Writing and teaching: Philosophical and educational issues

1Through the process that today we call “learning,” the formation of the self becomes the theme that serves as the starting point for the problem of education in philosophy. In this sense, we may identify several traditions in the history of philosophical thought that recall, each in their own way, the urgent problem of the philosophy of education. Since Plato, ideas on the formation of the self or learning have been taken up by Stoicism, by post-Renaissance thinking and also, of course, by contemporary thought. With Plato, this thinking becomes relevant on the logical level and consequently on the ontological one as well. Meno’s paradox, as he expresses it in his dialogue with Socrates, says this: one cannot learn, for one cannot be both the person who knows and the person who doesn’t. [2] Either you know, and so there is no need to learn, or you don’t know, and so you don’t know what to look for in order to learn it. In the modern era, this problem—if we follow its trail in philosophy—is often associated with that of educating humankind (as is seen, for example, in Herder’s concept of the Emporbildung[3]).

2In the pages that follow, we will take a new look at this problem, but from a perspective that considers the process of learning in connection with learning to write. What we will try to describe here, in other words, is the place of writing, of the practice of writing, in the formation of the self. To this end, we believe that it is first necessary to get rid of the idea of writing as a technique or a tool: either one understands it as a technique or tool benefiting the job market, or as a technique or tool for emancipation. Starting with the philosophical issues of learning to write, where this conception of writing is called into question, this route will allow us to consider the educational issues underlying the relationship between writing and teaching.

1 – Learning to Write: Philosophical Issues

3In a short passage from the first pages of Of Grammatology on the relationship between writing and technique, Jacques Derrida wrote, “the notion of technique can never simply clarify the notion of writing”:


With an irregular and essentially precarious success, this movement would apparently have tended, as toward its telos, to confine writing to a secondary and instrumental function: translator of a full speech that was fully present (present to itself, to its signified, to the other, the very condition of the theme of presence in general), technics in the service of language, spokesman, interpreter of an originary speech itself shielded from interpretation.
Technics in the service of language: I am not invoking a general essence of technics which would be already familiar to us and would help us in understanding the narrow and historically determined concept of writing as an example. I believe on the contrary that a certain sort of question about the meaning and origin of writing precedes, or at least merges with, a certain type of question about the meaning and origin of technics. That is why the notion of technique can never simply clarify the notion of writing. [4]

5This movement of which Derrida speaks, with which he starts this passage, this movement that tends to confine writing to a secondary and instrumental function is, as we know, the movement by which the history of philosophy (and therefore philosophy itself) constitutes itself as such. In other words, it is the movement through which this history reserves a place of privilege for the spoken word: the phonè or the voice. Ever since Plato’s Phaedrus, [5] writing has been excluded from what philosophy calls the realm of being, the eidos, truth or meaning. The difference that Derrida establishes here between writing and technique refers precisely to this privilege. This is the sense in which Derrida understands—and we should as well—the sentence he chooses to close this passage: the notion of technique cannot clarify the notion of writing because writing cannot be reduced to a technique of language. To the extent that meaning, that language, in other words the movement of presence, are always already writing, writing cannot be understood as a technique of language. The movement through which there is writing is, in other words, the movement through which there is language. These lines we find in Of Grammatology explain to a large extent the conception that Derrida develops in the pages that follow: that of writing as arche-writing or arche-trace.

6However, this difference that Derrida establishes between writing and technique is what we should first keep in mind in returning to what interests us here: the relationship between writing and teaching.

7Firstly, in our view, this difference seems very productive in order to get past the idea—so often used in the field of education—that considers writing a technique. The first issue to clarify: when we speak of writing here, we are speaking of the exercise of the hand that writes, of the practice—to borrow Barthes’s words—by which someone takes a tool and starts to glide it on a surface, tracing regular or, better still, rhythmic forms. [6] For some time we know of course that this practice has become widespread through typewriters and today, more specifically, through computers: what is called digital writing. But this does not change the question: even in digital writing, one uses the hand in order to write. Here, we will always speak of writing as a practice, as the work of the body. In order to tackle the relationship between writing and teaching, we must first escape the inflationary phenomenon of the notion of writing that Derrida himself denounced more than 40 years ago. [7] In other words, we would like to reexamine the manual sense of the concept of writing.

8In this sense, literacy programs, implemented especially in developing countries, are what best describe this conception in the educational field. Even the word “literacy” is what most clearly describes this conception that sees writing as technique: firstly, because in this view, writing is understood as a tool. Obviously, in this case, it is not an evil tool or one that brings misfortune. If philosophy, since Phaedrus, has understood writing as an evil tool or one bringing misfortune in relation to the spoken word, we may say that education—pedagogy— has taken the opposite view, seeing writing as a good tool, the true tool. In the tradition of South American pedagogy, and especially that tradition that declares itself the heir to Marxist or leftist thinking, the work of literacy, of learning to write, has been understood as the road for the oppressed to exit the situation of oppression in which they find themselves. Here, we must refer back to the texts of Paulo Freire, in particular the most representative text in this tradition: Pedagogia do oprimido. [8]

9Currently, in fact, this secondary and instrumental function of writing persists, in what are called adult literacy programs. Here of course, the usefulness of this tool, writing, changes radically. In these programs, the work of writing is not linked to the task of emancipation: learning to write has different objectives in that context. Adults must learn to write since it is necessary in order to work, i.e. in order to participate in the job market. Contemporary societies require workers that know at least how to read and write. That is a change, obviously, from the societies of the past, where writing was not needed in order to gain access to the job market.

10First of all, the conception of writing as technique involves this idea that reduces it to a simple tool: either one for escaping domination, or one that is required of a worker in today’s societies. What persists in this conception is this idea of writing “in the service of…”

11But underlying this idea of writing as primarily a tool, there is another idea of the way writing is taught. We may therefore approach this second idea on the basis of the following question: What must be learned about the practice of writing? How can writing be taught?

12In chapter 12 of The Practice of Everyday Life, “Reading as Poaching,” [9] Michel de Certeau distinguishes two dimensions to the activity of reading. Firstly, there is the activity consisting of deciphering the signs one reads: in order to learn to read, one must first decipher the letters of written text. But there is another activity that does not just boil down to deciphering the signs or each letter one reads, but to deciphering the sense of the written word. Deciphering the signs of a text does not automatically mean grasping the text’s meaning. Of course, these activities take place in parallel. This is why, in this sense, we may speak of two dimensions to the same activity, i.e. reading. In order to read the sense of a text, one must always decipher the signs, but the reverse is not true: deciphering the signs of a text does not mean understanding it.

13We find this distinction, that Michel de Certeau made more than 20 years ago, quite fruitful for considering the practice of writing and, especially, considering it in relation to education. For the conception of writing understood as a tool or technique means, to a certain degree, this splitting of the activity of writing. What the literacy programs and the teaching of writing at schools comprehend is therefore this idea according to which the teaching of writing means teaching the rules and customs of writing, in other words what de Certeau identifies as the deciphering of signs for the activity of reading. In this sense, learning to write would only involve learning these rules and using these signs. Writing would then be merely a discipline, a bit of know-how. Here, we can see that, after so many centuries, we remain very close to the conception of writing that Plato developed in Phaedrus (where Theuth presents writing to Thamus as a discipline even though, as we know, it is a false discipline, a pharmakon[10]).

14Whether it is seen as knowledge or as technique, the tool we call writing—always “in the service of,” knowledge in the service of the job market, or knowledge in the service of emancipation—does not mean the destruction of writing as an emancipating practice. We must first get beyond this idea of writing as a set of linguistic rules and customs. Even if one must learn these rules and customs in order to learn how to write, the real educational issue in the teaching of writing is not merely this kind of learning.

2 – Learning to Write: Educational Issues

a – Writing and Attention

15Firstly, writing is itself a form of thought or, to put it better, a way in which thought unfolds. Learning to write means learning to think when one writes, at the very moment one writes, i.e. during the process of writing itself, for there is no thought that comes into being before writing. You don’t think about what you write before you do. Writing and thought do not follow each other, they happen at the same time, at the same moment. In this sense, writing is neither knowledge nor technique, but thought, thought that becomes writing, that becomes indistinguishable from the movement of writing.

16Secondly, for the person who writes, writing requires an effort of attention that cannot be reduced to the simple use of linguistic rules. For our purposes, we understand this effort of attention in Henri Bergson’s sense. In the conference he gave at Oxford University on 21 and 27 May 1911, where he presented the most important elements of a philosophy on the basis of which one might get a better grasp of the perception of change, he leveled an accusation against philosophy and its perception of time: “we must envisage the past quite differently from what we have been accustomed to doing through philosophy.” [11] He added: “We are inclined to think of our past as inexistent, and philosophers encourage this natural tendency in us.” [12]

17This accusation, which Bergson made after a long talk that concluded with the basic thesis of his philosophy—“reality is mobility itself” [13]—sought the essence of time as a concept: the problem of the present, and its duration.


Our consciousness tells us that when we speak of our present we are thinking of a certain interval of duration. What duration? It is impossible to fix it exactly, as it is something rather elusive. My present, at this moment, is the sentence I am pronouncing. But it is so because I want to limit the field of my attention to my sentence. This attention is something that can be made longer or shorter, like the interval between the two points of a compass. For the moment, the points are just far enough apart to reach from the beginning to the end of my sentence; but if the fancy took me to spread them further my present would embrace, in addition to my last sentence, the one that preceded it: all I should have had to do is to adopt another punctuation. Let us go further: an attention which could be extended indefinitely would embrace, along with the preceding sentence, all the anterior phrases of the lecture and the events which preceded the lecture, and as large a portion of what we call our past as desired. The distinction we make between our present and past is therefore, if not arbitrary, at least relative to the extent of the field which our attention to life can embrace. The “present” occupies exactly as much space as this effort. As soon as this particular attention drops any part of what it held beneath its gaze, immediately that portion of the present thus dropped becomes ipso facto a part of the past. In a word, our present falls back into the past when we cease to attribute to it an immediate interest.
[…] Consequently nothing prevents us from carrying back as far as possible the line of separation between our present and our past. An attention to life, sufficiently powerful and sufficiently separated from all practical interest, would thus include in an undivided present the entire past history of the conscious person […]. What we have is a present which endures. [14]

19If nothing prevents us from carrying back as far as possible the line of separation between our present and our past, if we could erase this line that produces our perception, it is because the present lasts as long as our attention does, as long as the effort that we expend in this attentiveness does: “The ‘present’ occupies exactly as much space as this effort.” Even if this division of time remains a vital function for our daily life—something Bergson emphasized several times during the conference—we must not submit to what perception presents as obvious.

20By way of this notion of attention, or attention to life, we come to the most profound notion in Bergson’s philosophy. Through it, in fact, we understand why he denounced philosophy’s conception of time: the time we perceive in our daily life is not time as it really is. In other words, the present is not the only existent of time, but what we perceive as the only existent. But if, with this notion, we get to the heart of Bergson’s thinking and his critique of philosophy, it then becomes possible to consider the time of writing. What is the intrinsic temporality of writing? Is it the same as the one with which we perceive time in our daily life? How do we perceive the present when we write?

21In the same passage, Bergson seems to anticipate this relationship between the present of writing and the notion of attention: my present, he says, “at this moment, is the sentence I am pronouncing.” But in order to extend the duration of this present, in other words the present that comes into being through the duration of the sentence he is pronouncing, he needed to widen his field of attention, the effort he expended to pronounce this sentence. For attention, he adds, is something “that can be made longer or shorter, like the interval between the two points of a compass.” And for the moment, the points comprising the outer limits of attention, or more precisely this field of attention, “are just far enough apart to reach from the beginning to the end” of the sentence; so for Bergson, the present lasts as long as the sentence he pronounces. It is however always possible to push these limits back: “all I should have had to do,” he asserts, “is to adopt another punctuation.”

22This effort to widen the outer limits of the field of attention, which simultaneously constitutes the limits of the present, is the effort that writing requires. Writing demands this effort of attention: an effort to expand our field of attention. To not give up on the present, to make it last, is the work of composition that writing requires, work that is intrinsic to it: distancing itself from the everyday perception of time and the present.

23The moment when one writes is, in this sense, a moment “outside of time,” as this moment cannot be understood according to the concept of time we use in our daily lives. To write, we need to expand the present, extend its duration, as when our effort at attention is lost—when this duration of the present stops and the present becomes the past—writing cannot continue; it must therefore begin anew.

24The present in which writing takes place, when one writes, when the hand moves forward to trace linguistic signs, becomes an unprecedented present. To borrow the words of Bergson, it is a present which endures. All the effort of writing consists in prolonging the moment that writing needs to become writing, to lay out the idea, the topic or the subject that moves about at the same time as the writing.

b – Attention, Writing, and Learning

25In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière notes a fact that, in his view, everyone can verify: not all minds obtain the same results. What does that mean? First, that people do not learn the same thing. There are those who learn many things, and those who learn very little; those who learn very easily, and those who take much longer to learn. Rancière adds, however, that this does not mean that the second group is less intelligent than the first: “I will not say that [the person who learns very little] has done less well because he is less intelligent. I will say that he has perhaps produced a poorer work because he has worked more poorly, that he has not seen well because he hasn’t looked well. I will say that he has brought less attention to his work.” [15]

26This passage from Rancière’s text presents the problem of attention in the process of learning. If not all minds obtain the same results, this can be explained by the intensity of their attentiveness. If there are those who learn little, it is because they do not apply enough attention to their effort at learning. And if there are those who learn a lot, it is because their effort to learn involves substantial attention.

27The basic thesis that Rancière defends in The Ignorant Schoolmaster—the equality of intelligence—finds its relevance in this function that gives pride of place to the notion of attention in the processes of learning. But this notion also demonstrates the common thread that ties the learning of writing to the work of learning itself, for writing requires an effort of attention that is at the heart of any process of learning. The practice of writing thus becomes the practice of learning par excellence because learning to write simultaneously involves learning to widen our field of attention.

28The relationship between writing and education is therefore much closer than what the field of education seems to take into consideration in specific teaching practices. We may add that any learning process at school must begin and end with writing exercises. This becomes the keystone to what philosophy calls the formation of the self.

29But this relationship between writing and education also raises issues in teaching. Firstly, these issues are connected to the learning of writing as an independent, special process, in other words quite distinct from any other process involving the formation of the self. We could say that learning to write probably starts with learning the rules and customs of the linguistic system with which the learner is confronted: the language they speak. One must first learn this system. But it is also necessary to get beyond this kind of learning if one wishes to get beyond the idea of writing as merely a technique or tool. Here, the problem of attention that Bergson mentioned becomes relevant in relation to writing: how is it possible to convey that effort of attention that the practice of writing requires? How can that effort become the object of the educational relationship? Because, as Rancière writes, attention is an “immaterial fact in its principle.” [16] It is precisely the transmission of this immaterial fact, seemingly put into play by writing, that educational practices must examine more attentively.

30Secondly, the issues in teaching raised by the relationship between writing and education are connected to what we could call the place of writing in any learning process. If any process involving the formation of the self is traversed by this immaterial fact of attention, it is possible to give this immateriality a material place of development through the practice of writing. The problem raised by this perspective, which gives writing a place of privilege in the relationship between learner and teacher, between “master” and student, is one of establishing this place of privilege: how can it become a reality in the educational experience? In other words, how can this theoretical postulate find a practical application?


  • [1]
    I would like to thank Camille Roelens from the Université Jean Monnet in Saint-Étienne for his careful proofreading of this text.
  • [2]
    Plato, “Meno,” IV: Laches, Protagoras, Meno, Euthydemus, trans. Walter R. M. Lamb (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1952), p. 299-301.
  • [3]
    See Didier Moreau, “L’étrangeté de la formation de soi,” in Le Télémaque 41.1 (2012): p. 115-132.
  • [4]
    Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), p. 17-18 [Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 8]. My italics for the last sentence.
  • [5]
    Plato, “Phaedrus,” I: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, trans. Harold N. Fowler (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1953), p. 405-579.
  • [6]
    The complete sentence I am drawing on here is as follows: “Today, twenty years later, by a kind of return upstream to the body, the manual sense of the word (writing) is my destination, ‘scription’ (the muscular act of writing, of tracing letters) is what interests me: this gesture by which the hand takes a tool (stylus, reed, quill), presses it onto a surface, moves forward by pushing down or by stroking and traces regular, recurring, rhythmic forms (no more needs to be said: we don’t have to speak of ’signs’).” Roland Barthes, “Variations sur l’écriture,” in Œuvres complètes, vol. IV (Paris: Seuil, 2014), p. 267. [Translator’s note: this text does not seem to have been published in English in its entirety.]
  • [7]
    In Of Grammatology, Derrida’s denunciation of this inflationary phenomenon took the following form: “For some time now, as a matter of fact, here and there, by a gesture and for motives that are profoundly necessary, whose degradation is easier to denounce than it is to disclose their origin, one says ‘language’ for action, movement, thought, reflection, consciousness, unconsciousness, experience, affectivity, etc. Now we tend to say ‘writing’ for all that and more: to designate not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible; and also, beyond the signifying face, the signified face itself. And thus we say ‘writing’ for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural ‘writing.’ One might also speak of athletic writing, and with even greater certainty of military or political writing in view of the techniques that govern those domains today. All this to describe not only the system of notation secondarily connected with these activities but the essence and the content of these activities themselves. It is also in this sense that the contemporary biologist speaks of writing and pro-gram in relation to the most elementary processes of information within the living cell. And, finally, whether it has essential limits or not, the entire field covered by the cybernetic program will be the field of writing.” See Derrida, De la grammatologie, p. 19 [Of Grammatology, p. 9].
  • [8]
    Paulo Freire, Pedagogia do oprimido (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1970) [Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970)].
  • [9]
    Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, I: Arts de faire (Paris: Union générale d’éditions, 1980) [The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)].
  • [10]
    Jacques Derrida, “La Pharmacie de Platon,” in La dissémination (Paris: Seuil, 1972) [“Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981)].
  • [11]
    Henri Bergson, “La perception du changement,” in La Pensée et le mouvant (Paris: PUF, 1938), p. 167 [“The Perception of Change,” in The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (New York: Wisdom Library, 1946), p. 125].
  • [12]
    Bergson, “La perception du changement,” p. 167 [“The Perception of Change,” p. 125].
  • [13]
    Bergson, “La perception du changement,” p 167 [“The Perception of Change,” p. 125].
  • [14]
    Bergson, “La perception du changement,” p. 168-170 [“The Perception of Change,” p. 126-127]. My italics for the last sentence.
  • [15]
    Jacques Rancière, Le Maître ignorant: Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle (Paris: Fayard, 1987), p. 86 [The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 50]. My italics.
  • [16]
    Rancière, Le Maître ignorant, p. 86 [The Ignorant Schoolmaster, p. 51].