematic miscounting of performance in the humanities” at the blog: humaniorasociety.wordpress.com

[20] UI p.715

[21] Wittrock op.cit p.360

[22] UI p.717

[23] Habermas, J. (1987) ”The Theory of Communicative Action” Volume 2 “Lifeworld and System: a critique of Functionalist reason” Boston: Beacon Press, pp.142ff

[24] For a debate on this tendency in the Denmark see Laura-Louise Sarauw (2012) “Kur eller kurmageri for humaniora? – konkurrerende forestillinger om fremtidens samfund I den europæiske Bologna-proces.” in J.E.Larsen and M. Wiklund ”Humaniora i kunskapssamhället. En nordisk debattbok” Malmö: NSU-Press.

[25] Delanty, Gerard (2000) ”Citizenship in a global age. Society, culture, politics” Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press, p.3.

[26] Habermas, J. (1962) ”Strukturandel der Öffentlichkeit” Darmstadt : Luchterhand.

[27] For this argument see Fuller, Steve. (2004) “Universities and the future of knowledge governance from the standpoint of social epistemology” in Final plenary address at the UNESCO Forum Colloquium on Research and Higher Education Policy, Paris (Vol. 3).

Alienation, language and freedom. A note on Bildung in Hegel’s writings

The General Argument

Hegel’s concept of Bildung is often explained with reference to the Introduction and chapter four in the Phenomenology.4 It is thought that for Hegel experience, negation and productive work are the determining elements for the Bildung of the consciousness as conscious being, in German Bewu?t-sein. In contrast to this, I argue that for Hegel Bildung cannot be completed through production. The most elaborate discussion of Bildung in the Phenomenlogy is found in the chapter six on Geist (i.e. spirit), and here it is the alienation and tearing apart of the self that is constitutive for Bildung, not working with some material. Bildung presupposes alienation as something experienced, but also as expressed. Language is thus a necessary component for Bildung. The point is here, that Bildung as a phenomenon is collective (a people and a family), political (about wealth, power and law), and historical (it develops until revolutions). Bildung is something that happens in relation to the spirit, not production. Bildung is therefore not just a matter of concern for an individual consciousness working with some material. This is the idea of Bildung, I will elaborate a little further on in the next section. In the rest of this section I will just complete the general argument.

With this general idea of Bildung as a framework it is obvious that Hegel must put a lot of emphasis on the importance of language and alienation also in the Gymnasium. In his annual speeches as rector he pays homage to traditional Bildung (W4: 307), but he also wants to open the minds of the students for new developments (W4: 314). This opening, however, can according to Hegel be achieved by confronting the students with the classical writings in Greek and Latin (W4: 319). The learning of language requires discipline, and since it is strange, it also breaks with conformity. The content of the classics, however, also give you the instruments to reconcile yourself with reality once again (W4: 320-21). As would be expected from his reputation as the spokesman of the state, Hegel of course emphasizes discipline (W4: 334-35), but he is also very careful to spell out that the youth needs time by themselves to be able to develop the character necessary for grating them freedom and liberty (W4: 351-53).

In his teaching material from the same period Hegel emphasizes that the Bildung should be both theoretical and practical. According to Hegel virtues to be cultivated in relation to science are the recognition of the limits of judgment, the importance of objectivity and disinterestedness (W4: 260). Practical virtues are first of all health, which enable us to fulfill our calling. We should be faithful to our calling, since as part of humanity it expresses something universal and necessary (W4: 262-63). Bildung is to Hegel what Kant would consider duties toward oneself. With these duties fulfilled in relation to ourselves, we are enabled to have duties in relation to others.

Bildung thus requires education, not just working with a material. In relation to Bildung, work can at most create tacit knowledge, whereas Bildung in the full sense presupposes language and culture. As such this account of Bildung in Hegel differs from interpretations in the slipstream of Marxism. The historical subject can never be the working class; the historical subject must have studied Greek and Latin in the Gymnasium.

The interpretation offered, however, also differs from the way the term has recently been understood by Robert Pippin. Bildung is not just a “learning process” (Pippin 2008: 122), neither is it “collective self-cultivation” (2008: 126), since cultivation is an instrumental purposive practice, whereas Bildung relates to the split between individual and collective, it partly happens behind your backs, and it is never completed. It is precisely by the consciousness being torn apart that Bildung is always open to freedom.

Some Details from the Phenomenology

This being the argument, I will just supply a few details to substantiate it a little more. In discussions of Bildung it is as mentioned common to refer to chapter four of the Phenomenology. It is here we get the detailed account of the conceptual logic of work, as it is carried out by the slave. Slavery is to be forced to work for somebody else. The consciousness of a slave in the service of a master is thus characterized by fear. For Hegel desire is characterized by requesting the “pure negation of an object”, which will thus be lost, and in this perspective Hegel can therefore think of work as another kind of negation, namely as “inhibited desire, delayed disappearances” (W3: 153). Crucial to Hegel is that the slave in this formation of the thing “comes to himself” (W3: 153). It is therefore common to link the work on the object to Bildung as such. One is supposed to form oneself, when working and thus forming the thing according to one’s own idea. In giving the thing its shape one externalizes oneself, and one can therefore recognize oneself in the resulting object.

It is normally presumed that Hegel in this figure let an awareness of one self in self-consciousness be created through the working process, and that Bildung therefore will be the result of production. However, Hegel consistently fails to use the word ‘Bildung‘ in this context. Instead when Hegel is writing on the formation of things in this passage, he uses the word ‘Bilden‘, and none of the two words appears in the account of the evolution of consciousness. It is clearly the case that Hegel let the thing be formed according to the idea of man working with the material and also that an awareness is generated through this work. That, however, does not mean that self-consciousness thereby attains Bildung.

The close connection between Bildung and alienation mentioned above is indicated already by a superficial look at chapter six on The Spirit. The combination of both these elements actually constitutes the title of section VI.B., “The world of the spirit, which is alienated for itself; Bildung”. Furthermore subsection VI.B.1 on “The world of the spirit alienated from itself” contains a sub-sub-section VI.B.I.a., which is named “Bildung and its realm in reality”, and this sub-sub-section is one of the longest in the book.

In this realm of Bildung consciousness confronts conflicts, contradictions and divisions, which are developed in relation to objects, in relation to consciousness itself, and even in relation to the contradictions themselves. For Hegel Bildung not only presupposes that consciousness becomes external to itself. It also means that consciousness becomes alienated to itself; actually Hegel goes as far as to say that alienation becomes alien to itself (W3: 366). Basically the problem is from the outset the conflict between the universal, which consciousness strives to express, and the individual or particulars, which appear in reality. Consciousness thinks to have the truth about itself, but again and again it becomes obvious to consciousness itself that what is expressed by consciousness does not have universal validity, and thus for Hegel no reality in the strict sense.

In the realm of Bildung the decisive contradiction is between the political power of the state and wealth (W3: 367). This conflict Hegel describes in various steps, which as a whole reconstructs the logic in the societal development from the feudal society to bourgeois or capitalist society. The decisive moment for Hegel, however, is, when language is introduced in the analysis. For Hegel it is language that really makes alienation and Bildung possible. The language is “the existence of the self as pure self” (W3: 376). Language allows the silent loyalty to be transformed into “heroic flattery” (W3: 378), and on the other hand, it elevates the power to “an existence refined to spirit”, the pure “similarity-in-itself: the monarch “(W3: 378). For Hegel it is language that constitute the absolute sovereignty of the king – l’état, ce moi – and this form of state on the other hand implies the most extreme alienation on the side of the servant.

The result is “laceration”, i.e. being torn apart in such an extreme sense that it must lead to a revolution. To Hegel this means that everything that is universal, everything “that is called law, good and right” (W3: 382) falls apart and is destroyed; “everything equal has dissolved” into “the purest inequality “(W 3: 382). According to Hegel, however, it is in this absolute alienation, we encounter the truth of Bildung. “The language of being lacerated is […] the perfect language and the true existing spirit of this whole world of Bildung.” (W3: 384) Self-consciousness is exalted in this rejection of “the absolute equality-with-itself in the absolute laceration” (W3: 385). The “pure Bildung” is “this absolute and general distortion and alienation of reality and thought” (W3: 385). In this alienated Bildung consciousness transcends both the noble loyalty and the vile meanness of the rebel. Its existence is “the general speech and the lacerating judging” (W3: 386) which, however, expresses what is “true and irrepressible” (W3: 386). This “lacerated consciousness” is “the consciousness of distortion”(W3: 386), which distorts “all concepts and realities “. The” shamelessness to pronounce this deception”, “alternately furious and soothing, urgent and mocking” is however “the greatest truth “(W 3: 387). For Hegel “the laceration of consciousness that is conscious of itself and speaks itself” is a “scornful laughter about life as well as about the whole confusion and itself” (W3: 389).

This description of Bildung in the Phenomenology of Spirit obviously presupposes the development of the culture of modern society, where people linguistically can relate both to themselves, to their surroundings and to the contradictions that arise in relation to themselves as well as between them. Bildung reaches its climax in the clear recognition of the contradictionary character of existence itself. Bildung is what is achieved by the one, who is indeed alienated, that is, not only alienated from himself and his surroundings, but also from the very alienation.

Concluding Remarks

Bildung and alienation are for Hegel thus processes, which clearly take place in the upper strata of society. Bildung presupposes the alienation, which can only be brought by in the formal education, and on its side Bildung creates the enabling conditions for further alienation, fragmentation and freedom of expression. Pushed to the extreme Bildung is simply alienation. Bildung is directed towards an end, which can be determined in advance. As Gadamer says, then Bildung is not a means to shape natural dispositions, which are given (Gadamer 1986: 17). In Bildung man must break with what is merely given and through negation sublate himself to universality.

These remarks apply both to the general concept of Bildung, as it is described in the Phenomenology and to the more pedagogical concept of Bildung that Hegel developed in his Nürnberg-writings. In relation to the classics in Greek and Latin one can develop alienation and laceration, and still it is precisely in these works, in the midst of lacerating despair, that it is possible to find one self again. However, this means that for Hegel there must be some kind of contradiction between being an educated person and having Bildung. For Bildung seems to be so closely associated with alienation, that Bildung can never be a process brought to a close. Bildung is precisely this that consciousness – that is, man’s conscious being – can still be moved by the impressions, which are worth being moved by. With Bildung one becomes able to form still better judgments, but one does not receive a set of final judgments.

Hegel clearly sees that higher administrative officers, as the Gymnasium mainly were to educate, must be able to take responsibility. Bildung as a special kind of spiritual formation thus require the experience of real freedom; Bildung must develop the capacity to make the right judgments in a very complex reality, and therefore it must not imply the feeling that action is concluded, or that that the answer is already given. The laceration means that each and every person must decide concretely for himself in every case. In a gender and class perspective, one can say that the upper-class sons of Hegel’s high school are trained for the freedom, responsibility and sovereignty required by the roles they must fill out in bourgeois society. This also means that for Hegel one of course gets some formation through productive work, but that does not mean that one gets Bildung. Negation is a necessary component of all kinds of consciousness formation, but productive work is not the only kind of negation, and actually it is a rather primitive one. In Bildung it is the experienced strangeness of antiquity, which is the negative component. The necessary break with the given reality happens in the alienation experienced in relation to the classical languages. To get the Bildung necessary for living in freedom and taking responsibility, for Hegel the worker thus has to enter high school.


Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen: Mohr. (Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 1)

Hegel, G. W. F. (W3). Phänomenologie des Geistes, i Hegel W.

Hegel, G. W. F. (W4). Nürnberger und Heidelbergerschriften 1808-1817, i Hegel W.

Hegel, G. W. F. (W). Werke in zwanzig Bänden. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1969-71.

Heidegren, C.-G. 1995. Hegels Fenomenologi. En analys och kommentar. Stockholm/Stehag: Brutus Östlings Bokförlag Symposion.

Pippin, R. B. 2008. Hegel’s Practical Philosophy. Rational Agency as Ethical Life, Cambridge University Press.


1 The German term Bildung is very difficult to translate adequately into English. Bildung is a specific kind of formation, and the word can signify both the process of what in the US would be called liberal education, and the normative goal for such an education, namely to acquire Bildung or to end up as an educated person. These difficulties cannot be ignored when dealing with this matter in English, but for now I have restricted myself to a simple technical solution. In what follows I have thus used the German term, whenever there was any possibilities of misunderstandings.


2 The relation between the German Gymnasium and the high school of the English speaking world will not be dealt with here.

3 This note stems from a presentation at the winter session in Nordic Summer University at Turku University in Finland, February 11th 2012. I have given a fuller account of the argument in the original Danish version, ”Hegel. Fremmedgørelse, sprog og frihed”, which will be a chapter in the Norwegian anthology edited by Ingerid Straume, Danningens Filosofihistorie (Oslo: Gyldendal).

4 Cf. e.g. Heidegren (1995: 464).