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Philosophy of Education: Historical Overview

William K. Frankena


The word education is used sometimes to signify the activity, process, or enterprise of educating or being educated and sometimes to signify the discipline or field of study taught in schools of education that concerns itself with this activity, process, or enterprise. As an activity or process, education may be formal or informal, private or public, individual or social, but it always consists in cultivating disposition (abilities, skills, knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values, and character traits) by certain methods. As a discipline, education studies or reflects on the activity or enterprise by asking questions about its aims, methods, effects, forms, history, costs, value, and relations to society.



The philosophy of education may be either the philosophy of the process of education or the philosophy of the discipline of education. That is, it may be part of the discipline in the sense of being the concerned with the aims, forms, methods or results of the process of educating or being educated; or it may be metadisciplinary in the sense of being concerned with the concepts, aims, and methods of the discipline. However, event in the latter case it may be thought of as part of the discipline, just as metaphilosophy is thought of as a part of philosophy, although the philosophy of science is not regarded as a part of science. Historically, philosophies of education have usually taken the first form, but under the influence of analytical philosophy, they have sometimes taken the second.

In the first form, philosophy of education was traditionally developed by philosophers-for example, Aristotle, Augustine, and John Locke-as part of their philosophical systems, in the context of their ethical theories. However, in the twentieth century philosophy of education tended to be developed in school of education in the context of what is called foundations of education, thus linking it with other parts of the discipline of education-educational history, psychology, and sociology-rather than with other parts of philosophy. It was also developed by writers such as Paul Goodman and Robert M. Hutchins who were neither professional philosophers nor members of schools of education.



As there are many kinds of philosophy, many philosophies, and many ways of philosophizing, so there are many kinds of educational philosophy and ways of doing it. In a sense there is no such thing as the philosophy of education; there are only philosophies of education that can be classified in many different ways.

Philosophy of education as such does not describe, compare, or explain any enterprises to systems of education, past or present; except insofar as it is concerned with the tracing of its own history, it leaves such inquiries to the history and sociology of education. Analytical philosophy of education is meta to the discipline of education-to all the inquiries and thinking about education-in the sense that it does not seek to propound substantive propositions, either factual or normative, about education. It conceives of its task at that of analysis: the definition or elucidation of educational concepts like teaching, indoctrination, ability, and trait, including the concept of education itself; the clarification and criticism of educational slogans like “Teach children, not subjects”; the exploration of models used in thinking about education (e.g, growth); and a analysis and evaluation of arguments and methods used in reaching conclusions about education, whether by teachers, administrators, philosophers, scientists, or laymen.

To accomplish this task, analytical philosophy uses the tools of logic and linguistics as well as techniques of analysis that vary from philosopher to philosopher. Its results may be valued for their own sake, but they may also be helpful to those who seek more substantive empirical of normative conclusions about education and who try to be careful about how they reach them. This entry is itself an exercise in analytical philosophy of education.

Normative philosophies or theories of education may make use of the results of such analytical work and of factual inquiries about human beings and the psychology of learning, but in any case they propound views about what education should be, what dispositions it should cultivate, why it ought to cultivate them, how and in whom it should do so, and what forms it should take. Some such normative theory of education is implied in very instance of educational endeavor, for whatever education is purposely engaged in, it explicitly or implicitly assumed that certain dispositions are desirable and that certain methods are to be used in acquiring or fostering them, and any view on such matters is a normative theory of philosophy of education. But not all such theories may be regarded as properly philosophical. They may, in fact, be of several sorts. Some simply seek to foster the dispositions regarded as desirable by a society using methods laid down by its culture. Here both the ends and the means of education are defined by the cultural tradition. Others also look to the prevailing culture for the dispositions to be fostered but appeal as well to experience, possibly even to science, for the methods to be used. In a more pluralistic society, an educational theory of a sort may arise as a compromise between conflicting views about the aids, if not the methods, of education, especially in the case of public schools. Then, individuals or groups within the society may have conflicting full-fledged philosophies of education, but the public philosophy of education is a working accommodation between them. More comprehensive theories of education rest their views about the aims and methods of education neither on the prevailing culture nor on compromise but on basic factual premises about humans and their world and on basic normative premises about what is good or right for individuals to seek or do. Proponents of such theories may reach their premises either by reason (including science) and philosophy or by faith and divine authority. Both types of theories are called philosophies of education, but only those based on reason and philosophy are properly philosophical in character; the others might better be called theologies of education. Even those that are purely philosophical may vary in complexity and sophistication.

In such a full-fledged philosophical normative theory of education, besides analysis of the sorts described, there will normally be propositions of the following kinds.

1.    Basic normative premises about what is good or right;

2.    Basic factual premises about humanity and the world;

3.    Conclusions, based on these two kinds of premises, about the dispositions education should foster;

4.    Further factual premises about such things as the psychology of learning and methods of teaching; and

5.    Further conclusions about such things as the methods that education should use.


For example, Aristotle argued that the Good equals happiness equals excellent activity; that for a individual there are two kinds of excellent activity, one intellectual (e.g., doing geometry) and one moral  (e.g., doing just actions);  that therefore everyone who is capable of these types of excellent activity should acquire a knowledge of geometry and a disposition to be just; that a knowledge of geometry can be acquired by instruction and a disposition to be just by practice, by doing just actions; and that the young should be given instruction in geometry and practice in doing just actions. In general, the more properly philosophical part of such a full normative theory of education will be the proposition it asserts in (1), (2), and (3); for the propositions in (4) and hence (5) it will, given those in (3), most appropriately appeal to experience and science. Different philosophers will hold different views about the propositions they use in (1) and (2) and the ways in which these propositions may be established

Although some normative premises are required in (1) as a basis for any line of reasoning leading to conclusions in (3) or (5) about what education should foster or how it should do this, the premises appearing in (2) may be of various sorts- empirical, scientific, historical, metaphysical, theological, or epistemological. No one kind of premise is always necessary in (2) in every educational context. Different philosophers of education will, in any case, have different views about what sorts of premises it is permissible to appeal to in (2). All must agree, however, that normative premises of the kind indicated in (1) must be appealed to. Thus, what is central and crucial in any normative philosophy of education is not epistemology, metaphysics, or theology, as is sometimes thought, but ethics, value theory, and social philosophy.



Let us assume, as we have been doing, that philosophy may be analytical, speculative, or narrative and remember that it is normally going on in a society in which there already is an education system. Then, in the first place, philosophy may turn its attention to education, thus generating philosophy of education proper and becoming part of the discipline of education.

        Second, general philosophy may be one of the subjects in the curriculum of higher education and philosophy of education may be, and presumably should be, part of the curriculum of teacher education, if teachers are to think clearly and carefully about what they are doing.

        Third, in a society in which there is a single system of education governed by a single prevailing theory of education, a philosophy may do any of four things with respect to education: he may analyze the concepts and reasoning used in  connection with education in order to make people’s thinking about it as clear, explicit, and logical as possible; he may seek to support the prevailing system by providing more philosophy arguments for the dispositions aimed at and the methods used; he may criticize the system and seek to reform it in the light of some more philosophical theory of education he has arrived at; or he may simply teach logic and philosophy to future educators and parents in the hope that they will apply them to educational  matters.

        Fourth, in a pluralistic society like the United States, in which the existing educational enterprise or a large segment of it is based on a working compromise between conflicting views, a philosopher may again do several sorts of things. He may do any of the things just mentioned. In the United States in the first half of the twentieth century professional philosophers tended to do only the last, but at the end of the twentieth century they began to try to do more. Indeed, there will be more occasions for all of these activities in a pluralistic society, for debate about education will always be going on or threatening to be resumed. A philosopher may even take the lead in formulating and improving a compromise theory of education. He might then be a mere eclectic, but he need not be, since he might defend his compromise plan on the basis of a whole social philosophy. In particular, he might propound a whole public philosophy for public school education, making clear which dispositions it can and should seek to promote, how it should promote them, and which ones should be left for the home, the church, and other private means of education to cultivate. In any case, he might advocate appealing to scientific inquiry and experiment whenever possible. A philosopher may also work out a fully developed educational philosophy of his own and start an experimental school in which to put it into practice, as John Dewey did; like Dewey, too, he may even try to persuade his entire society to adopt it. Then he would argue for the desirability of fostering certain dispositions by certain methods, partly on the basis of experience and science and partly on the basis of premises taken from other parts of his philosophy- from his ethics and value theory, from his political and social philosophy, or from his epistemology, metaphysics, or philosophy of mind.

        It seems plausible to maintain that in a pluralistic society philosophers should do all of these things, some one and some another. In such a society a philosopher may at least seek to help educators concerned about moral, scientific, historical, aesthetic or religious education by presenting them, respectively, with a philosophy of morality, science, history, art, or religion from which they may draw conclusions about their aims and methods. He may also philosophize about the discipline of education, asking whether it is a discipline, what its subject matter is, and what its methods, including the methods of the philosophy of education, should be. Insofar as the discipline of education is a science (and one question here would be whether it is a science) this would be a job for the philosopher of science in addition to one just mentioned. Logicians, linguistic philosophers, and philosophers of science may also be able to contribute to the technology of education, as it has come to be called, for example, to the theory of testing or of language instruction.

        Finally, in a society that has been broken down by some kind of revolution or has newly emerged from colonialism, a philosopher may even supply a new full- fledged normative philosophy for its educational system, as Karl Marx did for Russia and China. In fact, as in the case of Marx, he may provide the ideology that guided the revolution in the first place. Plato tried to do this for Syracuse, and the philosophes did it for France in the eighteenth century. Something like this may be done wherever the schools “dare to build a new society,” as many ask schools to do.

        Dewey once said that since education is the process of forming fundamental dispositions toward nature and our fellow human beings, philosophy may even be defined as the most general theory of education. Here Dewey was thinking that philosophy is the most general normative theory of education, and what he said is true if it means that philosophy, understood in its widest sense as including theology and poetry as well as philosophy proper, is what tells us what to believe and how to feel about humanity and the universe. It is, however, not necessarily true if it refers to philosophy in the narrower sense or means that all philosophy is philosophy of education in the sense of having the guidance of education as its end. This is not the whole end of classical philosophy or even of philosophy as reconstructed by Dewey; the former aimed at the truth rather than at the guidance of practice, and the latter has other practical ends besides that of guiding the educational enterprise. Certainly, analytical philosophy has other ends. However, although Dewey did not have analytical philosophy in mind, there is nevertheless a sense in which analytical philosophy can also be said to be the most general theory of education. Although it does not seek to tell us what dispositions we should form, it does analyze and criticize the concepts, arguments, and methods employed in any study of or reflection upon education. Again it does not follow that this is all analytical philosophy is concerned with doing. Even if the other things it does – for example, the philosophy of mind or of science – are useful to educators and normative theorists of education, as, it is hoped, is the case, they are not all developed with this use in mind.





ANDERSON, R.N., et al., 1968. Foundation Disciplines and the Study of Education. Toronto: Macmillan.

ARCHAMBAULT, REGINALD D., ed. 1965. Philosophical Analysis and Education. New York: Humanities Press.

FRANKENA, WILLIAM K., ed. 1965 Philosophy of Education, New York: Macmillan.

JARRET, JAMES L., ed. 1969. Philosophy for the Study of Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

LUCAS, CHRISTOPHER J., ed. 1969. What Is Philosophy of Education? New York: Macmillan.

MORRIS, VAN CLEVE. 1969. Modern Movements in Educational Philosophy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

O’CONNOR, DANIEL JOHN. 1957. Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. London: Routledge.

PARK, JOE. 1968. Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Education, 3rd edition. New York: Macmillan.

SCHEFFLER, ISRAEL, ed. 1966. Philosophy and education, 2nd edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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