Education and Teleology

A new school year begins next month, and I’ve been thinking about how to run my classes. Today I was reading some lectures on education by Maurice Merleau-Ponty at the Sorbonne in 1948-52. He complains that Jean Piaget’s structuralism was too teleological because it conceptualizes children only in relation to adulthood, and reduces them to the process of maturation. His accusation is basically that Piaget was patronizing, and refused to investigate childhood on its own terms. It’s interesting to note how teleology works rhetorically in this argument.

Teleology is like a sin because it is an exceptional cognition and therefore inherently undemocratic. Metaphysics could be any illicit knowledge of power, which concerns especially time and the future. Metaphysicians then are pretentious people who fancy themselves part of some grand historical conspiracy.  Merleau-Ponty says Piaget was too confident and comfortable in his adult subjectivity. This criticism has been repeated so many times, in so many variations, and that is a rhetoric of existential singularity. Against the metaphysicians, Merleau-Ponty asserts a paradigm of ethical alterity by pointing to the virtual infinity of infant babble and silence. 

There is a deadlock around the concept of teleology, where it stands for the evil of history. I can tentatively accept that metaphysics is a name for the evil of history, but then I would insist that this makes it all the more important that we appropriate and redefine that concept. Today these words represent some obscure bad thing that we are not allowed to do any more, and so they are analogous to the mythical indulgences of the primal father. My purpose is not to return to some bygone age of metaphysics, but rather to point out some unforseen stakes in our conceptualization of these terms. The ban on metaphysics conditions the form of discourse, and so it seems that by adjusting the terms of that ban we can adjust how discourse proceeds.

The existential critique of metaphysics (which insists that metaphysics is an injustice of authoritarian Western men), has run out of steam, and it now reinforces the gestalt of financial capitalism. Capitalism has appropriated and adapted that critique for its own purposes.  Zizek has written several books making this case, starting with Ticklish Subject. This is what happens when any critique disintegrates into a set of clichés. Critique cannot exist as something habitual – to remain critique, it must be disrupted by forgotten memories. It has to be a moving relationship with the past, to swim in the shifting tides of the ocean, and cannot settle into habitual routines. The routine habitat is the comfort and compulsion of the bourgeois. Empty clichés are repeated for many reasons, but most important here is to understand this behaviour as a response to existential angst, and as avoidance of Stimmung. What this compulsive yuppie ethics avoids is the truth that only metaphysics can conceptualize subjectivity. Compulsive yuppie ethics is an elision of self-conceptualization.

So Merleau-Ponty’s critique has now, sixty years later, been reduced to a yuppie ethics. We can no longer afford to view metaphysics as an arcane injustice, and I would like to point my index finger to suggest how teleology might positively inform educational theories.  Our most serious problem today is that ethics has been ontologized and yet there is no ontology of the subject, so we are left with an ethics without a subject.  It is therefore important to insist that ethics and epistemology are closer to metaphysics, and can take their distance from realist ontologies.

Teleological functions can be defined in gestalt terms, as the forms of how time comes to an end. Hegel did not know how to end very well.  His endings led to confusion, and so the old cynical Kojeve proposed Los Angeles or Japanese snob society as models of the end of history. These statements are important because they give us an opportunity to consider what went wrong with Hegel. It may seem that these statements would force us to reconsider the ontological status of teleology, but instead I propose a complete negation of ontology. Teleology concerns the internal identity-relations that Geist has with itself, and not any testable relation with external reality. Metaphysics concerns the phantasmatic functions which support the gestalt of subjectivity. These functions are aleatory, and everything concerns the stochastics of chance and wagers. Teleology is where the subject’s imagination goes to the limits of what it can dream. This is where it negotiates its internal relation with power, which means attaining its furthest possible distance from the  distinctions of realist ontology. 

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