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Enacting education


Education can transform our cognitive world. Recent use of enactivist and enactivist-friendly work to propose understanding transformational learning in terms of affective reframing is a promising first step to understanding how we can have or inculcate transformational learning in different ways without relying on meta-cognition. Building on this work, I argue that to fully capture the kind of perspectival changes that occur in transformational learning we need to further distinguish between ways of reorienting one’s perspective, and I specify why different ways are differently valuable. I propose that recent approaches to Confucian ritual provide a clue to what is missing in characterisations of perspective transformation and the resultant transformed perspective. I argue that focussing on ritualised interpersonal interactions (as-iffing-the-other) provides a further clue as to what’s missing from a mere appeal to the ritual-based inculcation of new perspectives, namely the kind of lightness and flexibility that some ritualised interactions encourage participants to have, and the deepening of perspective associated with that lightness. I argue that a case study of a project implementing a highly ritualised philosophical practice with prisoners in Scotland shows how these constraints, seemingly paradoxically, function so as to actually deepen the perspectival spaces of those agents. This case study provides a proof of concept for the proposal that certain forms of ritual engagement can reliably bring about the kind of transformation of perspective that is the target phenomenon of transformative learning theory.

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  1. 1.

    Claire Cassidy and Gavin Heron (Cassidy and Heron 2018; Heron and Cassidy 2018) have likewise argued that the young people in secure accommodation that they have been using the CoPI practice with in the Strathclyde projects respond extremely positively to the structure that CoPI imposes, although their analysis focusses on collaborative engagement and behavioural self-regulation.

  2. 2.

    To what extent some or all of the intellectual virtues might map on to the kinds of transformation discussed in the transformational learning literature is an interesting question that is worth exploring. I won’t do that here as the main purpose of this paper is to be engaging with transformational learning theory on its own terms and using its concepts to help us understand what transformational learning might consist in.

  3. 3.

    For more on the Edinburgh projects see also Bovill and Anderson (2020). Changing the Subject: A Community of Philosophical Inquiry in Prisons.

  4. 4.

    In this respect there is a clear convergence with the concept of “implicit bias” (or perhaps more accurately here “implicit cognitions”), though see Holroyd and Sweetman (forthcoming) for considerations about what is, and should be, captured by the term ‘implicit bias’.

  5. 5.

    The term “enlarging” or “enlargening” in respect to the perspective that is transformed when “transformative learning” has occurred comes from the Transformative Learning literature. Though, as I will discuss below, I think that this term does not adequately capture the phenomenon of interest, or distinguish it appropriately from the perspectival effects of the other kinds of learning. I will therefore later rename this effect, which I take to be the target phenomenon of transformative learning theory as “perspective deepening”.

  6. 6.

    If children within a mono-culture are led to question basic assumptions about the world, this is perhaps prompted by their reading literature, engagement in philosophy classes, or in psychotherapy rather than in their day-to-day school and family experience. Such questioning is seldom encouraged (apart from by those inclined towards literature, philosophy, and psychology) and is not a goal of most education. Indeed, the very questioning of these basic assumptions itself can even land the child in psychotherapy or counselling (either secular or religious) if the questioning leads them to overtly contradict the tenets of the frames of reference that the adults around them in power have.

  7. 7.

    My notion of “perspective holding” here, and the dynamicism of the perspective space outlined below are strongly influenced by my reading of discussions in Chinese Philosophy of perspective transformation and the “course-axis” (Ziporyn n.d.) and second-order observation and genuine pretending (Moeller 2017; Moeller and D’Ambrosio 2017).

  8. 8.

    Given how I have unpacked this here, it can also be seen to trigger subsequent perspective transformations but I do not make the claim that it is the only way of bringing about the kind perspective transformations that are the target phenomenon of transformational learning theory. It is, I believe, an open question as to what other means might trigger these.

  9. 9.

    Note however that this understanding of Confucianism contrasts with the more orthodox Role-Ethics interpretation (see e.g., Rosemont and Ames 2016).

  10. 10.

    Whilst seemingly paradoxical, this idea of constraints as enabling new possibilities for thought and action is supported by theories of sociocultural constraints on affordance spaces (see Bruineberg et al. 2018).

  11. 11.

    It is of course okay if the as-if-ness temporarily breaks down so long as the chair helps guide it quickly back. Indeed it might even be helpful as it is often the cause of a lot of laughter as the self-consciousness of the as-iffing may come to a peak and the tension can be dissolved.


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Versions of this paper were presented at: Enactivism: Theory and Performance, University of Memphis, March 2018; Synthesising Pragmatism, Education and Cognitive Science, University of Edinburgh, July 2018; Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture Series, University of Exeter, April 2019; and the John Sutton Workshop, University of Edinburgh July 2019. I received much helpful feedback and stimulation of thought from the questions and discussion at (and after) each of these events for which I thank the audiences and organisers. I am very grateful to Dave Ward for conversations on the topic, encouragement, and detailed feedback on earlier versions of the paper. I am also very greatful to the anonymous reviewers for this journal for their helpful detailed feedback and suggestions, responding to which has undoubtedly improved the paper.

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Stapleton, M. Enacting education. Phenom Cogn Sci (2020).

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  • Transformational learning
  • Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CoPI)
  • Perspective-enlargening
  • Perspective-deepening
  • Ritualing
  • As-iffing
  • As-iffing-the-other