Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster

Notes on ch.1: An Intellectual Adventure

For interest and brevity, let’s summarise the sections of the chapter in a sentence each. I’m not explicating here (a term to be defined below); I’m giving myself a “command” to learn.

  1. Intro (1-4): Joseph Jacotot (1870-1840) wound up teaching French in Flemish-speaking Belgium, but he didn’t know Flemish, and thus through chance and necessity discovered that he was able to “teach” without explicating French language, via the common object of a bilingual novel.
  2. The Explicative Order (4-8): Jacotot’s “experiment” in teaching revealed the usual mode of teaching (“Explication”) as an act of mediation that placed the student in the structural position of the ignorant, incapable, without understanding; an act that Jacotot argued turned out to be stultifying, and a “structuring fiction of the world”, dividing it into those who know and those who don’t.
  3. Chance and Will (8-12): Jacotot discovered his new “method” by chance, and it also left things to the students’ own will, but this combination of chance and will revealed that there was no “secret” behind the text to be revealed by the master; rather, all sentences, and therefore all intelligences were revealed as being of the same kind, and it then follows that understanding is simply the act of translation from one to another intelligence.
  4. The Emancipatory Master (12-15): Jacotot still commands students however, for his instruction to learn French (for example) places the student’s will in subjection to his own, but this relation of will has become disassociated from the relation of intelligences, the latter situation of a free intelligence being thence defined as emancipated.
  5. The Circle of Power (15-18): The emancipated student can thenceforward teach themselves, or an ignorant master – for example an illiterate father – can teach somebody something they themselves do not know, for the command to learn creates an expectation of capacity (this is the “circle of power), and presumes intelligence and ability, in radical contrast to a social order that everywhere tells us that it is only the expert that knows.

So, that’s the chapter. A simple enough story, with a clear syllogism drawn from it. The major question here is, I think “how to take it”. Is it a work of history? Yes and no. It clearly draws on an historical investigation, but it moves into an ethical and political domain unusual for standard historiography. So, that puts it as political philosophy. But we’re in suspense, as it were, over exactly what “lessons” we are to draw from it. Perhaps that is the point! Dare to think, and make some conclusions! This latter thought links the work to the enlightenment tradition. So, we have the classic constellation of individual enlightenment and education in its link to the social order. A work then to be constrasted to The Republic, and the classical tradition.

Post-discussion addition: We had a lively discussion, ranging over how exactly to define “explication”, the Foucauldian echoes about power, the way in which the main argument picks up (or does not) on Enlightenment ideas, the concept of emancipation employed and also a sustained look at the formal coupling of reason and knowledgeable explication.

The latter objection, to pick one, was this: Jacotot’s “successes” all concerned pragmatic scenarios of language use, or skill in some practice or other. But explication most often rightly accompanies a different object of knowledge – the oft-invisible reasons for why things are a certain way. So, for example, one can learn language in Jacotot’s way. Sure. But while you may speak French, you will not have learned the grammatical rules of French.  You will simply know, more or less, what to say when, based on your experience. (In any case, most of us don’t learn grammar much these days…). The point here is that “explication” suits a certain domain, where the thing to be known is not clearly visible. It follows that explication does not always have the “stultifying” effect that it may sometimes possess. Moreover, it is necessary in these latter domains, in a way that it wasn’t in the pragmatic ones. So, here we have an archtitectonic of knowledge emerging in contrasting response to Rancière’s reliance on the pragmatic speech scene.

Certainly, the enquiry about the nature of the object to be known (language, or something else), needs to be pursued. At this stage (ie. just one chapter), the “experiment” shares its empirical fragility. It could be proved false, or at least qualified with further experiment. But on the epistemological level, there seems to be a reply as well. Something like this: the instructive “command” to learn X plays a role in forming the object that is to be found. One might learn a language, indeed. But couldn’t you learn grammar as well? Given an appropriate common object, you could be instructed to identify the rules and relations of the terms. Once again, the procedure would be to identify, imitate, test, refine, and so on. The process of intelligence – does it ever change from these basic activities? I’m not sure that it does – I quite liked the “pragmatist” flavour of the chapter. If so, what does this do to our picture of the various spheres of knowledge?

To be continued.





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