Unpacking the learner in enlightenment thought

By Stefan Bengtsson

An overarching project in my current work in a couple of writing projects relates to the conception of the learner as it is framed by enlightenment thought. In particular, I am interested in the characteristics of unity, autonomy and invulnerability and how that can be seen to frame even to this very day, common educational thought.

A key concept for thinking about this learner has been put forward in Kant´s notion of the principle of primary or pure apperception. This pure apperception relates to the synthetic unity of thought the subject thinking it. It is this unity of “I think” that I see as crucial for today´s understanding of learning. In particular, it is the claim of unity of this “I” thinking that can be seen to be framing notions of intellectual development, as it is still the same “I” thinking even though it can, in line with the project of enlightenment, be seen to become more mature and to emerge from an age of non-reason. The concept of pure apperception can be seen to be trying to ward off the danger of inconsistency of thought and, maybe even more frightening, the idea of a self that varies according to the thoughts it pursues. What this claim of synthetic unity of “I think” can also be seen to be related to is the autonomy of that “I” thinking. Thus, the I thinking is autonomous in the way that that thought is my own.

This autonomy is crucial for warding off a potential variation of the self or rather opaqueness of that self. It is for example crucial for thinking progression through learning as that progression needs to be congruent with a singular “I” who´s capacity to reason is progressing. If this autonomy would be undermined, then there is a danger that the whole idea of singular and synthetic development of mind might be in question. Shall we briefly challenge this assumption?

Do not think of a polar bear! … What just happened? Did you think of a polar bear? If you did think of a polar bear, was that thought your own? Were you fully in control of your mind? That is, not thinking of a polar bear, but did it do things that were not initiated by you?

What this example aims to illuminate is that the workings of the mind, as well as that of the self, might not be fully transparent to ourselves as assumed in the thought of Fichte and Kant. Accordingly, learning as partially relating to cognitive activity might not be fully owned by the learning subject.

We might end up with a reconception of the self-as-thinking which resembles something close to the movie Inception. We might discover that a thought we thought was ours is not ours – do not think of a polar bear! The self might have been transgressed by something that is not that self. The law of non-contradiction seems to be become loosened when we think for a moment about this. Of course it was my thought as I was thinking of a polar bear, however, it was also not my thought.

The point to be made here is that what we find at the core of what often is taken for granted as the central unit of education and learning is not the autonomous unit called the learner. That unit seems to be unable to fully account for itself as well as not fully in control of itself. Thus, the notion of reason as a way of appropriation by a subject can be seen to be weakened.

For t-learning, this might mean that transformation and transgression might not always be initiated by a learning subject, the agent of change or whatever we might call that human something at the centre of our thinking. What if the human agent, is an agent, however not fully in control of that change? What we are touching upon here is a fear addressed by psychoanalysis, post-structural theory, as well as nihilism. In the case of nihilism, there might, for example, be the danger that the will to know (the will to power) is an expression of a will to nothingness (Brassier, 2007). That is, that the agent of change is engaging in its own extinction?

However, I interpret this loosening up of the subject as also offering an alternative for learning and education. I see this weakening of the subject, that is its autonomy and unity, to allow for its vulnerability to emerge. Why this vulnerability, you might ask yourself? Because, a weakening of the subject, that is the acknowledgment that it is to some extent opaque to itself and at the same time itself and not-itself opens up for an intimacy to other selfs. Thus, what we might find at our very core is a glimmering blackness (Morton, 2015), an overlay of all the colorful other things out there, or rather in here, that constitute that self that I call my own.

Might this not be a transgression of a self in an a temporal sense? That is, I might discover that what I am is already something else. T-learning might here take another turn, leaving behind the antagonistic conception of change as it can be seen to be informed by a dialectical approach to transformation and instead open itself up to a more gentle and maybe even more frightening engagement with a self that seemingly is already transgressed.

As I am currently exploring this opening up of an alternate understanding of t-learning, I see a pedagogy of vulnerability as a viable option for an alternate engagement with issues related to current planetary challenges.



  1. Injairu November 21, 2017 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Thank you for this Stefan. It has been fascinating to hear you unpack the offerings of enlightenment thought and specifically the construction of the rational learner within that. It is particularly relevant to hear your thoughts around this from the global South where the ideas of rationality and autonomy that you describe have had an enduring impact on education. They are also particularly relevant as the call to decolonize education become more refined in their purpose.

    Yes indeed, from this perspective and in harmony with what you have shared the unit of the learner is not fully in control of itself or cannot fully account for itself. That there is a sense of itself that is opaque to it opens up the space for exploration into this self beyond rational understandings. As a way of searching into this self for me in my work we have begun to look at the erotic knowledge of a learner as a useful way of looking into this unknown self. A space where what is conscious or unconscious can be surfaced and journeyed with.

    Vulnerability is a very import aspect of this because it opens up an inquiry that can be comfortable exploring what it is uncertain about and not just what it “thinks’ it knows. The sense of vulnerability here perhaps unveils our fragility as human beings and what we choose to create in communion with the earth and other sentient beings. I love that you speak about this form of transgression as going beyond a dialectical antagonistic conception of change into much murkier territory that perhaps implicates our current and future role in other ways.

    I found that this piece put the decolonial work that we are doing here in solidarity with what you are doing there. It fosters a sense of connection through this transgressive work that was a warm and useful surprise. That perhaps we are cottoning on to the ways of thinking about learning that are being eclipsed in this season towards a more uncertain praxis that requires that we acknowledge and work with our vulnerabilities.

    Thank you for this,

  2. Karim-Yassin Goessinger April 2, 2019 at 7:55 am - Reply

    Dear Stefan,

    I appreciate your inquiry. I particularly like your suggestion to ‘leave behind the antagnostic conception of change’. It reminded me of work I’ve been involved with as part of the decolonial futures collectives.

    You might find the pedagogical experiment on ‘pedagogy of attunement’ relevant to your work.

    See here:


    Wishing you all the best with your inquiries,


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