Saturday, September 18, 2021

Heidegger (1889 - 1976) on teaching and learning

Heidegger is not a learning theorist, he is a philosopher and his thoughts on teaching and learning are largely found in his philosophical work, although within this he does have more precise thoughts on teaching and learning. Despite his membership of the Nazi Party, announced in his inaugral address in 1929, when he succeeded his teacher Husserl, he then went on to exclude Jewish faculty members, including Husserl, he remains a hugely influential thinker. Another idiosyncrasy was his secret affair with Hannah Ardent, a Jewish student 17 years his junior, who went on to be one of the most important political theorists of the 20th C. 

Despite this, his break with the Western tradition of metaphysics is what attracted him to the critical theory movement, through to post-structuralism, with his recentering or grounding of human experience in being, not the metaphysical systems of Western thought.


In his great work Being and Time (1927), Dasein is a being-in-the-world, not like the Cartesian ego, self or subject but within a process of being. Thinking and learning are just ways of being or engaging with the world. One must also react to and engage with the world. It follows that learning is a form of caring about (besorgen) the world, so not just thinking but interest in what is being learned. It is only if one cares that one learns, going forward to inquire and get involved with learning about the world. In this sense, he puts more emphasis on what is often called the affective side of learning.

One is thrown forward in life, with what one wants to be, one’s future potentialities and abilities to be, drive one forward. Learners and teachers must be seen as being in the world, not subjects that have to learn about the world. One must interpret learners as first attuning through being attracted, vaguely interested or bored; then see language or discourse as the shared form of being; these lead towards goals in life that come through learning.

Teaching and learning

In What is thinking? (1954) teaching, learners and learning are seen within the context of deeper more authentic thinking. To teach or learn is to avoid the superficialities of ordinary thinking. He takes the case of a cabinet-maker apprentice, who more than just learns how to use the tools. One must find the essence of the process in the activities and the essence of the wood itself. 

He takes this insight to reflect on the relationship between the teacher, learner and learning. In a wonderfully intense passage he explains why teaching is harder than learning, as the teacher must not be the presenter of knowledge, a didact or pedagogue, but let the learner learn. Teaching is an exalted matter and not to be confused with titles, such as Professor.

Learning is far more than basic accumulation of knowledge and practice, more than even doing. The learner must respond and relate to the deeper effects of the craft. Using a hammer ‘ready-to-hand’ does not involve consciousness in any rational sense, which may even hamper its use. It is a deeper engagement with the project.


In a typically Hedeggerian analysis, there is far more to technology than any instrumental theory. Technology marks this era, as the last in metaphysical thinking, with technology replacing previous systems of belief. There is an ‘enframing’ with technology put into a ‘standing reserve’, in advance of consumption. In that respect it is similar to the Nietzschean analysis of the world having cleaved into the lived world and something metaphysically separate. He sees technology, as a system, like a metaphysical system, that distorts our thinking and actions. However, he avoids any trite dismissal or negativity around technology, as it is also a prelude to thinking more authentically.


Heidegger (along with Nietzsche) are two huge existentialist influences on post-structuralists such as Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard. Derrida, in particular, rejects but builds on Heidegger for his deconstructive approach to texts. That is not to say that the influence was entirely fruitful. Hedegger’s rejection of the language of Western philosophy - the subject, object, act and content - for the language of being (Sein) which is prior to the oppositional systems of appearance and reality, also led to the fragmentation, invention and playfulness with language that took these theorists,  not only further away from philosophy but also any semblance of relevance or usefulness for teachers and learners. The dissolution of human nature in favour of just being-in-the world or feelings has led to de-anchoring that leaves many stranded in personal resentment.


Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E., 1962. Being and time.

Blake, N., Smeyers, P., Smith, R.D. and Standish, P. eds., 2008. The Blackwell guide to the philosophy of education (Vol. 6). John Wiley & Sons.

Heidegger, M. and Krell, D.F., 1980. Basic writings–nine key essays, plus the introduction to being and time. Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie, 42(1).

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