How does one achieve the intellectual emancipation of students, or, for that matter, of anyone, including yourself? The answer most people would probably give to this question, is that it is done through education and learning. To be sure, but what one learns from the French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, is that a great deal depends upon one’s conception of education and learning.

What is education, and how does one learn? In short, does a student, who supposedly does ‘not know’, learn ‘from’ her or his teachers, who ‘know’ (as the dominant view on education asserts), and become intellectually emancipated along this avenue, or does such a movement towards intellectual liberation entail something entirely different, and counter-intuitive into the bargain?

I have written on Rancière here before in relation to the work of another French thinker, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (see ), but here I want to concentrate on Rancière’s argument concerning equality in learning, and show why it is so relevant for the time in which we live, which is marked by mind-boggling inequalities everywhere, particularly in South Africa (since South Africa replaced Brazil as the most unequal society in the world).

In a nutshell – which is difficult to do – Rancière argues that neither equality nor inequality is a condition that one can ‘prove’ to be the case once and for all; you cannot work towards it as a condition to be actualised, as one would ‘normally’ think. (Philosophical caveat: distrust everything that presents itself as ‘normal’ or self-justifying; chances are that it is ideology masquerading as common sense.) Instead, both of these concepts function as axioms or hypotheses to be validated or demonstrated, and therefore one of them invariably underpins one’s approach to educating or teaching the young.

So, for instance, conventional wisdom has it that the teacher ‘knows’ and the student does not; perfectly self-evident, we would all tend to think. If you happen to have studied the history of philosophy, you may already be inclined to be on your guard here, even before you have read Rancière, because Socrates believed that one cannot really claim to know much. The Socratic ‘docta ignorantia’ (or ‘learned ignorance’), which states that ‘all one can know is how little one knows’, and therefore motivates an endless pursuit of knowledge, or better, wisdom, already warns one against too smug an acceptance that the teacher imparts what she or he knows to those who do not know – the ignorant.

But Rancière is even more radical than Socrates. Appealing to the ‘teaching practice’ of a 19th-century figure, Joseph Jacotot, in his book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster – Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (Stanford, 1991, p. 29-30), Rancière argues that Jacotot’s radical (if not desperate) experiment, to let students discover for themselves something they did not know, and he could not teach them, is an instantiation of a radical, emancipatory process of self-discovery which affirms the intellectual ‘equality’ of all individuals (regardless of culture, gender or race). Furthermore, this has far-reaching implications for social equality.

There is a reason why I put intellectual ‘equality’ in scare quotes. Rancière is not claiming that everyone is equally ‘intelligent’ in the ‘measurable IQ’ sense of the term. What he is claiming, however, is that, just as every child sufficiently endowed with intelligence is capable of learning their mother tongue – the measure of intellectual capacity – so, too, every student or person is capable of discovering the meaning of diverse things for themselves by replicating the situation of acquiring their first language, that is, by listening, comparing, repeating, attempting and imitating. In short, every human being is capable of ‘making sense’ of something by themselves.

Referring to his book (mentioned above), Rancière observes (On ignorant schoolmasters, in Jacques Rancière: Education, Truth, Emancipation; Continuum, 2010, p. 1): “It is…up to me to defend a most unreasonable position: That the most important quality of a schoolmaster is the virtue of ignorance. My book recounts the history of a teacher, Joseph Jacotot, who caused quite a scandal in Holland and France of the 1830s. He did so by proclaiming that uneducated people could learn on their own, without a teacher explaining things to them, and that teachers, for their part, could teach what they themselves were ignorant of…I would like to show…that it is not a matter of taking pleasure in paradox, but of fundamental inquiry into the meanings of knowledge, teaching and learning; not an amusing journey into the history of pedagogy, but a matter of timely philosophical reflection on the way in which pedagogical logic and social logic bear on each other.”

That teaching can happen on the basis of ignorance is borne out by Jacotot’s experience in the early 19th century when he found himself in the position where he had to ‘teach’ a group of Flemish students French, of which they were ignorant. He, in turn, was ignorant of Flemish, but by a stroke of serendipity he discovered a bilingual novel, where Flemish and French correlated with each other. He instructed the students, through an interpreter, to read half of the book in French by using the Flemish translation, continually repeating for themselves what they had learnt, then to read the rest quickly, followed by commenting on it in French. To his amazement, by following his instruction they learnt sufficient French, all by themselves, to articulate their opinions very well.

What can one learn from this exercise in the pedagogy of not knowing, of ignorance? For Rancière it is an indication of the gulf that separates the pedagogy of ‘explication’ (or explanation) – which presupposes that the student is unequal to the teacher as far as knowledge goes – from the pedagogy of equality, or ignorance, where instead of explication, there is self-driven discovery and learning. Moreover, in the case of explication, which supposedly brings the student closer to the teacher, in equality, this chasm is never really negotiated, because every approximation of the teacher’s knowledge moves the goalposts to another level, involving yet another set of explanations. It becomes an infinite regress, and inequality is entrenched, not only in education, but in society as such.

By contrast, the pedagogy of ignorance (where the teacher is at best a ‘guide’ of sorts, and where there is not a disjunction of intelligences, as with the pedagogy of explication), instantiates a relation of wills (that of the teacher and of the student) insofar as the teacher is an ‘authority’ only in the sense of inviting the student to harness her or his will to travel along a specific track. In so doing, Rancière (2010: 2-3) reminds one, students are merely activating a ‘capacity’ that they already possess, as shown by the fact that, as infants, they acquired a ‘foreign language’ without any previous knowledge, and without a teacher to explain it to them.

You may wonder in what way this is more radical than Socratic ‘learned ignorance’. The Socratic ‘maieutic’ – a dialogic method of interrogating an interlocutor in order to aid them in finding knowledge within themselves (what Socrates did with the slave boy in Plato’s Meno) – is for Rancière a form of ‘stultification’, or blocking of a person’s intellectual emancipation by making him or her dependent on the teacher as master. In his words ( 1991: p.29): “The Socratic method is thus a perfected form of stultification. Like all learned masters, Socrates interrogates in order to instruct.” And elsewhere (2010: 2): “Under the guise of creating a capacity, the [Socratic] maieutic aims, in fact, to demonstrate an incapacity”.

Small wonder that societies, globally, are structured in such egregiously unequal, hierarchical terms – these hierarchies have their foundation in the widespread pedagogy of explanation, which presupposes an unbridgeable gulf between teacher and student, something that subsequently replicates itself in every other social relation. Rancière’s work, by contrast, is predicated on the axiom of equality, which he sets out to demonstrate as actualisable in his various works.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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