Learning, teaching and thinking in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze by Yannis Chatzantonis
In my last year of study on the MEd Leadership and Learning, I explored how Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy challenges dominant educational ideas about thinking. Through Deleuze, I sought to show that these ideas can be limiting and damaging in the way in which they influence the policy, theory and practice of the teaching of thinking – and to sketch out an alternative.
What are these quietly ubiquitous and damaging ideas about thinking and its education? These presuppositions go hand in hand with a certain image of thought – an implicit understanding of what it means to think, which Deleuze calls representation. To think inside the confines of this image is primarily to identify self-identical, stable and discrete entities that bear general characteristics as their predicates, to compare them, dissect them and subject them to a law. The overarching operation of thought is recognition: the mapping of entities onto the ontological rubric that divides reality. In other words, to think is to judge. Judgements are the vehicles of recognition and, in representation, the primary capacity of thought – the thinking skill we are all bound to continually practise.
Representation is the dominant image of thought on which we rely to make decisions about learning and teaching in the classroom or about the school curriculum or about national educational policy. Take the example of a typical situation in a classroom. Pupils are listening to the teacher explaining the learning objectives for the lesson. These are the knowledge and skills that pupils ought to have mastered by the end of a learning sequence. The planning decisions that the teacher has made hinge on what pupils must know by the end of the lesson; what truths about the world and its beings they should have grasped and what skill in interacting with these beings they should have developed. What kinds of thinking are taking place in this classroom? This depends on the teacher’s (as well as the pupils’) image of what thinking is. The teacher perhaps wants students to grasp truths about beings and about their relationships. They might do that by presenting problems and questions that will scaffold pupils’ coming up with solutions, of the truths that must be internalised by the end of the lesson. The teacher is led to this action by the belief that to learn is to understand or internalise the ways in which the world is organised according to the categories of thought. The whole lesson is a bridge between knowing and not-knowing and the learning that occurs in it is the intermediary, necessary but in the end negligible moment towards the acquisition of truths about the world – knowledge. The teacher asks questions because there are answers that the students need to attain and these answers are about stable, self-identical, discrete beings, the categories under which they are classified, and their contingent relations.
The educational beliefs and practices that shape this pedagogical situation are premised on a representationalist conception of what it means to be, think, know and learn, which, Deleuze argues, has played a restrictive role in our understanding of ourselves as thinkers, knowers and learners – and as teachers.
Deleuze does not doubt that we have the capacity to represent the world. Rather he aims to show that representation is underpinned by presuppositions about the nature of selves and beings, learning and knowledge, world and thought and that the acceptance or rejection of these presuppositions has a direct impact on what we take thought to be and therefore, and more importantly, what we take thought to be capable of. The world does lend itself to representation, to classification, categorisation, to probing and carving according to the categories of representational cognition – but there is something about the world and about thought that puts the presuppositions on which this lending is possible under limitations – or under conditions.
The reason for this diagnosis lies in Deleuze’s ontology. For Deleuze, the world itself has a problematic constitution and our experience of and engagement in it has the form of an encounter with a plane of problems that creates selves and other actual entities as relational, provisional and metastable formations. This encounter takes the form of a practicalengagement with the world. The world is an enigma and a question mark, swarming with signs to be deciphered. This search for solutions and meaning is what Deleuze calls apprenticeship – and it constitutes our fundamental relation with the world of enigmatic signs, problems and questions that is calling us to think and act.
Problematising and questioning, of course, are part of the staple of contemporary theory and practice of learning and teaching. According to Deleuze the way we think about problems and solutions from within the realm of representation results in a narrow conception of the pedagogical relationship between teacher and learner: ‘the master sets a problem, our task is to solve it’ (Deleuze 2004: 197). A teacher, for example, identifies the propositions that learners must come to understand or learn by the end of a learning sequence: these furnish the material for the articulation of learning objectives to be internalised by the learner. It is only secondarily that the posing of questions and problems are considered – as ways in which the learning of these solutions, expressed as propositions that must be understood, can take place and as ways in which this learning or internalisation can be assessed. For Deleuze, this is a topsy-turvy way of looking at the power of problems. Instead, he argues, problems pre-exist, in the sense that they are the genetic conditions for their solutions both in terms of reality and in terms of the movement of thought.
The view of reality as irreducibly problematic has consequences for the way in which Deleuze articulates the notions of thinking and learning. In effect, for Deleuze the essence of learning, as well as thinking, resides in encounters with the problematic constitution of the world, rather than with the recognition and representation of its solutions. Learning is not the intermediary between ignorance and knowledge, a pre-determined journey towards a destination already reached by the teacher. A learner is not surrounded by a static world outside, whose laws are patiently waiting to be discovered; a learner is intimately involved in the movement of the creation and dissolution of worlds. To learn is to meet the world not as one who looks upon and contemplates but as one who is already involved in its creation – but also as one who is situated within it. What is needed is a notion of learning as exploratory experimentation and enquiry that reflects the movement and labour of thought as an act, rather than as content. The challenge for pedagogy and for teachers is how to raise barriers for this apprenticeship to take place. For Deleuze this challenge can only be met by instituting in thought and experience a series of experiments to enable learners to learn, think and act. The teacher’s role is to institute these experiments – to emit signs or pose problems. This is not facilitation: teaching does not involve making learning facile. On the contrary, learning is effortful in that learners are guided to plunge into the problems that condition, and therefore destabilise, the stability of the world that they inhabit.
Deleuze, G. (2004) Difference and Repetition. London: Continuum.
Written by Yannis Chatzantonis
Teacher (RMPS), West Lothian
Yannis has now published a paper based on his study in The Journal of the Philosophy of Education, available at: