Philosophy in Prison: Educating the Educator

“Philosophy in Prison” is a series of posts generated for the APA Blog by Professor Gabriel Rockhill’s philosophy course, “Class, Race and Social Transformation,” which took place in the Spring semester of 2017 at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania. The class was part of Villanova University’s prison program. The participants in the course developed their own topics and worked in groups to define the precise format and content of their contributions, which range from single-author pieces to dialogues and co-authored articles.  The following post, the first of six, introduces the idea behind the series.

By Gabriel Rockhill

Professional philosophers love to presume that there is a realm of pure knowledge independent of context. This, indeed, is one of the ways they explain the Greek origin of the term philosophia: the love (philia) of wisdom (sophia) means the unwavering admiration for a pristine form of sapience that is in no way dependent upon the situations in which it occurs.

Based on this model, the act of teaching philosophy in prison would be one of taking academic enlightenment behind the bars and illuminating the incarcerated. The situation itself would make no palpable difference, except perhaps that one would have further to strive in order to reach the realm of pure thought from the base confines of the degenerated infrastructure of human cages.

However, given the significant institutional, socioeconomic and political distance separating the educational facilities of penitentiaries from other sites for teaching, one must be well trained in the art of turning a blind eye to material realities in order to maintain the belief in an independent sphere of unadulterated wisdom. In fact, it is precisely this romantic conception of philosophy—which is frequently promoted by those whose material conditions of existence support such beliefs—that serves as a bulwark against another understanding of philosophia: an eros of inquiry, as Cornelius Castoriadis called it, or an unbridled drive to both elucidate and question the worlds we have inherited.

This latter conception of philosophy strongly resonates with the dual understanding of materialism that Marx laid out in his third thesis on Feuerbach. It combines a concrete analysis of specific situations with an eschewal of reductive determinism in favor of an openness to new information, as well as forms of understanding and action that can actually reconfigure these very situations: “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that it is essential to educate the educator himself” (my emphasis).

This type of agential materialism requires recognizing that knowledge is not a form of pristine intelligence unsullied by the material world, and that one’s conceptions are therefore never immaculate. Knowledge is the product of an expansive process of social formation, which includes the construction of the very identities of teachers and students, as well as their relationships. This process is by no means separate from the material realities of politics, economics and social struggle. On the contrary, it plays a key formative role in—among other things—forging the very subjects that participate in these realities.

Rather than uncritically maintaining the institutionally produced position of the educator, then, Marx points to the ways in which it is constructed to determine the very thoughts, actions and affects of those who occupy it. Professional philosophers’ abiding attraction to immaculate conception is a case in point, since they are, in fact, trained to fetishize a sublimated notion of spiritual purity in the guise of transcendent knowledge, while simultaneously remaining unaware of the extent to which their ideational perversions are actually produced by material realities. To extricate philosophy from this prison of determinism, we need to re-educate those who have been inculcated into occupying the social position of the proud protector of chaste wisdom.

One of the first things to note in this regard is that this wisdom is, of course, far from chaste, particularly in the contemporary knowledge economy. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the extent to which educational institutions in our day and age are beholden to the dictates of consumerism. It is not only the case, as professors often note, that students act as entitled consumers who presume that their individual proclivities should be the pedagogical center of attention. It is also that educators themselves are frequently in competition with one another for jobs, promotions, financial support, professional recognition, and so forth. Moreover, departments and universities regularly contend for students and funding, and they feel obliged to demonstrate their relevance to the techno-scientific exigencies of the job market and the so-called real world (meaning the artificial world constructed and maintained by consumer capitalism).

Educational facilities in prisons are not completely divorced from these types of relations, and they should certainly not be idealized. However, one of the remarkable aspects of being sequestered from the formatted social relations of university campuses is that these relations are not necessarily primary or over-determining. Based at least on my own experiences teaching philosophy at a private elite university and at a state prison, I have found that it is helpful to heuristically distinguish between education as exchange-value and the pedagogy of use-value. According the former model, knowledge functions as a commodity that can be cashed in for certain goods, such as a grade, a diploma, social capital or a job. The pedagogy of use-value, in contrast, is a form of collective exploration that functions independently of capitalist instrumentalization and the private property regime of individual ideas. It is ‘useful’ precisely insofar as it is of no use to the profit-driven mechanisms of consumer capitalism and instead serves to shed light on extant material realities and how they can be transformed.

One of the themes that we explored in the philosophy course “Class, Race and Social Transformation” at Graterford Prison was the historical relationship between modern capitalism and colonialism, on the one hand, and ongoing resistance and revolutionary movements on the other (including anticolonial struggles, anarchism, Marxism, radical black and indigenous thought, and the prison abolition movement). One thing that became increasingly clear through our investigation is the extent to which the system of colonial capitalism has produced very specific modes of education, which continue to structure the ways in which the general population is trained (philosophy, for instance, is often implicitly defined as the private property of the white, male, European elite, according to an international division of racialized and gendered labor). Indeed, educational institutions are one of the primary sites for the perpetuation of this very system because they forge us as thinking beings. They can seamlessly serve to incarcerate us within specific worldviews, replete with an unquestioned framework of knowledge, values, affects, historical narratives and perceptions.

Dominant representations of the academy and the prison cast them as antithetical spaces. The ivory tower where the enlightened cultivate rigorous expertise through free and open inquiry is juxtaposed to the dungeon where the un-free are incapable of producing their own knowledge and only stand to be illuminated by others. Instead of unquestioningly accepting this widespread but often implicit form of ‘knowledge’ concerning knowledge (or ‘meta-knowledge’), which is itself largely the product of so-called institutions of ‘higher education,’ we would be better served to critically examine the extent to which these very institutions often function as prisons of thought, just as jails sometimes serve to immure dangerous minds that question the material matrices of epistemology.

This might go a long way to explaining why so many philosophers have spent time behind bars. When knowledge is not simply a matter of being functional within a given system, then it does not need to consent to the inherited parameters separating teacher from student, intellectual reflection from material reality, legitimate fields of investigation from unquestionable givens, appropriate objects of inquiry from taboo subjects, authorized modes of exploration from what Marx called the “ruthless critique of everything existing.”

In fact, if one accepts the idea that philosophy began in ancient Greece—an assumption that is as problematic as it is prevalent—then one might need to admit that it actually began in prison. For it was the dangerous form of critical and collective interrogation known as philosophia that led to Socrates’ incarceration and death sentence. He was accused of making the weaker argument the stronger, corrupting the youth, studying absolutely all things and therefore not believing in the gods. His unrestrained scrutiny of everything and anything, a veritable eros of inquiry depicted most famously in Plato’s dialogues, could serve as a relevant reference point for what we might want to call insurgent philosophy: a mode of undisciplined exploration that questions entrenched forms of knowledge, their institutional power relations and their social functions to such an extent that it runs the risk of incarceration.

Socrates is, of course, only one case among many of those who have refused to simply work within the sanctioned borders of thought, and whose rebellious theoretical practices caused them to be ostracized, surveilled, imprisoned, exiled or put to death. There is, in fact, an entire history of incarcerated philosophers that remains to be written. The imprisonment of Galileo, who was a philosopher according to the 16th-century understanding of the term, is a clear instance of the attempt to tame dangerous ideas. So is the locking up the Marquis de Sade and the institutional barrier erected between ‘serious philosophy’ and his infamous contempt for immaculate conception. The emergence of the modern penitentiary system has, moreover, led to a seemingly endless number of philosophers to be put behind bars for their insurgent theoretical and practical endeavors: Henry David Thoreau, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Peter Kropotkin, Rosa Luxemburg, José Carlos Mariátegui, Mahatma Gandhi, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Antonio Negri, and many others.

When philosophy—understood as an uninhibited passion for critical inquiry, rather than an impotent admiration for abstract ideas rooted in a perverted attraction to immaculate conception—comes to challenge the disciplining of thought operative in the educational institutions of social reproduction, draconian measures will be taken to constrain those who refuse to remain within the established confines of thinking. This is precisely one of the ways in which the very tradition of philosophy qua ‘love of wisdom’ has sought to preserve itself as a chaste enterprise safely ensconced in an ivory tower of Eurocentric, bourgeois patriarchy: by sidelining and sequestering those who mobilize an eros of inquiry that dares to question it.

Rather than teaching philosophy to students at Graterford Prison by bestowing upon them forms of enlightened insight, I learned a different understanding of philosophy and its power to educate the educator. This challenging mode of investigation does not simply work within the confines of established systems of knowledge production, but it subjects these very systems to critique by examining the ways in which they are actually the result of sociopolitical, economic, gender and racial struggles. If we understand insurgent philosophy as precisely this mode of undisciplined inquiry, which has often led to incarceration, then the following conclusion would impose itself: it is a form of liberation from the prisons of thought. We all have a lot to learn from it.


Gabriel Rockhill is a philosopher, cultural critic and political theorist. He is an Associate Professor at Villanova University and the Founding Director of the Atelier de Théorie Critique at the Sorbonne. Among his numerous publications, he is the author of four single-author books: Counter-History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy (forthcoming in 2017), Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics (2016), Radical History & the Politics of Art  (2014) and Logique de l’histoire: Pour une analytique des pratiques philosophiques (2010). Follow on Twitter: @GabrielRockhill.


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1 thought on “Philosophy in Prison: Educating the Educator

  1. Yes, absolutely! In Palaeolithic times, our sensually conscious feelings shaped our sense of morality and worked pretty well for hundreds of thousands of years. Since the Neolithic though, we have become increasingly conditioned by our conceptually-conscious thoughts. As William James said: “Our impulsive belief is here always what sets the original body of truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but a showy translation into formulas … instinct leads, intelligence does but follow” and look what a mess it has made of societies, now in permanent conflict round the World’. It’s “The Rise of the Mutant Ego” that has done the damage.

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