Derrida’s Deconstruction Contra Habermas’s Communicative Reason
In 1985, Jürgen Habermas (1929–) published a number of very critical comments on Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) in his book The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Derrida reacted by saying that Habermas had either misread him or perhaps not even read him at all. In 1988, Derrida replied briefly yet informatively in an interview published by Autremen 102 (Derrida 2006), after which both parties remained silent until the end of the 1990s. (Derrida also wrote two lengthy footnotes in the 2nd English edition of Memoires for Paul de Man, note 44 and, in Limited Inc, note 9. See Derrida 1988, 1989.) It was then that Derrida and Habermas met at a party and Habermas proposed a friendly discussion. Derrida and Habermas actually set aside their differences and concentrated on themes upon which they both agreed. Before Derrida died, they jointly published one book and several articles.
In spite of temporarily finding common ground, Habermas and Derrida never did achieve a common understanding on the nature of modernity and the relationship between “rational reconstruction” and deconstruction. Habermas never did really understand the idea of deconstruction and considered it irrational and antimodern. Derrida intentionally misunderstood Habermas’s reconstruction of the speech act theory, which presupposes that “misunderstanding” and the strategic use of language are abnormal situations in linguistic interaction. This reciprocal misunderstanding between Habermas and Derrida is actually a good thing for those interested in philosophizing on the tension between deconstruction and communicative rationality and the consequences of that tension for the educational science and education. How should education as a science and a practice – which is a product of Enlightenment – understand Derrida’s demand for deconstruction? What kind of education is possible after destruction? Or should education rely solely on Habermasian communicative reason as a reconstructed version of Enlightenment?
Truth (Wahrheit). A claim that refers to the objective world is valid if it is true, i.e., if it corresponds to the reality.
Truthfulness (Wahrhaftigkeit). A claim that refers to the subjective world is valid if it is honest, i.e., if it has an authentic relationship with the subjective world.
Rightness (Richtigkeit). A claim that refers to the social world is valid if it does not contradict commonly agreed social norms (Habermas 1984, p. 440).
Let us examine the example of the claim “Teachers have right to practise indoctrination in schools.” This validity claim is refers to the social world, and its proper validity claim is rightness (justice). A communicatively competent opponent could challenge this validity claim is by stating that it contradicts that which is commonly considered as morally correct behavior (or it would be commonly considered as such in a free and critical discourse). If an opponent merely says that “My inner self told me that indoctrination is wrong” (truthfulness or authenticity) or “It is scientifically proven that indoctrination is wrong” (truth), she is using an incorrect validity claim and she is not a communicatively competent speaker. So, in this case, the proper validity claim is that of rightness or justice.
Pure types of action (Habermas 1984, p. 285)
Oriented to Success
Oriented to reaching understanding
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorono (1972), in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, maintain that the rationalization of society means above all the growth and expansion of instrumental reason. Habermas’s view is more optimistic. He states that modernization promotes both strategic and communicative rationalization. Communicative rationalization means spreading of communicative reason and it is possible because of differentiation of the “worlds” and validity claims. Habermas puts high hopes to communicative rationalization. That is why Habermas is the heritor of Enlightenment and Enlightened Reason.
Like Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Popper and Derrida also Habermas wants to overcome traditional metaphysics. Habermas calls traditional philosophy as philosophy of consciousness. According to Habermas, paradigm of philosophy of consciousness is exhausted and the symptoms of exhaustion should be dissolved with the transition to the paradigm of mutual understanding (Habermas 1990a, pp. 296–298). Put shortly, Habermas wants to resolve transcendental philosophy with his reconstructive project which includes post-Wittgensteinian philosophy of language, Piaget’s structuralism, Kohlberg’s Kantianism, reconstruction of Weber’s and Horkheimer’s theory of rationality, reconstruction of Parson’s functionalism, reconstruction of Schütz’s phenomenological sociology of knowledge, etc. This project is called as the communicative theory of action. Habermas also widens his theory of communicative action to the areas of ethics (discourse theory of ethics) and justice (discourse theory of justice) creating the encyclopedic system of knowledge in the spirit of Enlightenment.
When Habermas started his academic career, he was ultra-left-wing Marxist in the spirit of Herbert Marcuse. Nowadays, his political commitments lies somewhere, between social democracy and political liberalism. He strongly promotes so-called The United States of Europe, which has its own foreign minister, a directly elected president and its own financial basis (Habermas 2006, 2007; Habermas and Derrida 2006). This might imply also Europe’s own educational policy and the ministry of education.
The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix (…) is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the centre have always designated an invariable presence – eidos, archē, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) alētheia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth.
… from the moment that one questions the possibility of such a transcendental signified, and that one recognizes that every signified is also in the position of a signifier, the distinction between signified and signifier becomes problematic at its root. Of course this is an operation that must be undertaken with prudence for: it must pass through the difficult deconstruction of entire history of metaphysics which imposes, and never will cease to impose upon semiological science in its entirety this fundamental quest for a ‘transcendental signified’ and a concept independent of language.
Combining Heidegger’s ontological difference and Saussure’s concept of difference – and also keeping in mind Nietzsche’s and Freud’s Aufschieben and Aufschub – Derrida created a new concept, which he named différance. Signs are traces which have no other foundation than the movement of différance. Différance and the structure of the trace are simply the conditions of meaning (Standish 2007, p. 4). Derrida’s neologism différance refers both to a differing (i.e., that a sign differs from other signs and Sein differs from seiende) and a deffering (the endless chain of signs). (The Office Word 2003 word processor automatically tries to correct the word différance to “difference”. Office Word accepts the new word invented by Derrida if the language is set to French. Différance, however, is not a French word. It is Derrida’s neologism from the French word différence. Both différance and différence are pronounced in a same way. With this neologism, Derrida makes the absent phoneme “A” visible. See Derrida 1996, p. 444.) Différance is an unstructural structure, which is neither present nor absent. Différance “is.” It is the unlikely origin and postponement of all difference (Derrida 1996, p. 444). It is both movement and structure, diachronic and synchronic. With this basic concept Derrida attempts to overcome the Western metaphysics of presence and shake all the powers of discourse.
Whether in the order of spoken or written discourse, no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present. This interweaving results in each ‘element’ – phoneme or grapheme – being constituted on the basis of the trace within it of the other elements of the chain or system. This interweaving, this textile, is the text produced only in the transformation of another text. Nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces. The gram, then, is the most general concept of semiology – which thus becomes grammatology…
This dominating discourse … proclaims: Marx is dead, communism is dead, very dead, and along with it its hopes, its discourse, its theories, and its practices. It says: long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival of economic and political liberalism! If this hegemony is attempting to install its dogmatic orchestration in suspect and paradoxical conditions, it is first of all because this triumphant conjuration is striving in truth to disavow, and therefore to hide from, the fact that never in history, has the horizon of the thing whose survival is being celebrated (namely, all the old models of the capitalist and liberal world) been as dark, threatening, and threatened.
There is, of course, no direct link between Derrida’s political commitments and his program of deconstruction. Deconstruction does not require any kind of political commitment. Rather, deconstruction calls for the deconstruction of any project which is standardized by the principle of reason, including both Marxism and psychoanalysis (Derrida 1983, p. 16). Derrida has said that he was never able to successfully link deconstruction to any existing political programs and added that indeed all political codes are metaphysical, whether they originate from the right or left (Derrida 1984, pp. 119–120). It is precisely this kind of political metaphysics that Derrida and Habermas practice in their jointly written articles (Habermas and Derrida 2003, 2006).
The Confrontation Between Derrida and Habermas
The confrontation which ultimately occurred between Derrida and Habermas was inevitable. By the 1980s, Habermas had become a leading German intellectual, and Derrida, for his own part, had been a major figure in the poststructuralist movement since the 1960s. When Jean-François Lyotard introduced the term postmodern in the context of philosophy in 1979 (Lyotard 1985), Derrida was quickly characterized within. (Christopher Norris emphatically claims that Derrida and his deconstruction do not belong to the postmodernist movement, see Norris 1990.) According to John Caputo many considered Derrida “as the devil himself, a street-corner anarchist, a relativist, or subjectivist, or nihilist, out to destroy traditions and institutions, our beliefs and values, to mock philosophy and truth itself, to undo everything the Enlightenment has done – and to replace all this with wild nonsense and irresponsible play” (Caputo 1997, p. 36). Habermas shared this common and unfair impression. Habermas made his first critical comments about Derrida in the newspaper Die Zeit on 19 September 1980 (Die Moderne – unvollendetes Projekt), when he named Derrida as belonging to the group of young conservative antimodernists. Habermas claimed that intellectuals like Georg Bataille, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida embodied the Nietzschean spirit of antimodernism (Habermas 1981). This paints a rather unscholarly portrait of Derrida, which can perhaps be explained by the fact that Habermas did not have a very comprehensive grasp of Derrida’s philosophy at the time. (Before Manfred Frank’s book Was ist Neostrukturalism (Frank 1984) was published, German philosophers did not know very much about French poststructuralism.)
In an interview in the New Left Review, Perry Anderson and Peter Dews ask Habermas to explain his rather rude verdict of Derrida’s poststructuralism. In doing so, Habermas (1985) proves that he has indeed read Derrida. In the interview, Habermas modifies his earlier opinion and says that “verdict” is not the right word to describe his relationship to poststructuralism. Habermas even goes so far as to identify certain similarities between Derrida’s deconstruction and Theodor Adorno’s negative dialectics and deconstruction. He also identifies similarities between the critical theory’s critique of instrumental reason and Derrida’s critique of discursive powers. Adorno’s and Derrida’s work shared many aspects of Nietzschean thought. Habermas, however, claims that, despite certain similarities, there are still a number of striking differences between Adorno and Derrida. Adorno still adheres to the Hegelian notion of determinate negation and applies it to the Enlightenment, claiming that the Enlightenment can be healed by radicalizing itself Enlightenment. Habermas’s statement implies that Derrida is completely against Enlightenment. Habermas also accuses poststructuralism of causing a pessimistic and apocalyptic ambiance in German universities at the time (1985, pp. 222–223; see also Habermas 1990a, pp. 185–186).
Such a critique (which is more adequate to its object) is not immediately directed towards the network of discursive relationships of which arguments are built, but towards the figures that shape style and are decisive for the literary rhetorical power of a text. A literary criticism that in a certain sense merely continues the literary process of its objects cannot end up in science. Similarly, the deconstruction of great philosophical texts, carried out as literary criticism in this broader sense, is not subject to the criteria of problem-solving, purely cognitive undertaking.
Literary criticism is not primarily a scientific practice but observes the same rhetorical criteria as its literary objects.
There is no genre like the distinction between philosophy and literature. Philosophical text can be examined by applying the methods of literary criticism.
Because of the primacy of rhetoric over logic, all genre distinctions are ultimately dissolved. Philosophy and science are not able to assert their autonomy.
Derrida’s critique of Austin’s and Searle’s speech act theories also touches on Habermas’s communicative theory of action. Derrida criticizes Searle’s division of normal (the serious, literal, and binding use of sentences) and deviant uses of language (the fictive, simulated, or indirect use of sentences). The normal use of language is the kind of linguistic interaction which aims at reaching an understanding. (Richard Rorty highlights a similar division between normal and abnormal discourse in conversation, although he prefers abnormal discourse, because it challenges the metanarratives of normal discourse. The outcome of abnormal discourse can range anywhere from nonsense to intellectual revolution. See Rorty 1979, pp. 320, 377.) Derrida does not subscribe to this view. According to Habermas, for Derrida, every understanding is a misunderstanding and every reading is a misreading. Habermas states that language works only if language users use it in the “normal way” and presuppose agreement and understanding as the main goal of communication (Habermas 1990a, pp. 198–199).
To analyze ‘philosophical discourse’ in its form, its modes of composition, its rhetoric, its metaphors, its language, its fiction, everything that resists translation, and so forth, is not to reduce it to literature. It is even a largely philosophical task (even if it does not remain philosophical throughout) to study these ‘forms’ that are no longer just forms, as well as the modalities according to which, by interpreting poetry and literature, assigning the latter a social and political status, and seeking to exclude them from its own body, the academic institution of philosophy has claimed its own autonomy, and practiced a disavowal with relation to its own language, what you call ‘literality’ and writing in general… Those who protest against all these questions mean to protect a certain institutional authority of philosophy, in the form at a given moment.
Derrida does not believe in the existence of “a specifically philosophical writing which could be characterized as a pure from all sorts of contaminations (Derrida 2006, pp. 36–37). There is no solid ensemble of philosophy which remains the same in every epoch. Philosophy is written and spoken in a natural language whose modes are multiple and conflictual (Derrida 2006, p. 38).
This brief response from Derrida was followed by a decade long silence, which finally ended when Habermas and Derrida found a common enemy; an enemy they shared with German critical theory and French deconstruction. That enemy was US foreign policy. Habermas and Derrida embarked on a political crusade to reinforce the political status of the European Union as a counterforce against the US and its military campaigns. This common project has also had numerous educational ramifications, although I will limit my focus in this presentation to the first encounter between Derrida and Habermas.
Some of the Educational Ramifications of the Habermas-Derrida Abyss
- (A)Gregory Ulmer based his academic post(e)-pedagogy on Derrida’s writings, Bourdieu’s & Passeron’s (1977) sociology of education and Joseph Beuys’s avant-garde art (Ulmer 1985a, b; see Gallagher 1992, pp. 300–301). Some might say that Derrida does not have a pedagogical theory, but Ulmer states that Derrida has nothing but a pedagogy. (Ulmer found the following quotation, which paints a clear picture of Derrida’s pedagogy (Derrida according to Ulmer 1985a, p. 163): “Teaching delivers signs, the teaching body produces (shows and puts forth) proofs, more precisely signifiers supposing knowledge of a previous signified. Referred to this knowledge, the signifier is structurally second. Every university puts language in this position of delay or derivation in relation to meaning or truth… the professor is the faithful transmitter of tradition and not the worker of a philosophy in the process of formation.”) The political nature of Derrida’s thought leads to the belief that teachers in State-run institutions have a special responsibility to understand the educational system in which they work, whose ideas are mechanically passed on from teacher to student and back again. Ulmer claims that both Derrida’s deconstructive technique and his own counterconcepts can be more easily applied to the field of education than, for example, Foucault’s archeology of knowledge (Ulmer 1985a, pp. 157–158). In order to break the reproductive nature of university, Ulmer wants to understand the academic lecture – which he calls lecriture – as a text in the Derridaian sense. The lecriture is a playful discourse whose content always remains open (Ulmer 1985b, p. 43):
… the lecture as text is a certain kind of placing or spacing, the point being to refocus our attention, as composers or auditors, to the taking place of this place. At issue in these lectures is the extent to which the performance aspect of the lectures (the scene of lecturing, rather than the referential scene, the ‘diegesis’ of the lecture) is foregrounded, violating the students’ expectation of information as message or content. There always is content, of course (lecriture is not nonobjective in that sense), but the matter of that content is left open
Ulmer’s deconstructive lecture a.k.a. lecriture aims to minimize reproduction and maximize students’ productivity. A lecriture should not just transmit its content from lecturer to student. The lecriture is a text that can be productively interpreted. It is an invention as opposed to a copy of an original (Ulmer 1985a, pp. 163–164). The aim is to achieve a love of learning in which the student is a participant rather than a consumer. The lecturer tries to create a “writerly” classroom. The classroom should be conceived as a place of invention rather than reproduction (Ulmer 1985a, pp. 162–163). Referring to Gerald Holton, Ulmer writes the following (Ulmer 1985b, p. 47): “Chief among the stimulating devices that are meant to provoke the student into writerly attitude is the use of experiments that the students manipulate themselves and models supplement discourse and aid memory.”
Relying on Derrida (see 2003), Ulmer claims that both paidia (play) and paideia (culture, education) have been the victims of logocentric repression. Both words refer to the activity of the child (pais). Aristotle was the first to disassociate paidia from paideia. The Aristotelean notion of paideia (culture) was a scientific leisure activity opposed to pure play. With the deconstruction of the academic lecture, Ulmer attempts to break this division between play and education (Ulmer 1985b, p. 55). For Ulmer, post(e)-pedagogy is a vacation from oppressive rationalism. It aims at meeting the needs of students working within the postmodern condition of information overload. Ulmer’s preferred method of teaching is the textshop (synonymous to workshop), because it allows students to write with the mass of data that already exists. The textshop is kind of bricolage. Ulmer’s post(e)-pedagogy has no strict discipline base but instead uses art and autography to decipher the relationship between student and knowledge (Ulmer 1985a, p. 61).
Huttunen defines communicative teaching as including value orientations in which the teacher commits herself to the “universal” presuppositions of argumentation and acts in accordance with these maxims as to the best of her ability (“normative minimum”; Mollenhauer 1972, p. 42). (2.1. Every speaker may assert only what he really believes. 2.2. A person who disputes a proposition or norm under discussion must provide a reason for wanting to do so. 3.1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse. 3.2 a) Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatsoever. b) Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatsoever into the discourse. c) Everyone is allowed to express his own attitudes, desires and needs. 3.3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (3.1.) and (3.2.) See Habermas 1990b, pp. 88–89.) In this respect, pedagogical communication is a kind of simulated communicative action and is more simulated in the early stage of education. When communicative teaching is conceived in this way, as an exceptional form of communicative action, the concept of communicative teaching is looser than the concept of communicative action itself. Huttunen claims that communicative teaching – as the exceptional application of communicative action – still remains within the realm of communicative action, although teachers sometimes make use of perlocutive speech acts (use language strategically). When the aim of education is to produce mature and communicatively competent individuals and the content of teaching provides the tools necessary for independent and critical thinking, the teacher may use methods that, when taken out of context, may resemble strategic action and the perlocutive use of language (or may de facto be some form of strategic action, depending on how one defines strategic and communicative action).
In his theory of indoctrination, Huttunen presents the communicative method and intention criterion for indoctrinative teaching. He defines strategic teaching as the kind of teaching in which the teacher treats her students solely as objects, as objects of a series of didactical maneuvers. This strategic teaching is a form of indoctrination (strategic teaching is not the same as indoctrination), in which a teacher attempts to transfer the content of her lessons to her students’ minds, treating them merely as passive objects, not as active co-subjects of the learning process. Huttunen defines communicative teaching as contradictory to strategic teaching. The aim of communicative teaching is a communicatively competent student who does not need to rely on the teacher, or any other authority figure for that matter. In communicative teaching, students are not treated as passive objects but as active learners. The teacher and her students cooperatively participate in the formation of meanings and new perspectives. The teacher does not impose her ideas on her students, rather they make a joint effort to gain some kind of meaningful insight into the issues at hand. What Huttunen refers to as communicative teaching very closely corresponds with Gert Biesta’s idea of practical intersubjectivity in teaching (Biesta 1994, p. 312). Communicative teaching comes as close as one can possibly come to the ideal of communicative action in an actual teaching situation. Communicative teaching is the simulation of communicative action (Masschelein 1991, p. 145) and free and equal discourse. (2.1. Every speaker may assert only what he really believes. 2.2. A person who disputes a proposition or norm under discussion must provide a reason for wanting to do so. 3.1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse. 3.2 a) Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatsoever. b) Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatsoever into the discourse. c) Everyone is allowed to express his own attitudes, desires, and needs. 3.3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (3.1.) and (3.2.) See Habermas 1990b, pp. 88–89.) On rare occasions, it breaks the limits of simulation and achieves the level of proper discourse.
We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
One might say that Another Brick in the Wall marked the beginning of an era in which education – in the sense of Enlightenment – is no longer possible.
Nevertheless, the deconstructive and communicative approaches in educational practice and educational research share many common features, which should allow them to be critically friendly with one another (critical friendship) and help each other to keep in shape.
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