The existential subject and freedom in learning: in dialogue with Sartre

Matthews, Miranda. 2017. 'The existential subject and freedom in learning: in dialogue with Sartre'. In: UK Sartre Society Conference 2017. Maison Francaise, University of Oxford, United Kingdom 18 July 2017. [Conference or Workshop Item]

[img] Slideshow
Freedom in Learning - A dialogue with Sartre.12.07.17 .pptx - Presentation
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

Download (10MB)

Abstract or Description

The existential subject and freedom in learning: in dialogue with Sartre

Dr. Miranda Matthews, Goldsmiths, University of London

The subject with free-will, able to make life choices and to struggle to transform the contingency of the given situation is central to Sartre’s existentialist ontology. This expression of free subjectivity can be related to transformative pedagogies that locate the centrality of agency in productive learning processes. Sartre’s form of existentialist freedom in learning is identified here through the basis for proactive subjectivity in his ontological triad of being-in-itself, being-for-itself and being-for-others (Sartre, 2003) and references to the free-will of the learning subject with social responsibility who makes their own decisions (Sartre, 1973; Detmer, 2005).

A Sartrean position will be paralleled with concepts of learning and subjectivity, as proposed by theorists who have stated divergence from existentialism. Foucault set out to circumvent existentialism in his power/knowledge work, by challenging the phenomenological constituent subject (Foucault, 1980) and critiquing what he saw as the misappropriation of associations with humanism through changing historical conditions (Foucault 1984, ed. Rabinow 1991). I will also refer to Rancière, who rejected the intellectual presence of Sartre (Lambert 2012) to reconfigure an egalitarian learning subject. I argue that these divergences have sought prior historical sources for their philosophical investigations, but can be seen to form a dialogue with the motivating principles of existentialism.

Rancière discusses the ‘will to intelligence’ (Rancière, 2007, p. 52) that each person has, and can maintain regardless of social background. He looks back to 18th Century French teacher Jacotot (Ibid.) for historical precedent of the formation of knowledge as a co-constructive venture in independent thinking, which is a fluid and discursive learning exchange between the teacher and the student. Foucault returned to Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, in what could be seen as an attempt to predate existentialist narratives, as well as the conditioning of enlightenment philosophy, in restoring agency to the subject through Technologies of the Self (Foucault, 1988). Having staked their independent position from existentialism, their means of expressing these historical positions can be observed to correspond with Sartre’s theory of free-will, as it may be related to the learning subject. Theoretical discussion will be contextualised in contemporary society with reference to my practice-based research in Educational Studies.


Detmer, S. (2005). Sartre on Freedom and Education. Sartre Studies International, 11 (1): 78-90. doi: 3167/135715505780282452.
Foucault, M. (1980). C.Gordon (ed.) Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-77. Harlow: Harvester Press
Foucault, M. (1988). L.Martin, H.Gutman, P.H.Gutton (eds.) Technologies of the Self: A seminar with Michel Foucault. Mass: University of Massachusetts Press
Foucault, M. (1984) What is Enlightenment? in P. Rabinow, (ed.) (1991) The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin
Lambert, C. (2009). Redistributing the sensory: The critical pedagogy of Jacques Rancière. Critical Studies in Education, 53 (2): 211-227. doi:10.1080/17508487.2012.672328
Rancière, J. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press
Sartre, J.P. (2003). Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge
Sartre, J.P. (1973). Existentialism and Humanism. London: Methuen

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


freedom, learning, free will, art education, Sartre, Foucault, Ranciere

Related URLs:

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Educational Studies > Centre for the Arts and Learning


18 July 2017Completed

Event Location:

Maison Francaise, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Date range:

18 July 2017

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

21 Nov 2017 14:56

Last Modified:

02 Aug 2021 11:24


View statistics for this item...

Edit Record Edit Record (login required)