Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education

  • Ines LangemeyerEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-532-7_671-1


In the modern Western state, the education of adults can be described as a field of non-compulsory education which consists of a variety of practices ranging from trainings of further and continuing education, lectures, and talks to webinars, courses, and university study programs. Institutionalized and informal shapes of adult education change historically depending on training providers, labor market requirements, political schemes, and sociocultural aspects such as shifts in the way of life. It is often organized by institutions of the civil society. Some are private companies, some nonprofit associations, and bodies of the church, and some are closely connected to unions, etc. Thus, civil engagements together with economic enterprises and welfare schemes bring about a great variety of educational opportunities and forms. Consequently, the historical volatility of forms of adult education does not exist independently from the development of Western societies and their welfare state and thus not without relevance to philosophical reflections. A philosophical foundation of adult education can neither take this volatility for granted (as its essence) nor abstract from it entirely. It would either get lost in countless surface phenomena or tend to metaphysics by losing the grounds for thinking about concrete experiences in this field. The subsequent foundational reflections aim at identifying particular needs for education in adulthood from a societal as well as from an individual perspective. They simultaneously scrutinize the specific tensions revolving around the societal relations individuals take responsibility for.

Adult Education in Bourgeois Society

Philosophical foundations require a historical-critical perspective on their subject matter. With regard to adult education, this perspective particularly concerns the societal status and on how the stage of adulthood is conceived. Being an adult implies being both a private person and a citizen of the modern Western state; and each status is linked to rights and obligations according to the constitution and the inner organization of Western societies. The status refers in many ways to the distinction of adults and children which emerged in the transition to modern civilization (Ariès 1965) and became manifest in the late nineteenth and especially in twentieth century as a powerful division within the bourgeois society. Thus, the modern society renders several needs of children into standards and rights of a protected childhood. Acknowledging children’s limited responsibility conversely implies that adulthood is considered to exceed these limits. Therefore, bourgeois society reserves a number of rights for participation, creates opportunities to education as a (more or less) public good, and defines them (often up to the age of becoming adolescent and adult) as compulsory education (around 1920 in Europe), whereas non-compulsory education is available mostly for grown-ups. Accordingly, adulthood is interpreted against the backdrop of the concept of “maturity” as the completion of child development. Growing up means becoming legally responsible, competent, and also employable depending on qualifications.

Within the transition from school to the world of work, education however turns, as if by an invisible hand, from a public into a private good and from a lived experience to a certificate or a degree, providing more or less useful opportunities for the adult to acquire jobs and positions according to the labor market and to pursue certain careers. Becoming an adult with respect to employment means to individually obtain the formal freedom to sign contracts and thus to be able to sell one’s own labor power. At the same time, the status of being free of the means of production turns into a constraint. Karl Marx (1976) termed it “double freedom” which indicates the precarious position of those without capitalizable possessions being condemned to wage labor.

It is roughly this historical constellation of developments that needs to be taken into account when “lifelong learning” emerged in the twentieth century. The political creed to correspond to labor market changes in flexible and individualized ways suggests that challenges of a transient industrialized world could no longer be met without continuing education. Political guidelines and restructurings of the educational sector in the late twentieth and the early twenty-first century thus bear the signature of expectations with regard to this emerging and expanding economy. Its principle to continue learning over the entire lifespan corresponds with the aim of ensuring a maximum of flexibility especially within a highly qualified labor force.

The vision of a self-optimizing worker who is also a self-dependent learner, however, poses the question of alienation (Jaeggi 2005) and emancipation anew. Psychological strains and mental illnesses reflect in some ways the societal exhaustion of taking human intelligence, creativity, passion, and empathy as a competitive factor for a globalized economy. Beyond a naïve celebration of learning and educational schemes as entirely “good” without considering its societal forms and the questions of justice, participation and happiness cannot be the basis of a timely philosophy of adult education. A foundation to reflect emancipation and alienation critically in the light of the historical changes remains an important philosophical challenge.

Although questions of emancipation are not limited to adulthood, this goal and value is salient for the philosophy of adult education. However, its aim and purpose cannot be connected in a simple way to Enlightenment and Kant’s (1785/2002) appellation (“Dare to know. Have courage to use your own reason!”). The heritage of The Age of Reason is complicated. Auschwitz as an expression of modern civilization is an appellation to realize that reason was societally distorted and used in a purely instrumental way for the most inhuman purposes (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002). It tends to lose its grounds in reasoning powers that reject and fight the manifold ways in which humans humiliate, exploit, and destroy other human beings and their basis of existence, their civilizations, and the nature on Earth on a global scale. It tends to lose its grounds for reflecting critically adults’ responsibilities and developmental trajectories.

Having this in mind, a critical approach to reason is also part of the study program to scrutinize the scientification of work and society (Langemeyer 2015). “Scientification” indicates that contemporary ways of life are more and more expressions of scientific and technological reason which encompasses that science is not merely observing and analyzing activity but world-changing practice (cf. Mittelstraß 2017). Understanding science’s complex and nonsimultaneous development in society is relevant to detect the distortion of reason, the power relations in the world of work, and the concomitant challenges within adult education.

Interrelations Between Macro- and Micro-Societal Changes in the Twenty-First Century

For many Western societies in the twenty-first century, the digital modes of production lead to a deep change. Against the backdrop of globalized production chains and financial exchanges, the nation state becomes less important, while global interdependencies get intensified. Unequal standards of living, new specializations, as well as large corporations lead to a polarization between high-wage states and peripheries of moderate- and low-wage countries. Concomitantly, manual and intellectual routine work is likely to get automatized in high-wage countries. Especially in high-tech transformations to increase productivity, to win energy resources, and to ensure mobility and circulation, the intellectual and collaborative capacity of problem-solving, inventing, and coping with complexity and uncertainty comes to the fore. Working in a scientificated way means to analyze, interpret, and subordinate problems to an appropriate problem definition especially (but not exclusively) as pieces of information are usually presented and processed in a scientific-like manner. Often the responsibility for high-tech-driven processes demands intelligent communication among experts and stakeholders. Large parts of the relevant knowledge for labor and production emerge along with activities of “applying science” to concrete problems by experimenting, analyzing, and learning during the work process. The active involvement of humans in the new labor process is not completely designable to standardized (manual and intellectual) routines. Furthermore, workers responsible for integral work tasks cannot be entirely controlled by a hierarchical division of labor. Marx’s (1976) “collective laborer” already illuminates the tensions in organizing a collective body of high-skilled work to master scientificated practices. The detail laborer becomes more and more imperfect, while the collective laborer with the “general intellect” comes to the fore to control the production and distribution processes. This general insight is increasingly relevant in high-tech modes of production as difficulties and errors arise, for example, with the augmenting complexity of computational systems, the cross-disciplinary and globalized relations of production, and the division of labor on a global scale. These macrolevel developments overdetermine the learning of adults on a microlevel which can be detected in the “lifelong learning” discourse. It interprets educational responsibility as naturally given to the individual, but at the same time, for the sake of the well-being of the competitive enterprise and similarly for the “competitive state,” as a societal necessity. Through this ideological articulation, responsibility becomes an abstraction from concrete needs. For instance, since most of the computing systems used in the beginning of the second millennium can no longer be (re-)produced and comprehended by an individual person only, the scope of learning activities and forms of knowing necessarily becomes fragmentary and technology dependent. The enhancement of technological infrastructures essentially depends on better and more sustainable forms of cooperation and organization and on better access to the relevant knowledge. However, whereas these societal demands can be interpreted as a demand for more and better adult education, prerequisites for feeling individually an educational need, for opening one’s mind, for longing for a better and profound understanding of the world, and for learning together with others collaboratively are fundamentally in question. By lacking the necessary cooperative powers, individuals often do not recognize themselves as responsible subjects. Juridical regulation and civil culture often lag behind “innovations” driven by capitalist interests. Globalized labor markets also reinforce competitive relations, and the global division of labor fosters not merely internationally but also regionally a new segregation between a skilled and an unskilled workforce, between people with secure employment and those with precarious jobs or even unemployed. Furthermore, numerous wars around the world incited by the struggle over energy resources, rare metals, water, and the like destroy the means of people’s existence and cause an increase of global migration of refugees. Often with diverting effects, nationalist, chauvinist, and fascist ideologies are nourished and partially stirred by political parties to make people in their own country docile or to instigate them in other countries to weaken competing political powers.

Locally, these changes are not simply creating or enhancing conditions of learning. They simultaneously demand and limit or even impair the education of adults. Thus, the question arises as to how people cope with this situation, and whether emancipation is regained as a core value of societal life. This issue also leads to query the coincidence of societal conditions such as further and continuing education, work culture and social class, work contracts, gender relations, migration, social welfare, and globalization which influence the dynamics of labor and its challenges of learning and human development.

A philosophy of adult education seeks to reflect these societal conditions from a more generalized point of view. Therefore, it puts the question of emancipation in its center and searches for philosophical conceptions to sharpen one’s capacity to reflect critically.

Spinoza’s Ethics

Spinozian thought is important to understand adult education for several reasons. With Baruch de Spinoza, issues of emancipation can be referred to the individual level as the increase of one’s potential or capacity of acting (Lat., potentia agendi) and one’s potential or capacity of knowing (Lat., potentia cogitandi). Both can be increased in a close relation to each other, thus, letting the individual come to greater perfection and to more power to act in the world. On a societal level, this coming to greater perfection must not be misunderstood in a Nietzschean way as a celebration of an antisocial will to power nor in Neo-Darwinian terms as contributing to a “war of all against all.” Rather, Spinoza pleads for a creation of cooperative powers from which mankind benefits as a whole. Thus, Spinozian philosophy carries the history of mankind to a reflection on solidarity and peace, simultaneously, without placing the collective rigorously over the individual (or the other way around) and without turning responsibility into an abstraction.

Remarkably, human potentials and powers are not interpreted by Spinoza normatively as an obligation to achieve some “higher” ethical goal or as a teleological purpose of life. In the Ethics (Spinoza 2003), these concepts instead refer to a dynamic ontology in which the strive to perfection is an end in itself: It is a manner of overcoming limits to one’s potential to acting and thinking and consequently a way of achieving happiness, i.e., a way of reducing passivizations, distortions, and reluctance. This philosophy can also be connected to the scientification of work and society and the concomitant question of responsibility (Langemeyer 2015).

Spinoza’s dynamic relational ontology sees every being as a part of the whole which he calls according to the philosophical convention the substance. Spinoza defines the things with extension (res extensa) and the cognitive things (res cogitans) as attributes of the substance that is only accessible by its modes or modifications but never as a whole. Due to this, human knowledge also becomes a problem; hence it encompasses both, true reasoning and modes of mere imagining. Grasping the “true nature” means seeing “the essence of a thing.” Its essence is the power of a being why “the thing is necessarily given,” and in case of it “being removed, the thing is necessarily removed also.” Dynamics of emergence, growth, limitation, and destruction in the whole of existing things thus stem from changing power relations, for a thing can be limited by another thing of the same nature. This is explained by Spinoza’s distinction of things with extension and cognitive things: A thought is limited by another thought. However, a body cannot be limited by thought nor a thought by the body. Against this backdrop, the concepts of “passion” and “conatus” are coined. The notion of conatus indicates that “being” means striving to exist. And the notion of passion indicates an asymmetry of a greater external power compared to an internal one. It means suffering from passivization so that the concomitant affection implies a decrease in one’s existence or capacity to act. Spinoza thereby makes it clear that affections are not entirely an inner state. They indicate a particular relation to the world and to oneself in a certain moment. This is immediately relevant while looking at a societal situation in which conflicts and interdependencies amplify.

Therefore, Spinozian philosophy is also important for the philosophy of adult education. While the philosophy of education often presupposes development as a form of “maturing” and “growing” in stages, Spinozian thinking displays the particular relations of a person to the world in a dynamic way as either a form of activization or passivization.

Not only practice but also thinking as activity is reinterpreted according to this. Thinking is not exclusively cognitive insofar as it is also an affection of the body. The proportion of perceived things relates to the body’s capacity to receive impressions of or possibilities to act upon relevant things. This seems simple and reminds of the empiricist idea of perception and cognition. But within the greater field of forces, cognitive activity becomes complex. To form an adequate idea, it is important to know the essence of a thing (or being), and that means to know the real causes of it why it exists in a certain moment – which cannot be derived from the affections only. Affections occur spontaneously. Therefore, the human body (of which the mind is a part) also remembers them spontaneously and forms an idea. But affections appear not clearly and distinct from other affections. Their association in memory depends on the coincidental order by which the human body was affected. Thus, inadequate ideas emerge since the coincidence of affections is confused with their real cause(s). To form adequate ideas means to question the first order of affections and find more adequate orders which involve both, someone’s capacity to think and to act.

The parallelism of orders (affections of the body and ideas in the mind) allows philosophical thought to overcome the shortfalls of Cartesianism and to develop a different understanding of reason beyond individualistic reductions. Furthermore, a notion of science as societal practice can be elaborated with an emancipatory ambition that may resist the instrumentalization of reason.

According to Spinoza, ideas are formed by the mind, but they are no longer completely separate and independent from the ways in which humans actively and emotionally engage with the world. Ideas relate to but are not superior to actions and emotions. Consequently, the possibility to increase one’s capacity to act depends on the cognitive ability to form adequate ideas (and vice versa) – and not on exerting mental control in a traditional sense. Rather, for the capacities to think and to act to increase, one must bring them into a unity. Forming an adequate idea implies emotions of activation – joy and happiness – for both, motion and cognition, have the same clear idea and only therefore have the mind an impact on the capacity to act as. And for the contrary case, it must be considered that “an emotion cannot be destroyed nor controlled except by a contrary and stronger emotion” (Spinoza 2003, IV, Prop. 7, proof).

Different from the Cartesian dualism, Spinoza conveys that reason cannot merely imagine itself as absolutely sovereign and independent from the body and from the body’s (emotional) relation to the world. It needs to find adequate ways to grasp its own world and self-relations which either increase or diminish one’s capacity to act which is closely connected to the emotional side of feeling joy and happiness or rather aversion and reluctance. This insight is paramount for the philosophy and the practice of adult education.

It is important to recognize that there are no true or false ideas, activating or passivating ideas as such, nor are the things subjected to judgment either good or bad. This wisdom is obviously a critique against ideologies whether they were/are disseminated by the church or by any other regime of power. Judgments of what is good or bad, what is true and what is false, what is freedom and what is not, etc. depend on a given situation and constellation in which the individual acts. Therefore, freedom and emancipation in a practical and cognitive sense mean understanding the various influencing external and internal conditions of someone’s knowledge and reasoning.

To increase one’s power to act, adequate ideas need to be formed and arranged in an adequate order. This is simultaneously a cognitive and practical task. The rejection of inadequate ideas is the basis of Spinozian reason – which is why it is the key to the “scientification” – concept presented earlier. Freedom and emancipation cannot be realized contrary to one’s capacities to act and to think. Therefore, Spinoza’s concept of reason rejects social injustice, suppression, domination, as well as anarchy and favors a collective form of sociality. And if science shall not be reduced to instrumental reason, it needs to be part of a struggle for emancipation.

Concluding Remarks

Inspired by Spinoza and Marx, a “philosophy of praxis” emerged in the late nineteenth and in the twentieth century. By taking this inspiration further, it is possible, e.g., to criticize adult education as merely supplementing other practices of life or compensating their distortions so that the individual would not lose sense in his/her life. Neither is the more contemporary understanding of the “lifelong learner” acceptable, for it ultimately bears a functionalistic response to the changed economic relations. Central to the philosophy of praxis is to acknowledge that people are always already part of societal orders to which the capacity to act and to think is immanent. If they start to develop activities of working, producing, as well as thinking, knowing, and recognition, also in a scientific manner, their endeavors remain time and field dependent (e.g., Althusser 2006). Especially for this reason, the poet and writer Bertolt Brecht suggests to practice “intervening thought.” His Spinozian recommendations are concrete, recommending, e.g., that the whole theory “is merely a matter of practice, its purpose to clean up practice” (Brecht 1989, p. 458). From here, the education of adults (their reasoning and their learning) is not dedicated to a “higher purpose,” displaced from profanity, nor is it subjected to external political goals or economic constraints. It is alive as a movement of emancipation and taking responsibility starting from the concrete needs – individually and societally.



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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of the Philosophy of EducationKarlsruhe Institute of TechnologyKarlsruheGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Wolff-Michael Roth
    • 1
  1. 1.University of VictoriaVictoriaCanada