A&O – SELF in the Classroom




As an “instructor” I try to speak from my heart–that is the deepest beliefs I can articulate … and I want to speak to your heart–that is as deeply into your consciousness as you will allow.   I talk a lot, describing phenomena, including states of mind. BUT, as Edmund Burke put it, 

“We yield to sympathy what we refuse to description. The truth is, all verbal description, merely as naked description, though never so exact, conveys so poor and insufficient an idea of the thing described, that it could scarcely have the smallest effect, if the speaker did not call in to his aid those modes of speech that mark a strong and lively feeling in himself. Then, by the contagion of our passions, we catch a fire already kindled in another, which probably might never have been struck out by the object described.”  (Edmund Burke (d. 1797).  “On the Sublime and Beautiful.” (The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.   Bartleby on-line access)

 See notes on Existential Phenomenology in the classroom   

College instructors[i] succeed to the extent that they can meet the needs of students to master content at a level that transcends mere knowledge.

This is usually indicated by the student’s experience of a transformative learning experience [ii] that leads from “mere knowledge” of course content to its “realization.” 

In practice, this applies course content creatively in the service of meeting personal and professional needs.   Creativity is a key concept here because it manifests access to and integration of non-conscious resources, including implicit knowledge, in the service of meeting a more-or-less urgent biological need.  Such experiences are typically (but not always) highly rewarding and range from reducing stress (by mitigating the urgency of a need) to enhancing a student’s personal awareness of their boundaries, including an enlarged sense of self-efficacy and the ability to identify and solve problems.  


The student succeeds in the phenomenologically-informed course to the extent that they can feel safe (physically and socially), share (confusion as well as insight), engage with mediator (including peers) … participate with a skilled mediator. 

  • The development of a sense of self requires constant testing of boundaries as an aid to if not prerequisite to confident self-mastery.  The instructor facilitates this by identifying and encouraging movement through a student’s “zone of proximal development” (ZPD)[iii]



There may be myriad ports, but all leading to the sea of beauty, Plato’s term for the most intense of self-actualizing experiences.[iv]

  • For Socrates, the goal of philosophy was to “Know thyself[v]
  • For Lao Tzu, the goal of knowing the self is enlightenment. [vi]
  • For Goldstein and Maslow, the goal of self-actualization.[vii]
  • For Carl Rogers it is the infant differentiating itself from the field in which it is born and subsequently “maintaining and enhancing [its]… self-concept through reflection, reinterpretation of experience.” [viii]

The sense of completeness may be related to the transcendent experience.

To know one’s self is integrally related to the concept of individuation, the process by which a person learns their boundaries and the extent to which their personal environment affects them and to which they can affect their environments.   All personal competencies are a negotiated compromise between individuals and their environments.   The pursuit of holism, of “being one with everything,” involves less an integration into the environment than a productive transparent (or frictionless) interaction between individuals and their environments.  Self-knowledge and the knowledge of one’s environment, including other people, involves a process of reciprocity, which in principle urges each player on to fuller development of their potential in the sense of a dynamic dialectic in which “Parts and wholes evolve in consequence of their relationship” (Levins and Lewontin 1985:3)​​​​​​[ix]


  • Individuation and socialization are simultaneous processes and reflect levels of organization.  The individual pursues self-actualization as principle NEED.  
    • He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.  (Aristotle 384-322 BC, Politics bk. 1, 1253a 27B9)[x]  

 Fragments of the process have been identified and manifest if not reified in most if not all fields that pursue control (as in man controlling nature[xi]) and relinquishing of control (as in submitting to god as a non-negotiable constraint). 

  • In cognitive neuropsychology, parts of the brain are seen in dynamic balance, not least intuitive and conscious processes.
  • In the psychology of creativity, the play of nonconscious automatisms are often in play, as in Keats, I had not been aware of the beauty of some thought or expression until after I had composed and written it down” or E.M. Forster, who said “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”[xii]
  • In physics, the tension might be exemplified in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in which complementary variables such as position and momentum, cannot both be precisely known and can thus be viewed as not individuated.  Also, two quantum entangled particles cannot be understood independently: Two or more states in quantum superposition, e.g., as in Schrödinger’s cat being simultaneously in a half dead and half alive state, is mathematically not the same as assuming the cat is in an individual alive state with 50% probability. The “natural criterion of individuality has been suggested.” [xiii]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_self [xiv]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychology_of_self [xv]


[i] Really anyone manifest as “the more knowledgeable other” (Vygotsky)

[ii] Patterns in Transformative Pedagogy: Ethological Perspective Neil Greenberg, Deepa Deshpande, Kathy Greenberg, Karen Franklin, Brenda Murphy, Kristina Plaas, Howard Pollio, Brian Sohn, & Sandra Thomas, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Transformative learning, in which students experience a paradigm shift from merely knowing course content to realizing its relevance in their personal and professional lives, is the recent focus of The University of Tennessee’s Phenomenology in Education Research Team (PERT). A tenet of the phenomenological approach is that course content is most easily mastered when allied with a student’s personal views, thus harnessing their intrinsic motivational and affective qualities. To more deeply explore this pedagogical approach, we identified a specific course as exemplary in evoking transformative learning by means of post-class written reflections, individual audiotaped interviews, and focus groups conducted at end of the semester. ETHOLOGY identifies and describes the many specific “units of behavior” that can be configured and manifest in countless patterns of behavior seen in closely observed research participants. These units, rendered as objectively as possible to avoid misleading assumptions about their function, provide a reliable basis for our exploration of the causes and consequences of Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy 68 specific patterns that are associated with outcomes of interest.

A graduate course was identified, and class sessions of two sections were recorded. Units of behavior were extracted from the transcripts, enabling us to determine their frequency, circumstances of expression, and patterns. Patterns were then analyzed to determine specific actions and transactions that might reasonably be considered components of the student experience. For example, preliminary analysis reveals that a specific pattern of real world student experiences elicited by the instructor and questions asked of students is reliably associated with spontaneous recognition of the application of course content to their personal and professional lives. This study will provide clues about how phenomenologically-informed pedagogy works to enhance student experience. After comparable analysis of other classes necessary and sufficient elements and patterns revealed will indicate which patterns might be intentionally facilitated to evoke an enduring student experience

[iii] the Zone of Proximal Development is integrally related to the concept of the More Knowledgeable Other,  the second important principle of Vygotsky’s work …  This is an important concept that relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.

  For example, the child could not solve the jigsaw puzzle (in the example above) by itself and would have taken a long time to do so (if at all), but was able to solve it following interaction with the father, and has developed competence at this skill that will be applied to future jigsaws.

Vygotsky (1978) sees the Zone of Proximal Development as the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given – allowing the child to develop skills they will then use on their own – developing higher mental functions.

Vygotsky also views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies.  He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development.

Evidence for Vygotsky and the ZPD.  Freund (1990) conducted a study in which children had to decide which items of furniture should be placed in particular areas of a dolls house.  Some children were allowed to play with their mother in a similar situation before they attempted it alone (zone of proximal development) whilst others were allowed to work on this by themselves (Piaget’s discovery learning).   Freund found that those who had previously worked with their mother (ZPD) showed greatest improvement compared with their first attempt at the task.  The conclusion being that guided learning within the ZPD led to greater understanding/performance than working alone (discovery learning).

[iv] “Plato, in his Plato’s Symposium (210d–e) writes (in the character of the priestess Diotima):  “The result is that he will see the beauty of knowledge… the lover is turned to the great sea of beauty, and gazing upon this, he gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom, until, having grown and been strengthened there, he catches sight of such knowledge, and it is the knowledge of such beauty… The man … who has beheld beautiful things in the right order and correctly, is now coming to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature; that, Socrates, is the reason for all his earlier labors.”  

The Sea of Beauty  “is described variously as the Beatific vision, VisionenlightenmentnirvanasatoriKenshoBodhi, awareness, true knowledge, etc.”

[v] The Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” or “gnothi seauton” (Greek: γνθι σεαυτόν, transliterated: gnōthi seauton; also … σαυτόν… sauton with the ε contracted), is one of the Delphic maxims and was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi according to the Greek writer Pausanias (10.24.1).[1] The aphorism may have originated in Luxor in Ancient Egypt.

[vi] In the Tao, (knowing others is wisdom.)  “Mastering others requires force. Mastering the self requires strength.”[2]  Adi Shankaracharya, in his commentary on Bhagavad Gita says “Self-knowledge alone eradicates misery”.[3] “Self-knowledge alone is the means to the highest bliss.”.[4]“Absolute perfection is the consummation of Self-knowledge.”[5] (Wikipedia)

[vii] Self-actualizationSelf actualization for Goldstein is to manifest one’s inherent possibilities in the moment.  Maslow built on this, and a condensed view would be for one “to be all one could be,” to manifest as much as possible their personal, unique potential.   For Carl Rogers, self-actualization begins with the infant differentiating itself from the field in which it is born and subsequently “maintaining and enhancing the individual’s self-concept through reflection, reinterpretation of experience”

[vii] Self-actualizationSelf actualization for Goldstein is to manifest one’s inherent possibilities in the moment.  Maslow built on this, and a condensed view would be for one “to be all one could be,” to manifest as much as possible their personal, unique potential.   For Carl Rogers, self-actualization begins with the infant differentiating itself from the field in which it is born and subsequently “maintaining and enhancing the individual’s self-concept through reflection, reinterpretation of experience”

[viii] Carl Rogers used the term self-actualization as a process, not an end-point accomplishment.   It describes …  “the actualization of the individual’s sense of ‘self’.[38] In person-centred theory self-actualization is the ongoing process of maintaining and enhancing the individual’s self-concept through reflection, reinterpretation of experience, allowing the individual to recover, develop, change and grow. Self-actualization is a subset of the overall organismic actualizing tendency and begins with the infant learning to differentiate what is ‘self’ and what is ‘other’ within its ‘total perceptual field’,[39] as their full self-awareness gradually crystalizes. Interactions with significant others are key to the process of self-actualization: ‘As a result of interaction with the environment, and particularly as a result of evaluational interaction with others, the structure of the self is formed – an organized, fluid but consistent conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the ‘I’ or the ‘me’, together with the values attached to these concepts’.[38]

The process of self-actualization is continuous as the individual matures into a socially competent, interdepedent autonomy, and is ongoing throughout the life-cycle. When there is sufficient tension between the individual’s sense of self and their experience, a psychopathological state of incongruence can arise: ‘…I believe that individuals are culturally conditioned, rewarded, reinforced, for behaviors which are in fact perversions of the natural directions of the unitary actualizing tendency’.[40] In Rogers’ theory self-actualization is not the end-point, it is the process that can, in conducive circumstances (in particular the presence of positive self-regard and the empathic understanding of others), lead to the individual becoming more ‘fully-functioning‘.   (Wikipedia)

[ix] “Parts and wholes evolve in consequence of their relationship, and the relationship itself evolves. These are the properties of things that we call dialectical: that one thing cannot exist without the other, that one acquires its properties from its relation to the other, that the properties of both evolve as a consequence of their interpenetration.” (Levins and Lewontin 1985:3)​​​​​​​ 

[x] Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster (rather than Boris Karloff’s) became a beast because he was deprived of sociality: “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy= and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture, such as you cannot even imagine. . . . I was nourished with high thoughts of honor and devotion.  But now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. . . . ” And his vice?  His appearance invited fear and unjust rejection, shunned and unbearably lonely, the nineteen year old Shelley’s monster was born. (See Steve Gould’s “The Monster’s Human Nature” in Dinosaur in a Haystack).

[xi] Science is a way of giving unity and intelligibility to the facts of nature so that nature may be controlled and new facts predicted. (Beck, Modern Science and the Nature of Life, p 20)

[xii] “I not been aware of the beauty of some thought or expression until after I had composed and written it down” (Keats cited by Tyrrell, 1946).  “Flannery O’Conner, like E.M. Forster, said “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say,” (cited by Lederman 1983).  Indeed, writers are often unaware of precisely what they will write until it is actually written (Sekular, 1985).   [There is often a remarkable compulsiveness, if not automaticity in the unfolding of the thought‑experiments one performs in the laboratory of the mind that often leads creative personalities to feel they are possessed ‑‑ Recalling the self‑generated subvocalized “voices” of schizophrenics the artist becomes “inspired” or “enthused” ‑‑filled with compelling impulses which appear to originate from outside one’s awareness, impulses to explore one’s mental model which, like play, are “autotelic.”  Kurt Vonnegut might sit at his typewriter and let other parts of consciousness take over, and be amazed at what comes out.  The remarkable comedian Robin Williams commented on his gift: “When it works it’s like . . . freedom!  Suddenly these things are coming out of you.  You’re in control, but you’re not.  The characters are coming through you.  Even when I’m going “Whoa!”  It’s that Zen lock.  It’s channeling with Call Waiting.” (Richard Corliss 1987)[ii]]  “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.” -William Makepeace Thackeray, novelist (1811-1863) [and see Mozart & Guston]

[xiii]  Jaeger, Gregg (2011). “Individuation in Quantum Mechanics”. Foundations of Physics. 41 (3): 299–304. doi:10.1007/s10701-009-9382-x. (cited in Wikipedia)

[xiv] The philosophy of self defines, among other things, the conditions of identity that make one subject of experience distinct from all others. Contemporary discussions on the nature of the self are not thereby discussions on the nature of personhood, or personal identity. The self is sometimes understood as a unified being essentially connected to consciousness, awareness, and agency (or, at least, with the faculty of rational choice). Various theories on the metaphysical nature of the self have been proposed. Among them, the metaphysical nature of the self has been proposed to be that of an immaterial substance.

Most philosophical definitions of self—per DescartesLockeHume, and William James—are expressed in the first person.[1] A third person definition does not refer to specific mental qualia but instead strives for objectivity and operationalism.

To another person, the self of one individual is exhibited in the conduct and discourse of that individual. Therefore, the intentions of another individual can only be inferred from something that emanates from that individual. The particular characteristics of the self determine its identity.

[xv] The psychology of self is the study of either the cognitiveconative or affective representation of one’s identity or the subject of experience. The earliest formulation of the self in modern psychology derived from the distinction between the self as I, the subjective knower, and the self as Me, the object that is known.[1]

Current views of the self in psychology position the self as playing an integral part in human motivation, cognition, affect, and social identity.[2] It may be the case that we can now usefully attempt to ground experience of self in a neural process with cognitive consequences, which will give us insight into the elements of which the complex multiply situated selves of modern identity are composed.

The self has many facets that help make up integral parts of it, such as self-awarenessself-esteemself-knowledge, and self-perception. All parts of the self enable people to alter, change, add, and modify aspects of themselves in order to gain social acceptance in society. “Probably, the best account of the origins of selfhood is that the self comes into being at the interface between the inner biological processes of the human body and the sociocultural network to which the person belongs.”[3]


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