Seminal Figures in the Philosophy of Education

Plato (429–347 B.C.E.): Student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, and founder of the Academy in Athens, Plato is a seminal figure in philosophy. It is difficult to overestimate his influence on Western philosophy—his work is still influential in topics ranging from metaphysics to politics. In the Republic, Plato conceived of education as crucial for the maintenance of the state; an educational system functions to separate and then teach students according to their abilities. Those most qualified are trained by the state to assume positions in the ruling class.


Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE): Aristotle was also a major figure in Greek philosophy, and has made crucial contributions to human knowledge, in areas such as ethics, metaphysics, biology, mathematics, and logic; only Plato rivals him in terms of influence. Aristotle conceived one of education’s primary goods to be the production of virtuous members of society. His Nichomachean Ethics remains a central treatise on the virtues.


Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274): Saint Thomas Aquinas is considered the Catholic Church’s greatest philosopher and theologian. A great deal of modern thought owes to his reflections on ethics and politics, and his close interpretations of Aristotle’s works. A religious perennialist, Aquinas held that the purpose of education was to teach that which is worthwhile, including science, logic, mathematics, and natural theology.


John Locke (1632-1704): John Locke was an English philosopher, and one of the most important of the Enlightenment thinkers. An advocate of liberty and equality for all men, Locke held that the purpose of education was the maintenance of a good society—one in which the government is able to protect the private property rights of its citizens. In such a society, men find happiness in carrying out their duties.


Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712 -1778): Rousseau was a Geneva-born writer, composer, and political philosopher, whose ideas on social contract theory were a major influence in the French and American Revolutions. He championed the notion of the “noble savage”, and held that people find their natural virtues when not shackled by society. His thinking on education was impacted by this notion: Rousseau argued that a proper education taught students through real-life experience, with their own curiosity acting as their guides.


Immanuel Kant (1724 –1804): German philosopher Immanuel Kant is one of the great influential figures in the history of philosophy; only Plato, Socrates, and a handful of others match him in importance. He ushered in a new way of thinking about issues in epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. The purpose of education, the argued, was to instruct students in rules of conduct that could be consistently acted upon without contradiction. A proper education perfected character, and in doing so promoted historical progress.


John Stuart Mill (1820-1903): J.S. Mill was a British philosopher, famous for his promotion of personal freedoms against the power of the state, and for his advocacy of utilitarianism. Like Kant, Mill’s philosophy of education was strongly influenced by his moral philosophy. The purpose of education, Mill thought, was to foster a morally ideal society. For Mill, this means a society in which the greatest number of people enjoys the greatest good—happiness. This is achieved by helping students to associate the performance of duties—even when these duties involve self-sacrifice—with pleasure.


20th Century Philosophers of Education

John Dewey (1859-1952): John Dewey was an American philosopher and psychologist, and one of the founders of the American philosophical school of pragmatism. He was a great intellectual champion of democracy, and argued that educated citizens were essential for a flourishing democracy. To this end, he advocated a progressive perspective on education—schools should help students learn to solve problems and think critically, and not simply force them to learn innumerable facts by rote memorization. Education should be tailored to the student.


Israel Scheffler (1923-2014): Israel Scheffler was an American philosopher of language, science, and education. He played a key role in bringing the philosophy of education to modern analytical philosophy, by using the tools of that discipline to examine key concepts in education. An analysis of the concept of teaching, Scheffler argues, highlights its difference from indoctrination: teaching is concerned with appealing to and reinforcing the student’s ability to reason. The new beliefs that teachers inculcate in students must be achieved by justification; ideas must be submitted to the student’s rational faculty for critical evaluation.


R.S. Peters (1919-2011): R.S. Peters was a British philosopher of psychological, political theory, and education. Like Israel Scheffler, Peters undertook conceptual analysis of important concepts in the philosophy of education, especially the concept of education itself. Education, he argued, involves a fostering of worthwhile growth along socially accepted parameters. There is furthermore a normative element to education—a process of fostering morally desirable dispositions in the student.