My ontology and epistemology in tension with my pedagogy

A transcript of a work-in-progress presentation about ontology, epistemology, and pedagogy— specifically, my ontology, epistemology, and pedagogy. More specifically, how they might be affected by our current time of crisis.


This schema summarizes my ontology. What it says is that I start with a view that the world is always already unruly complexity. In my 2005 book with that title I explain more what that means. For now, the epistemological implication—how we get to know the world—is that knowledge, plans, and actions continually have to be reassessed in response to developments, predicted and surprising alike.
That idea breaks open into the five elements in color. In order to know the world one has to be engaged within the complexity—there’s no outside position to view everything about the system and predict where it’s going to go. To be engaged within the complexity means you have to participate and collaborate with others. To collaborate well, it helps to be cultivated as a collaborator. To develop skills and to be cultivated as a collaborator, it helps to be curious—to be thinking about what else could be.
Those are four of the items. The fifth—transversality—is to say that complexities are always embedded in larger complexities. Obviously a person is never just contained inside their mind and body, but is always developing in relationship with others. The net result of those interactions with many people occurs in a wider context of the political-economic-cultural complexity, and so on.
If that’s my ontology and my epistemology in one schema, what’s the pedagogy? When I think about my teaching as I direct the programs in Critical and Creative Thinking and in Science in a Changing World—programs that are mid-career personal and professional development—most of my work centers on curiosity and on cultivation of collaborators. We almost never talk about the wider political economy of the world. We do point people towards Action Research, in which they participate with others and engage within the complexity, but we don’t actually do that—that’s not the center of studies or research in the Program. In sum, it’s the two bottom right elements that are central to my pedagogy.
How do I reconcile my ontology and epistemology with the pedagogy that emphasizes two things and merely points to the others? Central to a modest contribution to reconciliation is alternatives thinking, which we might also call critical thinking. That means understanding ideas and practices better by holding them in tension with alternatives (Taylor 2008). When I promote curiosity, I’m often promoting alternatives thinking. I’ll introduce into the discussion an alternative to the dominant or established views; we then explore the implications of that.

Now if I’m exploring implications of alternatives to promote curiosity in my teaching, I should be able to do it for myself, particularly in these times of crisis where, as the bottom of the schema says, it’s impossible to simply continue along previous lines. That thought led me to choose a recent book that I read and ask: how does this nudge my dominant approaches and practices; how does it help me understand them better by holding them in tension with alternatives?
The book I chose was Steve Almond’s Bad Stories. There are many things to think about in the book, but let me consider one passage in the book, in which he describes Hannah Arendt arguing that

totalitarianism is [a] kind of organized loneliness, one that takes root within societies where people feel angry and dislocated, left behind by capitalist expansion. People who lose this sense of identity and rootedness come to feel superfluous and this makes them frantic to find a ‘telos,’ or a grand narrative, that will grant their life meaning and direction.

An implication of thinking in this way is that we don’t simply say these people’s grand narratives are wrong; we have to convey to them what is actually happening. For example, coal miners in West Virginia voted for Trump because he said that we will bring back the coal industry. But coal has been in a long decline, albeit exacerbated by coal being mined in other countries. Moreover, there been many changes in the employment in West Virginia, such as tourism, which could be enhanced by government policies. It is tempting to tell the Trump voters: you’ve got the wrong idea about how to respond to globalization. As an alternative, however, we might ask what would it be mean to pay attention to their loneliness. To pay attention to what makes them feel that they belong (which could also be relevant to the thinking and feeling of people who want to resist the Trumpification of the United States and the world, who want to resist totalitarianism). Thinking along these lines led me back to one of the schemas that I developed a number of years ago.
You don’t have to take in all the text here. It is enough to see that in two directions there are gaps—gaps between what is and what could be. In the vertical direction, the schema is suggesting that alternative knowledge or technologies often require counterfactual social arrangements. On the horizontal direction, the schema is saying that for an alternative to be realized, you need to build a constituency to support the action around that. Conversely, if the constituency is already built around a certain idea, including “Make America Great Again,” then trying to push vertically against that idea is to raise the challenge of building alternative constituencies.
In my own teaching I’m often introducing alternatives, but not so often drawing students into building the constituency to support what is implied by the alternative. I put the alternative out there as if I’m saying it’s good and interesting, now you explore it—it’s up to you—just think about it. That means that my predilection and my pedagogy—introducing alternatives to stimulate curiosity—is sure to be fairly ineffective or irrelevant in the face of the organized loneliness of totalitarianism. People certainly aren’t going to feel less lonely when someone comes along and says look at this alternative to your thinking; you should explore that alternative.
Where does that leave me? I said this is a work in progress. I have to continue to hold in tension with the alternative my exploring gaps in the vertical direction. As I put them out there, I also recognize the place of others—not only those people attracted to totalitarianism, but also those attracted to various scholarly communities and to communities of activism who put in more effort in the horizontal direction to build and sustain the constituency. It is ok that they perhaps put less effort than I am inclined to to work in the vertical direction.
There are many more passages, many more books to hold in tension with alternatives as I explore my ontology and epistemology in tension with my pedagogy.

Almond, S. (2018). Bad Stories. Pasadena, CA, Red Hen Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2008). Developing Critical Thinking is Like a Journey. Teachers and Teaching Strategies, Problems and Innovations. G. F. Ollington. Hauppauge, NY, Nova Science Publishers: 155-169.


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