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But what is truth?

July 10, 2014

There’s a lot of chat in the ELT world at the moment about evidence and truth. For too long, English language teachers have been expected to incorporate ideas, approaches and techniques into their teaching, simply because somebody somewhere has decided that they are a good idea. “Things” like learning styles and multiple intelligence theory have found their way into the mainstream of English language teaching to such an extent that you can’t do a TESOL course these days without being expected (or even required) to refer to them when describing learners and learning.
It turns out that many of these “things” (I’m not sure what else to call them) have little or no evidence to support their effectiveness. For more on this, see Russ Mayne’s IATEFL presentation, in which he debunks pseudoscience in EFL, or visit his blog here.
The great thing about Russ’s presentation was the way he slated approaches and techniques (and their practitioners) for pretending to be scientific when they actually aren’t. He encourages us all to be sceptical, to question an idea when it is presented to us, to ask for evidence to back it up. James Taylor wrote a good post recently about this here.
Now, I’m all for scepticism. I think it’s absolutely right to question everything. However, is it enough just to ask for some scientific evidence to back something up? Do hard facts and empirical data always give us a definitive answer?
If we are to question pseudoscience, maybe we should also question science itself. The problem with science is that it is grounded in the philosophy of positivism – the idea that an objective truth always exists and can always be found in data that is gathered from experience.
That may sound reasonable enough, but it’s actually been overtaken by other concepts. Positivism dates back to the 19th century, and it has since been established that truth is a lot more difficult to get to the bottom of than simply by researching and presenting data. Postmodernist philosophers like Jacques Derrida encouraged us to deconstruct concepts and beliefs – not just to question them, but to break them down in order to identify why they exist in the first place.
If we rely too heavily on evidence, what happens is that we end up favouring any information that is easily measurable, often at the expense of information that is less easily measurable. How do you measure a student’s progress, for example? The positivist approach is to test the student, but we all know how difficult it is to come up with robust assessment instruments that give us a “true” measure of learner progress. How do you measure the success of a lesson? Well, first you have to draw up a set of intended outcomes (aims/objectives) and then after the lesson you evaluate how well you achieved these outcomes. But of course this means that your lesson will necessarily follow a pre-set agenda and your evaluation does not take into account any unintended outcomes that you may have achieved (I go into more detail about this here). Or how do you measure the success of a course? Most organisations will have some kind of list of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that they use when evaluating their programmes, but anyone who regularly engages with KPIs will know that they don’t give the full picture, and can even be used to hide or distort the truth (Ball 2010).
Basically, positivism and reliance on measurable data isn’t enough. Chuck Sandy puts it very well in his recent blog post when he says:
‘I have come to believe that so much of what’s involved in learning and teaching takes place somewhere so deeply within us and is so complex that it’s even difficult to talk about – let alone measure, quantify and package.’
Michel Foucault’s ideas are also relevant here, as he wrote at some length about how to identify truth when ideas are presented in discourse. He used the terms “archaeology” and “genealogy” when analysing language, suggesting that the history or background behind a statement is instrumental in its existence, and therefore this needs to be analysed in order to understand it fully. Foucault claims that truth is not pre-existent or objective, but is something that comes into being and is ‘produced by various techniques…rather than something that already exists and is simply waiting to be discovered.’ (O’Farrell 2007).
Truth is fabricated as events occur, and it changes with time. This is why scientists don’t always agree with each other, and why scientifically established “facts” can later be proven by other scientists to be not true at all.
If there is no pre-existent truth, then maybe it isn’t a good idea to use existing assumptions as a basis for establishing new truths. Nor is the gathering of empirical evidence a necessarily foolproof way of presenting an argument or proving /disproving a hypothesis.
When it comes to critical analysis, we shouldn’t just question an idea by asking “where’s the evidence?” Foucault would argue that we need to identify where the idea came from in the first place – what were the motives behind the presentation of the idea, and how might this influence the information being presented? Foucault also wrote a lot about the relationship between knowledge and power. People in power want you to believe certain things are true, and that other things are not. Just because something appears in a peer-reviewed journal, this doesn’t necessarily make it true. Who reviewed the article? Why did they allow it to be published? What other articles were rejected in favour of that article?
We can take this Foucauldian approach to the analysis of any current discourse in ELT. For example, before we analyse Sugata Mitra’s evidence to support the idea that teachers and classrooms are obsolete, and that children should instead be educated via the Internet, let’s instead consider the origins and motivations behind his findings. Once we establish that his research was sponsored by an E-learning company and the World Bank, and consider how these organisations might benefit from the construction of this “truth”, the evidence starts to lose its relevance. Analysing the data itself is not what is required; instead you need to excavate what lies beneath the whole project.
So be sceptical by all means, but be critical as well. Over-reliance on empirical data can only give you information about stuff that can be gathered by the collection of empirical data. And this won’t lead you to any single truth anyway; it will only lead you to a truth that has been fabricated for certain reasons.

Of course, me writing this post and you reading it makes us complicit in the fabrication of a kind of truth. You should really critically analyse what sort of truth I am trying to fabricate here and question my motives for writing this post. Then go on to analyse your motives for reading it, and establish what might be gained (if anything) as a result.


Ball, S. (2010), ‘The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity’, in Journal of Education Policy, Vol. 18, No. 2: 215-228.

O’Farrell, C. (2007), Key Concepts, available from:

  1. How do we define what is true? I don’t think anyone is agreed on this, philosophically or scientifically. Not even in relation to concrete phenomena. As educationalists we are concerned with behaviour. This is far from concrete as there are always far to many variables. How far can we rely on scientific evidence to influence how we teach a group of individuals?

    • Hi Holly,
      This is a very interesting point. Education is very complex, and the learning process involves so many concepts that are difficult to pin down and measure – things like motivation, or intelligence, or memory. The range of variables that combine to make up a learning environment make it very difficult for us to single out just one and study it in a “scientific” way.
      Thanks for mentioning this.

  2. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    1. You say “The problem with science is that it is grounded in the philosophy of positivism”. You’re wrong: it isn’t. Comte is usually taken as the leader of the first wave of positivism and invented the term. Comte argued that each branch of knowledge passes through “three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state; the metaphysical or abstract state; and, lastly, the scientific or positive state.” (Comte, 1830, cited in Ryan, 1970:36) At the scientific stage, any attempt at absolute explanations of causes is abandoned. Science focuses on how observational phenomena are related, and any generalisations are subjected to empirical verification. Mach, the Austrian philosopher and physicist, headed the second wave, which rooted out the “contradictory” religious elements in Comte’s work,and recommended purging all metaphysics from the scientific method (see Passmore, 1968: 320-321).

    The third wave of positivists were known as “The Vienna circle” whose aim was to continue the work of their predecessors by giving empiricism a more rigorous formulation through the use of recent developments in mathematics and logic. The Vienna circle, which comprised Schlick, Carnap, Godel, and others, and had Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein, as interested parties (see Passmore, 1968: 367-368, and Hacking, 1983: 42-44), developed a programme labelled Logical Positivism, which consisted first of cleaning up language so as to get rid of paradoxes, and then limiting science to strictly empirical statements: in the grand tradition of positivism they pledged to get rid of all speculations on “pseudo problems” and concentrate exclusively on empirical data. There is, interestingly, a fifty-year gap between each of these three phases of positivism: like a bad penny, it kept coming back.

    The logical positivists argued that true science could only be achieved by completely abandoning metaphysical speculation and concentrating exclusively on the simple ordering of experimental data according to rules. By so doing, science would eventually dominate the world of experience: it was only a matter of time before all the secrets of this world were revealed and became “an open book” to the patient scientist. This implies that scientists should not speak of causes: there is no physical necessity forcing events to happen and all we have in the world are regularities between types of events. Furthermore, the positivists rejected the existence of, and thus any role for, unobservable or theoretical entities. This epistemology makes positivist science the only valid knowledge, to the exclusion of any other type of “understanding”. Apart from establishing a strict demarcation line between positivist science and everything else, the positivists shared the underlying pretension of achieving some kind of global unification of the sciences. Such a programme is obviously tremendously ambitious, and, many would say, equally arrogant. The approach was, to a large extent, a reaction to the Aristotelian approach in the middle ages, and more recently, it was against the idealism of Hegel and Heidegger. It represents, in my opinion, the biggest wrong turn philosophy ever took. In the social sciences, biology, psychology and linguistics, it continued to have a powerful influence on research methodology right up until the nineteen sixties. The development of behaviourism was inspired by positivist ideology, by the desire to rid psychology of speculative thought and to put it on a sound “scientific” footing, and the predominant tendency for linguistics at this time to eschew “mentalist” models also has its roots in positivism.

    “Positivism” is a fundamentally mistaken project as Popper (1959, 1963, 1972) shows and as Wittgenstein himself recognised in his later work (see Wittgenstein, 1933). Those who label modern science “positivism” are either ignorant of the history of positivism or are making a straw man case which represents no present-day researcher in the sciences.

    Let it be clear that Positivism was not, and is not, a good way to characterise the rational development of research programmes and theories in science or in any other area of academic research. Postmodernists and other relativists who attack rationalists by calling them positivists, or by accusing them of adopting a “positivist” attitude to science, are mistaken.

    2. You got one bit right: Russ’s insistence on asking for empirical evidence to support a claim or theory is not an adequate description of how science builds its theories. The role of evidence is to test theories, trying to falsify them, since proving them to be true is impossible. While it’s important to point this out, Russ’ main argument, that claims and theories must be able to stand the test of empirical tests and offer empirical evidence in support, is IMHO, correct and vitally important.

    3. You say that “it has since been established that truth is a lot more difficult to get to the bottom of than simply by researching and presenting data”. Except for the long-abandoned positivists, nobody ever suggested that the truth could be easily got at by researching and presenting data: nobody! Thus, this argument gives no justification for abandoning logic, reason and an appeal to empirical evidence in order to embrace the topsy-turvey epistemological world of the relativists.

    4. You quote Chuck Sandy who says ‘I have come to believe that so much of what’s involved in learning and teaching takes place somewhere so deeply within us and is so complex that it’s even difficult to talk about – let alone measure, quantify and package”. That strikes me as a very insightful statement, and it simply emphasises the demarcation line between science and non-science. Much of what happens in ELT (and the world!) is better understood by examining it from a sensitive humanistic educational perspective where science has no place.

    6. You say “If there is no pre-existent truth, then maybe it isn’t a good idea to use existing assumptions as a basis for establishing new truths. Nor is the gathering of empirical evidence a necessarily foolproof way of presenting an argument or proving /disproving a hypothesis.” This is sophistry. What “existing assumptions” are you talking about? What “new truths” do you want to establish? In any case, if the sentence has any content, it’s a non-sequitur. And since the second sentence is a motherhood statement which nobody could possibly object to, it does nothing to support any interesting argument.

    7. Foucault’s epistemology can’t be simplified as you try to do, and it certainly can’t be used to make the logically fallacious analysis you do of Sugata Mitra’s thesis. You say “Once we establish that his research was sponsored by an E-learning company and the World Bank, and consider how these organisations might benefit from the construction of this “truth”, the evidence starts to lose its relevance. Analysing the data itself is not what is required; instead you need to excavate what lies beneath the whole project. is and then put to use in the mistaken way you do”. Mitra’s work should be critically evaluated in terms of its internal logical consistency and its ability to stand up to empirical tests. That the work was sponsored by the World Bank might alert one to a bias, but to suggest that the evidence loses its relevance is a step too far: the evidence must be evaluated on its own merits.

    • Hi Geoff,
      Thanks very much for your detailed comment, and for bringing your considerable knowledge to the discussion.
      You’re right that I have been a bit over-simplistic in my description of positivism and its relationship with science, and I’m wrong to be lumping the two together in the way that I have. Having said that though, this over-simplified belief that science is about gathering evidence to prove the truth of certain universal statements, is a common misconception; many people believe that objective truth is the only truth, and that evidence must be gathered to find this. In my post I wanted to point out that it’s not as simple as that.
      I think I used the word ‘science’ too much. As you say, “Much of what happens in ELT (and the world!) is better understood by examining it from a sensitive humanistic educational perspective where science has no place.” That sums up a lot of what I was trying to say. If science has no place in a lot of ELT, constantly asking for evidence to back ideas up i.e. assuming that science does have a place, is the wrong way to go about critical analysis.
      With regard to Foucauldian analysis, I wanted to use Mitra’s research as an example but I agree I didn’t do this very well. A postmodernist analysis of Mitra’s discourse would, however, highlight the fact that Mitra’s involvement in the research is bound to impact on his interpretation of the findings. Analysis of educational research requires us to identify examples of hegemony as described in Foucault’s power-knowledge concept – this is fundamental to his epistemology.
      We need to dig deep into the origins of a piece of discourse, as opposed to just scratching the surface. Of course we need to consider whether Mitra is right, or whether he has a point, but we also need to investigate why this point is being made in the first place. Sure, his argument about the obsolescence of classroom-based learning can be taken at face value and debated in this way, but surely an analysis that exposes the organisations that are trying to fabricate this idea as the truth is also valid. It may also be useful to deconstruct Mitra’s discourse as well as the arguments he makes. For example, his use of the term “Grannies”. This sounds very endearing and positive, and because of this, anyone who criticises a Granny immediately looks bad. But these “grannies” represent the replacement of professional teachers with unqualified, untrained support workers. Sugata’s use of an uncriticisable term cleverly hides a sinister power-shift away from the professional educator and towards the provider of the learning programme.
      Anyway, the Sugata thing was just an example – I might go on to do an analysis of his discourse another time, though a few people have already done this.
      Thanks again for your helpful and insightful comments.

      • geoffjordan permalink

        Hi Steve,

        While science has no place in a lot of ELT, we still need to discuss the more “slippery”, human issues of ELT as rationally and critically as we can, which normally involves scrutinising evidence. Critical rationalism can inform not only scientific method but also attempts to understand teaching and learning.

        As for assessing Mitra’s arguments, it doesn’t need Foucault or any other hero of postmodernism to point out the importance of Mitra’s connection to big business: this is, after all, part of the evidence to be considered. But it’s possible, is it not, that Mitra ‘s arguments are forceful and deserve support even if he IS defending the interests of a bank. You say we need to dig deep into the origins of a piece of discourse, I (and Russ, maybe) say that we need to gather and then carefully scrutinise the evidence: how much difference is there, really? While deconstructing texts a la Derrida is a fashionable pastime indulged in by students and staff at any forward-looking university language department these days, I remain largely unimpressed by this method of assessing rival proposals for teaching, or explanations of things we’re trying to understand.

        Anyway, I’m very glad to see you sailing in these waters, so uncharted by most ELT bloggers ( 🙂 ),and you have my enthusiastic support for all your efforts.



      • Hi Geoff,
        Thanks for this – for your contributions and for your support. Perhaps there isn’t really much difference between critical analysis of discourse and careful scrutiny of the evidence presented. At the end of the day we are just trying to get to the bottom of stuff.
        We’re all on the same side, in that we are sceptical of those who claim to have the answers, when a bit of critical analysis shows that they don’t.
        I realise I’m stretching myself with these blog posts, but this is how I learn. I’m grateful for your input, and thanks again for being so criticising my points so nicely – I mean that genuinely 🙂

  3. geoffjordan permalink

    Sorry, I should have said in my last comment that you can find all the references at the end of this page:

  4. Hi Steve,

    Like Geoff, I’m glad to see you sailing in these waters; unlike Geoff, I feel there’s a lot to be gained from post-structuralist approaches to the issues at hand. However, I have a few concerns about the inclusion of Foucault in your post, which seems to me to reduce and misrepresent the Foucauldian concept of power. Perhaps this stems from the lack of a direct reference to any of Foucault’s writings (but as I’m far from my books as I write this, I’m not going to be able to do much better).

    My main issue is with the phrase “People in power …” … As I understand Foucault, power is not something anyone can possess, but rather an omnipresent that manifests and embodies itself in a variety of ways in discourse. Power is generative and productive, one of the things it produces being various forms of truth. Equally, though, the truths it produces can contest each other, resulting in surprising shifts of power. In Foucault’s History of Sexuality, the 19th century obsession with cataloguing perversions produced an idea of normality which was defined precisely in terms of what it was not (e.g. not homosexuality, not transvestism, not fetishism …) … In so doing these repressive discourses, or this flexing of the power of normality, as it were, produced identities which were much more clearly defined than the so-called norms against which they were measured. That’s to say, these repressive discourses produced the idea of, amongst others, a homosexual identity, or a mode of being defined in relation to sexual preference, which in turn made possible the notion of gay rights and consequent political and social struggles.

    Secondly, I feel that to talk of uncovering origins, or what lies “behind” what is said, is to suggest that there is some essential or original truth behind things, which is an idea that Foucault, as far as I know, always resisted (a quick point of reference for this is his debate with Chomsky which can be found, in part at least, on youtube).

    It’s therefore not enough to identify the powerful entities behind Suga Migatra’s work, but to place that work within a wider set of discourses promoting and producing edtech “truths” – e.g. that computers can replace teachers – to see how these truths are defined, but also the points of resistance they generate.

    I feel I’m leaving a lot hanging by saying this, and would like to continue, but I’m supposed to be on holiday and my own claims to a more truthful representation of Foucault have produced a point of resistance in my wife’s desire to make me stop and go and do something less stressful instead!

    All best

    Neil McMillan

  5. Hi Neil,
    Thanks very much for joining the discussion, especially on your holidays. I have to confess I wrote the post while I was on mine, and wasn’t perhaps in the right frame of mind to do Foucauldian post-structuralism justice.
    I think you’re right that Foucault doesn’t see power as something that people can possess, and the phrase ‘people in power’ might suggest that they can. He did talk about institutions and organisations where power lies though. In the debate you mentioned he cites justice systems, universities and the psychiatric profession, in addition to governments, as places where power exists. Nowadays we’d be likely to include multinational corporations in this list. When I said ‘people in power’ I meant the people who are in positions that allow power to be exercised, or who control the “flow” of power – so that would be judges, psychiatrists, teachers (!)…
    It’s true that Foucault saw power as something that could have a positive impact, but my understanding is that he felt that this could only be established after critical analysis of the discourse involved – you give a good example of this.
    Regarding your second point, I see what you mean and I don’t think I expressed myself very well there. Foucault used the word ‘archaeology’ a lot when referring to knowledge, and I was trying to allude to this. In describing this approach to discourse analysis, he says:

    “Archaeology tries to define not the thoughts, representations, images, themes, preoccupations that are concealed or revealed in discourses; but those discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules.” (Foucault 1972: 138).

    I used a bad example with the Sugata thing, but what I was trying to get across was the idea that we need to do more than just focus on the content of a piece of discourse. It’s possible to establish a different kind of truth if we look at how the information is presented, and why, and in order to do this we need to consider a lot more than just the points being made. Rather than suggesting that there is some kind of pre-existent truth, I meant that this kind of archaeological “excavation” can expose other ideas, or uncover alternative truths – not to uncover THE truth.
    I still don’t feel I’ve properly expressed my ideas on this – I probably need a bit more time to distil my thoughts. You and Geoff have certainly helped me to do this though, so thanks very much.
    Enjoy the rest of your holiday,

    Foucault, M. (1972), The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language, New York: Pantheon

  6. Cheers Steve – and I’d like to acknowledge that I subconsciously invented this Suga Migatra character – although maybe Mr Derrida would’ve enjoyed the slip. Mitra’s ideas have proved somewhat saccharine after all – initially sweet but now leaving a somewhat bitter aftertaste.

    It could be that the kind of archaeological approach you outline is well-nigh impossible regarding something as current as the edtech debate – Foucault tended to do his excavating at more distant points in history, albeit axiomatic ones (the birth of the modern prison, of modern psychiatry, of the modern sexual subject). Which isn’t to say that it’s not worth a try, just that the issue is so clouded that it’s difficult to know where to start digging.

    It’s equally difficult figuring out where poststructuralist thought might most profitably be applied in relation to ELT. Derrida’s celebration of the free play of the signifier doesn’t sit well with our notions of chunking and collocation; to this you could add his attacks on communicative intentionality, his privileging of writing over speech, his insistence on the impossibility of ever arriving at a final, unequivocal meaning (how difficult would THAT make the marking of the “communicative achievement” subsection of the Cambridge rubric?) …

    On the other hand, poststructuralism’s healthy suspicion of common-sense notions – and as Russ Mayne points out, many teachers will cling to theories such as learner styles because they just seem to make sense, despite all the evidence to the contrary – might be a useful place to start. It’s here that I wonder when any critique of humanism – a concept both yourself and Geoff Jordan seem happy to use – will ever come into play in the ELT world. Isn’t learner styles theory intimately bound up with humanistic approaches to language teaching? What are the limits of humanism in regard to our thinking about language and about teaching practice? Does humanism begin simply where science ends, as Geoff Jordan seems to imply? “Much of what happens in ELT (and the world!) is better understood by examining it from a sensitive humanistic educational perspective where science has no place.” But if science has no place within a humanistic perspective, does that somehow make humanism beyond critique? My feeling is that it doesn’t, and that any attack on theories of learning styles is the beginning of an attack on humanism. I would be very interested to see where we might end up if we continue this line of questioning.

    Speaking of questions, I’ve asked enough for one night. Thanks again for the discussion and your bravery in devoting a full post to this issue – while I am content to scuttle around in the relative safety of the comments section, for now at least!

    • Hi again Neil,
      You’re probably right that in order to investigate the archaeology of knowledge there needs to be a bit more history – maybe only this can allow a sufficient amount of perspective. Perhaps this approach could be taken when investigating more long-standing issues in ELT, such as the role of L1 and translation, and relationships between teaching methodology and attitudes towards non-native speaking teachers (I touched on this in my more recent post on globalisation).
      Poststructuralism certainly doesn’t seem to fit in with ELT when you start looking at the nature (or even existence!) of meaning. When I first posted this, a few people commented on Twitter that they didn’t think this approach to discourse analysis or quests for truth was particularly helpful. But then Foucault himself didn’t see his role as being to help, or to find solutions, but rather to expose problems. The questions you’ve raised about humanism certainly do this – well, they pose problems anyway.
      You’re right that I have been happy to promote humanism in many of my previous posts, and I’ve always seen humanism as being a logical and appropriate concept to follow within the context of education. However, Geoff’s apparent distinction between science and humanism does seem a bit odd. Where do you draw the line between science and non-science?
      Having said that though, maybe this raises as questions about scientific method as much as it does about humanism?
      I’m afraid I have to stop now because I need to watch the first televised Scottish independence debate. Thank you so much for raising these really searching questions. This has given me a lot to think about, and hopefully other readers will also start thinking about these very big questions.

  7. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    I seem to have given the wrong impression (again?). I intended to make a distinction between humanistic educational VALUES, and scientific method, which is based on using logic and empirical evidence to assess theories. Obviously, values are outside the realm of scientific enquiry, and in many areas of educational practice we are guided by individual and social values.

    Humanism, on the other hand is a philosophical system adopted by (some) non-religious people who, in the words of the British Humanist Society ( believe that “this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making”.

    So I certainly did not mean to imply that humanism begins where science ends, as Neil McMillan suggests. And, by extension, learner styles theory (which flouts both evidence and reason) should not be endorsed by a humanistic approach to language teaching. Neil asks “What are the limits of humanism in regard to our thinking about language and about teaching practice?” Well, IMHO, the limits are imposed by a commitment to the twin pillars of reason (logic) and empirical evidence. This, I believe, rules out all relativist epistemologies, including that found in Derrida’s writing. I completely agree with Neil’s remarks about Foucault, BTW, although I am more sceptical than Neil seems to be about the achievements of post-sctructuralists if by that term he is referring to post-modernist writers like Derrida, Foucault, and the appalling Kristeva.

    Finally, you ask “Where do you draw the line between science and non-science?” The demarcation line between science and non-science is, of course, one of the most hotly-disputed questions in the philosophy of science. Popper famously answered this question by suggesting that a theory is scientific if it is falsifiable, or more precisely that “statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable observations” (Popper 1962, 39). In fact, this “naïve falsifiability criterion” turns out to be indefensible and, IMHO, it really doesn’t matter that there is, in fact, no strict line between the 2. All I think we need is a commitment to a realist ontology and to reason and evidence. What we should condemn is the humpty dumpty world of radical relativists who totally deny the possibiity of objective knowledge.

    Popper, K. (1962) Conjectures and refutations. The growth of scientific knowledge, New York: Basic Books.

  8. Hi again Geoff,
    Thanks for clarifying your point about humanism and science, and that you weren’t presenting them as distinct concepts. As for values, if humanism places human welfare “at the centre of their ethical decision making”, the concept of learning styles is, as Neil points out, quite a humanistic one. I’m sure many advocates of learning styles would certainly claim to be humanist in their approach to teaching. However, I’d suggest that the theory of learning styles isn’t anything to do with humanism at all – quite the opposite in fact. While humanism tries to value the welfare of the individual, learning styles are an attempt to group people, to label them in a category and treat them in a certain way as a result. Well, that’s what it became anyway.
    If, as you suggest, there is no strict dividing line between science and non-science, then maybe there is a similar grey area between rationalism and relativism. Sure, there are plenty of concepts or truths that are pretty much objective and irrefutable; it’s pretty pointless to question them at any rate (the earth orbits the sun, water boils at 100º C, that sort of thing). But then there are other concepts that are best described in more relativist terms. What makes a good teacher, for example, or how do people learn languages? I’m not sure if sets of criteria, or lists of competencies, or detailed procedures, are the best ways to approach answering these questions.
    I’m really pleased to be having this discussion, Geoff, and I’m grateful for your involvement.
    Thanks again,

  9. geoffjordan permalink

    We agree! Learning style theory has nothing to do with humanism; there’s a grey area between rationalism and relativism. As that dusty old bore, Polonius, said “And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, With windlasses and with assays of bias, By indirections find directions out”. 🙂

    • Well that is good news. I’m sure we agree on lots of other things as well. Let’s see how we react to each other’s future posts 🙂
      Best wishes meantime,

  10. Before I butt out of this …. post-structuralism and post-modenism should not be conflated, although they often are. For me at least, one is a loose school of philosophy stemming from late 1960s Paris, and the other is descriptive of cultural and artistic trends following the modernist period, i.e. roughly post-WWII. Also, to reduce post-structuralism to relativism or to “the denial of objective reality” is a purely dismissive tactic, much like the pejorative adjectives Geoff tends, at times, to dish out to modes of thinking he does not approve of … hence the “appalling Kristeva”! She may or may not be appalling, Geoff, but we have come to expect more rigour from you!

    Thinkers associated with poststructuralism are often disparate, but one unifying tendency might be a desire to unpack concepts unthinkingly regarded as univocal and universal, as givens. In this vein, are humanistic individual and social values universal? Are they static? Are they beyond critique? The concept of what is and is not human has, throughout history, been fiercely contested, and has at various points violently excluded those regarded as non- or sub-human … indigenous peoples of America, Africans, women, gay people … (Science itself has been called upon to justify such exclusions at various times. Maybe values are outside scientific enquiry, but science can be, and has been, complicit with the production and reproduction of certain rather odious values.)

    In terms of our own field, just take one look at any mainstream published ELT materials and you’ll quickly come up against an extremely restricted representation of humanity – all of course driven by market forces and the views of those who spend most money on such materials, but those who produce and use them are complicit too. We seem to embrace humanism as a set of values in teaching practice but the reality is we too often present a pathetically narrow view of the human in the work that we do. Meanwhile, apparently worthy humanistic concepts in ELT like student-centred learning and the teacher as facilitator, for example, are anything but universal – their limits are exposed every time one teaches outside the cultural contexts within which these concepts have any currency.

    Finally, the association of humanism solely with non-religious perspectives seems to me dubious, as faith and ritual are difficult to dissociate from certain strands of humanist thought. Which brings us back to learner styles and other theories whose failure in scientific terms is not enough to dissuade the devout. And among the devout we can number the very institutions responsible for recognised introductory training in our industry, who also promote broadly humanistic approaches to language teaching ….

    I hesitate to post this – partly because I fear Geoff or Steve will floor me with a well-aimed discursive uppercut, and partly because I feel I’m dragging this off-topic … But Steve, you did bring in Derrida, and Derrida loved margins. He might’ve liked the idea that the margins (or comments section) of this post have now overtaken the post itself. But Steve, you might not like this! … so I promise this is my last word, and if I need to come back on anything I will start my own bloody blog and you can both have at me there!

    • geoffjordan permalink

      Hi Neil (if I may, Steve),

      I take your points and, again, agree with just about everything you say.

      1. I have never been clear to whom the label post-structuralist applies, which is why I said what I did. I am clearer about the post-modernists, who, in my scheme of things, start later than you suggest. In any case, I did not attempt to reduce the post-structuralists or post-modernists to relativists who deny the possibility of objective reality. Foucault, for example, does no such thing, whiie Kristeva does (I’m prepared to explain why I think the latter’s work is appalling BTW). I wanted to say that I see no strict demarcation between science and non-science and that only radical relativists should be considered “out of court”.

      2. I accept that “a desire to unpack concepts unthinkingly regarded as univocal and universal, as givens” can be a fruitful endeavour, but IMHO it very often leads to the publication of certain easily-recognisable gibberish.

      3. Of course no values are universal or static.

      4. My suggestion that humanists are non-religious comes from associations of Humanists in the UK, USA and other countries.

      5. I hope very much, for the sake of Steve’s blog and everybody’s entertainment and understanding of Derrida, that you’ll keep commenting on these matters, Niel.



  11. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    Here are a few post-modernist quotes – carefully chosen to give a balanced overview 🙂

    • Postmodern would be that which in the modern invokes the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which refuses the consolation of correct forms, refuses the consensus of taste permitting a common experience of nostalgia for the impossible, and inquires into new presentations–not to take pleasure in them, but to better produce the feeling that there is something unpresentable. (Lyotard, 1984: 76)

    • Everything has already happened….nothing new can occur. There is no real world. (Baudrillard, cited in Rosenau, 1992: 64)

    • Derrida tries to problematize the grounds of reason, truth, and knowledge…he questions the highest point by demanding reasoning for reasoning itself. (Norris 1990: 199)

    • Foucault’s study of power and its shifting patterns is a fundamental concept of postmodernism. Foucault is considered a post-modern theorist because his work upsets the conventional understanding of history as a chronology of inevitable facts and replaces it with underlayers of suppressed and unconscious knowledge in and throughout history. These underlayers are the codes and assumptions of order, the structures of exclusion that legitimate the epistemes, by which societies achieve identities. (Appignanesi, 1995: 122)

    • Post-modern methodology is post-positivist or anti-positivist. As substitutes for the scientific method the affirmatives look to feelings and personal experience…..the sceptical post modernists look for substitutes for method because they argue we can never really know anything. (Rosenau 1993: 117)

    • Postmodern interpretation is introspective and anti-objectivist which is a form of individualized understanding. It is more a vision than data observation. (Rosenau 1993: 119)

    • There is no final meaning for any particular sign, no notion of unitary sense of text, no interpretation can be regarded as superior to any other. (Latour 1988: 182)

    • Abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it — on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.” (Kristeva, 1980: Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection)

  12. There is certainly something rather post-modern about the comments containing far more valuable information than the post itself, Neil, and I like this a lot.
    But honestly, gentlemen, I don’t think I can add any more to this, other than to thank you both for your illuminating contributions to the post. Thanks Geoff for providing those quotes as well.
    I hope to see you both again soon in blogland, and possibly elsewhere.

    • geoffjordan permalink

      Thanks, Steve. May I encourage Neil to comment on my blog, and, better by far, to start his own blog.

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