But Who Will Pat Down The Pat Downers?


As someone who avoided holiday travel by air, I have to say that this whole TSA thing is really another example of bureaucratic mental lockdown which will only result in more and more ridiculous rules which we will all learn to love and cherish eventually. Trust me, I was born and raised in the Soviet Union.

And now to something completely different. I asked the students to write a small reflection paper on a rather banal but, if attended to, potentially thought-provoking theme (for any smart undergraduate): is our sense of right and wrong innate or acquired? Not surprisingly, they mostly wrote that it is acquired and went on to argue how family, culture, education and environment are all essential elements and so on. However, on almost every paper that made a big deal of education and family I found myself writing something like “Good point, but who educates the educators?” I’m looking forward to asking this question in class tomorrow, but I’m fairly sure it’ll be one of those “Hmmm, I don’t know – their educators?” conversations in which I am trying to explain the paradoxical nature of the claim and the students give me looks like I’m insane, because I make this pretty commonsensical view (“we learn our values from our family/society”) into a problematic one (“this is the whole problem with you, philosophy-types – you take our established beliefs and you attempt to destroy them”).

All of this lead me this week to Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach:

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

It is a rather cryptic note and I’m sure some scholar dedicated a good book to it already, and I’d like to read it.

How does one approach this problem – educators need to be educated – without avoiding a kind of infinite regress? Does it mean that this “revolutionary practice” in a sense destroy the very traditional notion of education?

10 thoughts on “But Who Will Pat Down The Pat Downers?

  1. I’d say yes to your final question. In the traditional schema it does lead to an infinite regress. Marx is, I think, alluding to an issue in Plato’s Republic, no?, but playing it off against the more vanguardist elements in the International. I’ve read some good anarchist-communist readings of this idea as meaning there only self-education avoids this problem and that praxis is the way to do it. Which sounds grand and a bit abstract, but one small example seems to be happening with schoolkids in the UK learning what police (State) power is like and what disciplining through debt and the edu-factory are all about.

    • I lean toward “yes” myself – and I do think Republic here is definitely in the background – but I wonder if there’s some sleek dialectical solution? A kind of Platonic solution could involve an innate sense of justice that some are able to teach better than others (but even here we have Meno and so on), but surely that won’t do for Marx. I’ve been reading this old Soviet biography of Marx/Engels which is rather good (published in 1966 – this one) and it mentioned that Feuerbach Theses were jotted down by Marx in some notebook next to Jenny’s shopping list or something – which made me imagine a kind of intense mind work before these were put on paper which made me think of the paradoxical nature of educator’s educators… Does revolutionary practice in this sense a kind of demythologization of the origins of good/just? Infinite regress isn’t infinite etc etc.

  2. Interesting. The 8th of the Theses supports the praxis-as-educator reading, but there’s also a place left there for ‘der Begriff’, the grasping/comprehension of praxis, which itself doesn’t rule out something of your and my vocations. I’d add that ‘Praxis’ in German is itself a more theoretically-informed process than the English ‘practice’ captures (and with which it’s often translated, implying Marx is some sort of philistine – “enough with the theory already!”). Someone doing their Ausbildung is said to be getting ‘Praxis’, which is by no means a reflection- or theory-free act. Medical Doctors here have a ‘Praxis’. Und so weiter.

    At the same time there is something ironic in Marx’s words, which he must have realised. He is also – to an extent – educating the reader. I read his point therefore as merely trying to get away from any hierarchy or division of labour between those in the know and those not, which was what Plato’s Guardians shared with 20thC Communist Parties.

    Oh, and I like ‘demythologization of the origins of the good’.

  3. Agreed. There’s certainly more than just irony here, right? Marx is educating the educators to inquire about who is educating the educators. I think, taking the complexities of Praxis, the problem is a kind of destruction of both verticality (educators on top, uneducated masses on the bottom) and horizontality (this generation learns its values from the previous generation) of learning/theory as such…

    I’ve always read Theses as a kind of a programmatic “things to think about after lunch” and in this sense it sets up a whole philosophical system. Have you ever seen a book just on Theses? I should look around, it would be fun to read about this – maybe in terms of “this is how Marx developed these ideas?”

  4. Nathan Rotenstreich’s “Basic Problems of Marx’s Philosophy” addresses Marx using the theses as basic text, I think, I don’t have it in front of me.

  5. I like Prokofiev’s scholarly treatment of Thesis 11 in Opus 74.

    Like every infinite regress, this one bottoms out in practice, and I think this must be at least part of Marx’s gist. Yes, human beings make the circumstances and vice-versa, so let’s examine the basis for the whole thing– and hence we get dialectical materialism, the theory by which everyday practice becomes “revolutionary.” (I take it this is sort of what you were hazarding, Mikhail). He really is not so far from Hegel at all: Marx is (says Marx) the moment when the whole chicken-egg conundrum becomes self-aware. The question, who educates the educators, is moot until there is such a thing as Marxism. The interesting programmatic question, which only arises once we have this “key to history,” is Who will educate…?

    Pretty great, yes, how a supposedly banal old chestnut like “morality: nature or nurture?” still has life in it?

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