Philosophy of Education

Nicholas C. Burbules

Department of Educational Policy Studies

University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign


Routledge International Companion to Education, Bob Moon, Miriam Ben-Peretz, and Sally Brown, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 3-18.


Asking the Question: What is Philosophy of Education?

An encyclopedia entry for a topic such as "philosophy of education" might be expected to begin with a simple definition of the subject, followed by a delineation of its major branches of thought. Several writers have undertaken such a project in recent years (Chambliss 1996; Ericson 1992; Noddings 1995; Phillips 1994; Senchuk 1995; Smeyers 1994; Smeyers and Marshall 1995). In reading these accounts, one finds that a central theme is the essentially contested status of what philosophy of education is (a point illustrated, much earlier on, in the collection What is Philosophy of Education?, edited by Christopher Lucas in 1969). Indeed, proposing and arguing for competing conceptions of the field has been one of the reliable cottage industries for its scholars and an arena of debate over criteria for participation in the professional organizations, academic departments, and journals that take on the label (Burbules 1991; Giarelli and Chambliss 1991). The most striking characteristic of "philosophy of education," then, has been that from the very first uses of the term the negotiation of what the field itself is has been one of its primary objects of preoccupation (see especially Maloney 1985). Such debates have had a principled philosophical dimension, but have also had specific consequences for the inclusion and exclusion of potential participants.

For this reason, any new attempt to stipulate a definition of "philosophy of education" – even one that attempts to be even-handed and comprehensive – is itself implicated within such contests of boundary maintenance. Encyclopedia entries tend to encourage such disputes, as in the competing entries on "Phenomenology" written by Husserl, and then Heidegger, for successive editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, through which they expressed their struggle over the meaning of that philosophy. Thus a very different way of sketching the meaning and scope of a field might be to recount its contests of boundary maintenance, highlighting them as such and not merely as philosophical disputes. Such debates in philosophy of education, which are ongoing to this day, have become a perennial feature of professional meetings, hiring decisions, and so forth – the institutionalized conditions of practice that give shape to a discipline, and an important reference point for speculations about where philosophy of education might be headed in the future.

An ironically inclined reader will be amused, I suspect, that only a philosopher would be so chronically self-questioning and obstinate as to resist even the simple question of what his field of study is. Yet, perhaps, at the level of enactment this is an explanation – or demonstration – of what the field is and of what philosophers of education try to do. Rather than taking the task of offering a definition for granted, one might question the possibility of defining the discipline and explore the implications of offering a definition when the consequence of doing so is to rule in or out work that different groups may believe is philosophically worthwhile. For a reader wanting a more literal definition, and not a performative one, I would recommend any of the excellent overviews of the field cited above.

The first difficulty in tracing the development of the term "philosophy of education" is that throughout most of Western thought what might be regarded broadly as philosophical reflections on education were never regarded as constituting a distinct discipline or branch of philosophy. On the one hand, for most of the great writers in the philosophy of education pantheon (such as Plato, Aristotle, or Rousseau) such reflections were continuous with their accounts of epistemology, ethics, politics, or human nature. It would never have occurred to them that a philosophy of education could be developed that was not, at heart, an elaboration of such "purely" philosophical themes. (Though in some cases the ruminations of philosophers on education has had little or nothing to do with their actual philosophical positions and has merely expressed their own predilections.)

At the same time, and from what might be termed the opposite direction of the theory-practice dialectic, what today is called "philosophy of education" has also long been regarded as continuous with the serious reflections of practicing educators, curriculum theorists, and educational policymakers. Having a "philosophy of education," in this sense of the term, is simply a phrase for the process in which educational practitioners or reformers develop thoughtful, and to varying degrees systematic or coherent, justifications for their educational practices and commitments (something with which, not surprisingly, few academic philosophers have had very much experience or direct concern).

Hence, while in the contemporary context a central tension within philosophy of education has been between its philosophical, disciplinary aspirations and its relevance to educational policy and practice, at earlier points in its development this dichotomy would not have been recognized, either from the perspective of the philosopher or from the perspective of the educationist.

These continuities are particularly striking when viewed in an international context, where philosophy of education has been a less professionalized and institutionalized endeavor (Phillips 1994) and where, as a consequence, it has been less isolated from other educational concerns. In European thought, for example, education has consistently been considered in a broader context apart from schooling, and so a "philosophy of education" has usually been regarded as continuous with concerns about childrearing generally (Smeyers 1994; Smeyers and Marshall 1995). In many non-European traditions, issues of intellectual development are frequently not regarded as separate from matters of spiritual, moral, or cultural development. Here, something that could be termed a "philosophy of education" would need to be also a philosophy of faith or duty to some larger source of identity and identification.

The repeated use of quotation marks here is therefore necessary because in fact the phrase "philosophy of education" rarely comes up in such contexts: in many European contexts, for example, the phrase "pedagogical science" or "theory" encompasses many of the same activities that philosophers of education take as their domain. This is revealing, first, in helping to introduce the question of what the very name "philosophy of education" assumes about the nature of philosophy and its relation to educational concerns and, second, in leading us to ask where the phrase does come from, and why it has gained the meanings, particularly in English-speaking contexts, that it has.

This becomes a particularly delicate, even intractable, problem when attempting to offer an institutionalized perspective on a field, as in this article. In both contexts across nations and contexts across disciplines of practice, many people are involved in teaching and writing about issues that could be called, in the broadest sense, "philosophies of education" (rather like "philosophies of life," one might say). Yet only a portion of these are identified with the organizations, graduate programs, and journals that use this particular label and hence authorize what counts as official knowledge in this field. Should a proposed account of philosophy of education be drawn broadly enough to encompass all activities that might be identified as such, or narrowly in terms of a label that has professional and institutional authorization? I have settled for the more narrow, institutionalized account, largely because it is a story that deserves to be considered for its own sake, but also because documentation is more easily available to substantiate it. As a result, I am dealing with philosophy of education within the context of a particular history of concepts and debates, which is a subset of all the possible activities that might be classified as part of it. Others would certainly offer a different criterion of demarcation.

Creating a Discipline: The Formation of Philosophy of Education

The origins of philosophy of education as a distinct discipline arrived with the 19th century in English-speaking countries, most notably the United States (Chambliss 1996). First of all, they accompanied the spread of an Enlightenment faith in the reasoned formulation of public policy, the attempt to ground policy on a systematic, consistent foundation of purposes and justifications. At the same time, they accompanied a growing institutionalization and professionalization of the teaching endeavor itself, especially as it was expressed in the ideals of public education and the common school. In this context, a philosophy of education was intimately linked with the argument for a conception of personal betterment and social perfectibility that would serve both to initiate, guide, and inspire practitioners, and to justify this set of aims to a broader public that was being asked to support and fund educational programs on an unprecedented scale. While still not described by the name "philosophy of education," such formulations of purpose and justification can be seen as the first explicit attempts to develop a reasoned, general account of the meaning and aims of education. And what is most significant about this development is the assumption, difficult for us to recognize today as it has become so widely accepted, that it is either possible or desirable to provide such a general account.

Soon, having a philosophy of education was seen as an indispensable dimension of competent, responsible practice in education. Such a belief was centrally established on the educational agenda by the life’s work of John Dewey. No one before him had so persistently argued for the need for educational practice to be grounded in sound philosophical principles (and, of equal importance to him, but often neglected by commentators, the corresponding need for philosophical reflection to be informed by educational practice). Certainly no philosopher writing about education has ever, before or since, been so prolific (over 40 books and 800 articles: Phillips 1985). Dewey, through his voluminous publications and his many talks and articles as a public intellectual, had a singular effect on the theory and practice of education. His approach, broadly termed "Progressive education," but often conflated with the wider movement of Progressivism in the U.S. after the turn of the century, emphasized the independent motivations of the learner, the need for schools to be small-scale laboratories for experiments in democratic social reform, and the basis of authentic learning in inquiry and experience. Yet the lasting legacy of Dewey must be traced, not only in terms of the shifting fortunes of Progressivism as an educational philosophy (about which even Dewey voiced skepticism as it took various shapes in U.S. schools), but in the establishment of the idea that practitioners must have an educational philosophy, and the relentless promotion of a particular one as the potential basis of all educational thought and practice.

It is during this period that we see the first codified account of the phrase "philosophy of education" in Paul Monroe’s Cyclopedia of Education in 1911-13 (Chambliss 1996). We see the beginnings of the argument for requiring courses in the preparation of educators that seek to promote the systematic, grounded formulation and justification of educational aims. And we see, significantly, the first professional organization dedicated to philosophical reflection on education, the John Dewey Society (JDS), in 1935.

The emergence of professional organizations is crucial for a variety of reasons. As these took shape across a range of academic disciplines in the U.S. just after the turn of the century, they were not simply the institutionalized embodiment of fields of intellectual practice, nor simply convocations of like-minded scholars seeking an opportunity to share their ideas. They had consistent effects in reshaping the fields they represented (Furner 1975; Haskell 1977). As we will see, this is strikingly true in the case of philosophy of education. For this reason, it is not an exaggeration to consider "the possibility that the origins of educational philosophy were better attached to the organizations of its embodiment than to their annotated bibliographies" (Kaminsky 1993, vii). This claim becomes even more plausible when one considers the shifting fortunes of the publications sponsored by these organizations – the publications that, by accepting and rejecting certain articles, determine what can be included on "annotated bibliographies" (see Kaminsky 1993, 1996; Nelson 1996; Smeyers and Marshall 1995).

In the case of the John Dewey Society, as with other professional organizations in the social sciences and humanities, debates often centered around the degree and forms of social activism and advocacy that were appropriate to a professional organization, as such. Inspired by Dewey’s own role as a public intellectual and his involvement across a range of political issues throughout his career, the members of JDS saw a close connection between their teaching, writing, and social commitments. Yet within this shared understanding, there were strong disagreements over the substance of political issues and over the kinds of activism that were appropriate. Many of these debates revolved around the journal The Social Frontier, which, under the editorship of George S. Counts, expressed positions that rested uneasily with many members of JDS and, indeed, with Dewey himself (see Kaminsky 1993, 1996; Giarelli and Chambliss 1991).

Over time, these concerns were manifested in the formation of a new, separate organization, the Philosophy of Education Society (PES), in 1941. In many respects, this event marks a crucial turn in the development of philosophy of education as a discipline (indeed, of its aspiration to regard itself as a distinct discipline). R. Bruce Raup and the other founders of PES were quite explicit about defining their organization, in contrast with JDS, as a professional society and not an advocacy group (Burbules 1991; Giarelli and Chambliss 1991; Kaminsky 1993, 1996). This insistence took the form of, first, beginning with a self-selected charter membership of 34 persons who explicitly distanced themselves from the policies and views of JDS; second, establishing strict criteria of membership, and levels of membership, that would insure that "professional" philosophers of education would always constitute a voting majority of the organization; and, third, proclaiming that philosophical method was the disciplinary core that provided the field with its substance and credibility. It is important to see the fundamental interdependence of these three choices: of excluding activism and partisanship, of establishing strict "professional" criteria of membership, and of proclaiming a disciplinary method as the principle uniting PES’s members. Choices about intellectual method or the scope of a discipline need to be seen, in this context, as implicated in decisions about the inclusion and exclusion of people and their points of view. Soon after this, in 1954, a select PES committee sought to formalize philosophy of education as a discrete discipline, based on suitable philosophical methods (Maloney 1985).

The formation of PES was followed, in Great Britain, by the formation of a similar society, the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (1966), which was seen as heralding a "revolution in philosophy of education," involving a "greater consciousness of and involvement with the methods and results of philosophy as an academic discipline" (Dearden 1982, 60). Partly because of the dominance of the influence of R.S. Peters and P.H. Hirst, and their analytic conception of philosophy of education, Kaminsky (1993, 191) calls PESGB during this period a "profoundly conservative" organization, characterized by a narrow preoccupation with that analytic approach to philosophical method. The force of this hegemony was so strong that a commentator such as Dearden (1982, 66-67) could say, with no sense of self-contradiction, that "I do not myself think that philosophy of education stands in need of a single paradigm," then follow this by saying that whatever it is, philosophy of education must be concerned with "general concepts, principles, positions and practices"; that it should make "necessary distinctions to clarify meaning," should "explore conceptual possibilities," "identify what is necessary and what is contingent," "expose question-begging...and inconsistency," "draw implications," "reveal absurd consequences," "test assumptions," "probe the validity of justifications," and so forth – all activities which, whatever their merit, clearly express the orientations of a particular conception of philosophical method.

The prominence of R.S. Peters in Britain, his influence on contemporaries such as Hirst and Dearden, and his many students who carried forth his reputation and commitment to analytic philosophy make him a pivotal figure in the philosophy of education. His argument that the term "education" itself required analysis, and the results of his investigations – that the term refers to a process of "initiation" into a form of life, and that to call something "educational" is to valorize the means and ends of that process (as opposed to socialization into norms that may be instrumentally beneficial but not of intrinsic value) – defined an agenda of questions, and a method of inquiry, that helped shape the approach of a generation of philosophers of education throughout the English-speaking world.

At the same time, during the 1960s and 70s, the analytic approach gained predominance in the U.S. as well, especially through the influence of Israel Scheffler (although he was never active in PES). Scheffler, even more than Peters, focused on the justifiability of the means and ends of education from an epistemological point of view: Do the activities of teaching support the development of reason, both as a process of learning and as an educational aim itself? Where do relativism and activism in education threaten this ideal of rationality? How can the analysis of educational language detect the effects of slogans and ideologies of belief? In many respects, the faith in analytic methods in philosophy of education was stronger and more absolute in the U.S. than in Britain.

Hence, although it is often assumed that the influence of the analytic school ran from the British side of the Atlantic toward the U.S., a good argument can be made that the main influences actually ran in the other direction (Beck 1991). Either way, in both contexts analytic work in philosophy came to dominate the articles found in the respective journals sponsored by PES and PESGB. Educational Theory, originally established by JDS in 1951 but soon co-sponsored by PES as well, came to represent what Kaminsky (1993, 72) calls a "thoroughly professional version" of philosophy of education. The Proceedings of the PES meetings during these years show a similar convergence around specific issues and styles of philosophical argumentation. (In 1995, the Proceedings became the edited yearbook of PES, Philosophy of Education 19xx. For PESGB, their Proceedings were retitled the Journal of Philosophy of Education in 1978, and opened to general submissions as well as selected conference papers.) At the height of this analytic period, as Kaminsky (1993, 89) tells it, "At the 1971 meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society, [Jonas] Soltis declared that ‘we are all analytical philosophers,’ and no one laughed."

In yet another English-speaking context, Australia and New Zealand, the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (PESA) was formed in 1970. Educational Philosophy and Theory, which was to become its sponsored journal, actually preceded the formation of PESA by one year. While the influence of analytic work was felt strongly in these countries as well (and one might argue – see Beck 1991 – that the influential work of C.D. Hardie brought analytic method to philosophy of education there long before its influence was much realized in either the U.S. or Great Britain), in both Australia and New Zealand there was from the very beginning a more skeptical attitude toward the dominance of analytic philosophy (expressed most directly, perhaps, in the work of Kevin Harris, Michael Matthews, and Jim Walker) and, during the 70s, a much wider acceptance of Left scholarship as legitimate terrain for philosophers of education, although this perspective was also seen increasingly in work presented at PES (which came to see itself increasingly as an international organization, comprising not only scholars from the United States and Canada, but from around the world) and at PESGB.

Disciplining the Discipline: The Methods of Philosophy of Education

This account reveals a particular consequence of the professionalization of philosophy of education, as it was expressed in the aspiration to ground itself on philosophical method. It meant, during the period being described here, a desire to establish standards of rigor and tough-mindedness that could help this emergent field attain academic credibility. The methods of philosophical analysis were ideally suited to a stance of clear-eyed skepticism in the face of educational claptrap; of reasoned, balanced objectivity in the face of highly contested educational disputes; and of providing a helpful, elucidative service that colleagues in education – whether in pedagogy, policy, or research – could find amenable to their concerns. Without neglecting the philosophical arguments that were posed in favor of analytic method, to which I will turn in a moment, there can be little doubt that these stances also suited the professional self-interest of a discipline seeking academic credibility as philosophically rigorous, in part through stronger affiliations with professional associations in philosophy (Macmillan 1991). They also reinforced a position of nonpartisanship in the constantly shifting arena of competing educational fads and trends.

Analytic philosophy of education made substantial contributions in elucidating such concepts as "authority," "indoctrination," and even the terms "teaching" and "education" themselves. This method specialized in offering fine-grained distinctions and typologies; diagnosing hidden equivocations or blurriness in the ordinary concepts found within educational slogans or clichés; and criticizing faulty logic or misleading uses of statistics or other evidence. In many cases, educators found such analyses salutary and helpful: this was philosophy in the service of plain speaking and no nonsense.

This analytic movement within philosophy of education followed (though lagging by several years) developments within Anglo-American philosophy: notably the movement of logical positivism (especially the work of A.J. Ayer) and various forms of linguistic philosophy (especially the work of Gilbert Ryle). But the arguments raised in favor of analytic methods had the widespread appeal that they did within philosophy of education, in large part, because of their congruence with other imperatives within the field as an increasingly professionalized discipline.

First, as Maloney points out, there is a certain ambivalence that has often accompanied philosophy of education: on the one hand seeking credibility in relation to the traditions of philosophy; on the other seeking legitimacy within the often-utilitarian climate of schools of education. This tension tends to pull philosophy of education in competing, incompatible directions and helps to account for what she calls (1985, 252) the relentless need to explain and justify the discipline – hence the perennial business of negotiating and renegotiating just what philosophy of education is. Analytic method seemed to hold promise as the indisputably philosophical core that would uncontroversially link the discourses of philosophy of education with mainstream philosophy. At the same time, its appeal to clarity and logic meant that philosophers of education would not have to endure the accusations of abstraction, obscurantism, and irrelevance they often heard within schools of education – here, finally, was something useful that philosophers could offer policymakers and practitioners.

Second, the rise of analytic method clearly severed the chains joining philosophy of education, especially in the U.S., to the ghost of Dewey. While the polymorphous Dewey continued, and continues, to be read and reread in light of shifting philosophical trends (so that topics such as "Dewey and Marxism," "Dewey and Karl Popper," "Dewey and Feminism," "Dewey and Foucault," and so on, remain a hardy staple of scholarship in the field), the analytic period established the independence of philosophy of education (and, in the U.S. and Canada, the Philosophy of Education Society) from Progressivism (and the John Dewey Society). Once again, there were both professional and philosophical reasons for this split.

Third, the analytic movement in philosophy of education took a particular shape in opposition to the movement that had preceded it, the so-called "isms" approach: the recounting of traditional philosophical positions (Realism, Idealism, Pragmatism) – with varying degrees of philosophical depth and accuracy – then tracing their "implications" for education. One of the central tenets of the analytic school, repeated often, was that there were no direct implications of substantive philosophical positions for education: that a person may believe in Realism, for instance, but still favor any of a variety of educational aims and practices (Chambliss 1996; Phillips 1994). The attempt to provide encapsulated summaries of complex, difficult philosophical positions, and then to read off from them neat implications for practice, was regarded as being philosophically sloppy, first of all, and as overpromising what philosophy could provide to education. This debate and transition away from the "isms" approach can be traced across a series of NSSE (National Society for the Study of Education) Yearbooks devoted to philosophy of education, published in 1942, 1955, 1972, and 1981. Yet, not incidentally, this rejection of the "isms" approach and the attendant view that philosophies had implications for education also put at one more remove the concerns of professional philosophy of education from those of practitioners. No longer would a required course for teachers, for example, promise to help students acquire or formulate their own "philosophy of education" – instead, these courses promised to help them "think philosophically" about their educational aims and practices, whatever they were. This transition to a philosophically grounded discipline reached its apotheosis in the subtitle of the 1981 NSSE Yearbook: "Philosophy and Education" (emphasis added). Similarly, the journal Studies in Philosophy and Education, which ran from 1960-1976, then lay dormant until 1989, was acquired by a commercial publisher and resuscitated as a journal with an emphasis on "clarity and excellence in philosophical argumentation" as its chief editorial criteria (Nelson 1996, 474).

Challenging the Discipline: New Perspectives in Philosophy of Education

Yet this evolution had other, less intended, consequences. Over time, the desire to seek a grounding for philosophy of education in philosophy meant that more and more scholars, including students studying for graduate degrees in the field, went into philosophy departments or the relevant aisles in libraries and bookstores and started reading (or, in some cases, returning again to) work in existentialism, phenomenology, and other "Continental" philosophies. It meant that many philosophers of education read or re-read primary sources in philosophy (from the pre-Socratics to Nietzsche, Heidegger, de Beauvoir, or Wittgenstein) and looked increasingly outside Anglo-American philosophy to more international sources. They also turned to texts on the margins of what had been counted as "philosophy" before: critical theory, feminism, and those (such as Foucault) who would later be termed "postmodern" writers. Their scholarship made substantial contributions to understanding such topics as power and inequality in education, and the critique of cultural intolerance in both the tacit and the "hidden" curricula. In many ways returning to the older vision of philosophy of education as necessarily implicated in issues of politics, critique, and reform, these philosophers eschewed the methods of analysis but, even more profoundly, rejected its vision of philosophy of education as an exercise in rational or objective reconnaissance.

Hence, no sooner did it happen that Jonas Soltis offered his widely accepted characterization of philosophy of education in 1971 than, within a year, essays were already appearing with titles like "Analytic philosophy of education at the crossroads" (Edel 1972). Criticisms of analytic philosophy, some though not all from critical theory or feminist points of view, gained wider credibility during this decade. These criticisms included, chiefly, the question of whose concepts were being taken for granted; the criticism that the methods of analysis, ostensibly neutral and objective, in fact imported substantive value commitments; the argument that the view of language undergirding this method was culturally bounded and ahistorical; and the complaint that its focus on "merely verbal" concerns often made its results trivial and irrelevant (Barrow 1994; Ericson 1992; Phillips 1985, 1994. See also Maloney 1985, 245-250 and Noddings 1995, 41-57).

Even such sympathetic commentators as Barrow, Ericson, and Phillips give some weight to these criticisms, though they differ in their assessments of analytic philosophy of education today. For Barrow (1994, 4444), these criticisms are mostly "irrelevant" and the "objections can be met." For Phillips (1994, 4454), on the other hand, "antisepsis triumphed" as "analytic philosophy became more technical and more inward looking, directed at issues of interest to other philosophers of education to the neglect of issues of relevance to a broad range of educationists." For Ericson (1994), the criticisms held weight, but a "second generation" of analytic philosophy of education still survived. This second generation of analytic philosophers, including many of these selfsame authors (as well as Robert Ennis and Harvey Siegel) made substantial contributions to understanding issues of critical thinking, the forms of knowledge, and philosophical problems in educational research, for example. What is unmistakable, however, is that by the end of the decade of the 70s, no one could say any longer "we are all analytical philosophers of education."

The philosophical work in education from critical theory or neo-Marxist, feminist, and postmodern perspectives, beginning during this period and expanding to the present day, brought not only a shift in philosophical perspectives and methods, but a more explicitly political commitment. The tone of speakers and writers changed. Issues of class, gender, race, and other dimensions of disadvantagement and exclusion became explicit topics of investigation and focal points of advocacy. As we will see in a moment, these issues were raised, reflexively, as points of critique against the field of philosophy of education itself.

These shifts in philosophical outlook, in turn, shaped and were shaped by the articles published in the professional journals of the field, and in the papers presented at conferences. Such manifestations have a dual relation to the scope and content of a field: representing the work with which people are actually engaged, yet also reflecting back to the field what literatures, topics, and perspectives are of current interest or importance. To the extent that scholars, especially younger scholars, are influenced by what they read and by what they find is publishable, such shifting trends play an active part in encouraging and giving legitimacy to new styles of work. This is a role about which journal editors and conference organizers are usually quite aware, and lends a responsibility to them, and to their reviewers, that goes beyond simply filtering and selecting "the best" from the work that is submitted to them. For at the same time, they are helping to define, either narrowly or broadly, the field that they are representing. The circular process by which a field becomes what it is thought to be, in the minds of its members – and this can either be a highly conservative and static or a highly experimental and fluid intellectual process – is exemplified practically in these activities of peer review and selection (just as they are also exemplified in the courses and degree requirements of graduate programs that prepare students with the imprimatur of the field upon their degrees). For philosophy of education in the post-analytic period, the contents of leading journals and conference publications (such as those sponsored by PES, PESGB, and PESA) became increasingly eclectic, interdisciplinary, and iconoclastic toward traditional conceptions of "the field." That this partly was an indication of a changing state of affairs, and partly a cause of it, was quite apparent to those involved in making such selections.

Something else momentous was happening to philosophy of education during this period, I believe, represented by two related sets of changes. The first concerned the demographics of the field, especially during the 70s and into the 80s, as more and more women entered what had been virtually all-male organizations or, among those women who were already participants, as more shifted their interests away from analytic philosophy or other traditional topics toward women’s status within education (this list must especially include Maxine Greene, Jane Roland Martin, and Nel Noddings). The second was the rise of feminism as a perspective on philosophical and professional issues within philosophy of education (Leach 1991). Feminists pointed out that the questions of who was part of certain philosophical debates, and what philosophical language those debates privileged, were interdependent issues. They argued that the forms of philosophical argumentation, in which rigorous, aggressive debate was assumed to be the best way of testing new propositions, had the effect of narrowing the range of perspectives available for discussion and actively intimidating or silencing those who did not debate their points in that manner. They argued that the methods of analytic philosophy, such as the tendency to isolate conceptual issues from actual contexts, gave an artificiality to philosophical discussions, notably in cases of ethics where, they believed, situated, interpersonal factors needed to be topics of philosophical consideration from the very start (Noddings 1995).

In these and other ways they argued the interdependence of issues of content and issues of representation. Which philosophical issues were being discussed, how they were discussed, and which issues were never discussed directly influenced and were influenced by the fact of who was part of those conversations, and who was not. Initially, this concern spoke directly to the underrepresentation of women in the professional organizations and journals of the field; eventually, such concerns began to be extended to other underrepresented groups as well – including, once again, the question of the relevance of philosophy of education to the concerns, needs, and interests of teachers (most of whom, of course, are female). One concrete manifestation of this shift has been a resurgence of interest in moral education, literature, and more relational views of personhood.

These changes – the increased eclecticism of philosophical sources seen as relevant to philosophy of education, and the increased awareness of the interdependence of issues of content and of representation – are fundamentally transforming the field today. Chambliss summarizes the contemporary scene in this way: "In the last decade of the twentieth century, philosophy of education scarcely resembles a discipline with a distinct purpose and a clearly established agenda. It is more accurately characterized as a field of study defined by the variety of its research and interpretive projects" (1996, 472). What is most interesting about this characterization is the implication that philosophy of education ever was a "discipline with a distinct purpose and a clearly established agenda." As noted, the very idea of "philosophy of education" as a distinct discipline is an artifact of a particular set of philosophical and institutional conditions, ones more typical of certain English-speaking contexts. Beyond this, the idea that this discipline ever had a unified purpose and agenda fits only certain brief periods of its development (notably, during the period of Progressivism and the period of analytic dominance) – yet even these periods were characterized by a good deal of internal friction and resistance to such unifying trends, and were followed by periods of reaction that explicitly challenged the boundaries established to define what truly counted as philosophy of education and what did not (Greene 1991, 1995; Kohli 1995).

Rethinking the Discipline: The Futures of Philosophy of Education

Today, this reflexive awareness of how such philosophical boundaries also have institutional effects, and how these boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, in turn, feed back on which philosophical issues and perspectives are or are not represented within what officially counts as "philosophy of education," has ushered in a new period for the field. What Chambliss characterizes as a diffuse focus, or lack of focus, can be characterized just as accurately as a period of experimentation and expansion in philosophy of education. Consider, for example, Phillips’ alternative characterization: "The situation in the 1990s is complex, and relatively healthy – philosophers are working with a variety of approaches, in a variety of fields, and the discipline is marked by an eclecticism perhaps unrivaled in previous periods" (1994, 4456).

There are paired centripetal and centrifugal forces at work in the field today, matching philosophers of education who prefer to draw the boundaries of the field more narrowly, around a strict disciplinary view of philosophical method (and within this view of philosophy a primary focus on matters of logic, epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of mind), and those drawing the boundaries more broadly, blurring distinctions of philosophy and theory, and emphasizing the interdisciplinary cross-fertilization of philosophy with literary interpretation, political theory, women’s studies, and other fields. These debates, it should be emphasized, arise as much from different views about who is a philosopher of education, who belongs at professional meetings, or who should be published in sponsored journals, as they do from the relative merits of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives on the field. Yet, as Chambliss’ assessment also reveals, if there is no disciplinary core whatsoever, is there anything that does characterize and unify philosophy of education as a field today? I will return to this question in a moment.

A related issue about such boundary-drawing is the effect of the professionalization of philosophy of education upon the involvement of philosophically minded practitioners and their concerns. As noted, from the very beginnings of the Philosophy of Education Society, for example, structures were put in place that would limit the involvement and influence of those without academic credentials in philosophy. While one can say that philosophers of education should continue to focus on issues of educational practice (Feinberg 1995), this position stands in tension with actual policies that discourage the participation of those who hold these concerns closest to heart (Giarelli and Chambliss 1991; Tozer 1991). In the case of PES, for example, this tension is expressed in the uncomfortable, and occasionally alienated, relation between the national organization, which is the most philosophically sophisticated and professionally oriented, and which has the strongest representation in the major sponsored publications of the field, and the ten or so "regional" branches of the Society, many of which have a much higher rate of participation by colleagues in other fields of educational scholarship and practice – many of whom rarely attend, or would even consider attending, the national meeting. Similar interactions undoubtedly arise in other national contexts as well.

As a result of these dynamics, philosophy of education is once again in a period of self-examination about its scope and mission. The lead article in a recent collection of essays chosen to survey the field (Kohli 1995), written by Maxine Greene, is entitled "What counts as philosophy of education?" The responses by Feinberg and Phillips show how far from a consensual answer the field remains today. Yet the title of that collection, Critical Conversations in Philosophy of Education, and its design as a series of constructive engagements around a set of educational concerns, gives a different and, I think, more hopeful characterization of the field. For if disciplinary boundary-drawing is regarded with more suspicion today, and if any prospective philosophical criteria for what counts as "philosophy of education" have come to be scrutinized partly in terms of which voices and perspectives they privilege and which they disadvantage or exclude, then the only alternative demarcations of the field must be more procedural and "boot-strapped." In this sense, philosophy of education today represents those engaged in ongoing conversations, in person or in print, about certain issues, in full awareness of their diversity and eclecticism of method, while retaining a degree of openness about who else might need to be drawn into those conversations. What counts as philosophy of education is simply what these collective processes of deliberation, paper reviewing, and public discourse acknowledge and accept as pertinent to a set of shared concerns. At the same time, these processes tacitly invite or exclude different participants, and even set the standards of what it means to be involved. Hence adopting or changing these processes is a decision with immediate consequences for who is to be involved; and the converse is also the case. The identification of those concerns, the boundaries of the discipline, and the representation of participants in professional societies, graduate programs, and publications, are shifting, interdependent strands of what is the field, each changing in response to the others.

Such a perspective itself raises a new challenge to the field, however, which is how this dynamic of self-examination and redefinition can maintain a sense of continuity; how a discipline that is continually remaking itself can respect the cumulative gains of sustained lines of inquiry, without discarding substantial bodies of scholarship as simply the outmoded musings of philosophical paradigms that have been transcended or surpassed. Will contemporary philosophers of education read earlier academic work with respect and interest, for example? Or will each new generation of philosophers of education become amnesiac about their predecessors? Will the suspicion toward "canonical texts" mean that reading lists and syllabi are continually discarded with each passing fashion? Or will traditions of inquiry in such areas as ethics, democratic theory, what counts as "knowledge," and so forth, continue as sustained conversations among diverse texts and perspectives, to which each is regarded as making a distinct contribution?

Finally, within this decentered characterization of philosophy of education, what trends stand out for the future? Without stipulating what the changing boundaries of the field will look like (a process I have obviously, painstakingly resisted throughout this essay), are there good guesses that can be offered about the future of philosophy of education? One avenue, I have suggested, is to recognize how current topics of interest such as identity, difference, power, a suspicion toward "metanarratives," and so on, have become not only issues for philosophical investigation, but leverage points for reflection and critique within the field of philosophy of education itself.

How difficult and sensitive this process has become can be seen in the dynamics surrounding the reception of Harvey Siegel’s Presidential Address to a joint meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society and the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia in 1995 – an interchange that perfectly crystallized some of the key issues at debate today, and an event that might come to be regarded, with hindsight, as a kind of watershed for the field. At heart an appeal to and argument for "inclusion," Siegel’s account was sharply criticized for assuming as criteria for whom should be included, factors that are in fact exclusionary (some of these comments came from the responses of Bailin 1995 and Morgan 1995; others came from the floor). Yet, of course, all criteria are exclusionary – or else they would not be criteria. For certain philosophers, such as Siegel, the question of standards of philosophical merit, and the matter of their social effects, are entirely separate issues – and a perspective excluded as being nonphilosophical, if it "is" nonphilosophical, need not be of concern to an organization devoted to establishing and maintaining standards of integrity and excellence within the discipline. If prospective participants lack these criteria, the goal should be to find ways to help people acquire them, not to question the criteria. In criticism of this view, it was argued that the persistent effects of such standards, in terms of the exclusion of people, groups, and their perspectives, must be taken into account if a field is not to become increasingly hermetic and self-rationalizing – to say nothing of the possible effects of personal or professional harm upon those persons and groups by excluding them. Where there are important cultural or historical reasons why prospective participants have not acquired the characteristics defined by particular institutions as criteria of participation, one must consider the nature of those criteria as one potential factor.

Hence, as the boundaries of philosophy of education are being stretched and blurred, considerations of their role in including and excluding participation are becoming a topic of explicit, reflexive concern. If all criteria exclude someone, then the question of which exclusions will be found livable, and which ones not, is an element in weighing their relevance and merit. In my view, this is not a matter of abandoning all philosophical criteria, or of focusing solely on the question of inclusion and exclusion, but of becoming more sensitive to the complex interaction between them, and judging each in terms of the other. To the extent that professional organizations, graduate programs, and journals and other publications are the institutional embodiment of the field, their decisions along these lines have profound implications for the intellectual and moral qualities of what the field turns out to be. This is particularly true in assessing the consequences of particular philosophical methods and content for attracting the interest and participation of educators from the arenas of policy, research, or practice.

The time has passed when the demographics of a field can be regarded as irrelevant to its diversity and vitality. Just as women, once and for all, made the question of who was, and who was not, part of disciplinary conversations a matter of professional and philosophical concern, the field of philosophy of education must stand today in awareness of its roots in a particular conception of "philosophy of education" that emerged from predominantly English-speaking countries; and recognize that in certain contexts its participants are still predominantly male, and, where more equally male and female, almost entirely White. The increased globalization of academic work, brought about by relative ease and speed of travel; the growth of international organizations and conferences (such as INPE, the International Network of Philosophers of Education, formed in 1990); the increase in contact among a multicultural group of colleagues; and the widespread use of the Internet as a means of global communication and electronic publication of scholarship, all portend a time when diversity and difference will move centrally onto the agenda of issues of concern to educational philosophers – including, naturally, the question of who is being respected as such. As new partners enter the conversation, further questions of how, where, and under what terms that conversation is occurring will inevitably become objects of philosophical reflection. This shift is already taking place, and provides, I suggest, the best indicator of where the field called "philosophy of education" is headed. What this label will be taken to delimit, and by what criteria, will be the determination of that shifting population, as it has been for many previous generations of participants in the field. The one lasting change may be that the question, "What is philosophy of education?" will never again be asked in the expectation that a single, unified definition is either possible or desirable.


Bailin, Sharon (1995). "Inclusion and epistemology: The price is right," in Alven Neiman, ed., Philosophy of Education 1995 (Champaign, IL: Philosophy of Education Society), 23-26.

Barrow, Robin (1994). "Philosophy of education: Analytic tradition," in T. Husen and T. Neville Postlethwaite, eds., The International Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd edition (Oxford: Pergamon Press) 4442-4447.

Beck, Clive (1991). "North American, British, and Australian philosophy of education from 1941-1991: Links, trends, prospects," in Educational Theory, Vol. 41 No. 3, 257-263.

Burbules, Nicholas C. (1991). "Continuity and diversity in philosophy of education," in Educational Theory, Vol. 41 No. 3, 257-263.

Chambliss, J.J. (1996). "History of philosophy of education," in J.J. Chambliss, ed., Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing), 461-472.

Dearden, R.F. (1982). "Philosophy of education, 1952-82," in British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 30 No. 1, 57-71.

Edel, Abraham (1972). "Analytic philosophy of education at the cross-roads," in Educational Theory, Vol. 22 No. 2, 131-152.

Ericson, David (1992). "Philosophical issues in education," in Marvin Alkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Educational Research (New York: Macmillan), 1002-1007.

Feinberg, Walter (1995). "The discourse of philosophy of education," in Wendy Kohli, ed., Critical Conversations in Philosophy of Education (New York: Routledge), 24-33.

Furner, Mary (1975). Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1965-1905 (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press).

Giarelli, James M. and Chambliss, J.J. (1991). "The foundations of professionalism: Fifty years of the Philosophy of Education Society in retrospect," in Educational Theory, Vol. 41 No. 3, 265-274.

Greene, Maxine (1991). "A response to Beck, Giarelli/Chambliss, Leach, Tozer, and Macmillan," in Educational Theory, Vol. 41 No. 3, 257-263.

Greene, Maxine (1995). "What counts as philosophy of education?," in Wendy Kohli, ed., Critical Conversations in Philosophy of Education (New York: Routledge), 3-23.

Haskell, Thomas (1977). The Emergence of Professional Social Science (Urbana: University of Illinois Press).

Henry, Nelson B. (1942). Philosophies of Education: 41st Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Pt. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Henry, Nelson B. (1955). Modern Philosophies of Education: 54th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Pt. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Kaminsky, James S. (1993). A New History of Educational Philosophy (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press).

Kaminsky, James S. (1996). "Professional organizations in philosophy of education," in J.J. Chambliss, ed., Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing), 475-481.

Kohli, Wendy (1995). "Contextualizing the conversation," in Wendy Kohli, ed., Critical Conversations in Philosophy of Education (New York: Routledge), xiii-xvi.

Leach, Mary S. (1991). "Mothers of in(ter)vention: Women’s writing in philosophy of education," in Educational Theory, Vol. 41 No. 3, 287-300.

Lucas, Christopher J. (1969). What is Philosophy of Education? (New York: Macmillan).

Macmillan, C.J.B. (1991). "PES and the APA – An impressionistic history," in Educational Theory, Vol. 41 No. 3, 275-286.

Maloney, Karen E. (1985). "Philosophy of education: Definitions of the field, 1942-1982," in Educational Studies, Vol. 16 No. 3, 235-258.

Morgan, Kathryn (1995). "We’ve come to see the Wizard: Revelations of the Enlightenment epistemologist," in Alven Neiman, ed., Philosophy of Education 1995 (Champaign, IL: Philosophy of Education Society), 27-35.

Nelson, Thomas W. (1996). "Literature in philosophy of education," in J.J. Chambliss, ed., Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing), 472-475.

Noddings, Nel (1995). Philosophy of Education (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press).

Phillips, D.C. (1985). "Philosophy of education," in T. Husen and T. Neville Postlethwaite, eds., The International Encyclopedia of Education (Oxford: Pergamon Press) 3859-3877.

Phillips, D.C. (1994). "Philosophy of education: Historical overview," in T. Husen and T. Neville Postlethwaite, eds., The International Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd edition (Oxford: Pergamon Press) 4447-4456.

Phillips, D.C. (1995). "Counting down to the millennium," in Wendy Kohli, ed., Critical Conversations in Philosophy of Education (New York: Routledge), 34-42.

Siegel, Harvey (1995). "What price inclusion?" in Alven Neiman, ed., Philosophy of Education 1995 (Champaign, IL: Philosophy of Education Society), 1-22.

Senchuk, Dennis M. (1995) "Philosophy of education," in Robert Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press), 583-584.

Smeyers, Paul (1994). "Philosophy of education: Western European perspectives," in T. Husen and T. Neville Postlethwaite, eds., The International Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd edition (Oxford: Pergamon Press), 4456-4461.

Smeyers, Paul and Marshall, James D. (1995). "The Wittgensteinian frame of reference and philosophy of education at the end of the Twentieth century," in Paul Smeyers and James D. Marshall, eds., Philosophy and Education: Accepting Wittgenstein’s Challenge (Boston: Kluwer), 3-35.

Soltis, Jonas (1981). Philosophy and Education: 80th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Pt. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Thomas, Lawrence G. (1972). Philosophical Redirection of Educational Research: 71st Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Pt. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Tozer, Steven (1991). "PES and school reform," in Educational Theory, Vol. 41 No. 3, 301-310.



This essay benefited from the good counsel and informed criticisms of many readers, including Joyce Atkinson, Miriam Ben Peretz, Walter Feinberg, James Giarelli, James Kaminsky, Mary Leach, Ralph Page, Harvey Siegel, Paul Smeyers, and John White.