Can we teach philosophically about unspeakable human suffering?

Dr Rowena Azada-Palacios

Some recent attempts by philosophers to comment on the war in Gaza have been met with harsh criticism. When the war ends, it will, by some measures, be one of the worst in recent history, and against this backdrop, armchair concept-parsing about it has appeared frivolous to many. As Tena Thau (2024) put it in her guest post on the Daily Nous: ‘The hellish reality of this war is transfigured by philosophers into abstract thought experiments and technical prose’. Criticisms such as Thau’s raise the question of whether any philosophical approach — and therefore, any approach to teaching philosophy (whether in educational settings or the public sphere) — can be appropriate when its object is other people’s urgent and widespread human suffering. Considering the substance of such criticisms, I argue that attempts to philosophise about urgent and widespread human suffering ought to culminate in a praxis-oriented solidarity. Against this criterion, I weigh potential approaches from two philosophical traditions. First, I consider anti-colonial approaches, which themselves have been both widely used and widely criticised in the current discourse about the war in Gaza. Second, I consider phenomenological approaches, which have been seen to be useful for understanding private experiences but have been less influential so far with respect to exploring political questions. Following on from this, I attempt to reconsider how the task of teaching philosophically might be understood, and propose a phenomeno-political approach that benefits from the useful analyses of power provided by anti-colonial traditions.  

Dr Rowena Azada-Palacios is an assistant professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Manila University, where she has taught for more than 20 years, and an associate lecturer at London Metropolitan University, New York University – London, and University College London. Her scholarship in educational philosophy draws from anti-colonial political thought and the Continental tradition to address questions about power, politics, identity, justice, and the pedagogical relationship.

She has recently been involved in interdisciplinary collaborations that have examined teaching for social justice in different national contexts, and in philosophical collaborations seeking to advance decolonial approaches to critical social theory. 

Her forthcoming book, Postcolonial Education and National Identity: An Arendtian Reimagination, will be published later this year by Bloomsbury Academic. Rowena is the founding chair of the Philippine Society of Education and Philosophy (PhilSEP), a founding member of the Philippine network Women Doing Philosophy, and a former board member of the Philosophical Association of the Philippines.

Recovering Anticolonialism as an Intellectual and Political Project in Philosophy of Education

Professor Michalinos Zembylas

This talk revisits the tension between decolonization and other social justice initiatives in education scholarship. It particularly focuses on the arguments both in favour of and against the concept of decolonization involving the return of land. While various colonized communities understandably emphasize their unique political priorities in their struggles against specific forms of colonial domination, I contend that it would be beneficial for education as both an academic field and a practice to reemphasize the importance of anticolonialism as a shared intellectual and political endeavour.

Anticolonial thought and action can provide education scholars, activists, and practitioners with a framework that fosters connections and solidarity in the fight against colonialism, without ignoring the differences between decolonization and other political endeavours. Instead of pitting various political projects against each other, such as viewing social justice initiatives that don’t prioritize land restitution as misguided, anticolonialism seeks as a point of departure to analyze and oppose a wide array of colonial practices and their consequences. These include racism, militarism, resource exploitation, land dispossession, and more.

The talk concludes with a discussion of possible intellectual trajectories through which philosophy of education may contribute.

Professor Michalinos Zembylas is Professor of Educational Theory and Curriculum Studies at the Open University of Cyprus, Honorary Professor at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa, and Adjunct Professor at the University of South Australia. He holds a Commonwealth of Learning (COL) Chair for 2023-2026. He has written extensively on emotion and affect in education, particularly in relation to social justice, decolonization and politics.

His latest books are: Responsibility, Privileged Irresponsibility and Response-ability in Contemporary Times: Higher Education, Coloniality and Ecological Damage (co-authored with Vivienne Bozalek), and Working with Theories of Refusal and Decolonization in Higher Education (co-edited with Petra Mikulan).

Photo of Prof Zembylas