Author Interview: Jeff Stickney

Author Interview: Jeff Stickney

In the latest Author Interview, Jeff Stickney discusses the recent edited collection A Companion to Wittgenstein on Education. Jeff teaches at the University of Toronto. You can read a review of the book here, written by Christopher Winch.

Questions: Naomi Hodgson

Why did you decide to edit A Companion to Wittgenstein on Education?

The idea for the book followed from an interview I did with Michael Peters and Nicholas Burbules for Michael’s festschrift, entitled Liber amicorum: A Philosophical Conversation among Friends (Ed. George Lazarou; New York: Addleton Academic, 2014).  They recalled meeting in New Zealand in the mid-1990s at James Marshall’s behest, along with Paul Smeyers with whom they collaborated for many years.  I referred to the meeting as the “fellowship of the ring,” which will make sense to those who hold Wittgenstein to be “precious” and who have followed their substantial work on Wittgenstein as a “pedagogical philosopher”.  

The initial idea was to broaden the conversation by including colleagues in the UK, such as Paul Standish, Richard Smith, and Michael Luntley, and indeed in 2016 we did conduct both a panel on “Wittgenstein & Agency” at the PES Conference in Toronto with Burbules, Smeyers, Standish, Luntley, and Stickney, and then a symposium on “Wittgenstein & Training” at the PESGB conference, with Smeyers, Standish, Luntley, Smith, and Stickney.  We could easily have rested with publishing this scale of collaboration, putting together a smaller volume of ten chapters instead of fifty. But then you see the problem, which Stefan Ramaekers noted at PES: We would have captured well-established views, maintaining closure in the ring. 

What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

So, our aim was to very ambitiously open the discussion, putting out a Call for Papers through many of our societies and the PhilEvents website, as well as actively recruiting contributors who delivered Wittgenstein papers related to education at conferences or in the journals. We were very pleased in the end to include 45 authors from 14 countries, with stronger inclusion of women in what some had criticised as an “old boys’ club”.  We also wrote to several prominent members of our community working with Wittgenstein’s philosophy, asking about promising doctoral candidates.  It was very rewarding to include seven emerging scholars along with renowned authors in the field, bringing new voices into the conversation. 

In some cases, we solicited authors, such as Beth Savickey to address Wittgenstein’s teacher training in Vienna, Jim Garrison on Wittgenstein’s relation to pragmatism, Yasushi Maruyama on Hegel and the earlier Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, and Mark Olssen on Foucault.  Cavell was well-covered by members of our field.  We also wanted to gain perspective on an underdeveloped area in philosophy of education that is well covered in mainstream philosophy: Wittgenstein and feminism, to which Claudia Schumann responded.  Additionally, we wanted to see chapters addressing Wittgenstein’s strong interests in mathematics, religion, psychology, ethics, and the arts, as well as current interests in Wittgenstein studies around cognitive and neuroscience, primatology, and politics.  In terms of the Tolkien metaphor used earlier, we wanted space, in other words, for the diverse landscapes and bestiary of this dynamic topic. 


And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

Wittgenstein is such an enigmatic figure, both in terms of his philosophical thinking and his biography.  Reading his fragmentary works, mostly published posthumously, is intellectually challenging and exhilarating in the sense of being open to many hazards of interpretation.  Seeing over and again hundreds of numbered remarks, encountering them from different avenues, it takes perhaps twenty years before one knows their way about: much as one comes gradually to learn the landmarks of London, and “light dawns gradually over the whole”.  In his Foreword, David Bakhurst did a wonderful job of illustrating this navigational tension, including the very question of Wittgenstein’s significance for philosophy of education.  We were grateful for David’s insights, and also for answering in the affirmative; it would have been hard to launch the book had he concluded it “irrelevant”.


What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

Springer’s book-metrics reveal strong interest, with over 20000 downloads so far.  What is the measure of “success”, however?  There have been 45 citations, but these of course could be our own authors citing their own work.  Our hope is that many of these chapters will find their way into the review of literature that graduate students conduct while doing their dissertations, possibly stimulating new contributions within this admittedly small sub-field of philosophy of education.  With many of the central figures retiring, there is ample opportunity for emerging scholars to inhabit the space, much as the 1960s and ‘70s London School of R.S. Peters, Paul Hirst, and Robert Dearden gave way to new contributors in the 1980s and ‘90s.  On a very personal level, it is always a pleasure when at conferences (PESGB, Gregynog, British Wittgenstein Society) we can gather eminent figures such as Paul Standish and Richard Smith (or Ieuan Lloyd, another distinguished scholar from the Welsh school) together with new contributors such as Áine Mahon, Luc van den Berge, or Adrian Skilbeck; that is the kind of confluence we wanted to accomplish in this volume, while also adding some of the polemical dynamic of conferences: as in the exchange between Standish & Smeyers over who is more romantic in their reading of Wittgenstein, or between Standish and Moyal-Sharrock on just how animally we react (with certainty) to signs.  Like conferences, too, some papers will resonate more with different audiences, so although we thank Chris Winch for reviewing such a large collection and respect his reasonable conclusion that only a handful of papers stood out for him, as with conferences we suspect the reading audience will find their own favourites among the fifty chapters. 


What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

In this large Springer volume, we are reaching out to the global philosophy of education audience, appealing widely to those with an interest in Wittgenstein’s relationship with education.  Hopefully, some of the papers will also be read by those working in philosophy.  At UCL in July 2018 we were pleased to conduct two symposia at the British Wittgenstein Society conference including some of the contributing authors: Ian O’Loughlin, Danielle Moyal-Sharrock, and Suzy Harris, Patrick Quinn, and Paul Standish and Adrian Skilbeck who also organised the event. Thank you to them and for the support of PESGB.  Mikel Burley, Alexis Gibbs, Carla Carmona, and Renia Gasparatou also presented papers at the event, at which Michael Luntley, Richard Smith, and myself were keynote speakers.

Michael and I also co-wrote Wittgenstein’s Education: “A Picture Held Us Captive” for the Springer Brief Series on Key Thinkers in Education (Ed. Paul Gibbs; Singapore, 2018).  That small book is more introductory, intended for instance to help those serving on doctoral committees where a candidate’s use of Wittgenstein’s obtuse philosophy falls outside the committee member’s domain of expertise.  


What’s your current project? What’s next?

I have been a section editor on both encyclopaedias that Michael is editing, and I teach part-time at the University of Toronto.  My attention is returning to environmental sustainability education; my keynote at the British Wittgenstein Society last year was on climate change deniers with an exposition of “higher and lower registers of learning” in On Certainty (see their website for recordings). I will also be engaging audiences in practices of place-based and aesthetic education at this year’s PESGB conference in tribute to Michael Bonnett, one of the keynote speakers. I will be talking about how we see trees as trees while visiting the evergreen holy oak in the cloister at New College, Oxford.   A recurring conversation between the two of us is whether to do a book project around reciprocal readings of Wittgenstein & Foucault. 


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

The easy answer is that philosophy of education is a venerable discourse that starts somewhere with Plato, takes off in the Enlightenment with Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, flourishes in the 20th century with Dewey and the liberal-analytic school, diversifies with critical theory, post-structuralism, and feminism, and then nearly dies off in the early 21st century due to an economic and evidence-based model of university management that no longer sees value in this academic discussion: either within teacher training programs or as a viable field of graduate study. Trying to show this rich diversity and kindle the flame, Michael and I co-wrote a chapter on “Philosophy of Education 1945-2010 and the ‘Education of Reason’: Post-foundational approaches through Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Foucault”, for the forthcoming volume of the Cambridge History of Philosophy (Eds. Iain Thomson & Kelly Michael Beker; Cambridge University Press).  We tried to show how the discipline varies under the lens of these non-dualistic, post-foundational thinkers, for whom giving reasons and weighing evidence is not the only arbiter of what stands as “sound” education.  In other words, education is philosophically open to inspection through the refractory lenses of different contemporary thinkers, through which its problems and prospects come across historically (genealogically) and conceptually quite differently.  Philosophy of education is a wonderful venue for carrying on this conversation, which in an ideal situation would also critically inform policy and programs without merely prescribing utopic aims or visions.  

Thank you, Naomi and JOPE, for this opportunity to show how our recent volume of “Pedagogical Investigations” contributes to this enduring field – so very close to our own interests and to our reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein.